August 10, 1968

Not easy to find a picture of a 1965 Toyota Crown Coupe Utility. This one was not for U.S. consumption. Interesting story behind it …

On the road, we came up behind a smoker putting along in a 1965 Toyota utility coupe, one of those oddball concoctions that started off in the front like a normal coupe and changed course behind the front doors to become a pickup truck. It was one of the first Toyotas exported to the U.S., from the second generation of Toyota Crowns that were, ironically, intended to evoke the majesty of the Chrysler Imperial with a grand, wannabe front grill that looked particularly odd on the front end of what was basically a runt-size pickup truck. It landed on our shores just when we were bickering with France and Germany over tariffs they had placed on the import of American chickens. In retaliation, we imposed the so-called chicken tax on imports of brandy, potato starch and light trucks.

Which may explain why real Americans don’t drink Courvoisier.

The specimen before us was loaded with two surfboards. The driver, a shirtless fellow with long blond hair and golden tan, held a cigarette in his right hand. He was tapping the top of the seatback along with the music and then, when it became irresistible, drumming with both hands on the steering wheel.

The cigarette flew out into the wind from an overhand right-hand flick. We caught him at a red light a little ways down the road. I was closest to him.

“Hey man, why did you throw your cigarette in the road?” I shouted over the Jefferson Airplane roaring from the coupe end of his Toyota.

“Her rattlin’ cough never shuts off,” he sang, tuned into the music. Then, in good timing, the signal turned and he putted away from us.

“It’s hard to carry a cigarette when you’re surfing,” my father said.

August 9, 1968

A lot goes on in this chapter. But at the end, Izzy and Speedy follow a 1952 Chevy Deluxe into one of Bucks County’s covered bridges.

We were behind a two-tone 1952 Chevy Deluxe, by then a fuddy-duddy in the social order of the road, round and from the glory years of the Baroque period, finned, and imagining itself to be aircraft. The view from behind was a solid chrome bumper that seemed too close to the road and an oversized bubble trunk that rose with self-importance and big enough to hold a small pony, with smooth wings on each side that bowed in deference to the mighty trunk. The rear wings finished off wheel covers that were completely separate from the raised panel that started at the back door and grew into a massive sidewall, capped with the front headlight. The hood over the engine was its own time-worn Appalachian hilltop, presiding over an overdone constellation of chrome. The windshield was in two pieces, with a chrome bar joining them together.

An older, dark-skinned man with a felt hat was driving, calmly smoking an unfiltered cigarette in his left hand. He was an ash tapper, hence, a possible buttflicker. We stalked him from a polite distance, but close enough that no other traffic could get in the way. Soon, we were off the bearing for home.

The Chevy approached a covered wooden bridge and edged to the shoulder of the road to wait for an oncoming car to come through. Just as he was entering the bridge, his right hand came up, waving as though he was trying to shoo a bug, and then his left hand got involved and he must have dropped the cigarette because he bolted up in his seat and the next thing we knew he was pitching the cigarette butt out the window like it was a grenade. He pulled onto the one-lane bridge and we slid up the entry to wait until he cleared to the other side.

The bridge spanned a narrow creek. As the Chevy Deluxe crawled forward into the sunlight, we eased into the wooden tunnel, sun splintering through the cracks between the boards of the bridge, glimpsing the summer-dry creek below, and then we too rolled out into the sun.

We followed him up a narrow road that climbed a steep hill and through a gap in the ridge. He turned onto an even smaller road that seemed almost abandoned, and I wondered whether my father would follow him down the rabbit hole. I had covered most of the country roads I could get to by bike or foot, but I didn’t recognize this one. That’s about all it took for me to stop feeling sorry for myself about Juliana.

My father stayed a nine iron behind the Chevy. At first there didn’t seem to be any reason for this road to be, no farm fields or driveways or buildings at all, but of course there is always a purpose and, some believe, a reason. On my side, there were unruly trees posted with no trespassing signs and contained by a half-hearted barbwire fence. My father’s side of the road was fenced as well, but there was more open space, and as we turned a corner in the road the Chevy was waiting for us, pointed back in our direction.

There was just enough room for us to squeeze by and he was studying us as my father rolled to a stop, driver to driver, so close that neither of them could have opened his door.

“Evening,” my father said, nodding. The Chevy driver was unmoved.

“I noticed you tossed a cigarette out of your car back there at the bridge.”

The Chevy driver’s eyes narrowed. “Are you following me or something? This is private property back up here, and you don’t look like you know the territory.”

“Well, yes, we did follow you here, for science. We’re studying people. We don’t care much about property.”

This wasn’t scoring any points with the Chevy driver, who showed no intention of pulling forward. An uncomfortable, anxious moment.

“Do you remember throwing the cigarette in the road back there by the bridge?”

“Maybe, but I don’t see it’s any business of yours.”

“It looked like maybe you were swatting at a bee.”

“I don’t like to smoke in them bridges. I can handle the flies all right.”

“But why throw it out in the road?”

“Listen, mister, that’s just the way it went down. I told you, I don’t like to smoke in them bridges. That’s all old timber been soaking up oil and fumes for a long, long time.” He was warming up a little.

“I appreciate your time,” my father said. “You’ve been very helpful. I’ve got something for you for helping us out.” He reached around to the back seat and picked up his roll of masking tape and thick black marker. “It’s for your car,” he said, tearing off a piece of tape and writing I FLICK BUTTS on it and handing it across the short distance between us.

The Chevy driver studied the strip of masking tape for a minute and handed it back. “I don’t think so,” he said, glaring at us. “Now if you’re done wasting my time, I gotta be somewheres.”

The problem with this arrangement is that we were both pointed in the wrong direction, with only inches to spare between our gunwales. We inched ahead—Speedy was studying his outside mirror closely—and then around the curve in the road we saw a driveway. Beyond that, the road twisted on farther into the woods. We turned ourselves around in the drive and started back out.

The Chevy was backing up toward us and, again, we edged past each other carefully; now I was face-to-face with him and I nodded, wishing we had left him alone. After we squeezed past each other, I looked in my outside mirror and saw him pull into the driveway. I noticed my father was watching him as well.

In the research journal I wrote “Historic preservation” as the reason for his cigarette toss. Then I added: “May have been bee-induced.”

August 4, 1968

Going through a rocky spell with Juliana. Izzy goes to New Hope and tracks down Quentin. They go to a café on a quiet side street, where old-timers tell them about life on the canal.

We traipsed along through the gathering crowd of tourists, who gawked a-plenty at his display of carved heads, but apparently he wasn’t ready to start merchandising, because we brushed past them and then turned down a narrow alley that I hadn’t noticed before. We pivoted on a corner into a leafy lane that ran parallel to the river, close enough to smell the moving water. I followed him to a hole-in-the-wall with a sign over the door that said “1931 Café.”

Inside, there was a very small counter, three booths against the wall and a handful of round tables in the middle of the room.

The café was empty except for four old folks gathered around the table nearest the window at the front. A puddle of sunlight gathered there, exhausted from caroming through the glass from outside. Quentin leaned his array of coconut heads against the wall near the door and then steered straight for an empty chair at the table.

There was one more chair, which I took. The four old codgers looked at me over their coffee cups.

“Dis Boy Scout want to learn about old days on the canal,” Quentin said. Pointing at me.

Slowly one of them, a slight and withered gent with white hair and a scraggly beard, cleared his throat and began remembering aloud. He told a story about having to captain his family’s barge when he was young because his father took ill. When he got to Bristol to get weighed—the boatmen’s profits were based on how much higher the barge floated after unloading—he was paid in a crowd of older men, some them rough-looking, and scared that he was being cheated. The agent was impatient, but he fought for his ground and insisted on going over the books a second time. He had to been to school some, and his father had shown him how to do the plusses and minus, but his brain was froze up. He stammered and wanted to cry but just kept saying over and over that he was getting shorted. Finally, the agent gave him a few dollars more and he ran all the way back to the barge and hid the money under a floorboard near the potty.

Hitchhiking home, Izzy gets a ride with a man driving a 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix. He’s smoking a cigarette and listening to the Phillies on the radio. After a strikeout ruins a budding rally, the driver throws the cigarette out the window in disgust.

August 2, 1968

On their way to visit Martine at his house, Izzy and Juliana come across a 1959 Ford F100 pickup. A woman is driving, with two small kids beside her. She is having a smoke, holding the cigarette outside the cab, and when she finishes she tries to flick it back in the bed of the pickup truck.

Later, at Martine’s, a party that Izzy would regret.

When I came out of the cabana, Juliana was hanging on the edge of the pool, talking to Martine, who sat smoking at the table with a clever look in his face. I dove into the deep end. I ranked third among swimmers in my family, but I had merit badges to prove I knew my way around a pool.

Juliana swam to me. For 10 minutes or so we were, at least in my mind, back in the creek, almost unaware of Martine, the sun crouching to squeeze through tree limbs, the subtle stench of rich-guy pool chemicals and wealth and slate surrounding us. Not so unlike the natural rub of creek scum, only a different flavor.

Martine never came into the pool, but I felt his presence more and more. It began to feel like Juliana and I were swimming for an audience, dance partners in an aquatic audition of some kind, or primitive life forms jerking about on a microscope slide.

The water was going sour and I pulled myself out, not knowing whether she would follow. I hadn’t the forethought to bring a towel with me from the cabana, as Juliana had, so I took my seat with Vic Martine and the Victor Electrowriter and simply air dried.

The houseman showed up. Martine asked if we wanted something to drink. Juliana piped up from the pool, her face beaming, asking for a whiskey sour.

Again, who was she?

I said I would have one too.

“Truth serum for all!” Martine said.

It occurred to me that he might already be drunk. I never saw it coming at the race track.

In landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” I said, “so it is better to perish in that howling infinite than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.

Martine looked like he didn’t get it. They usually don’t. Then the fellow came with a tray of drinks and Juliana arose glistening from the pool, a freshly washed peach goddess. She wrapped herself in the thick towel she had brought from the cabana.

It went downhill from there.

July 30, 1968

Ah, the Chevy Corvair, spotted in the parking lot of a strip shopping center.

We pulled out of the strip mall lot and fell in behind a bright green 1964 Chevrolet Corvair, a car-of-the-year pick when it was introduced as the first American-made rear-engine car in 1960. Although it would later incur the wrath of Ralph Nader, the Corvair influenced car design by ending once and for all the obsession with wings, and introducing the flow-line design using convex surfaces. At the time, it was an oddity, flat, low and wide with air vents in the hood over the engine in the back. The back of the car wore a lid.

The trunk was in the front!

The 1964 was the last model year Chevy offered the Corvair with a gasoline-powered heater. It looked more American than the VW Beetle, against which it was competing, but there were few in the school parking lot. It was the flying saucer your weird uncle—the one who was a ham radio operator—drove and bragged about.

This one had a bumper sticker that read: Waiter! What Is This Nitwit Doing in My Soup?

The Corvair lurched a little bit at the start, the sign of a manual transmission. I was thinking about my father before I noticed that Mr. Corvair was also working on a cigarette. We were following him out of a red light recently turned green when he quickly threw the cigarette out into the street with his left hand, and then grabbed the steering wheel.

“He had to litter because he was shifting gears,” I said.

 

July 26, 1968, part 2

July 26 was one of the rare days in the AutoFlick story with two cigarette-flicking sightings. The second takes place on the way home from the race track, late at night. Martine is passed out drunk in the tiny back seat of the Maserati. Izzy is driving.

The journey home seemed timeless, and then it wasn’t.

A few miles from Martine’s house, along the curving and dipping River Road, we cruised up behind a 1966 Mustang coupe just as the driver flicked a cigarette onto the road, where it exploded in a tiny fireworks display. We purred ahead like a confident Italian weightlifter, operas of horsepower in reserve, riding on his left taillight, waiting for the road ahead to give us a passing lane. When it did, we lifted off like a rocket, passing the Mustang, and Juliana leaned toward the open window.

“You dropped something back there,” she yelled as we accelerated into the open road, and then the empty night. “Everybody’s making love or else expecting rain,” she sang to the wind.

When we got back to Martine’s house, I stopped the Maserati outside the garage and turned off the ignition.

I left the wad of money on the passenger seat after Juliana and Martine got out. If I could throw new bell-bottom pants in a trash can, I could leave a few weeks’ pay in a rich guy’s car.

Driving home in my father’s car was a letdown, though I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t.

July 26, 1968

A memorable day in the AutoFlick chronology. Izzy and Juliana meet Martine at his house and then head to a race track in Delaware in Martine’s 1965 Maserati Sebring 2.

And so we retraced our steps through the plush living room and out the front door and along the front walk to the garage. Martine summoned the door to open electronically. As it slowly lifted, I expected to see the weighty ass of his Cadillac DeVille.

Instead there was a sleek, two-door that I could not name. It had a tight, wingless rear that looked like a suitcase, with a subtle crease wrapping across the top of the trunk. A modest bumper, a bulging package of three rear lights mounted on each side and the Maserati badge. Two chrome exhaust pipes pointed improbably at an angle into the night sky.

It seemed alive in the fading light, at a standstill, promising to fly off into the night at any moment.

Martine was smoking as he backed slowly from the garage. I opened the passenger door and determined that Juliana had to sit in the front. So I squeezed myself into the back.

When she flipped the back of the front seat into riding position, I was embalmed in deep, dark-red leather, trimmed in gray. It was more comfortable than it should have been, even if there had been some place to stow my legs.

The dashboard was polished gray, with “Maserati” between mid-dash air vents and a bank of toggles and sliding switches. There was a grab-bar for the passenger, homage to the vehicle’s conception as a racing machine. No radio.

Martine wore driving gloves and in that car, one of fewer than a hundred ever made, it did not seem an affectation. He took a drag on the cigarette and threw it onto his driveway. Mentally, I attributed this flick to “car too refined to smoke in.”

Power poured through the design, right through its buttocks and shoulders into the endoskeleton. I don’t think we ever went over the speed limit, but from time to time he loosened the reins and gave the car some pace. Once, as we hurtled through a bend that mortals would take more cautiously, Juliana reached for the grab-bar and turned to Martine, her profile lit up with excitement, centripetal force bending us in our flying jewel box, leaving behind a trail of burnt testosterone.

The windows were open, sunset streaming through the cabin. At times I forgot myself and briefly thought that somehow I belonged in that car. Being in the back seat was like looking through a window from the outside, theoretically part of the car but experiencing it secondhand, moments after the real occupants had already been launched through the threshold of the present into the future.

 

July 24, 1968

AutoFlickers: This post is a day late. Got back from Iceland last night and was too pooped to blog. Now that’s a bumper sticker!

A blazing hot day at the country club. Izzy falls asleep on the job. Afterwards, he gets a ride home with his mother. They spy a woman tossing a cigarette from a 1965 Buick Riviera.

I came to a fairway trap that was rarely in play on the 16th hole and settled into a patch of faint shade from a tree 20 yards away. I dreamed that Juliana and my father were dancing together. I was glad when I realized, still dreaming, that this was a dream.

My unintended nap boiled away. I sat up and drained my water jug and looked at the sand pit carved into the Pennsylvania countryside. Sitting with my arms around my knees, I could smell my sneakers.

A golf ball came hurtling from heaven and thumped into the turf a few feet away. I stood as tall as I could and looked toward the 14th tee, where a threesome was looking in my direction, searching for a shot gone awry.

I waved and pointed to the ball. In my career as a golf course worker, many shots had landed around me, but I was never struck by one. On the greens-keeping crew, we could never tell when incoming were on the way—we didn’t get the same courtesy, the pointless “Fore!” that golfers sometimes yell to each other. The caddy fared a little better in that his attention was at least focused on the golfers, rather than the grass.

I trudged light-headed on to the next sand trap. I stood beside it, staring into the harsh white sand, searching for weeds. There were none. I had apparently dozed myself into a perfected universe.

July 21, 1968

Izzy and Juliana tool around the antique hippie mecca of New Hope, where he comes face to face with a new pair of pants.

I found myself in a hippie haberdashery with Juliana. A shopping demon I did not see coming had taken possession of her. She was looking at a tabletop of miniskirts, holding them up against her waist.

Eventually Juliana found one that worked for her and moved her attention on to me. Apparently, I had to have a pair of bell-bottom pants. I didn’t have anything closer to a hippie uniform than dungarees and tee shirts. It would take years and years before faded Boy Scout uniforms were cool, and that would last only briefly.

“You’ve got money from the party,” she said, sweeping away any argument I might have against buying a pair of pants I didn’t have any desire to own.

They seek him here, Ray Davies sang, and they seek him there. We looked at a lot of pants: stripes and jeans and polka dots and paisley. Paisley! When I pictured myself in these fantastic things, I thought I was looking at an advertisement. Eventually, I tried some of them on in a dusty changing room and paraded about for Juliana’s inspection with no shoes on. None of it seemed like me, a scout who was too old to be one, who practiced Thrift because that’s what we sons of failed Quakers do.

Eventually I chose a pair of grotty blue- and white-striped bell bottom pants that clung weirdly around my hips and set sail at my calves and unfurled themselves onto the floor. For a moment they felt like something I wanted or even needed—a token to get me through some cultural turnstile. It almost seemed like a good idea as I carried them to the cashier, though the choices by then had all run together in my mind. I don’t know whether I chose the pants I chose or they had chosen me.

They seek me here; I seek them there.

Later, he sees a cigarette dropped on the street in New Hope, PA, from the window of a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500.

July 20, 1968

Speedy and Izzy sneak to their neighbor’s house to paste an I Flick Butts bumper sticker on their 1962 Chrysler 300.

I followed his steps to the oak and waited there for his next move. Just beyond the snowball bush was our neighbor’s red 1962 Chrysler 300 glowing under the light over the garage door. I bent low and stole up behind him, leaning on the small of his back.

Window air-conditioning units churned relentlessly, the only noise coming from the house. We would have no warning if someone came out.

He pointed me to a holly tree at the entrance to their driveway. “You can see the front door and the garage door from there,” he whispered. I slinked passed the Chrysler to my lookout near the curb.

Evolution had winnowed away the fins on the 1962 Chrysler 300, but it still had the long, low-slung body and exaggerated rear end of its ancestors. There was a run of chrome that started under the rear window and bracketed what was left of the caudal fin and then returned toward the front of the car over the wheel. There was a tricolor badge where the dorsal fin had been. And a small fortune in chrome slathered all over.

Speedy crawled on all fours to the back of the car. He pulled a length of tape from the roll and pressed it to the fat chrome bumper and then inscribed it: I FLICK BUTTS.

He scampered to join me behind the holly tree. For a moment, we both tried to squeeze into its shadow, which was barely adequate to hide one person.

I thought we were going to reverse the whole procedure and melt back into the woods like good guerrillas, but my father simply stepped into the street and stared up at the stars.

It occurred to me that a better hiding place than the holly tree would have been in plain sight, at the end of our neighbor’s driveway, listening for owls.

As we walked home, I was craning my neck and trying to put together the rest of Ursa Major from the Big Dipper, a puzzle I never really sorted out. People have been seeing a bear up there for over 10,000 years, I thought to myself, but I’m darned if I can see it. And in another 50,000 years, they say, the Big Dipper won’t be there at all. You can doubt planet change all you want, but the universe is moving on no matter what you believe.