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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Cruising, cars, and one night in the 80’s

It was a nice Summer evening with windows down and Styx on the radio as I rolled into Butler in a tragic excuse for a car- a barely running 1968 Cougar, complete with Dodge rims and a primer paint job. 

Good thing it was Summer, the heater didn’t work. Good thing it was a slightly cooler evening, as the old Ford had a thing for overheating. Having these two issues seemed very ironic to me. Tonight it got me here, but the ride home will be quite different. More later.

This was a typical evening in the early 1980’s; and Butler revealed signs of life as I passed by the old lens plant (now Midwest Lumber). Getting closer to the Dari Dine (now Laughlin’s) at Mill street, I spy a beautiful green Dodge Charger parked alongside. The owner’s girlfriend often drove it to work there. I’d see them later, together, cruising the strip. Not sure what engine he had, but strangely I never saw him race or hot rod it. 

Not hot rodding was a good idea for me, had I romped the ‘ol Cougar, it would have blasted pieces of connecting rods and pistons well past the railroad tracks.

The strip is getting packed early tonight. I flipped on my non working left signal to enter Sonic (I did that just so I could tell the cops I tried to signal). Anyway, as I wait, I see some of the regulars passing by- Chipper in his silver Challenger. Kenneth in his GTS. Alan in his 442. Troy in his killer blue Mustang. 

As the traffic cleared, at least 6 of the 8 cylinders the Cougar had pulled me into Sonic where I see more familiar vehicles. Bernadette in a VW Beetle (which I can attest will fit on the sidewalk on the north side of the square). Tracey in a brown Firebird. Melissa in an awesome white Pontiac. Lisa in a beautiful red Trans Am. Allan on a toasted black Honda 185 motorcycle. Tom on a Suzuki 450. And the guy that bought my 350 Honda too cheap.

There were also dune buggies and trucks. Lots of trucks. Bob in his blue and white Chevy. Bruce in a red Ford. Dale in his lifted blue ‘65 step side. Eddie in his ‘Glo Worm’ Ford. Roger in his unkillable ‘69 Chevy 1/2 ton. Wes in his green Chevy 4x4 with white spoke wheels.

I pulled out and headed south, joining a long line of others that, for hours it seemed, made a continuous loop from around the stoplight, down the strip, through Sonic, to Mill street and repeat.

It was American Graffiti in its truest form.

As the night wore on, it was time to ditch the Cougar (which was beginning to have a temperature tantrum) and get in with someone else. Perry’s Cutlass was the vehicle of choice.

The remainder of the evening was spent here and there... a few donuts at the Fairgrounds and a little fun with a bowling ball (sorry, I’m not sure if the statute of limitations has run out) then back to making the regular run up and down the strip looking for friends among the jokers, dopers and ropers that were anchored on their sovereign ground (parking lot of NAPA, for example).

Beside cruising, we found more things of entertainment. Rearranging the letters on the Hubbard’s sign to spell, well, unusual things. While driving the Cutlass we discovered turning the key off and back on quickly would emit a 12 gauge type blast from the exhaust that would send people running for cover. 

All good things must come to an end and this night would be no exception. For real. Around midnight Perry returned me to my Cougar which was sitting in front of Fuller’s Machine Shop (old Right Choice location). For some reason I parked it at an angle, kinda downhill in a pothole, so I didn’t really think much about how it didn’t want to go into gear.

Finally it did and I headed to west Butler to see a friend. Take the Long Way Home eeked out of my rotten speakers. It was foggy. Turns out my friend wasn’t home. 

And that’s when it happened.

As I pulled away, suddenly, Drive was Neutral. In fact, any forward gear was... Neutral.

But Reverse still worked... Being a thinking man, I sized up my current situation and came to the conclusion that I would make the winding 11 mile drive home, in reverse, in the fog. This can be done.

My backup lights didn’t work. I found that if I kept my left foot slightly on the brake pedal, the warm glow of my brake lights allowed me to see 5 maybe 10 feet ahead. I mean behind.

This impromptu system worked. I backed onto West street, then to Mill, west to Eks Drive and all the way to TT highway where I took a break. The fog was a major inconvenience in an already inconvenient situation.  

I again twisted my head around and pulled on to TT highway knowing that somewhere, in the great abyss behind me, were three curves that were hard to make in the daytime, going forward. Funny thing is, as I listened to the remainder of the Breakfast in America cassette I very smoothly navigated the curves and eventually made it to my house some 50 minutes later.

When I got home, I backed the Cougar up to the garage, which is something I normally would not do. The following morning, my father inquired as to why I did that. “You get hit in the rear end? Trying to hide it?”. No. I couldn’t lie to my dad. I carefully explained what had happened, expecting kudos for being so resourceful. He wasn’t amused or impressed.

In the days to follow I replaced the transmission, sold the Cougar and upgraded to a Pinto, a car that would make anyone truly appreciate the awesome cars seen in Butler in the 1980’s. Thanks MaryBeth for the pic. Rest In Peace Bernadette. -Doug Mager