Friday, October 29, 2010

The Ressurection of FBA 685 Part ll

              Those were the Allard days, my friend.  There were a dozen of us. We'd meet at the Chelsea Potter Pub on the Kings Road in London, and drive FBA 685 down to Sutton, in Surrey to camp in a farmer's field. We'd follow the stream that ran alongside the the meadow to a waterfall on those hot summer afternoons.

             In the evening we'd walk down to the village pub, throw our money in a pot, and sing.  At closing time the publican would pull down the shades and we would carry on.  Adam and Tony and Richard played guitars and Sandra sang.  We'd all join in for the chorus. We were trendy, we were a pop group.  We were all going to be world famous.  We'd stagger uphill to the meadow, confident that if we just got our heads in the right place we'd be young and beautiful forever.

               Those dreamy days fade like old photographs.  But some cars get a second chance. We restore them because they are not just cars, but rolling time machines that bring us back to when we were were just beginning.

                 The Allard  J2 would accelerate so hard time would almost stop.  When I first bought the car I took it to the Allard Ford Dealership in Brixton, where the late Sydney Allard built his cars.  The craftsmen who had built Allards were cutting sunroofs in Cortinas then.  They came out and ran their hands lovingly over the soft curves of FBA 685.  "Proper motor car," they said. "Don't make them like that any more."

                I'd just bought the car with an old flathead V-8.  I asked the men if I should put in a new lightweight Ford Cobra V-8.  "Will it make it go faster?"  "Much faster I said.  "Oh well, stick it in, then.  That's what Sydney would have done."

                 I sold it to Otto Bowden,  a collector in Florida to pay for a round the world trip home from London.

Last year FBA 685 turned up again.  Another Florida collector, Martin Stickley found it in a metal shed in Jacksonville where it had been stored for decades.  It had been tarted up with red wire wheels and the awful white sidewalls General Curtis LeMay used to run on his J2X. FBA 685 was dull, tired and layered with dust and gunge.  But Stickley is now restoring it better than new and with any luck FBA-685 will be the star of the show at the 2011Amelia Island Concours D'Elegance next March.  And I will be among the slow moving fans, admiring, smiling, remembering the time.  (Click here for video of Allards at LeMans)

                 (to be continued.  The Blog, as you probably know, takes off for the weekend.)


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Head First

Charles Lindbergh was in Sweden, the year after he flew across the Atlantic.  It was cold and raining and for reasons I forget, he was giving a speech on a dock jutting into Stockholm's icy harbor.

After his speech and after the applause died down, a voice in the crowd said, "I bet you 500 Kroner."

The crowd turned to watch a powerful young man, probably a dock worker stride forward.  "I'll bet you 500 kroner I can swim in that water longer than you" the man said.

The Swedish officials told Lindbergh to ignore the man.  Some crank.  Not important. Nobody cares.  No upside.  Risk to your reputation. Besides the water is lethally cold this time of year.

Lindbergh said, no,no, he'd take the bet.

The man stripped down to his shorts, climbed down the dock's ladder and into the icy water.  After a little over a minute and fifteen seconds, he was climbing up the ladder, blue and shivering, shaking himself like a dog.  "You match that," the man taunted.

Lindberg stripped down to his shorts and dove off the end of the dock.  He swam out into the bay for a short distance and, taking his time, swam back.  When he climbed out, he had been in the water for a little over two minutes.  Lindbergh took the man's money.  "Let that be a lesson to you," Lindbergh said.  "If you are going to do something, do it head first."

I'm not sure of the details of that story, the size of the bet or the length of the swim, or even if it was in Stockholm.  But it's a true story.  I came across it when I was working on 50th anniversary celebration of Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic.  It was in a newspaper clipping in The Explorer's Club Lindbergh scrap book.

It's the story I kept telling myself the year I wrote my first novel. "Do it head first."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"The English will tell you they're English. They Lie."

                Our constant table companion, Ken Nichol, a Scots aerodynamic physicist, who was leaving Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study to work on trans-sonic flow on the supersonic Concorde, said, "the drink's so cheap, if you're not drinking, you're losing money."
               We didn't loose a dime.  After five days of non stop party, we were happy to leave the the SS France.  On our way down the gangplank in Southhampton, his wife Sue said, "one thing you'll find about Britain.  Nothing is convenient."  

                 Nothing was. We had a lot of luggage because we were moving from NY to London. By the time we gathered up our stuff, got it on a train for Euston Station, got it all off the train and got a taxi and found our temporary flat just off Sloane Square in London it was cold, dark and raining.
                   The address said Sloane Gardens, which is a very posh part of the West End.  Except for this part which is facing rows of dingy, brick Victorian houses divvied up into bed sits.  
  A bed sit, if you don't know, is a narrow one room flat with a sofa bed, a sink, three kinds of wallpaper on the walls, and an enduring scent of cabbage.  I was paying the cabbie, when Karen came back down the steps.  "What's wrong?"
                  "You could say it's rather charming in a revolting, sordid sort of way," she said.
                    There was a note on the sofabed.  "Come to a flat warming party."  Which we did.  It wasn't far away, and it was a real flat with several rooms, lots of guests and drink and no furniture.  

                     I sat down on the floor next to an unsually handsome gent who was talking to a slender, breathtakingly beautiful teenager.

                      "Obviously, the gent said, turning to me, "you're new here."

                      I allowed as how yes, I'd just got off the boat.
                      "My name," he said in the orotund tones of one who trod the boards, "is Peter Finch.  And I am Australian.  Let me give you a piece of advice."
                        Even then,  Finch was famous as a gifted and distinguished actor.
   His last role, as a newscaster in Network, had him saying "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more." 

  That would be years later. 
   Now he carefully placed his glass on the floor and leaned forward. 

           "The English," he said, "will tell you they are English.  They lie.  They are ancient Chinese.  And once you accept that you will never participate in their Mandarin Ceremonies, you will get along fine."

                       It was excellent advice.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Oh, Joke, Joke, Joke

           A large square room in London,  tall steel framed windows at one end,  a desk at each corner.  
         Llewellyn Thomas, kewpie doll face, tight blond curls, wide eye’d innocence his usual look, the one he’d inherited from his father, Dylan Thomas.  That look meant he’d just thought of something wickedly funny. Llewellyn was in one corner. 

Dylan Thomas with Llewellyn on his left. Dylan's mother, Florence, wife Caitlin, daughter Aeron and other son Coln in front.

           Assia Wevill, green eyes, sexy in a dark, zoftig, smokey way, like she knew so much more than you, you would have no idea what was happening before it was over.  She was a poet, having an affair with (later Britain's poet laureate) Ted Hughes and pregnant with his child when Hughes wife, the great poet Sylvia Plath, killed herself.  The New Yorker would publish two of Assia's poems in the week after she killed herself, as Sylvia Plath had killed herself, with her head in her gas oven.
Assia in 1965

              Tom Rayfield, freshly down from Cambridge in another corner.  Tom was very bright and very shy.  It took some practice before you could separate his mumbles into words.
              And me fresh off the boat, in the back corner against the wall. They all assumed I knew nothing and they were right.
             I was in JWT’s London office because I’d done an ad at JWT NY for a bank that ran in The New Yorker.  The bank’s chairman was also the chairman of Y&R.  His wife read the ad and said, "you should hire this guy." So Y&R offered me, with two years experience, twice what I was making. JWT offered me a job in London for half my salary.  So I said yes and  Karen and I got married, took a 6 week honeymoon in Europe, and came back to New York to sail for London on The SS France.  
            The conversation in that room was faster, sharper, and wittier than anything I’d heard before.  Full of references I did not know.  They’d burst into laughter and I’d have no idea why.  It was a month before I spoke.
              "What? What" Tom Rayfield said.  "It spoke, it spoke.  What’d you say," he demanded.
              I repeated what I’d said.
              “Oh, Tom said.  “Joke. Joke.  Joke.”
               Twenty five years later, I was on my way to the airport in Portugal when I read the news that JWT had been sold and had lost the Ford account.  I was, by then, in the Hapsburg panoply of advertising titles, International VP and Creative Director on Europe's largest account, Ford.  Soon, obviously, to be unemployed.  And it was Tom who gave me a list of a dozen things I might do.  One of them was to become the Dick Francis of motor racing.  Which I did.   

Friday, October 22, 2010

Road Tripping With The Queen Mary

We saw a Pontiac Star Chief on eBay. "That's just like Daddy's car when I was a little girl," Kathryn said.  "He raced it once and won a turkey." This one was on a hog farm in Iowa.
The interior looked good on eBay.  And it was.

When we got it home in California, it had a lot of hog farm on it.  And a pond of water in the trunk.  We painted it and it cleaned up good. It was good for parades. We call her The Queen Mary. (click on these pictures to enlarge.)

Kathryn drove The Queen Mary around Laguna Seca Raceway

We drove it to Montana.  Our friend Tana rode in the back with the Xplode.

We had fried ice cream on the way

Kathryn had the old log bar restored

And got a preservation easement to make sure the ranch would always be a ranch.  The Queen Mary looked right at home.  There was a lot to celebrate

Kathryn gave a powerful speech on why land preservation matters

 We invited the neighbors over for a bbq

And we just had a ball.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Short Happy War in Afghanistan: additions & corrections

Karen, the glamourpuss of Mt. Holyoke, in our Karmann Ghia, in Germany as an attendent fills our tank for our drive to India in 1969 (click photos to enlarge)
Karen, co-driver, my then wife and whose idea this jaunt around the world was, has dug up some rare photos of the our short happy war in Afghanistan in 1969. Along with some additions and corrections.   (Click on the link if you missed that Friday Sept. 10 blog)

When the Afghan men came charging down the dune, waving their rifles and shouting at us that we had broken their gate, Karen pulled out her handy Guide to 13 Asian Languages. She'd bought the little book in London, thinking it would be useful as we drove across Asia.  First published in something like 1912, it had phrases like, "if the sepoys do not clean their muskets I will have them flogged."  She skipped that one and found, after flipping the pages, Pashtun for hello.  They had no idea what she was trying to say.  Who knows, it may have saved our lives.

As we drove on from Herat to Kandahar to Kabul on the two lane blacktop built by Russia and the US, we felt as if we were intruders in another time.  The little car was happy to run at 65 but the landscape was so large and so bare of any growing thing it felt is if were moving with the speed of a shadow behind a mountain. Nothing got any closer.  Nothing fell further behind.   From time to time we stopped for caravans that looked as if they could have belonged to Marco Polo. We were, after all, on the old silk route.  It may be that the highway was the safe route where they would be safe from bandits. There was no question when we saw them ambling head on that they owned the road.  We pulled over and stopped.  Never, they say in Afghanistan, argue with a camel.  To which I would add, or the Afghan on top of the camel's hump.

The men wore their fortunes in elaborate silver jewelry.  The women wore scowls for us, as if we were an embarrassment to the landscape.
Somewhere between Kandahar and Kabul, The Russians, to show off they were as hip as the Yanks, built a roadside motel complete with a big neon sign and a swimming pool out back.  No one told them that you need to filter the water of a swimming pool or it will eventually turn into a slimy bowl of green jello.  Later we met a hippy who had swum in the stuff six months before and he was still sick.

Our plan had been to camp out.  Which we did in a poppy field behind The Blue Mosque.  But we gave that up when we realized luxury hotels cost a couple of dollars.  And we really gave it up in Northern India when Karen got out of the car (we were hopelessly lost at the time, and nothing but scrub brush in every direction) and squatted down a decent distance from the road for a quiet pee.  About five feet away from her a cobra rose from the bushes, head flaring, tongue flickering, intensely interested in this new and tasty, bare bottom creature on his turf.

Karen rose with dignity, walked slowly back to the car, and the snake sank down below the horizon of bushes.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Promise

The Gallatin River runs through it.  (Click to enlarge)
Kathryn grew up on her family’s ranch in Montana. So naturally that’s where she wanted to get married. It’s a beautiful ranch in a valley ringed by mountains. The Gallatin River runs through it for two miles and there’s a buffalo jump behind the old stone ranch house.

When we arrived for our wedding on Thursday there was three inches of snow on the ground. The snow melted (it was the end of May) but on the day of the wedding, the sky turned black. The ground was bone dry from years of drought so the ranchers had their hopes.

The log barn
Two horse drawn wagons ferried our guests across the pasture to an open tent on the river bank.

The wind picked up and Kathryn’s neighbor, Joe Axtell, third generation rancher looked at the mountain of black clouds dwarfing the mountains beneath them and said, “Well, I’ve learned to be reeeal careful about pree dictin’ the weather round here. But it sure looks like rain to me.”

The minister said, “in a world where all the corners have been explored and all of the wildernesses covered with maps, the last great adventure is two people sharing a life together.”

When we first got together Kathryn and I drove to the coast to watch a Pacific storm pound a deserted beach. “I will always be good to you,” she said.

I thought for awhile. It was a stupendous offer. Could I match it? After a long pause while I considered, I said, “I will always be good to you.”

After the ceremony, the guests hurried to the wagons and then to their cars. And the skies opened up in a deluge, South Western Montana’s first good soaking in five years.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Not Everyone Loves You

        The demons of paradise still make the hairs on my spine twitch.  

        We were in Kovalam in Kerala, the southernmost state in India.  Leaning over the stone railing on our balcony in an old Victorian mansion on a high cliff overlooking the slow rollers coming in for miles from the Arabian Ocean.  A full moon turned the whitecaps into silver, big rollers coming in from some storm to make slow distant explosions on a  beach that stretched into the distance. Outrigger canoes were pulled up safely in front of the grass huts of the sleeping fisherman. We’d had a fine lobster dinner in the hotel dining room and we were sleepy. We went back in to our bedroom. 

           It was a large room with no furniture except for two beds alongside each other, draped with mosquito netting. We’d had the dining room to ourselves and now, like the hotel's last guest, the American Ambassador to India, we had the whole top floor. We kissed good night and crawled into our beds. The sound of the surf, wave after wave slowly rolling in, put us to sleep.

           Karen was screaming.  It took me a moment to realize I wasn’t dreaming, she was really, really screaming.  I looked around the empty room through the gauze of the netting and there was nothing. She must be having a nightmare, I thought. I reached through the the netting, hers and mine, to wake her, reassure her.  To tell her everything was OK, it was just a dream. 

          The instant I touched her I screamed.  There was something so powerful, some  malevolent force, I curled in my bed like a baby, helpless, fetal, paralyzed.  I'd been a gladiator: a linebacker, a fullback in college. I was so frightened I could not move.
The occult is powerful in the south of India and where we were headed, in Sri Lanka.  This is where penitents walk on glowing coals with ease.  Sometimes a tourist follows and barbecues her feet.  Penitents are paraded through the street, bleeding, suspended from poles with hooks through their arms, legs and backs.  The next day they show no sign of even a scratch.  My friend in Ceylon had a shrunken head in his closet, guaranteed to bring death to his enemies if left in front of  their house.

Eventually our demons left the room. My memory has them looking like the devil masks men wear in that part of the world to ward off evil spirits.  They sell them now, in Kerela  and Sri Lanka in tourists shops. So maybe we just imagined it.  Maybe it was just a dream.

On the other hand, the dogs which roamed the grounds of the hotel, half starved, grateful for the scaps we'd fed them, the dogs who had followed us with wagging tails, the dogs would not go near us again.

And we wondered, why, in a hotel with so many in white jackets and white trousers devoted to our every wish, did no one come when we screamed and screamed?