The first car I ever drove was an AMC Matador, and even in a decade of polyester suits – and notwithstanding the pretentious “Brougham” designation attaching to the faux targa top – there was no disguising the fact that it tipped the ugly meter right off the scale, the needle itself clattering to the floor and chipping the tiles, watch out where you step.
Mine didn’t come with a blonde.
This was in an era when the late, unlamented American Motor Company would offer up such automotive horrors as the Gremlin and Pacer. These were priced to compete with Ford in the Pinto niche, and even if they didn’t spontaneously and enthusiastically combust in a fender bender like a Pinto would, they could at least make the owner wish he might die from embarrassment. I often had the opportunity to wonder when stuck in traffic next to an unfortunate soul – keeping in mind that no car is initially sold “used” – who it was that had first taken their hard earned pay to market and said, “Yes, I’ll take the purple Gremlin there over the denim Pacer, although it’s a very hard choice indeed.”
The Matador went to my mother in time, and I was left to finish my high school years in a 1969 Dodge Dart Demon. Although it only had a 252 slant six cylinder engine – and as such, could not possibly contend with the real choice cars of the era off the line – it at least had the same DNA as a muscle car, including the shamefully loose steering, a cavernous interior and an acceptably broad, if spartan back seat. You could practically host a hockey game back there, but – living in a more temperate clime – our own pursuits were rather other.
When it came time to impress the dates, pops would toss me the keys to the Lincoln Continental MKIII, with an exuberant eight-banger engine to go with a curbside weight that compared favorably to a derailed freight train engine. Oh, and leather. The front seats didn’t recline, but they would push up nicely, the effect of which was to create of the after cabin the intimate sense of a swank New York nightclub. Champagne and candlelight. That sort of thing. She was a beaut, and I wish we had her today, but some guy in a Pinto backed into her quarter panel in a parking lot and the ensuing fire ball bubbled the paint, selah.
Come junior year at the Boat School, loans were offered to us at favorable interest rates, the which we were earnestly counseled to place in a money market fund or certificate of deposit in lieu of a stock mutual fund if we found the market timing not to our liking. Had we done so wisely we might never have had to work again by now, but were we not men? Thus, these funds the vast majority of us instantly blew on automobiles, not having had the privilege of owning one on campus until our seniority because, after all it is the man’s job to keep you down.
A sign of the times perhaps that a $6000 loan would, by auctioning off the Dodge and a little help from the old man, bring you home from market with a ruby red 1970 Jaguar XKE. The year by now being 1980, she was nothing like new but still hot, passionate, steamy sex on wheels. She’d have had to be, because the Brits would insist on using Smith’s electronics, the result being that she was about as expensive to maintain – especially to one of such limited means as a midshipman – as an expensive mistress in a Manhattan sky rise. To extend the metaphor a bit further, she tended to keep the pilot hot from the waist down, although in this case less from inherent exoticism as from the fact that, low slung as she was, your legs ran up almost under a throaty
eight six cylinder engine (thanks JM) whose temperature gauge seemed to always hover up around the red line, without ever quite crossing over.
She got me into trouble that car, the first time trying to sneak her brazenly on campus late at night while still a junior. Doesn’t sound like much, but the class of ’81 took their privileges seriously, or at least the midshipman officer of the watch (MOOW) on duty at Bilger’s Gate did, for that trifling offense brought me 75 demerits and two months’ restriction, a class “A” offense and the first of my two “Black ‘N’s”.
(Gold ‘N’s were the award given varsity athletes – I had three of those, by the way – while the black version was reserved for the Commandant’s special cases. Problem children, in other words. Once when aboard a warship at sea as a commander and dining with the ship’s CO – my boss – and the air wing commander, another captain, I mentioned that I had received two black ‘N’s in my time amidships and hadn’t they ever received any demerits of their own? The CO did admit to having received 5 demerits during his plebe summer for an unkempt room, while the CAG could not remember ever having received any. They are both flag officers now, which your humble scribe will never be. The reader is left to formulate his own conclusions.)
There was a moment there when the MOOW first stepped out of the shadows by Gate 3 that I raced the engine with half a mind towards making a dash for it, but no – it would never have done. My punishment kept me home over the spring break, and it would have been miserable indeed mustering five times a day in my Working Uniform Blue Alpha (WUBA) for inspection when I wasn’t marching squares with an M-1 over my shoulder except that I’d contrived to break a bone in my hand during the Eastern Championships. The cast over my forearm made carrying a rifle impossible and obligated me to wear the much less maintenance intensive white works uniform, so I passed those two months in relative ease. Timing is everything.
(I still had to muster for formation though, along with my less fortunate amis a guerre. The experience did enable me to witness the following exchange between a… let us say more than usually “gifted” classmate and the female lieutenant commander performing the uniform inspection on that particular day. At that time the first class with female mids had only just graduated, so the officer was not a product of the school, and thus had never been issued some of the uniforms we wore on a daily basis. Like the WUBA.
LCDR: Midshipman Gish, you know the uniform regulations. What are you doing coming to a personnel inspection with all that gear stuffed in your front pocket?
MIDN: (Looking down quickly and then back up into the officer’s eyes) Ma’am, we ah… we don’t have front pockets in this uniform.
LCDR: (Reddening, moving quickly through the rest of the line) Yes. Yes, I see.
It took heroic discipline not to break ranks in hilarity at this point, but fortunately – for the lady was not known for her sense of humor and our presence at muster indicated that we had troubles enough of our own – we were heroes one and all.)
Sometimes it took a turn or two before I learned a lesson in the old days, since I’d no sooner gotten the cast off and released from restriction that I drove the Jag to an end of year company picnic across the Severn. It was not a particularly smart thing to have done, but the seniors were close enough to commissioning to concern themselves with other things. All would have been sweetness and light had not a classmate – for reasons beyond the scope of this tale – having perceived your correspondent to be on the brink of a possible indiscretion with a female plebe, seized him by the arm and said, “Let’s take the Jag for a spin!”
It ended up being more of an aileron roll in the event, as we “left the prepared surface” of Old Annapolis Road taking a diminishing radius turn at a speed exceeding the Jag’s capabilities, at least as handled by your correspondent. That put paid to the XKE for good and all, as well as adding yet another opportunity to meet the Commandant of Midshipman for to add another 75 demerits and two months restriction to my austere list of accomplishments, as well as a black “star” – in lieu of second award – to go with my first Black ‘N’, because while a Jaguar XKE in the parking lot might escape official notice, one laying in a ditch upside down with the wheels still spinning was a little bit harder to ignore.
By the time the punishment was to commence I was already off on my first class midshipman cruise aboard the USS Barbour County right here in Sandy Eggo. I was sternly abjured to report back for punishment when I returned in the fall, but the right moment never quite presented itself as August fell to September, which in turn gave way to October and before you knew it it was caps in the air.
I had, by that time become a Porsche man.
But that’s another tale.