Thursday, August 23, 2018

Frequent Stalling, Excessive Speeding and a Surly Cool: The Legend of The Beast

Not an actual photo of The Beast, who never wore Mags and whose paint was like flat earth.
We called it The Beast.

It seemed as long as a World War II destroyer, and only slightly less menacing. He was the color of a well-used playground baseball diamond, earthen brown with a slightly acrid orange tint. The Beast was perpetually angry, as demonstrated by the deep-throated rumble he spat forth whenever awoken.

He was strong, but old, and like all graying warriors rose from his sleep only reluctantly, memories of past battles scattering. Through his four large eyes he glared at a world that looked upon him as a relic, a dinosaur of a bygone era.

The Beast was a 1971 Mercury Cougar, which Dylan bought for $500 (from an uncle, I believe) during the summer between our junior and senior years at high school. Next to the sleek new Beamers and Volvos the richer students at Winter Park High drove to school, the Beast resembled a rotary phone beside a new iPhone. Parked next to my sky-blue 1972 Plymouth Duster, though, the Beast emanated a surly cool.

For a young man, the first car he owns himself without dependency on any parent is like a four-wheeled ticket to freedom. Yes, you say to yourself, my car may be old and ugly to look upon, but it's mine, bought with my own money, and by turning a key I can go anywhere I want.

He was so large and heavy, the Beast literally intimidated other drivers. One look at this expansive slab of rolling Detroit steel, and they knew their modern machines of plastic and fiberglass would end up in a pile of dust in any collision. So they steered clear, and it is a satisfying thing to watch other drivers get out of your way.

This burly heft tended to be a drawback, however, when you drive a car like that to the beach and it sinks into the sand up to the quarter panels. It took a handful of guys to push it out.

It would be fair to say that Dylan was an inexperienced car owner, and did not do everything a conscientious owner should -- things like pulling the oil dipstick, checking the tires or reading the instruments with more than a passing interest.

One time he brought the Beast to my house so my father could change the oil for him. The oil was so low it wouldn't even read on the dipstick. Dylan tried to maneuver the Beast up the portable tire ramps my Dad used, but he wasn't quick enough on the brakes and zoomed clear over the edge. The Beast came down on the ramps like a ferrous mastodon, crunching them. We disentangled them and tried again. Whomp! The ramps were starting to look rather gnarly.

At this point my father took me aside and asked me if my friend might, despite being a stellar student, have some kind of mental deficiency. I assured him that Dylan was merely spastic. On the third try we got the Beast to stay suspended, the oil was changed, and to my knowledge it was never done so again. The ramps, now twisted to a hunchback reflection of their former selves, were outlasted by the Beast.

Those who are passengers in a car driven by Dylan today might wonder who this timid and meek pilot is. As a teen, Dylan drove the Beast with a unchecked fury. He was like one fire-belched demon riding on the shoulders of another, screaming around the streets near his father's home with such reckless disregard that neighbors took to shaking their fists whenever the Beast drew near.

A late sleeper, Dylan always managed to make it from Maitland to the high school in an impossibly short span of time, never once getting a speeding ticket. On one occasion, which must represent some sort of unofficial land speed record, he drove from Orlando to Atlanta in 5½ hours, which averages out to about 85 m.p.h. Again, he never got a ticket -- even though at one point he saw a state trooper pointing a radar gun directly at him while he was doing north of 90.

This episode lends credence to the theory promulgated in some circles that the Beast's arsenal including a cloaking device.

Alas, although the Beast's speedometer and cloaking device worked perfectly, the fuel gauge stubbornly refused his duty. Dylan knew it was time to refuel after going 200 miles, which was a pretty simple calculation: 20-gallon gas tank times 10 mpg. If someone were to operate the Beast with today's gas prices, they would have to forego groceries just to keep his rapacious thirst slaked.

 One time Dylan and I were on a long trip with Mary Oglo and Moesha Claussen. We had decided it was time to let the girls drive, so they were up front while we lounged over a game of chess on one of those little magnetic sets in the back. We lost track of our time and distance, though, and soon the Beast was sputtering and coming to a rest on the side of I-75.

After a few fruitless minutes trying to flag down some help, Dylan finally convinced some folks in a run-down old RV to give him to a lift to the next gas station. The rest of us were quite convinced this was the last we would ever see of him, and that he would meet his fate is some sort of hillbilly torture orgy, a la "Deliverance."

The Beast being old, he had the usual list of infirmities. There were times when he would not start, or when he did made strange disturbing sounds that vaguely resembled groaning.

Perhaps his most public breakdown was at our high school graduation. Near the end of the ceremony, a tremendous Florida June downpour ensued. I searched in vain for Dylan, as he was my ride. There was a huge crush of graduates, parents and friends milling at the front door to the civic center where the event took place -- no one had brought an umbrella. And even if they did, they didn't want to brave a weather event that was fast approaching typhoon level.

Impetuous, I took off running toward the Beast, the inches-deep water sloshing up over my graduation gown. As I ran, I noticed another figure running parallel to me in the next row. It was Dylan, also splashing through the deluge at top speed, his black robes flowing. We made it to the Beast together, got inside and looked at each other. We could not have been more wet if we'd jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool.

We roared with laughter at our state, and at our fate at being the first ones to escape the mob. The rest would spend the next hour or more slogging through stalled traffic.

We were off, our fortunes before us, our past receding behind, and the Beast our noble chariot.

 Until the Beast hit a big puddle halfway through the parking lot, sprayed some water up his exhaust manifold, and promptly conked out. We tried to restart him, but the Beast was obstinate. Helpless in the continuing downpour, we watched as a stream of cars inched their way out of the lot, a mechanical caterpillar filled with people who gazed out their windows at the two bozos in the (literally) flooded brown junker.

Finally, one of the cars in this sad review contained Dylan's father, who somehow got the Beast started, and we were off again -- delayed, humbled and mortified.

The Beast continued to carry Dylan all through college at Rollins, although his mechanical problems mounted as Dylan's ability to fix them waned. There were times it seemed entire semesters passed without the Beast moving from his grim perch in the student parking lot, like an ancient drake dozing the eons away.

Finally, as college was ending, Dylan knew it was time to put the Beast out to pasture. As luck would have it, he got the Beast running again just in time to fetch a price of $750. For in the years Dylan owned him, the Beast had hit the magic age of 20, and was now considered a classic.

It is most likely that the Beast was soon sold for parts, or at most spent a few more years tooling around before heading to the junkyard. But I still like to think that somewhere the Beast and another curly-headed young man have formed a new partnership, an understanding between machine and man like the one Dylan had.

Somewhere, I secretly hope, the Beast still growls.

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