by R.L. Corn
Most of our lives occur with the passing of days that, for the most part, look like the preceding day . . . and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We get up; we go about our business; and we go to bed. Life is more structured for some and more spontaneous for others. But from time to time a day comes around that changes the course of your life even if only by the smallest of degrees. Sometimes, it is just a day (or night in this case), that stands out vividly in your memory for whatever reason there may be. This was one of those nights:
“Point, set, match…again! I forgot how bad you are,” Keith yells smiling from across the net. “I should be tired of beating you by now, but somehow, it just keeps getting better and better!” he continues as if reflecting on this newly acquired truth.
I should have been stopped playing hours ago because my head was just not in the game. But that was okay because my mind was on other things. I would be entering my senior year in another month, and there were a lot of things to consider.
The two of us played tennis almost every night in the summer of 1969. There wasn’t much else to do. We would occasionally take dates to the Sundown Drive Inn Theater located on the north side of town. From time to time, our small town sponsored dances to which we might . . . or might not take a date depending on whether or not we had any money. But on any given night, we played tennis.
Not being members of the local country club, we had to employ a little larceny each evening in order to play on good courts in Columbia. We waited until well after the last of the members closed down the club bar and staggered back to their cars for their drive back home.
Under the cover of darkness, we crept into the gravel parking lot that edged the practice wall and matching courts. The lock on the switch box that guarded the lights from non-members like us was never locked. The old padlock was only there to give the impression of security, but the lights were always available to those who wanted to play badly enough.
I strategically positioned my 1968 Mustang with the rear end facing the courts with the trunk lid open. A recently installed eight-track player between the front seats provided an endless loop of music. Chicago Transit Authority, Crosby, Stills, and Nash or Steppenwolf provided the soundtrack for tonight’s tennis . . . and the rest of my senior year.
The summer of 1969 seemed to hold a unique place in history to those of us who were teenagers during the 60’s. It was a time of ridiculously fast cars, incredible music, and innocence that allowed mistakes to be made without dramatic consequences. Boys still chased girls who still pretended that they did not want to be caught. Once caught, there was still the question of what to do next! The naivety that accompanied dating would be gone in the next few years as the seventies ushered in a new set of rules.
This fleeting innocence would continue to evaporate as the draft lottery dominated the thoughts of all eighteen year-old boys. And as much as we thought about it, no one had any idea the degree to which our birth date would impact the rest of our lives.
Vietnam was a nightmare that loomed large in our minds. Those that were able to dodge military service (based entirely on the day on which they were born) were left to watch their friends leave for a cruel future that allowed only some of them to return. Those that did return had been forced to grow up faster than a civilized world should have expected of them.
But regardless of what the next few years would hold for us, the last summer of the sixties was a time to enjoy all that life in a small town could offer. This evening, the quality of tennis that was played had suffered long enough. Once Keith realized that I would not be providing any competition for him, we both decided to call it a night. As we were putting our rackets away, we heard an unfamiliar sound traveling down the road towards us.
We caught our first glimpse of it as it rounded the corner and sped towards the parking lot. With low slung doors, wire wheels, and a menacing roar, the little convertible slid into the parking lot covering our shoes in gravel and everything else in dust. One of our older friends had just purchased a 1959 Triumph TR3, and it now sat in front of us idling roughly.
Within the cloud of dust and burning oil was the most beautiful car that I had ever seen. The ten years since its birth had done nothing to detract from its original glamour. Under the lights of the tennis courts, the British Racing Green paint still boasted most of its factory shine. I could have sworn that the car was smiling at me with its twin bug-eyed headlights and a large grill mouth.
The narrow and sensual body gave the misleading perception that the car was longer and leaner than it was. The smell of the leather interior mixed with the aroma of warm leaking oil was an aphrodisiac to any male over the age of twelve. I ran my fingers over the chrome binding that separated the body panels, and felt a chill that was not otherwise present in the summer night’s air.
Patting the empty passenger seat next to him, David offered a ride. Not waiting for Keith to respond, I jumped into the seat wasting no time in opening the door. As the car was thrown in reverse, it changed direction only long enough before David shifted back into drive. The little car once again threw gravel from the tires as it sped down the lane and away from the tennis courts.
Country Club Lane was not quite two lanes wide. Lining both sides of the road, large maple trees created a canopy of branches giving the illusion of driving through a green, leafy tunnel. The branch-covered road reflected the sound of the car’s engine back to the driver and passenger adding an auditory element to the perfect sensory experience.
The sound of the engine modulated as the rpm’s rose and fell with each shifting of the gears. At the end of the road, David hit the brakes sliding the little car to a halt on the side of the road. He pulled the keys out of the ignition and threw them to me.
“Are you kidding?” I yelled trying desperately not to sound too eager.
David was two years older than I was and was already in college. The difference in age had never been a factor in our friendship and that was unique in this place and time. He had nothing to prove to anyone and certainly not to me. I grabbed the keys out of his hand and ran around to the other side of the car.
The steering wheel was a large banjo styled wheel that seemed much too large for the job at hand. Sitting there on the side of the road, I noticed that my left hand was resting on the asphalt as I draped my arm over the driver’s door. I was not in Kansas anymore, and I certainly was not in Detroit either. After a brief moment of embarrassment when I could not find the ignition switch . . . or the pull starter for that matter . . . I was able to pull together the correct sequence of steps and the engine jumped to life.
I shifted though the gears like a pro or so I thought. David, acting as the older and worldlier big brother, suggested that I slow my shifting down between first and second gears since they were not synchronized. I nodded knowingly without any understanding of what synchronizers were or what they did. After a minimal amount of gear grinding, I fell into rhythm with the car.
This diminutive British import spoke in terms of engine revolutions and I responded by shifting in time allowing the little motor do its best. Gliding down the narrow road, I was lost in the smell, sound, and feel of the car. I was fully entranced.
The moment of bliss was interrupted as David and I both recognized the familiar smell of an approaching summer rainstorm. Since this car did not as of yet, have the convertible top, we once again swapped directions for one that led us back to the Country Club. After a brief good bye and words of admiration about the car, David headed home for the safety of a covered garage.
Keith and I turned off the court lights, and replaced the deceptive lock and the illusion of security. As the rain slowly started to fall, my thoughts found their way back to the car. My mind raced with a sensory overload as I thought back to the feel of driving my first convertible two-seater. Is it possible that the same country that had given us the Beatles, the Stones, and The Who could have produced such an amazing car as well? All I knew for sure was that this evening was a game changer. I would never be the same again.
Summer turned into fall, and my senior year began. My room at home had been transformed into one large shrine for British automobiles. Jaguar, MG, Triumph, and Austin posters covered every inch of the walls in my room that were not already covered with Beatle pictures and the occasional newspaper clippings about our High School tennis team.
During this time, a young eighteen-year old girl turned my head from cars for a while. While she was both beautiful and funny, she also owned a 1958 MGA coupe. I was equally smitten by her andher car! We married in 1974 and bought a Bug Eyed Sprite as our first automobile together. It was neither the first nor last bad decision we made as a young couple!
Our life together followed the pattern set out by so many others before us. We moved several times as demands were placed on us by our careers. We started a family and adopted the obligatory pets that came through our lives: fish, hamsters, dogs, cats and even a one-eyed rat for a short period. And . . . there were always British sports cars.
We never had a lot of discretionary income, but what we had usually ended up in our driveway. Our garages were always littered with parts. Oil stains were the artwork that decorated the basement floors and our clothes. Our children would help with our restoration projects as the rusty relics were restored and given new lives. And in turn, the love of these old cars was passed down to each of them.
In August of 2018, I received word that my health was failing. I guess no one is ever really ready for that kind of news. Then again, everyone knows that the call will come some day if you are lucky to live long enough. There were the required tears and personal reflections that accompany the notice of your own mortality. But after awhile, when I started becoming more comfortable with the inevitable, my thoughts began to travel back to the good times and some of the bad times that made up my life. There were some regrets, but not many. I thought back to the days of romancing the young eighteen year-old girl, the birth of our children, and all of the landmarks moments that punctuate life. It did not take long for the summer of ’69 to come to mind. At some point, my mind’s eye settled in on that evening that I drove my friend’s TR3.
I would not have time to prepare an elaborate “bucket list” but I did have time to relive at least one great night. The plan had no incubation period; it sprang into life fully formed. Looking through our old telephone directory that we had kept long since the advent of electronic versions, I found the number for my old friend in Columbia.
David answered the phone on the third ring. Even though we had not spoken in over thirty years, we fell back into the rhythm of our youth and our common upbringing. After explaining my situation I asked, “Do you still have that old TR3 that you had in college?”
Laughing warmly, he explained that the car had been passed along to another young owner in the 1970’s. Before that information was allowed to sink in however, he quickly added that a friend in town still had one.
Feeling the pressure brought on by the perceived lack of time, I jumped in, “David . . . do you think that we might be able to make one more run down Country Club Lane?” I asked once more as a young teenager to an older, worldlier friend. As the power of old friendships and small towns was once more activated, David agreed to make the arrangements.
It was late in September when we met back in Columbia. The day was perfect with warm temperatures and a cobalt blue sky. David picked me up at the hotel at 5:30pm. The sun was beginning to sink as my wife gave us both instructions not to be out too late. We both responded with the required smirk and a, “Yes ma’am.”
Moving slowing through the front doors of the hotel, I looked out to see the memory that I had held so dear all these years. It was the most beautiful car that I had ever seen. Fully restored by his friend, the 1961 TR3 was steel gray with paint that looked six inches deep. The interior leather was saddle tan and felt like and expensive pair of gloves.
It was a short drive through my hometown that, surprisingly, had not changed all that much. New stores had replaced some of the landmarks of my past, and many of the two-lane roads had been replaced with four lanes ones that still struggled to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic demands. We drove around the town square that boasted one of Tennessee’s most beautiful courthouses, and then turned west and followed West 7th Street towards the Country Club.
I wanted to enjoy and remember every moment, so I concentrated on the present. I looked up to see the brilliantly white clouds start their transition to pink and then to red as we arrived at our destination. Turning onto Country Club Lane, I noticed that many of the trees that had lined the road had died and been replaced with younger trees. The tennis courts that had once been the pride of Columbia were in disrepair and called for new nets and resurfacing. But even as the reality of my hometown had aged, it was familiar enough to adequately rekindle my memories.
David drove the length of Country Club Lane expertly shifting the gears in perfect harmony with the little engine. I remember David looking at me and asking how I was enjoying the ride. I smiled broadly.
As we ran the two-mile length of road, I watched as the Triumph bullied the colored leaves off the road leaving them swirling behind us like a wake. The clouds had continued their transition and were now moving from the reds and yellows of sunset to the dark purples and grays of night. I would never forget this evening. How could I? While conventional wisdom insists that you can never go home again, on rare occasions, it can feel as if you had never left.
I closed my eyes and focused on the smell of oil and leather . . . on the warmth that the fall air still held in reserve for memorable nights such as this. With my eyes closed, the transition began. It was 1969 again. Life had no worries. The eighteen-year old girl that existed only in my future was at this point only a dream. All of the good things that life held in store were still ahead of me.
Somewhere in the background, Magic Carpet Ride started playing on the radio. I knew that Mom and Dad were waiting for me to come home, but I wanted to stay out just a little bit longer. A wave of peacefulness washed over me as I left behind Country Club Lane, high school memories, and the warm autumn evenings of the 60s.
It is okay, because I my mind is now on other things.