Archive | September, 2016

I Learned About Driving from That: The Nash Pursuit

17 Sep

In 1957 I considered myself to be a pretty hot driver. My role models in the day were “The Wild One,” the biker gang leader played by Marlon Brando, and a character in the Dick Tracy comic strip who characterized himself as “a wheelman.”

My ride at the time was a 1946 Ford two-door, the round-back sedan. It was in good shape, ran well, and could lay a pretty good patch of second gear rubber. Of course, the Chevy small block V8 had long since upstaged Ford’s immortal flathead, but I still thought my ride was quick enough. And anyway, going fast involves more than just horsepower. There’s also the willingness to go fast. I had plenty of that. More than enough. Too much, in fact, according to some. Particularly certain humorless law enforcement types.

So one warm summer day we decided to make a run out to Watertown, a small rural community about 10 miles west of my Minnesota hometown, Mound. Watertown was small and rural, but it did have a big Green Giant cannery, which hired lots of high school kids around harvest time. (Mound, for its part, was also a small community, but its location, at the western end of Lake Minnetonka, saved it from being truly rural. No one could tease us about being farmers.)

The “we” in this saga refers to a neighbor, Bob, who was a year younger, but also interested in a little summer employment.

Highly Invisible

Watertown in those days retained a 19th-century look, with sidewalks that were several feet above street level. And in the course of cruising the main drag after filing our Green Giant applications, I failed to notice a stop sign at the end of one block, because it was perched up on that lofty sidewalk. There was almost no traffic, so when I rolled through the intersection—at a very low and law-abiding speed, I might add—there was nothing to suggest I was in violation of anything.

Once clear of town, I picked up my pace. The road was clear, as were the skies. And my conscience. But it wasn’t long before I noticed a car coming up from behind. Gaining. Rapidly. What?

As it got closer, I was able to discern the make. A Nash, vintage 1949 – ’51. The Nash generation that was referred to as the Bathtub. The reference had to do with the shape. And it wasn’t intended as flattery.

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Really? Some farmer thinks he’s faster than me? I knew there were quicker rides than my flathead Ford. After all, the age of the overhead valve V8 was well underway, and the small block Chevy V8 was already on its way to ruling the street.

But the Nash lineup was still propelled by inline sixes, and no ol’ six-cylinder bathtub Nash was gonna outrun my V8 Ford. I toed the gas pedal, and the speedo crept up to 75. But the Nash sped up and closed even more.

The I’ll-Show-You Syndrome

What’s going on with this guy? You wanna race, buddy? Okay, watch this!

I put the pedal on the floor—80, 85, 90. But the Nash hung with me, and crept closer. And it looked like he was trying to pass!

Right about then Bob, who’d been craning his neck for a better look at our pursuer, spoke up.

“Tony, I think this guy may be a cop.”

Bob had a slightly better angle than I did, especially when the Nash edged toward the oncoming lane.

“C’mon, Bob, it’s just some farmer.”

I should add that Bob didn’t appear to be entirely happy with this adventure as our speed increased, so I considered his credibility to be suspect. But he became insistent.

“Really,” he said. “There’s something on the hood of the car. Some kind of light.”

By then, we were on a long straight stretch, no other cars around, and the Nash pulled up into my left rear quarter.

Bob was right. There on the hood was one of those fin-like, longitudinal signs that light up and say “STOP!” And it was in fact illuminated. And it said “STOP.” In red letters. Uh-oh.

I slowed down and stopped. I got out of the car. The cop got out of the Nash. He was wearing bib overalls, with a badge pinned on the bib. No gun. But he was big. And he was not amused. No.

But Officer…

The conversation that followed was pretty unpleasant. I tried to explain that (a) I never had any idea I’d run a stop sign back in Watertown and (b) I had no idea I was being pursued by a police officer. (I carefully avoided the word “cop.”) I was polite. I was contrite.

To no avail. I can’t remember the speed he wrote on the ticket, but it was a lot, and looking back I’m still amazed that he didn’t arrest me on the spot. But he didn’t.

When I showed up for my day in court about a week later, the local magistrate was not amused, either. I’d been told to bring a parent with me, in this case my long-suffering stepfather, which was pretty much standard procedure for a juvenile in those days. And it turned out to be good that he was present because the judge wasted little time in snatching my license right there on the spot.

I don’t recall the amount of the fine, but I do recall that for a 17-year-old part-time summer dishwasher it was substantial. But the license suspension—30 days—looked like a bigger hassle, threatening to interfere with my social life as well as my employment. So I figured I’d ignore it.

This proved to be challenging, because my stepfather, a law-abiding man, tried to make sure I respected the suspension. He knew me well. His method was to render my Ford inoperable by removing the rotor from the distributor. It was a trick he’d learned in the Army during WWII—kept other guys from driving away with your Jeep.

That worked for about a day, but he’d forgotten that he’d revealed the distributor trick in an earlier conversation. A replacement was easy enough to find, and I was mobile again—though I had to be careful about when I drove, and precise about parking in exactly the same spot. Also I made sure I was appreciative when the distributor part was returned to me when my license came home in the mail.

What did I learn? Well, a small town cop may not be driving a typical cop car. Or be wearing a uniform. Also, if your old Ford doesn’t start, and your dad was in the military during WWII, check the distributor.

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