Following on the thrill of my first ride–the ’54 Pontiac– (and for those of you who read the first installment, I apologize for being so long with this one), the next adventure involved a 1953 Vanguard–four speed on the steering column, flap-up turn-signal indicators (little, orange-lighted pointers that popped out from between the front and rear doors and, bizarrely, excited some of my young passengers at the time, who had grown up with rear-and-front-light turn signals. (We’re so easily amused at different stages in our lives, especially in our youth and dotage, and that’s probably a good thing.) The Vanguard had been owned by the next-door neighbour of my then-girlfriend. I think the old boy (not my girlfriend) had exceeded the time of safe driving, and had decided to pass the baton to a responsible younger person. Picking me, as it turned out, was not a good move had he wanted to preserve the vehicle for posterity.
I drove the car from Scarborough to McMaster University in Hamilton at the end of every weekend, and back in the other direction at the end of each week. The trips were pretty uneventful, but the car, which needed only a few minor repairs, did play an indirect role in what to me was a memorable incident.
Some of the lads at Mac prevailed upon me, as the only owner in the crowd of a motorized wheeled vehicle, to take them to a horse-riding academy. The deal was this: there were two kinds of horses, three-dollar horses for the more-adept riders and two-dollar horses for the novices. Transportation to the riding academy was worth no more than a two-dollar horse, they said, and since I had never darkened the saddle of any cayuse in the past, I figured that was only fair. Just as well.
The thing about horses, apparently, is that they like people who are confident, who take charge. I was not one such. I mounted this poor, rather short beast and we kind-of sidled away from the stable. After a time, the other fellows began to trot or gallop, or whatever they were doing, while I continued to amble, shuffle, plod, not move very fast, hardly move at all, in fact. Finally, I decided I had to take charge, so I sort of struck the horse (more like a pony) with my heels and shouted (shouted is not the word, actually: more like I sort-of timidly muttered) “Go.” Unfortunately, the horse didn’t seem to understand that what I meant was, “go at a nice kind of gentle trot, and we can enjoy this friendly outing together.” Instead, it took my, “Go” to mean it should bolt away from the crawling pace at which it had been proceeding, and leap forward into a full-speed, bone-jarring, teeth-rattling and quite terrifying gallop.
Thanking my lucky stars that the chaps hadn’t paid for one of the, much-larger, three-dollar horses, I pulled back sharply on the reins and loudly called out, “Whoa!” Remarkably, the beast obeyed, but with more deceleration than I had actually desired. In fact, instead of slowing to the nice jogging pace I was aiming for, it came to a full stop. So I tried the “Go” again, producing another Secretariat-style, Kentucky-Derby start, and prompting me once again to yank on the reins and shout, “Whoa.” And that’s the way it went for the next couple of hundred yards, “Go. Whoa. Go. Whoa. Go. Whoa. Go. Whoa.”
Well, finally, the poor thing, frustrated and fed up with the erratic idiot on its back, turned of its own accord and began walking back toward the stable. I tried to make it return to the outward-bound direction, but to no avail, so I gave up. and let the horse amble. And then it’s head dropped. “Oh, it wants to eat some grass,” I thought. “Why not. The beast has had to put up with my nonsense.” But the horse, it turned out, didn’t want to eat grass. Instead, it’s front legs, and then its rear legs, buckled, and it rolled over, with the clear intent of ridding itself of this irritant on its back. Young and agile at the time, I was able to jump clear without harm, except to my ego. It was my first and last riding experience.
All right, that digression finished, back to the car:
Later that year, after the Christmas holidays, fellow student Juri Lipp and I returned to Mac. Depressed at the thought of another term of books and boredom, we decided to brighten things up by taking the Vanguard on a quick trip across the border to Buffalo, where we discovered a bar that in my recollection had a horseshoe decor, and was called something like The Lucky Horseshoe, or maybe it was the Lucky Dollar (the decor might have been silver dollars. It’s all kind of vague in my memory). Anyway, I do remember that the bartender wore a kind of white smock, with buttons down one side, like pharmacists used to wear and that we discovered on the juke box the tune, “There I’ve Said It Again,” sung by Bobby Vinton, and we began to play it and play it and play it, all the time singing along, accompanied by the bartender. I can still hear the echo of the three of us ringing somewhere in the back of my addled brain.
Oh yeah, the car:
The ’53 Vanguard, as I said, had been owned by a senior citizen, who, his wife had told me, had never driven it over 50 miles an hour (that’s about 90 km, for youngsters who don’t remember miles). But on the way back from Buffalo, with Juri as my copilot, I decided to see what the old girl would do on the Queen Elizabeth Way. It turned out it had lots of pep, and I was able to get it up to 90 on the speedometer (that’s about 144 km). As we approached St. Catharines, there was a sudden big bang followed by a loud rattling that got worse as I slowed down, so I thought it best to keep going at some speed. I turned off the highway and headed in to St. Catharines, finally stopping when the engine made another, very loud, noise and just plain ceased to run. I jumped out and ran down the street to a phone booth to call for a tow truck, hurrying as if the car had been a living thing, and getting help quickly might have proven the difference between life and death.
As I walked back to the stricken vehicle, a very large policeman loomed out of the shadows and began to approach me in the middle of the empty road. He reached out and grasped me by the wrist, and I thought he was going to arrest me. Instead, he turned my hand over and deliberately placed a heavy, oily piece of steel in my outstretched hand.
“I think that’s a piece of ‘er,” he said solemnly, shaking his head and walking away.