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Jim Sanderson

Voyage Into Freedom on the Mayflower

June 03, 1987|Jim Sanderson

I had a good time with some friends after dinner the other night. Somebody began to describe how much his first car meant to him, and soon it became evident that we all wanted to tell our own story.

Shiny or battered, that first set of wheels was transportation, of course, but also freedom and fantasy--a pet, a love, a liberation. For most of us the impact of that car apparently loomed larger and more compelling in our emotional life than our first sexual experience.

Everyone's remembrance grows better with the years; some of these automotive passions of our youth now run on pure nostalgia.

Back in Michigan you could get your driver's license on your 16th birthday if a parent signed for you. Mom stunned me with her refusal. She didn't know how to drive herself, and so we had no car.

But a credential like this was a male rite of passage; at least I could borrow my dad's old Chevy when I went to visit him.

"No, the first thing you'll do is run out and buy a car of your own," she said firmly.

As in a comic strip, a light bulb clicked on in my head. This dazzling possibility had never occurred to me. But I recovered quickly. "Aw, Ma," I replied disingenuously, "how could I afford anything like that?"

A week later I had found an ancient, beat-up Model-A Ford painted a bright red and blue. It had practically no brakes and, as I discovered later, used almost as much oil as gas. But it was a car, it ran, and, for $35 that I'd saved from my paper routes, I bought it.

I hid the car two blocks from our apartment, but one day she caught me. Mom was furious, of course, but after I pointed out that I could now drive her to work and to the store, a wondrous calm settled over her face.

In the weeks following, my status as the man in the house improved. I never asked her for a nickel to run the car, and she always asked me courteously to take her places.

My social position among my peers soared. None of my friends had a car of his own, and eventually five of us became kind of collective owners. One guy knew how to fix the carburetor, another bought a battery, another a tire. Another had a friend at a gas station who gave us all the drain oil we needed free. The car bonded us.

We added some white trim to the red and blue paint, as a patriotic gesture, and then stenciled the word Mayflower across the front. This label was a subject of great curiosity at school, but none of us ever told. It was a juvenile fraternity boast: "Many a girl has come across in this boat."

In fact, none ever did. We didn't even try. These were sweetly honorable times; the females we attracted were invariably "good" girls to be respected. Not that some of them didn't have hot lips.

Sometimes we'd jam as many as three couples plus an extra male into the car. His function was to ride shotgun over the emergency brake, which was still intact.

On a snowy Michigan winter evening our big thrill was to get up speed approaching a quiet residential intersection. The driver would shout "hit it," the co-pilot would yank the emergency brake with all his strength, and sometimes we'd achieve a 360 spin-out on the ice.

If we didn't quite make it, we'd crash into a big snow pile on the corner, jump out, and together lift the car back into the street for another try.

The Mayflower Gang sometimes responded to pickup challenges in various sports. We took on a tough bunch from the West Side in tackle football--no helmets or pads. They always seemed older and bigger, and they creamed us.

Our secret weapon was cheerleaders. Just when the game looked like a disaster, our girls would emerge from behind the Mayflower to give us a new routine they'd been rehearsing. And we always scored a touchdown after that--just one. Somehow 56-6 seemed like a moral victory.

I could say more about the Mayflower, but you get the idea. Anyway, I guess it's your turn. Go ahead, I'm listening.

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