The Observer is a great fan of anything with wheels. We spent our formative years up to our elbows in grease and automobilia in Pa’s dirt-floor shop, so we know our way around cars — cars of 20 years ago, anyway, before they got so damned fancy and electronic. So when a lawyer started talking about a car of his youth while we were camped at the courthouse during jury deliberations after the Hastings trial a few weeks back, our ears perked up. Car stories are almost always beautiful, whether they want to be or not.
Don’t know who Hastings is? Doesn’t matter to this story, but you can find a passel of information about it online, some of it written by Yours Truly. Feel free.
When the jury is out, the courtroom drains, left to silence and polished wood, the judge’s bench and the old church pews in the gallery vacated and the jury carton in the corner empty of eggs. Most of the rest of The Observer’s scribbling brethren had decamped to the hard benches in the hallway. Once our flat beehind started feeling like fine Corinthian leather, however, The Observer went inside the quiet courtroom and found a more comfy chair.
The prosecutors were at their table, talking, killing the bottomless hours. In the courtroom, built for acoustics, it’s easy to overhear. John Johnson is the chief deputy prosecutor of Pulaski County. He’s hard not to like as a human being, though we’d rather die on the lam than ever be forced to face him over that defendant’s table. He’s that kind of guy. The Observer was watching “Casablanca” the first night of the Hastings trial and at a moment when Humphrey Bogart frowned particularly deeply at Ingrid Bergman, it occurred to us that Bogie and Johnson have a similar face. Not twin- or even brother-similar. Just something about the eyes and mouth. John Bogart, distant cousin.
At the prosecutor’s table, Humphrey Johnson was telling a story to his comrades about a car: an ancient Volvo with a gas tank that leaked more gasoline than it held, in an age when gas was so cheap that that sort of thing didn’t matter much. It was a story of The Good Ol’ Days, surrounded as they are by the golden glow of hindsight and knowing you survived them.
In that silence, he told of how as a very young man, before mortgage and marriage and duty, he and a friend had packed up his Volvo in Arkansas on a whim and drove to Alaska, eight days straight through, only to wind up broke down and stranded on a beach in Valdez, victims of a bum alternator. He told of how they’d slept in the busted Volvo there by the ocean; of how the mosquitoes had come down in a black swarm and gnawed them; of how they had fished for salmon and spent a whole, gypsy summer there. He told how, as the snows were threatening to bury them, he’d finally walked to a tiny town’s Sears and Roebuck mail-order outlet and ordered a car battery. Then, he said, he drove that alternator-less Volvo across Canada, pressing South until the battery would damn near give out, at which point he’d coast into the next little town and get another battery, proceeding that way, over and over, all the way back to Utah and the bottom of his wallet, where his pride finally broke and he called his father. It was easy for The Observer to imagine a much younger man there in a phonebooth next to his rusty Volvo, plugging dimes in the desert sunset of Mormonland.
The Observer is probably getting the details wrong. Eavesdropping is an inexact science. That said, given that we’d spent days looking at autopsy photos, one life taken and another spoiled, we found a lot to love in that story about wanderlust and freedom and cars and being young. We feel honor bound to tell those kinds of stories as they come to us. The world is too full of misery, as Mr. Johnson and The Observer both know much better than most, and courtrooms need all of those they can get: stories that don’t end in shipwreck ruin for someone or other.
There were times when we wish we’d been a little more spontaneous in our own Good Ol’ Days before responsibility — less worried, more faithful in our own ability to get there and back in one piece, more like that kid gone to Alaska: sure that there is always a way to get home. That said, we’ve got car stories of our own, each of them glowing like candy paint and flaming backfire in The Observer’s mind. Everybody should have at least one good car story like that, we think, if only to carry them through.