July 5, 1968

Here it is, 9:52 PM on the Right Coast, and no diligent AutoFlicker has prompted me to update the chronology. Thanks a lot, dudes.

On July 5, 1968, Izzy and his mom track a 1959 Desoto Firedome with a Stassen bumper sticker. This is one of my favorite chapters. Can’t believe the Followers let me down.

I was riding home from work with my mother, and in front of us was a 1959 Firedome, nephew to my father’s car, another winged experiment from the Ike fantasy world. Viewed from the rear, it hefted a barrage of thick chrome fittings and a large insignia that included a keyhole for the trunk. On either side, three protruding circular taillights were stacked on top of one another with a chrome V jutting over the top. It had two radio antennas, one on each side of the trunk, and a low, wide wrestler’s stance.

This particular vessel had a bumper sticker that said: “Stassen ’68—Why Not?” The former governor of Minnesota was on his fourth campaign in pursuit of the Republican nomination for president. He had at that point in the summer of 1968 rounded up just one delegate, and there were only a few weeks until the party convention in Miami. After the RFK assassination, the Secret Service assigned an agent to guard him.

It was said this protection was the biggest crowd Stassen had attracted so far in the campaign.

A perpetual anachronism, Stassen would keep running, in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992, and you can judge for yourself whether his country would have been better off in any of those years with a liberal Republican president committed to peace.

July 1, 1968

A 1962 Olds 88 passes at high speed and flicks a cigarette to the road. Speedy tries to catch up but loses him. Then he gets the idea of marking cars that have already been cited in the study of people who flick cigarettes from automobiles.

“At some point we may find the same car or the same driver in our sample,” Speedy said. “Maybe we should mark them, the way biologists tag species in the wild for study.”

In the National Geographic, the savannah science guys always shot the wildlife with tranquilizers before they stapled tags in their ears. I wondered if this is what my father had in mind.

“It can’t be permanent—we don’t want to tamper with the evidence—and we may have to tag them without their knowing.” I was used to the fact that my father often thought out loud.

“You mean put a mark on the car, right?” I said, trying to lead the witness.

“Maybe the crayons that used-car dealers use on windshields would work on a bumper …”

I should have stepped in there with something to change our bearing, but I came up empty.

“Or something else,” my father said, “like a bumper sticker.”

I was afraid to ask.

“I flick butts.” Speedy seemed pleased with this.

“I guess that would show them,” I said.

 

June 30, 1968

On the way to the country club early on a Sunday morning, Izzy is picked up hitchhiking. From the opposite direction comes a 1965 Thunderbird.

I reeled in an old-timer. He remarked that he didn’t see many hitchhikers of a Sunday morning, and I said there weren’t many cars either, so maybe the world was in balance after all. Ahead of us, coming in our direction, was a 1965 Thunderbird, from the generation after Ford had begun stretching the model out. The driver’s left elbow was resting out the window. The T-Bird came at us fast and as we drew close the driver glanced in our direction and flicked a cigarette with his right hand, across his body, in our general direction, then flew on behind us.

“Sumbitch,” my ride muttered, automatically, as if he wasn’t thinking hard about it. I whirled around and saw the T-Bird, light blue with a white top, zoom away. There was no trace of a fin, just two wide banks of lights that narrowed over the license plate, with a scoop up the middle of the trunk.

The flick seemed intentional, a littering of opportunity. He may have seen us from a distance, as I had noticed him, and perhaps on a whim decided to shoot his cigarette butt at us.

The old guy who picked me up had a low opinion of golfers, and he didn’t mind sharing this with me. I couldn’t tell exactly whether he was putting me down for being part of the time-wasting, self-indulgent sect of golf, or whether he thought that I, as a caddy, must have shared his views. It turned out he wasn’t too fond of hippies, blacks, women’s libbers and homos.

In an abundance of caution, I did not bring up the Boy Scouts nor confess that I was a poverty protester who had escaped police custody and was in grave danger of enjoying modern poetry.

 

 

June 28, 1968

Driving home from work, Izzy and Speedy come across a woman driving a 1963 Chevy Impala. She tosses her cigarette. When asked to explain why, she tells Izzy he’s too young to smoke.

“A lot of people don’t know why they do things,” my father said. “Maybe what they need is a reminder,” he said.

At home that night, Izzy tunes into the Jean Sheppard radio show.

That night, after dinner, after talking to Juliana for a while on the phone, I sat out on one of the webbed lawn chairs feeling a thunderstorm gather in the sky. I had a plastic transistor radio, tuned to the very narrow groove in the dial that opened a portal in the radio spectrum all the way to Jean Shepherd on WOR in New York City.

Shepherd opened his show that night with strange music playing in the background as he read two poems by T.S. Eliot. There was thunder rumbling in the distance and I had the feeling you get when something is following you in the gloaming woods, a sense so tangible that the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I wondered if he could feel the same storm system in his radio studio.

And then Shepherd read Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” whose “skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper.” There were already hooks in the fish’s lip, signs of wisdom, so the poet let it go.

And then another piece by the same poet, about sailors steering around soulful icebergs as clouds warm overhead.

The background music, Shepherd explained, was from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the time I thought 2001 was impossibly far  off in the future, well beyond the current horizon filled with ships and icebergs.

June 25, 1968

Izzy and Speedy confront a butt-flicker in a 1960 Chevrolet Apache on their way to work. It doesn’t go well.

After work, Izzy goes to New Hope to find the guy who sells icons made of coconuts to tourists. He is led to Quentin’s studio in a boarding house.

It was a single room with a huge window as its centerpiece, six feet wide by four feet high, a matrix of small panes; it was hinged at the top and opened into the room and hooked to the ceiling. It looked out over a quiet stretch of a nearly waterless stream trickling through the heart of the town, surrounded by sycamores broken out with psoriasis and the miscellany that grows on the banks of pebbly streams in Pennsylvania. The window made the room seem nautical, as though it was a captain’s berth at the stern of a 19th-century ship.

Quentin explains that his coconut icons are intended to honor the people who worked shipping coal by barge on the Delaware Canal.

“You don have to be some gawd or saint fo your work to be worth rememberin’. Every soul worth that,” he said, waving his arm across the room. “These are icons of those people, dem boys who drove the mules along the towpath 13 hours a day while cap’n steered de barge, dem lock masters who lowered em down and raised em up, and them boat builders and storekeepers who kept the canals working long past their natural time. The miners dug that anthracitey out them damn mountains, and diggin coal is nasty work but not as nasty as butchering whales and cook him down on a boat tossing out on de ocean.

“Them canal men floated it down to folk’s parlors and if you ask me they had de best of it, spite of all their troubles.”

I asked him what troubles they had, but he said he had to get out on the street with his icons, as the foot traffic was picking up.

I took a couple of photos of Quentin and his workshop.

“You gots to peddle coconuts when their pockets still have some monies,” he said, as I traipsed along behind him.

 

June 24, 1968

Speedy reminisces about the coal barges on the Delaware canal.

We were finishing dinner on the picnic table behind our house. Our lawn dissolved into the woods, which held in its bosom a minor Pennsylvania creek that grew from gully washes and insignificant streams and eventually made a small dent in the Delaware River not too far from the spot where, on average, the big river began to back up twice a day from the heaving oceans. My father was reminiscing about going to the canal when he was just small and watching barges loaded down with coal creep along at mule speed from the mines on their way to Bristol.

Unburdened, the barges floated lighter and higher on the way home. “I was happy for the mules heading upstream,” he said. The business of carrying light and heat captured in rocks of carbon down the canal was over by the time he started going to school. The extraction of ancient carbon wasn’t over—not by a long shot—but industry had found that it was more efficient to use combustion engines to bring the coal to market, instead of mules, men and gravity pulling barges over sleepy water.

Later, Izzy commits a hippie faux pas while riding with Juliana in a 1957 Dodge Regent to see the Fifth Dimension at the music circus outside of Lambertville.

June 22, 1968

This date was a double-header in the AutoFlick chronology. Upon arriving in Washington, DC, to go to the Poor People’s Campaign, Izzy and Speedy see a man throw a cigarette from his 1960 Fiat 1100.

“The 1100 was the upscale Fiat, not the cheapo shoebox on wheels, and yet clowns could have come pouring out of it at any minute. It was boxy, but smoothed on all its edges, with a brown panel running from the leading edge of the front door back to a modest fin. It had a dowdy shape saved by a streak of chrome along the flank that gave the car a forward lean, like it was going somewhere even when it was standing still.”

Later, Izzy and some new friends are picked up by the D.C. metro police and taken in their squad car, a 1965 Plymouth Fury, to the station house. Their crime? Wading in the Potomac.

I took off my sneakers and socks and arranged them with a Boy Scout’s sensibility, but I hesitated long enough over the waist button of my khakis that my momentum stalled. I leaned over and rolled my pant legs up above my calves and then yanked them as far as they would go toward my knees. She was bent over, rinsing her arms in the river and paying no obvious attention to me. In case you haven’t noticed, there is something about teenage girls in their underwear bent over.

The water was good. There was a gravel bar underfoot and the barely perceptible current gently washed between our legs. The kids dunked their heads in the water and started to splash one another. Suddenly the sky turned a shade or two clearer, and a lightness drifted from across the river like the first taste of something unbearably good that you knew would only come in small doses. Charlotte faced the direction from which the levitation came and arched her back, stretching her face into the fresher air, and raised her arms out straight from her shoulders, spreading sail to catch every square inch.

She was a skinny, sunburnt hillbilly with home-cut hair and tomboy muscles in well-worn, feed-store clothes, but there was a place in the pantheon of goddesses for her as well. I took off my shirt and tossed it onto the bank. I bent over and washed my arms and neck, and another freshet rolled across the river and upon us. She turned to face me as I waded to her and she reached toward me.

Clasping our hands, we slowly circled each other. The sky continued to lift, seeming to pull lightness up from the edges of the horizon. There were cars bustling across the bridge above us, but the sparrows in the trees were oblivious, pursuing their own agenda. I was looking into her face, but she was looking up into the sky.

 

June 19, 1968

Hitch-hiking home from work, Izzy gets a ride with girl from his high school who is driving her family’s 1959 Ford Fairlane Ranch Wagon. She throws her cigarette out the window as she rushes to make room for him in the front seat. It turns out better than he might have expected.

 

The Ohio Express was coming on the radio, ready to launch into its tribute to yummy. I was aware, even as a Boy Scout, that this was bubblegum. Yet Juliana was drumming her fingers and began to sing along. I did not understand the lyrics or what it means to have love in the tummy, and I began to fear that the moment we were having was fluttering away, like something written on a tiny slip of paper sucked out the window and blown down the highway behind us.

Juliana glanced at me, grinning and singing, completely at ease in herself. I wished I had paid more attention to this sugary concoction the first 600 times I heard it on the radio. I think I summoned up a grimace that looked only slightly constipated. Her eyes lingered on my face, road kill in the merciless rat race of courtship, and then she turned back to the road.

A form lumped up in my throat. I was suddenly aware of the scent of golf-course fertilizer and dried sweat. And pretty sure it wasn’t coming from her.

No more cavalier banter. I was almost thankful that we were coming up to the turn-off to my house. At this point in a hitched ride, I would get out and walk the rest of the way unless I happened to get picked up by another inmate from our particular suburban cellblock. Where we lived, there were only two auto-accessible outlets to the rest of the world, and the other one was a less-traveled country road that connected only to more of its kind. I didn’t know where Juliana lived, but I knew it wasn’t back up in my neck of the woods.

“This is my street up here,” I said.

“Your goddamn street.”

Here is the wonderful, beautiful thing about being just one person and not everyone in the universe. You can lead yourself down a dismal, self-loathing path to utter desperation and the person you’re sitting next to is still back there where you left her, sweeter than sugar, her tummy overflowed with yummy, and never having let you go.

AutoFlick for Father’s Day

AutoFlick is shamelessly promoting itself as a worthy Father’s Day gift.

Just because the story focuses on a father and son foolishly chasing after people who throw cigarettes from their cars, the novel thinks fathers might enjoy getting it as a gift, and sons — or even daughters or complete strangers — might feel good about giving it to a father.

Compounding this arrogance, the author-publisher suggests that fathers of a certain age might be amused by a story taking place in 1968 that features many classic cars. And the odd lyric from the same era.

Further, reminding people that it won the 2017 Ben Franklin Silver Award for Best First Book (Fiction), along with glowing reviews, seems excessively pretentious.

We here at the johnrbancroft.com blog cannot condone such mercenary behavior. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to point out that more information about AutoFlick is available at www.autoflickthenovel.com.

As of press-blog time, we can neither confirm nor deny rumors that Ecphora Press may be putting the book on sale.

A new cover for AutoFlick

The design team at Ecphora Press has been hard at work on a new cover for AutoFlick. The impetus came from a discussion I had with someone who has a lot more experience in the book business than I do. Our conversation took place at the IBPA publishing conference back in April.

Her point was that the classic cars make up a lot of the “scenery” in AutoFlick, and that ought to be the theme of the cover. Back when I was designing the original cover, I thought first of doing something with cars. But I’m no artist, or designer. All of my ideas were way beyond my skill set.

Then I stumbled on the idea of the Boy Scout shirt and the ocean, which reflect important aspects of the story of the novel. I bought a vintage adult BS shirt from the 60s on e-bay, and left it outside on the patio for the summer to “season” it. I shopped on e-bay for BS merit badges and learned that this is a whole market unto itself and the badges were often redesigned over the decades even if the skill (canoeing, etc.) was the same. I shopped e-bay for other badges, buttons and so forth. One of my favorites is a button that was given out at the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, an event that’s featured in the novel.

Then I sewed them all on the shirt and photographed it at various watery places: a lake a few miles away, the scrawny river in the woods behind our house, my vacation to the Pacific Northwest. Finally, I was in San Diego on business and went out to a beach and took the shot that ended up being the first cover.

So the new cover is coming and will be better. A real artist/designer is doing it. The Boy Scout shirt can go back to being a Halloween costume or cocktail-party conversation piece.

The funny thing, though, is that most of the critics who reviewed AutoFlick for the Ben Franklin Awards this year said they liked the old cover — average score was 8 of 10. One person, who didn’t like anything about AutoFlick, said the shirt didn’t have anything to do with the book. I’m assuming he/she actually read the book, but I’m less sure she/he sure looked closely at the cover.