In my early teens, before I got my driver’s license, I looked up to the older guys at East High School who not only had cars, but had customized them. There was Tommy Mitchell, who had dropped a big V8 into his purple ’37 Chevy. And Moocher Cain, who drove what I saw as the ultimate, a ’51 Mercury, in primer gray, chopped and channeled.
Then, about the time I got my license, my classmate Jim LaMarr got a Henry J, squat, sort of toadlike in appearance, with an anemic powerplant. But the Henry J was actually LaMarr’s, not his parents, and that put him way ahead of the rest of us. We had to “yes sir” and “no ma’am” around the house all week long for a shot at the family station wagon on Saturday night.
LaMarr had big plans for the Henry J – but within weeks he had rolled it. The car was totaled, but LaMarr walked away relatively unscathed. And this was in the 1960s, before seatbelts came into general use.
The wreck and LaMarr’s survival only cemented his reputation at East. He was already known in our circle as a fearless and fast driver. When I would ask my mother if I could use the station wagon, LaMarr’s name usually came up, as in “You’re not going to do something stupid like Jim LaMarr, are you?”
So now, the Henry J in a junkyard, LaMarr was quick to express his admiration when Gary Killian bought a ’49 Ford, black with three-on-the-column. Sure, the front seat was ragged and the front driver’s side sported a snow tire, making handling a bit tricky. But, LaMarr pointed out, the back seat looked like it had never been used and it had a flathead V8 under the hood.
Besides, he said, the ’49 Ford was the best possible car to own in East Tennessee. He said that no matter where you might break down, you were no more than 200 yards from a ’49 Ford up on blocks. That meant that parts would never be a problem.
Not long after he bought the Ford, Killian decided to accompany his parents to Florida for a week’s vacation. He rashly left the keys with LaMarr.
Killian left on a Sunday, and on Sunday night LaMarr was out front of my house in the Ford. He’d already picked up Ralph Neal and David “Goon” Ogle.
“There’s a swingin’ A&W Root Beer down in Madisonville,” LaMarr said by way of explanation. Madisonville was about 50 miles south of Knoxville. I got in.
Our first stop was just outside of town, at the bridge across the Tennessee River. We stopped for a hitchhiker. In the early ‘60s, it was still relatively common, and safe, to thumb rides. Our hitcher was a soldier in uniform, carrying a duffle bag.
“Where you all headed?” he asked as he climbed in the back with Ralph and Goon, settling the duffle between his legs.
“Don’t know,” said Goon.
“Where you headed?” asked LaMarr, turning his head from the front. Even though it was night and pitch dark, LaMarr was wearing mirrored sunglasses, the kind that the comedian Brother Dave Gardner favored. LaMarr patterned himself after Brother Dave, even to the Southern-preacher pompadour.
“Fort Benning,” said the soldier.
“That’s in Georgia,” said Ralph, real matter of fact.
“Well, we might just take you all the way to Fort Benning,” said LaMarr.
“Yeah,” said Goon. “I never been to Georgia.”
“Yeah, maybe we ought to just take you all the way to Fort Benning,” said LaMarr, easing back onto the highway.
The soldier laughed, but he looked uncomfortable.
“It don’t matter to us,” said Goon. “Car’s not ours anyway, so we might as well take you to Georgia.”
The soldier didn’t seem to follow Goon’s logic. Neither did I.
“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr, warming to his new audience. “Georgia would probably be a good place to go. Is there a beach near there?”
No, Benning’s nowhere near a beach, said the soldier.
“If we can drive to Georgia,” said Ralph, “we can drive to the beach.”
“Car’s not ours anyway,” said Goon.
The soldier was looking real uncomfortable, probably seeing himself party to a gang of car thieves, crossing state lines, breaking innumerable laws both civilian and military.
By now we were on the other side of Maryville, and, LaMarr announced, running low on gas. The soldier, seeing the possibility for escape, started to look relieved.
Here commenced our regular argument. Ralph and Goon claimed they had no money. I joined them. Our hitchhiker didn’t say anything.
“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr, “we go through this every time. I’m the one got the car, I’m the one doing the driving. No reasonable person’s going to expect me to pay for the gas, too.”
Finally, Ralph owned up to a dollar – three and a half gallons of regular. LaMarr pulled into the next station, where the soldier grabbed his duffle and jumped out. “Thanks,” he said, “but I’ll see if I can catch a ride with somebody more sure about where they’re going.”
LaMarr was jawing with the gas jockey when a kid looked like he was about 14 walked up. You all going south, he asked Ralph.
“Madisonville, the A&W,” Ralph answered. “Need a ride?”
“Yeh,” said the kid. “I’m going to Etowah.”
“Well,” said Goon, “we can get you as far as Madisonville. Not our car, so it makes no difference to us.”
Kid climbed into the seat vacated by the soldier. LaMarr handed over Ralph’s dollar, and, just for show, threw a little gravel as he gunned it out onto Highway 411.
In less than a mile, our headlights caught a small white cross beside the highway. What was that, Goon asked.
“This road’s known as Bloody 411,” Ralph said, “because of all the people who have been killed pulling out just like we did back there. The Rotary or somebody puts up those white crosses every place somebody gets killed.”
“Just as a reminder to people like us,” LaMarr said with a smirk.
“You ever hang out at the Madisonville A&W,” I asked the kid. “We hear it’s a swinging place.
“Some,” said the kid. “Used to go there before I left Etowah.”
“When did you leave Etowah?” asked Ralph.
“This morning,” said the kid. “Ran away from home after I broke up with my girl.”
“Most people run away from home, they take some clothes and stuff, don’t they?” asked Ralph.
“Yeah, I guess,” said the kid. “That’s one reason I decided to go back once I got to Maryville.”
“Girls make you do some funny things,” said Goon.
“I reckon,” said the kid.
Suddenly, the car started wobbling.
“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr. “What’s the matter now?”
“Sounds like a flat tire,” said the kid, glad to change the subject.
We pulled into the next service station. The front passenger-side tire was flat. In the trunk, we found a spare – another snow tire – but no jack. The man running the station, not too friendly, said we couldn’t use his, but three guys hanging around a ’56 Chevy loaned us theirs.
“Where’s your all’s jack,” asked the kid.
“Don’t know,” said Goon. “Not our car.”
“Oh,” said the kid. He didn’t seem too concerned about the car’s ownership.
“There should be a lot less highway hum now we got snow tires on both sides upfront,” said LaMarr. “Make this baby easier to steer, too.”
“A&W’ll be on the left,” said the kid as we neared Madisonville. “I’ll probably be able to find a ride on to Etowah there.”
“Better circle this place a couple of times before we park,” said LaMarr as we pulled into the A&W. “So they’ll know we’re here.”
We found a good spot, under the awning out on the end, and backed in. LaMarr revved the flathead before shutting it down.
The kid saw a friend in an old Plymouth and climbed out. “Much obliged,” he said.
“Yeah,” said LaMarr. “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
Goon had his head out the window, perusing the menu. “I don’t reckon I’ve ever had a root beer,” he said.
“And I don’t reckon you remember thirty minutes ago when we were buying gas and you said you had no money whatsoever, either, do you?” said LaMarr.
“Oh, yeah,” said Goon. “I don’t have any money.”
LaMarr ordered a root beer and Ralph got a footlong hot dog. I kept my eyes peeled for any swingin’ action.
“All the girls seem to be with some hairyleg,” observed Goon.
“Yeah,” added LaMarr, “ I don’t see much in the way of opportunity.”
“Might help,” said Ralph, “if you’d take off those sunglasses.”
LaMarr ignored him and slowly finished his root beer. Finally, after a last slurp, he put the cup on the tray and flashed the lights for the carhop. “What say we blow this joint,” he said. “Sunday must not be the night in Madisonville.”
The flathead roared into action and LaMarr threw a gravel roostertail a good 10 yards long. We waved to the kid, now talking to some girl, and hit the highway back toward Knoxville.
About a dozen miles down the highway, three-quarters up a long, curving hill, the flathead sputtered to a stop.
“Awwww, man, we’re out of gas again,” said LaMarr. He let the car roll backwards and onto the shoulder. Nothing, not even a light, in either direction. Only thing in sight was a trio of white crosses right where we were stopped. LaMarr got out and tried to wave down the first car that passed. No luck.
Then, headed in the opposite direction, came the fellows who had loaned us the jack.
“What’s the matter?” asked the driver. “Another flat tire?”
“Out of gas,” said LaMarr.
They volunteered to take us back to the service station, and the usual argument over money commenced, with Goon keeping his mouth shut. Finally, I owned up to a dollar and LaMarr pitched in another. Then he climbed into the Chevy and they roared off.
Ten minutes later, after we had watched a few semis speed by, the Chevy returned, the driver executing a righteous four-wheel slide in the middle of the highway. LaMarr climbed out, two-gallon gas can in his hand.
“Much obliged,” he yelled as the Chevy sped off back toward Madisonville.
LaMarr poured gas into the Ford.
“Better keep some back to prime the carburetor,” said Ralph. “Specially since we’re sitting nose up a hill.”
“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr, “I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I’ve done this a few times.”
“Bet you have,” said Ralph.
With the hood raised, Ralph behind the wheel, me and Goon standing outside watching, LaMarr primed the carburetor. Ralph turned the ignition, but the Ford wouldn’t start.
“Kick it off,” said LaMarr. “Put it into reverse and roll it down the highway backwards and kick it off.”
Ralph slipped it into reverse and rolled back out onto the highway. The hood was still up. The car, Ralph trying to steer it backwards, was weaving side to side. Then, down at the bottom of the hill, coming around the curve, was a semi, building up speed to climb the grade. Instead of trying to kick it off, Ralph started grinding the ignition.
“Pop the clutch, you ignorant sumbitch,” yelled LaMarr.
Finally, the semi’s driver laying on his airhorn, Ralph popped the clutch and the flathead roared to life. Ralph shifted into first and came flying up the highway, weaving side to side because the hood was still up and he couldn’t see where he was going.
We were yelling at him, and then he was coming straight at us, head out the window trying to see. As we scattered through the crosses, the semi, doing at least 70, pulled into the southbound lane and roared around the Ford. Ralph, the car now mostly on the shoulder, stopped.
“Don’t shut it off,” said LaMarr.
Ralph pulled on the handbrake and climbed out. “That was close,” he said.
“I would think,” said LaMarr, closing the hood, “that you would need to wring out your underwear after that ride.”
LaMarr climbed under the wheel and the rest of us took up our positions. We dropped the gas can off at the service station, spending the rest of the $2 on five gallons of regular. There wasn’t much said on the road back. We didn’t see any more hitchhikers. About the time we got close to my house, the flathead started sputtering.
“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr. “Not again.”
He coasted into Love’s Creek Pure Station and the money argument started. I slipped out and walked on home.
Editor’s note: This story is an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir called “Ridge Runners: Encounters in Appalachia.”