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Positively 4th St: Rainbow Burden
By Tremonius
Aug 5, 2020
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Those I went to school with, they all moved on and became Dr. Patti, or Dr. James, or Nickie who summers in the Hamptons.  I stayed behind to do further pregraduate work in high school, and to spend reams of time and treasure to go quickly inside a three thousand pound steel frame from a jump start to one quarter mile away.  I leave it to you to judge which is the best use of time.

At McKnight’s Drug I discovered in my research within Hot Rod Magazine (always remaining within the house rules by not carrying unbought magazines to the booths) a beauty Mopar product which would run by actual track test one hundred and nineteen miles per hour.  I scoffed at this.  Why, Rocky’s old ’58 Impala would cruise at 120, and anytime he didn’t hide the needle he just wasn’t trying.  He’d tromp on the footfeed at 120 and squall the casin’s.   Once that bad red bomb crossed the river at the bridge at 140 MPH “without a sign of a brake.”  Commenced gearing down at the river, it was said.

Sometime after I’d taken delivery of my own ’63 Sport Fury with the Golden Commando 383 engine, I tested it in high gear.  It would turn five thousand RPM on the top end.  I measured the “loaded wheel radius” according to a formula I found in Hot Rod, and I calculated on the gear ratio in high of 3.23, and I came up with – one hundred and eighteen miles per hour.

Right there I began to wonder about the community notion of how science was less certain than local superstition in truth seeking.  I think maybe Dr. Patti and them discovered that feature of town life the first semester away from home, but I was a long time leaving.

For entertainment in our town back during the days when there was Positively a 4th St, we rounded the Square and cruised down the Drag (E 4th) to just past the Root Beer Stand, whereupon we turned around at Lipscomb and came back up.  The allowed stops were, the Dairy Queen and the RBS, and that was it.  

There were four possible breaks from this carousel.  Across the river for beer, south to the Park come summertime for swimming or dancing, and out along the unpaved quiet roads through the brush for love.  Love was the sweetest to find, but beer the easiest and it stayed with you longer, often till death did we part.

There was also drag racing out on quiet paved highways.

A boykid had an investment in his ride back then.  Even if it was daddy-bought, it was his, a part of him, and he cherished it.  

That was Clutter’s white 409.  Here he is, sitting on the bench beside the DQ of a Saturday.  Along comes Floyd in his dirty blue homemade ’55 screamer which he cannot shift.  He designed and reworked and reconstructed that machine, and I don’t guess he ever was able to shift it proper.

A race is talked up, and here they go, out to Edhube.  The count and the jump.  (The count was one-two-three by the starter, who was any bystander who could count that high, and I never in my born days knew any competitor to remain sitting at the starting line when the count reached three.)  Floyd jumps him out of the chute, but strangely fades on the high end, and here comes Clutter rumbling back, grinning.  

Somebody else had to tell him back at the DQ how Floyd missed second.  Clutter, he was a bit put down about that.  “Guess we’ll have to run ‘em again.”  But that was the second lesson I learned in my racing experience.  

It had to do with character.  Floyd Brent never would alibi.  He would also not brag.  He was one who demonstrated those qualities to anyone paying attention.  You had the various braggart boys and you had Floyd, and you could pick your scale model.

(I am reminded about the old Positively 4th St days by odd incongruous chance in recent years.  Like, here is Martina Navratilova on TV, late in her career.  She’s just lost a major.  She is interviewed after, and she says, “It was windy, and I think that affects a serve-and-volleyer (her) more than a baseline player (her opponent).  Why, just when I had the ball on my racket once, a gust shot sand into my eye…”

I thought, lady, you ain’t never run ‘em out around Edhube, have you?  You just don’t do that, once you’ve seen the grace and poise of a Floyd Brent.  You run your race, and not your mouth, once you’ve seen how it’s done proper.)

The technique was to downplay modifications to your ride.  That way, skill and the spirit of your machine would seem the more remarkable.  It’s sort of what the political puppeteers call “reduced expectations” today (and the end of that ride is, you have a candidate who is so dumb expectations can never rise above bottom center).  Also, at outlaw strips like at McKinney, that’s how you entered a lower class to improve your lie, by lying.  But I don’t think anybody had to go far out of town to learn that.

A ’55 Chevy, for instance, carried with it the first V-8 for that make, at 265 cubic inches.  That’s what you would quite naturally assume Floyd had under the hood, if you were new in town…or new on earth.  But when you watched him out there jumping on Clutter’s 1963 409, you quite rightly began to wonder.  Chevy growth in engine size was to 283 in ’56 and 327 in ‘57, and the blocks were interchangeable, so that everybody with a ’55 ran all out with the big machine and let on they didn’t.

Ol’ Floyd never actually said anything; he just smiled and kept his hood latched.  Eventually, the boys discovered that, while the Chevy shortblocks all looked alike, there was a distinction.  A notch behind the water pump would allow an average forefinger if it were the bigger model.  I can remember some of us drove all the way out to Edhube to check out Floyd’s ride one Saturday, but his Ma wouldn’t allow us under the hood.  Floyd had left strict word nobody was to touch the five five while he was in Dallas.

Now, we had secrets back then most any wise hand new.  The clip you fashioned yourself from a beer can which would open the secondary throats of them monster Holley carbs right off the line, instead of waiting for passing gear.  The clamps on your leaf springs on the rear, every leaf tight, so that if you sat on the trunk lid it would not move a fraction of an inch.  Gears, so that you could scream off the line and also so that you passed the end line wound tight to make it worth the shifting.  Tuned exhaust, so one cylinder expelled spent fuel past another to help draw out the old and bring in the new – which was actually a troubling concept for us homeboys, which is why hardly anybody ran Hedman Headers in our town.

And some of our art was so recondite nobody else on earth knew it.  Alchemy or the Mason’s secrets were common knowledge in comparison.  We had speed and quickness indices even the pros lacked.  Like, if you wanted in those days to assess a ride, you wouldn’t need to pull the hood at all.  Nawsir, you’d gaze right hard at the paint directly behind the headlights.  Is it pulled back a quarter inch to expose primer?  Then you’d look to the taillights.  Is there that same quarter inch overlapping chrome?  A quick ride will slide the paint when it fires out.

Then you place one knee on the ground and you inspect the tread of the front tires.  You’re looking for bare bands athwart the tread, indicating the vehicle sprung out so quick it slud the front tires.

I tell you, there were lessons we had learned unavailable to mere physicists.  I don’t know if Dr Patti knows this ‘till yet.

Take color.  Now, most would think that was only a matter of taste.  Not so.  Keeton could outrun Clutter but me and Jimmy Don could outrun both.  The reason was, their vehicles were white and ours were black.  As everyone knows if they reflect just a mite, black is the absence of color and white shows all of them, and when you are turning five thousand at the high end, who wants to be carrying an extra rainbow?

Somebody’s Sister come up to the DQ one night, and she laughed out loud about the color theme.  She said, “White is all colors reflected, and black is the same absorbed, so if colors weigh anything, black should be carrying it.”  Sometimes you have to educate these college kids.  That book learnin’ drives common sense clean outta they skulls.

“Look,” says I.  “You go into the back room and you look in the mirror, what do you see?”

And she say, “Myself.”

I say, “Right, Somebody’s Sister.  And if ol’ Floyd were to do the same, who would he see?”

“Floyd.”

“’At’s right.  And Brewer?”

“Himself.”

“And if anybody ain’t there, what?”

“The door?”

“Right.  So light reflected from anyone or anything defines anyone or anything.  So whatever is reflected, beit Floyd or a door or all the colors they is, that’s what’s there.”

“You’re a real Sagebrush Soccer Tease, you know that?”

I guess that was good, although I never knew what she meant by it, and didn’t care to let on I didn’t.  But at least I proved my point.

Now, then, me and Joe Don, that was a race because nobody was carrying no extra color.  Seen him up at the DQ, called out, just joshing, “Let’s run ‘em.”  A common greeting, but he took me up on it.  He mounted up Poeck’s Bad Ford and here we go off to the races.

I wasn’t really ready to go, and Joe Don knew it.  What he was hiding was the first jump:  gears and tires, while I was running stock.  He was gunning a 4.11 rear end with Bucrons.  I was in trouble out on Direct Road without even knowing it.

I owe the first race to them cherry vanilla cokes at the Dairy Queen, bless `em.  See, in those years, our primary diet was what Deadeye called `sody water,’ which was a 30-weight syrup about the color, consistency, and taste of sweet coal tar with synthetic flavorings added.  We slurped ‘em down at a quarter a shot, through straws the size of exhaust pipes, and we’d all had plenty that night before we left town.

Now, anyone who wanted to see the race piled into one of the two vehicles, or followed along behind in their own wrecks.  And, well, the story of the first race must go down as one of the most arcane secrets of the Positively 4th St epoch.  Please excuse what follows, but full disclosure requires that I give you the back-story, no matter how coarse.

One of the individuals riding with me, on relieving the Sport Fury of his weight, also relieved himself of too many of those cherry vanilla cokes, in the immediate vicinity of the right rear tire - the results of which, on the dropping of the flag, caused my right side to spin free just so.

Now, at that time there was a new feature of auto engineering called by Chevy, which pioneered it, Positraction, which meant that when one rear tire broke free, as in a bar ditch, then torque would be transferred to the other, so it could pull you right on out.  On the concrete bridge starting line that night, this meant that while one tire of that Sport Fury broke loose, the other held, and my RPMs were high enough between the slipping and the gripping to actually jump the Bad Ford out of the chute.

Joe Don come back to the line and told one of the boys, ‘He can drive it, can’t he?’  And I don’t even know if I admitted the truth, or if I even knew it myself that night.  But I’ve owned up now, even if it’s forty years later.

Of course, I don’t think you could use the technique at the NHRA Nationals.  I don’t think they even sold cherry vanilla cokes of the proper consistency outside Bonham, and that’s what you needed, that and a concrete bridge to jump off of.

The Plymouth and the Bad Ford, we evened out over the evening, him winning three and me two.  That’s even, I think, by my count.  But I sure drew a lot of credit on that first run, because I gated him a pretty leap.  And it was all laid up to pure talent.  When I was in bed late that night, I might’ve said, now wait a minute, it might not have been quite like that.  I don’t know if anybody heard me, because I slept alone those years, which is why I had all this time for drag racing.

That Sport Fury became a star in our town, and I just hung around it like a groupie, sort of a slick-faced Gabby Hayes.  It was running sudden for a season – and then here come Floyd in Next Year’s Model and I might as well have been herding a Conestoga wagon.

Pontiac placed the maximum horsepower in a small body and called it a GTO, and it would outrun light.  I mean it.  You’d have somebody key the start with a flashlight out on Ravenna Road some moonless night, and some of us might wait on the other end of the track to see that Pontiac scream, and first we’d hear the GTO swish by, then hear the roar, then see the flash from the flashlight which begun the race, then hear the squalling of the start a quarter mile away.  We could’ve calculated the elapsed time by figuring the speed of light or sound, but nobody in our crowd knew how to calculate.  That was for them as went away to school.

One of us up at the Dairy Mart figured out that Floyd may not have been traveling quite the speed of light at its fastest.  He pointed out the flashlight was beamed athwart the track, so that the light shooting our way was running sideways.  He said, you can tell that makes a difference, because when any light hits a prism it careens off edgewise, shatters into all its complementary colors, by weight.  It’s due to slowing down the photons by running them at an angle that we can see it, he said, and that’s all the spectrum is.  (He’d paid attention in science class.)  Green is just naturally fatter than red.  And we’d say, yeah, and think about having to carry all of them colors through a quarter mile, and we’d chuckle about the white riders. (I think a lot of us southern boys were misunderstood by outsiders when we’d commence talking about the black/white controversy.  When we said a man was white, we meant he was carrying unnecessary weight, is all.  That notorious banner up over the street going into Greenville, lots of folks misunderstood that.  The blackest land, that means compost, and the fattest people, that’s all it said.)

I went riding with Floyd in his GTO out towards Titsworth Hill on 82 one sundown.  He tromped on it along about the Bois d’Arc Bridge.  I was looking in the mirror at the time (to prove it was me there), and my face contorted like the film clips at the American of Craig Breedlove setting the land speed record at Bonneville in those years.  

I said to Floyd, “You know, I used to have the fastest ride in town…” but it was like I was one of the old men up on the Square, trading Case knives, talking about the old days, how it was, and how times just never have been the same as back when we were young.

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“I have the proof of what I say, but have carelessly misplaced it.” – Mark Twain