Sunday, October 23, 2011

‘Doin’ the Ton’

Phil Burpee, Columnist, Pincher Creek Voice

Phil Burpee is a carpenter
and farmer living north of
Pincher Creek. He keeps
an eye on the world from
 under the big Alberta sky.
That’s what they used to call it, those old English Rockers on their Nortons and BSAs  -  going a hundred miles an hour (160 km/hr for the modern reader) – the ton. I used to do it in cars. There was something iconic and somehow weirdly meaningful about watching that speedometer needle creeping up past the 100 line. It had no purpose  -  just a thing that was there. It was the local, automotive mountain, and it needed climbing  -  ‘because it was there’. I was still doing it in my thirties from time to time, just out of old habits I suppose. Driving fast was always fun, but it didn’t really have any particular meaning without edging up through that ceiling into the clear blue sky of 100+  -  80, 85 – 90,95  -  whoosh! -   into the Zone! It was like you would leave the normal world behind and join the band of glinty-eyed speedsters who were ready to roll where angels themselves might sensibly fear to tread. And all you had to do was sit there and enjoy the ride.

Of course, the cars my crowd used for such mindless sport were notoriously inappropriate for such activity. They were typically big, old boats that were designed for Mom and Dad and the kids rolling down the highway in some reasonable safety, providing they managed to avoid hard contact with one another. You could buy one for about  three hundred bucks. They had suspension that behaved like a sofa on balloons, and aerodynamics pretty much on a par with a sheet of plywood in the wind. Those old V8 clunkers must’ve weighed a good two or three tons themselves, and when they got moving, there was a lot of physics at work  -  most of it inclined towards the dangerous. The equation involved might sound something like this  - ‘A 1964 Buick Wildcat, traveling at a lateral velocity of 102.7 miles per hour, and containing one or more biological variants (aka humans), assuming no other transverse dynamic factors (aka corners), and likewise assuming continued inflationary integrity of carriage units (aka tires), has a stoppability ratio approaching zero, and a chaos probability exactly and inversely proportional to the level of intoxicants in the monkey-brains there-in.’  And the thing was, as you sailed up past 85 or 90, odd changes would come about. You’d feel the machine start to lift up on its air-cushion, the rumbles and clunks and shimmies start to quiet down, and along about 95 or so, the steering would get ethereally light  -  one-pinky control, like some divine and dreamy chariot about to rise up into the distant, come-hither clouds. And then things would become other-worldly quiet  -  a whispering in your ears. You would become, to all intents and purposes, an airborne projectile, with nothing but a few mere molecules of rubber offering an occasional kiss to the rushing asphalt. It was like the top of the Tilt-a-Whirl, when gravity seems to falter, and true flight seems possible.

But there were no wings, of course. And I got lucky and managed not to die. And now driving with excessive speed has rightly become almost universally demonized in a world filled with little plastic cars trundling around on jam-packed highways. They are choc-a-bloc with ingenious software that, variously: - won’t let you drive if your sauced, will begin to stop before you have even perceived the danger, will not let you drive over a certain speed or turn the music up too loud if you’re a teen (“Thanks, Mom  -  geeez!”), will tell you where you just made a wrong turn, will remind you it’s time for an oil-change (and maybe those gaunchies too), and will otherwise generally let you know that you are basically a liability to the whole process of automotive function. We must now negotiate with a robot before hoping to negotiate the Queen’s highways. We have become, perhaps necessarily and inevitably, as children once again, behaviorally bound so that the machine might acquiesce to our little desires. “Oh, Prius  -  prithee that I be allowed to go to the Mall today.”

Ah, so be it. We inhabit a world of waning style, where the cowboy in us is made to wear sensible shoes, and the wild, yodeling fool of yesteryear is made to provide biometric identification before boarding any high-flown flights of fancy. The roads are peppered with sensible and jauntily-coloured machines, inside of which compliantly perch their simian cargo, snug in their seatbelts, and secure in the knowledge that the perky little raised butts of their ‘sporty’ looking rigs are bedecked in at least twelve LED-strobe brake lights, and a virtual St. Christopher himself is factory-stamped into the very chassis. Yes, gone are the days of the window down on the big bench seat, with the Summer air rushing in, Merle Haggard or the Doobie Brothers setting the rhythm of the day, and nothing left to fear but fear itself as the highway rolled like some great, hot ribbon under your wheels, and nothing but the horizon able to dictate the parameters of the beautiful and sensuous world unfolding before your eyes. And when it’s time to pass that big, lumbering semi up ahead, on an outside curve and running uphill, you kick the old monster into passing gear, wait the three-and-a-half seconds for the transmission to engage, then get pressed back in your seat in awe and fool-grinning pleasure as the big machine gathers up its rising torque and rips up the road with that 400 cu. in. big block motor howling like the very banshees of Hell. Man, talk about technological satisfaction!  -  internal combustion mayhem translated into rotary power, translated into lateral motion  -  ancient dead ferns burning under my hood to get me across the surface of the planet real fast  -  pure magic!

But the world is troubled, and there are better things to do with one’s time than drive around aimlessly looking for a nice straight stretch. We must all knuckle down and behave. And as for the wretched old dinosaur-mobiles of old  -  well, as Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks would have had it  -  “How will I miss you if you won’t go away?”. It’s time to move on. Driving has now become a function rather than an experience, notwithstanding  reams and reams of billion-dollar marketing propaganda to the contrary. But you simply cannot put a 2011 Ford Focus up against a 1971 Dodge Monaco and in any way conjure up anything like the same experience. The car has succumbed to utility and adulthood. We are no longer free to imagine unaccountable glory over the next hill. Reality and pragmatism rule the day  -  not the wistfulness of the dreamer. So be it.

But an echo remains. It’s not enough simply to abandon the impulses of the poet  -  even if his verse is rhymed in the adoration of audacious speed. The very fact of going to the brink is in itself a sublime gesture  - journey out to the edge of eternity just to have a peek into the void. We should not forget the talent of tempting the Fates. For it is the Fates who sing in that most lovely and beguiling way. It is the prize snatched from the jaws of oblivion that is most cherished. The more we succumb to the prescriptions of order, the less able we become to catch that fleeting spark of inspiration. If we make all the unruly ones comb their hair and sit quietly at their desks, what do we have left? The philosopher Herbert Spencer observed that – “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” It is uncertainty that enlivens the human condition, for what else is Mystery if not that place just out of reach -  just over that next hill. Those old boats are rusting in the junkyards, along with most of their forgotten drivers. Out there on that lonesome highway though, a few miles past Bitter, and just this side of Sweet, there can be heard a certain rushing sound  -  like angel’s wings, or the coursing of blood in veins. I perk up my ears and my heart skips a beat. Surely it can’t be so! Must be somebody out there doin’ the ton, laying his money down.

 “Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.”   Bruce Springsteen

Phil Burpee
October 23, 2011

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