Saturday, December 29, 2012


            I got my first car because of someone else’s Christmas present.  Gerald Rana’s neighbor got an arc welding kit for Christmas and that very day pushed an old Pontiac into his front yard.  He was going to make a dune buggy.  No one worried about the lawn; Trona has no lawns.  The soil is so alkaline it kills any lawn seed that tries to poke out even a tentative root.
dimasobko / 123RF Stock Photo
            Cutting arc in hand, Gerald’s neighbor dove in and sliced a big cut right through the middle of the car, drive shaft and all, so that the car lay in two pieces.  Then he cut through again, this time in front of the rear wheel assembly and hauled away the whole middle section of the car.  He was energized!  Work continued for days.  After stripping off the car body, he welded together the front and rear pieces of both the drive shaft and the frame.  The car was now half the length it had been.
            The straight-eight engine, with its 8 pistons in a row, took up half the length of the buggy.  Behind the engine on the shortened frame was a bench seat with a gas tank tucked behind it.  With no real weight to pull, that engine knew no bounds.
            The next step was to weld on roll bars and side supports, but Gerald’s neighbor ran out of steam.  Gerald had been observing the project all along and one day his neighbor turned to him.
            “Hey, Gerald.  You like this dune buggy?”
            “Sure,” Gerald said.  “It’s going to be great.”
            His neighbor chewed his lip.  “I think I’m done.  I’m tired of this buggy.”  He raised his eyebrows at Gerald.  “If you want it, I’ll sell it to you for fourteen dollars.”
            Gerald told me he would let me in on the deal if I paid half.
            I approached my Dad as he was eating a solitary breakfast at the kitchen bar.
            “Hey, Dad.  Gerald Rana’s neighbor has a dune buggy for sale.  Can I buy it?”
            Dad looked at me.  I could see dollar signs adding up in his brain, wondering how many hundreds of dollars this was going to cost him.
            “It won’t cost much,” I said.
            Dad smiled and shook his head.  “How much?”
            “Fourteen dollars total.  If I pay seven dollars, I’ll be half owner.”
             Surprise flitted across his face, then his grin widened.  He stood up, pulled his bill fold out of his pants pocket and peeled off a five dollar bill and two ones.  Handing them to me he said, “Here.  Just don’t kill yourself.”
            I had a dune buggy.  It was a very educational purchase as well.  Whenever anything went wrong we’d drive over to the city dump and rummage around in the abandoned cars for a new part.  We didn’t care if it came from a Pontiac or not.  Once, the starter motor went bad.  We found one that didn’t look too corroded and drilled holes in the frame to make it fit our Pontiac.  It started up like a dream.  Already a Frankenstein creation, we were constantly attaching miss-matched parts to make it better.
CC DonQuichot/Wikimedia
            The real joy was what that buggy could do.  And the freedom we enjoyed.  We drove all over the desert, exploring places a regular car could never get to.  The only things we missed were the gauges, especially the gas gauge and the speedometer.  We were always dipping a stick in the gas tank to see how much gas was left, and we never knew how fast we were going.
            Once when Gerald’s parents were out of town, he drove his dad’s car behind me while I raced the dune buggy down the highway as fast as I could go.  In just a couple miles, Gerald started falling quickly back, so I slowed and waited for him to catch up.  When he pulled up beside me, I yelled, “What’s the matter?”
            “When you got past 120 mph, I couldn’t keep up anymore.”
            I never did tell my Dad about that.


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