I went to college in a small, semi-rural town in Virginia, to to what was then known as Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington). The town — Fredericksburg — was small and uninteresting, save a collection of antique shops and antebellum homes, and when I was a freshman, my friends and I could never seem to think of enough ridiculous things to do to keep ourselves entertained. Sometimes we went out in the middle of the night and cleared entire rural roads of their signage. Other times we turned the dorm’s candy machines upside down and emptied them of their contents. Still other times we lost the creative streak, preferring to go on alcohol fueled rampages, destroying anything and everything in our paths. I can’t say that many of us accomplished much academically, but if furniture had feelings, it would have been scared of us.
At any rate, one of these little boredom-fueled episodes involved the purchase of a car. In retrospect, splitting the cost of a car amongst friends isn’t such a great idea, but in our un-evolved 18-year-old minds, it seemed like the perfect way for us to take our destructive talents to a new and more interesting arena. It would, in any case, allow us to transport our debaucherous activities to other locales, namely James Madison University. JMU was our Shangri-La, where we knew that the members of that school’s female population were much nicer to look at than those at Mary Wash, and, it logically followed, much easier to talk into sleeping with us. Of course, we never considered that most of said female population wanted nothing to do with a bunch of barely post-pubescent drunken maniacs, but that was beside the point. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.
So where do I begin this tale? At the beginning, I suppose. One afternoon as I was driving my friend Mark’s beat-up F-150 through an equally beat little town just accross the Rhappahannock River from Fredericksburg called Falmouth (what the hell I was doing up there I have no recollection…visiting a public defender, no doubt), I saw it. My heart skipped a beat — I knew I’d found it. I slammed on the brakes of the truck and turned, practically on two wheels into the parking lot of Steve’s Used Cars. “Parking lot” is a somewhat liberal use of the term, as it was no more than a small patch of ground between a dilapidated house and an even more shabby-looking trailer, the uncut grass in front of it matted down by the semi-regular traffic of jalopies from one end of the yard to the other.
I should take a moment to explain that the “office” for Steve’s used cars was in the aforementioned shitty-looking trailer, and the staff of this car lot seemed to be closely associated with the adjacent house, which sported a hand-painted sign reading “Madame Loretta’s Palmistry.” (I deduced this from the regular comings and goings of big-haired women from the palm reader’s manse). Rumor had it that your palm wasn’t what was “read” in this place, and by the look of some of the ladies loitering about the entrance, I wasn’t too surprised.
However, at that moment, I was much too excited by what had initially sparked my interest to care about camaro-haired redneck women selling themselves to the lowest bidder. My eye was on one 1977 Mercury Cougar with a $400 price tag painted conspicuously upon the windshield. About 18 feet long, she was primer grey with a peeling maroon vinyl top, the wheels adorned with Pontiac wire wheel covers. The shape of the body was a perfect example of what went wrong in Detroit during the latter half of the 1970s. In other words, this car was cooler than I could have possibly imagined, and really tapped into a theretofore untapped redneck sensibility — or what could be described as an utter lack of sense in most circles — which had been burgeoning within me since childhood, but that my parents could never understand. After all, the bland, white collar suburban neighborhood in which I grew up was adjacent to one of Northern Virginia’s great white trash havens, Sterling Park. What did they expect other than a certain curiosity towards and romanticized view of the lower class lifestyle? At any rate, I could scarcely believe the luck of my find, reasoning that if my three best friends and I all pitched in and finagled a lower price, this could be quite the affordable venture.
My attention snapped back to the decaying pile of steel sitting quietly before me. Awestruck at this beautifully pathetic machine, my eyes gleamed with desire. This piece of shit was perfect! The drivers-side door groaned loudly as I opened it and stuck my head inside, breathing in the musty, gasoline-permeated odor of many years of neglect. “Ahhhhhh!” My gaze was met by tattered upholstery, a sagging headliner, and to top it all off (or bottom it off to be more correct) a huge rust hole in the floor pan where a backseat passenger would normally rest his or her feet. To my way of thinking, this was an attractive feature, as I knew I would be able to do some serious haggling with the lot’s proprietor.
The real cultural experience began as one of the “salesmen,” taking note that I had entered his lot and was actually checking out one of his tired looking cars, ambled outside. Any doubts I may have had about this place not being an utter shithole were erased when this man stepped from the office trailer. Clad in a soiled camouflage jacket, an equally grungy pair of work pants and a camouflage trucker hat that looked like it had accompanied a tunnel rat to Vietnam, the man cheerfully exclaimed through his messy snaggle of brown teeth (or what used to be teeth, the remains of which were mere stumps) that his name was Forrest, and he would answer any questions I had about this’yer vee-hicle. I didn’t have any questions about it; the car’s appearance had already done the talking. I was ready to take it for a test drive.
Heading out onto Highway 1, I drove the car briskly up the hill in the direction of the next town. Forrest smiled nervously and fidgeted with his hands as the engine knocked loudly under the strain of my heavy right foot. The car drove just like it looked like it should have. The steering had the precision of a marshmallow’s edges, the cougar hood ornament swaying lazily to and fro as we cruised along. The suspension clunked and clanked, never fully recovering from any one bump in the road. Cornering assumed the death defying thrill of cliff diving, as even low-speed turns felt as if they were turning the car on its side. At intervals, the engine raced as its ability to make the wheels turn came and went at the whim of its dying transmission.
Seeing that somebody had only put about $3 of gas in the thing — presumably to keep anyone from driving it too far away from a good set of tools, or within reasonable walking distance of the car lot — I guided us back to the office. As the oil smoke settled, I could see a dark-haired lady with a concerned expression — also sporting a camaro hair-do — peering at us through the grimy sliding glass door of the office trailer. I explained to Forrest that I would have to consult my friends and that I’d be back later that evening.
Racing back to campus and arriving 15 or 20 minutes late to geology class, I could scarcely contain my excitement. I couldn’t wait to tell the other guys! When I finally did get out of class, I rushed to the dorm to tell them, but was met with a bit of skepticism by one of the guys. “I dunno,” my friend Joe said guardedly, “I already got a car.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but we could use this POS for road trips to JMU and shit…and sorry, but it’s way cooler than your gay-ass Mercury Topaz!” Jersey Joe, as he was called, had endured the misfortune of being raised in Central New Jersey, which seemed to have significantly reduced his level of testosterone even before he reached puberty. The other two members of the crew, another Joe and a guy we all called Psycho Dave, were much easier to win over. Having been raised in the same area as I was, those two saw eye-to-eye with me on the merits of decrepit redneck vehicles. As far as Jersey Joe’s lack of faith went, for those who know me, once I get an idea about wanting to do something into my head, no matter how foolish, I’m difficult to dissuade. I ended up talking the good talk, got him on board, and we were off to Steve’s Used Cars that very night.
Steve’s and Madam Loretta’s was a flurry of activity as Psycho Dave, Joe, and our doubting Thomas compadre from the Garden State accompanied me into the sales trailer. A blue cloud of cigarette smoke hung densely in the air, and the faux-wood paneling was stained a sickly shade of yellow from a decades-long buildup of nicotine tar. The worried-looking lady with the teased-up dark-colored doo (dyed for sure) sat behind a battered metal desk, anxiously shuffling greasy fingerprint-covered papers from one stack to another. The stacks of paper, somewhat disheveled themselves, were the only kind of order present in the cramped little room. She fetched Forrest for us and he took us outside so my fellows could take a closer look at the faded gem I had stumbled upon. Joe #2 couldn’t keep the grin from his face as he took in the sight of this perfect marriage of inept Detroit engineering and years of redneck ownership. He was the one who test-drove it this time, his demonic laughter audible only when the din of rod knock and other failing engine parts subsided for a few seconds here and there.
Back at the lot, we got into the farce of pointing out the car’s deficiencies in order to lower the price substantially. “Hey man, the fuckin’ defroster doesn’t work!” Joe #2 chimed. He was well versed in the niceties of jalopy haggling, having bought one with his brother while they were in high school. Forrest guffawed apologetically and disappeared behind the trailer with a tire iron in his hand. We heard a few loud crashes, a few crunching noises, and some muffled cursing. Moving around the side of the trailer to get a better look at what was going on, we saw him sitting in another old car he had back there. Ten minutes later, he emerged with a toothless grin spread across his face and the heater controls from the immobile vehicle he had just left held triumphantly in the air. After a few quick jabs with the tire iron into the dash of our soon-to-be ride and a couple of quick twists with a rusty pair of pliers, we had heater controls that worked. Never mind that they were the wrong size and dangled from the dash, suspended only by a few wires. The rust hole in the floor was fixed temporarily with a greasy pizza box, but we reasoned that this problem could easily be fixed with a tray pilfered from the dining hall on campus and a roll of duct tape I’d seen in one of the maintenance closets in our dorm. Forrest stood back with his hands upon his hips and eyed his handiwork proudly.
With a final price of $250 agreed upon, we offered a down payment of $200. A brand new pair of white cardboard 30-day tags was affixed (with wire ties, of course) to the rusty license plate brackets on the car. We sped off into the night, spewing oil smoke and laughter in our wake, no doubt making it difficult for Jersey Joe to see as he followed us back towards campus in his Mercury. “Hey, let’s call thing ‘The Beast,'” Joe #2 said with excitement. All were in agreement. What better name for the new party car than the nickname of our favorite cheap beer — Milwaukees Best?
The ensuing weeks of ownership of this car were filled with what one would expect of a bunch of 18-year old boys who had spent $50 each on a car. We drove it recklessly about town — never bothering to insure or register it — emptying our trash and cigarette butts through the “garbage disposal” in the floor. We ran it into anything that we reasoned it could hold up against — trash cans, dumpsters, small trees, mailboxes, orange highway barrels…it didn’t matter to us, the car took it all in stride. The point is that we were able to experience the sheer bliss of watching wooden mailboxes and myriad other things explode into slinters all over the hood of the Beast. I even took a girl on a date in it on one occasion, watching with sadistic glee as she clutched the rotten sides of her seat, a horrified look plastered on her face. She didn’t opt for another date, but I’m still chuckling about it today. More adventures ensued, including a certain ill-fated late night off-roading adventure at the Redskins training camp in Ashburn, Virginia, but that’s a different story for another time. Suffice to say, we wreaked havoc with that car, and ran the already finished piece of machinery so hard that it made its terminal tow truck trip — courtesy of the Fredericksburg salvage yard — before the 30-day tags had even expired. It was a magical time in the lives of four teenage boys, and one of the defining episodes of an academically unremarkable collegiate experience.