American Steel

by Michael Guillebeau

My father’s 1960 Ford Galaxie was the widest American car ever made, 82 inches from one razor-sharp horizontal tail fin to the other, with small glass sights jutting up from both front fenders so the driver could gauge his position on the road, lest he might drift too far to the side and take out an Atlanta skyscraper or a barbecue shack with the monstrous car. In 1962, there was change in the air and the yellow Ford was big enough to bring it.

The back seat was wide enough for me to sleep on one side, my nine-year-old brother on the other, and still have room in the middle for our books and a bag of fifteen-cent Jack’s hamburgers our parents had picked up in Atlanta to keep us quiet.

And still David stretched around the pile to kick me and demand more room.

I pushed his foot back.

“Mom!” he screamed. “He’s pushing me. And he’s taking all the room.”

Without looking up from her Saturday Evening Post, Mom said over the seat, “Joseph Kidd, stop picking on your little brother. And give him more room.”

I muttered and pulled back.

“And don’t use Jesus’ name unless you’re praying.”

We were on the road to visit my grandparents in the rural Georgia scrub pines. The big V-8 growled us effortlessly past ordinary mortals with their mouths open at the bright yellow super-streamlined streak flashing by on the brand-new concrete interstate out of Atlanta.

“Speed,” said Dad from the front seat, pointing out at the brand-new interstate as if David and I had asked about it. “I was on one of these super roads in Germany, call them “Autobahns” over there. No stops, no speed limits. Go a hundred miles an hour when they get these interstates done, if you’ve got a car that will hold together. That’s why we got the Ford: big roads coming. Put wings on the side, it will fly if we let it.”

“You got it to show off,” said David.  “Nobody else has a bright yellow car like this.”

“Hush,” said Mom. “You treat your father with a little more respect. Now go back to your books. We’ll be at Momma Eva’s in a little bit.”

We obeyed, because we had what we wanted: junk food and books. David had Thuvia, Maid of Mars, but I, well, I had Doc Savage. Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, trained by his father from infancy at a secret base on Andros Island to have superhuman abilities, dedicated with his band of world-class scientists and adventurers to fight evil with no regard for anything but justice. One of Doc’s sidekicks was always saying, “I’ll be superamalgamated.” I was sure I was too, even if I didn’t quite know what that meant.

And I lived in a world that was superamalgamated, too. My father was Bill Kidd (yes, there were comments on the name,) an All-American missile engineer working on the Apollo program to put a man on the moon. We lived in a strange new place in the South called Huntsville, Alabama, and nicknamed Rocket City, USA.  Huntsville was one of a few alien hotspots scattered throughout the South focused more on the future than the past. Ten years ago, a funny-looking band of German scientists had taken over the small cotton town and began building missiles. First there were missiles to shoot at the dreaded Russians and, when it became obvious that the Russians didn’t want to be shot at and would probably shoot back, then the moon, which was both a more impressive destination and probably wouldn’t shoot back. My father was one of the thousands of white-shirted engineers crowding into Huntsville from all over the world to help. Huntsville had red clay in the soil, a location well south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and barbecue on every corner. Despite this, you were as likely to hear a German or, worse, Brooklyn accent as you were to hear the dulcet tones of the genteel South. I myself, at the age of eleven, sometimes said “you guys” rather than “y’all,” though not in hearing of my father.

In Huntsville, whole neighborhoods would gather on sundecks at night with cocktails in aluminum cups and steaks on the grill, the men standing to one side comparing watches and arguing accuracy. Their eyes were always on the sky, watching until they saw it:  a bright star, but a moving star, flying across the sky with a name from Greek mythology: Echo. And the men, far from being content with inventing moving stars, would argue about the Great Things to Come. These men were not just gods, they were the men who built the gods themselves. And these men who built gods themselves worshipped not true heroes of the South like Robert E. Lee, but men like Rod Serling, Wernher Von Braun, and Jack Kennedy.

Jack Kennedy. Well, now we were on the road to rural Georgia where Jack Kennedy was not the god, but the Anti-Christ. Soon the four-lane petered out into a narrow two-lane with little country stores at the intersections and old men sitting on the porches. Eventually, the blacktop led to a long driveway of white flint stones that would shoot sparks into the air if you threw one against another. 

We passed my grandfather plowing a field with a mule, both the mule and man melting in the sun. My father honked, maybe to say hello, maybe just to show off the 120 decibel, fully symphonic horn for which he had paid an extra seventy-nine dollars. In any case, my grandfather waved the frivolity away angrily and went on plowing, choking in the great cloud of white dust we left behind.

We parked in the gravel lot in front of the crouching antebellum house with fluted columns strangled in ivy. My dad swung his door open and said, “Well, I guess we’re here.” His voice slowed by half and his accent doubled as soon as he stepped out.  My mother sighed, put on her best smile, and launched herself out her door. 

David and I got out and looked up the white porch at Momma Eva herself, staring past us like a queen waiting for her tribute in a faded housedress . We filed up to her in the required order: Dad, Mom, me, David. Mom waved gaily at Momma Eva and yelled, “Momma, don’t you look good,” thereby committing at least two serious breaches of the Rules of Good Manners and Breeding: she had spoken out of turn, and she had failed to address Momma Eva by her full and proper nickname, kind of like yelling “Yo, Pres,” on the White House lawn. Part of my mom didn’t care and never cared. But another part of her knew that she had just given Momma Eva a powerful point in the Blame Game, a point that would be played back hard on my father’s head at some point, maybe even years into the future.

Momma Eva waited with arms crossed while my dad put his arms around her for a hug.  She waited until he started to pull her in before she uncrossed her arms and grabbed his biceps, pushing him away at arm’s length while she examined him.

“Why, Billy, just look at you. I believe that city life has just worn you down to nothing. Course, it’s been so long since you’ve been back to look after us that I can’t really remember what you looked like before. Are you sure you’re eating good? What you weigh now?”

“Two-twenty. Same as last time. Thirty pounds more than my doctor wants.”

“City doctors don’t know. We need to get you to Doc Pennington, let him straighten you out.”

“Did he get his license reinstated?”

“Of course. Sort of.”

Dad was losing the two-armed wrestling match of trying to get a real hug.

“I just hope you’re going to stay longer this time.”

He gave up and dropped his arms. “Momma Eva, you know we’re just here for the weekend. We just had one test launch, got another one coming up. People’s lives depend on me, Momma Eva.”

“Well, it just don’t seem that important to me. I don’t know what could be more important than a boy’s mother.” She turned to my mom, dismissing my dad like a kid selling copies of Grote, the nation’s weekly newspaper.

“Miranda,” she smiled, holding Mom at arm’s length, “You know how much I love you.”

“Yes, I do,” said my mom. “And you know how happy we are to be here. Really, Momma Eva, you are looking so good, and it’s so nice to see Daddy Bill still strong and healthy, plowing and…”

Momma Eva thrust my mom away and flung her arms wide. “There’s my boys!”

I tried to hold my breath like Doc Savage would have done. But her arms, stronger than you would think a dying old woman would have, pulled me closer, closer, through layers of starched apron and carefully-accumulated fat until I was smothered. I was in a world beyond our world; a world which somehow had no air but still had smells: cooking grease, sweat, lilac perfume and something choking (was this what tear gas smelled like, I wondered).  I felt my body grow limp; then I was thrown free and stood there, red-faced and gasping, and knew I had failed another year and given Momma Eva power over my mom. 

Momma Eva turned to Mom and hissed, “Sandwiches! That’s all you feed these boys. No strength at all in him. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Miranda, keeping them so puny.” She turned to me and said, “Let’s me and you convince your parents to let you boys spend the summer here so we can put some meat on your bones.” I suppressed a mental image of a prisoner in a medieval torture chamber, facing a shapeless, hooded torturer in an old cotton dress using a tastefully decorated whip to methodically flay the meat from his bones.

Ah, but David had an idea. While Momma Eva was busy boring holes in my soul with a fixed smile, David had taken a running start from the edge of the porch, gathering speed, arms thrown wide, yelling “Momma Eva.” He jumped and hit her full force, hugging her for an infinitesimally brief second before bouncing off of her, out of range, and stood there with a big grin.

“I love you so much, Momma Eva,” he said.

She had lost, even for one round, and she and David both knew it.

She looked at him with a fixed smile and said the only damning thing that polite Southern etiquette allowed under the circumstances.

“I love you, David. You are so cute.”

Which of course, did not bother David. Out in the real world, away from his reality of the printed page, David loved only two things:  getting in trouble, and getting punished.  Momma Eva and Daniel smiled lovingly at each other.

Daddy Bill came stomping up the steps, head down, still dusty from his plowing. “Get that goddamned Deee-troit junk turned around.”  I apologize for the spelling here, but Detroit was just a city in Michigan. Deee-troit, like Warshington, Guvment, and New Yawk Zity, was a center of unspeakable evil, where Communists probably trained before they went back to Moscow or Hyannis Port. “Turn it around before one of my constituents sees that Kennedy for President bumper sticker in my driveway and puts a shotgun slug through the trunk.” He passed by us into the house without another word.

In fairness to him, you had to understand. Daddy Bill was a County Commissioner, an Important Man charged with the noble task of keeping black people, who made up seventy percent of Lincoln County, from having even one percent of the power. Without sterling leaders like him, these poor, simple black folk would screw up the finely balanced mechanisms of Southern government, which was generally so focused on that one task that it had no time for more mundane tasks like education, transportation, or the betterment of the people. Since County Commissioner was an elected position, it was important that Daddy Bill remain a Man of the People, a true farmer who reluctantly shouldered the heavy burdens of responsibility as a civic duty. For this reason, Daddy Bill kept one quarter-acre near the blacktop perpetually plowed so his constituents could see him out there doing the Good Work of an Honest Man of God. Fortunately, no one thought to ask what crop he ever planted or harvested, or had the bad manners to point out that the other two hundred seventy-nine and three-quarters of an acre of his farm were planted in a crop of pine trees which took considerably less attention. That field rested under his only campaign billboard. By putting a Kennedy sticker next to the field for all to see, my dad may as well have climbed up to the billboard and drawn glasses, a fake beard and a pointy bra on Daddy Bill’s picture. My dad hung his head and went to turn the car around.

We followed Momma Eva inside. I sank into an old rattan chair with floral pillows that raised a cloud of musty dust and listened to the soprano notes of my mother’s sing-song voice as she cheerfully tried to help with dinner, counterpointed with my grandmother’s bullhorn demolishing her every attempt (“Miranda, you know you don’t know how to set out vegetables”), and retreated from this strange alien land to Doc Savage’s more welcoming world of giant snakes, Nazis and pygmies with poison-tipped blowguns.

Soon, though, a big hand hit the back of my head and my Uncle Lucas said, “What are you doing hiding out here, boy? People are looking all over for you. You don’t make the grownups wait on you to eat.” Uncle Lucas, younger than my dad but taller and heavier and still living at home, glowered down until I stood up, head down, and followed him. We marched into the dining room to a table of grim adults seated like a court-martial, and Daniel snickering.

“Dinner’s at one o’clock.” growled Daddy Bill.

“Don’t be hard on the boys, Bill. They don’t know no better. They don’t eat regular meals where they come from,” said Momma Eva. My mom started to say something, but my dad squeezed her forearm and she let it pass.

“Sandwiches, all they get at home,” spat Uncle Lucas.

“Sandwiches,” agreed Daddy Bill.

Actually, a simple sandwich would have looked good to me just then. The table was piled impossibly high: pork chops, fried chicken, a small greasy animal still recognizable as opossum because the head was left on, presumably to increase appetite. There was corn on the cob, creamed corn, mashed potatoes (generally called “Arsh po-ta-toes” to distinguish them from “sweet taters”), collard greens, turnips, green beans, black-eyed peas and some things I was afraid to guess at. And I knew, with certainty, that failing to try any of them would be a misdemeanor, and failing to praise anything and have second helpings would be a felony. So I loaded up my plate as the dishes came around until I could barely see the adults across from me. And when I could finally see the plate, to prove that I was a true Guillebeau man, I did it all again, long after I was full. It was a losing battle.

Momma Eva shook her head and smiled sweetly, “What’s the matter, sugar? No appetite.? Did you fill up on too many of them store-bought hamburgers?”

“Sandwiches,” muttered Uncle Lucas, his mouth full of potatoes.

“I just don’t hold with these modern ways,” said Daddy Bill.

“Me neither,” said Uncle Lucas. “I heard Kennedy and the Democrats are going to pass laws to force us to have sex with nigras.” The table paused, either to join in his outrage, or, more likely, shocked that Uncle Lucas even knew what sex was. He seemed to have spent most of his thirty-three years curled up in his bedroom in Momma Eva’s house with hunting magazines, taking occasional breaks in the woods for tentative attempts at real hunting. The only creatures in danger of having sex with Uncle Lucas were probably running terrified on four legs through the woods as we spoke, trying to get across the state line before Uncle Lucas returned for hunting season.

He pointed a chicken leg like it was a rifle.

“Pow. One shot and I’d take care of that Papist. His Communist ideas would be gone before he hit the ground. Take care of him, like me and the Knights discipline anyone who gets out of line in Lincoln County.”

My mom tried her warmest smile. “I’d just like to see us all live together as children of God.”

“Don’t you start with your politics at the dinner table,” said Momma Eva. “I won’t have it. Besides, we’re on the same side, Miranda. You northerners like to paint us as some kind of villains, but we’re not.”

“Momma Eva,” said my dad. “Miranda grew up in North Alabama. It’s in the south.  Her family’s been in Clay County, Alabama as long as ours has been here.”

North Alabama,” corrected Lucas. “You called it that yourself. They wouldn’t call it “North” if they didn’t mean “North”. Look what it’s done to you. You ran away and deserted your family and your home. You could have got a job in the mill and stayed.”

“I’m proud of what I do,” said my dad, looking down at his plate and gritting his teeth. “We’re going to put a man on the moon.”

 “Yeah, well, if you’re so proud of it, why do you have to go so far away to do it?” said Uncle Lucas, pointing a fork full of greens at my dad. “If you’re proud of something, you do it in your home, where your people can see it. And don’t you dare mention my country. I bet you have nigras helping you build those Democrat Communist rockets.”

“We have all kinds of people.”

“I don’t see why you northerners make such a big deal about what’s really just our local way of life and none of your business,” said Momma Eva. “We’re not the monsters in the South that you make us out to be. Why, do you know what we did?  We just sold my grand old black Buick to a fine young colored boy, Bobby Lee. You remember how I loved that Buick, how I made Lucas keep it waxed and shining? And we sold it to Bobby Lee, and even knocked the price down because it had a minor problem.”

My dad had told us about that minor problem: a blown head gasket. Whoever got stuck with that car had to tow it away and rebuild the engine.  Still, the car had been Momma Eva’s pride and joy for many years. She paused and smiled, looking to heaven. “I believe in treating nigras like they was people.”

I could see my mother’s back stiffen and her about to launch into the full Kennedy campaign worker speech I’d heard her say at dozens of small fundraisers.

My dad put his hand on her arm. Mom looked at him and paused.

So quietly almost no one could hear, he said, “Daddy Bill, change is coming. You all going to have to change, too.”

I thought Daddy Bill was having a stroke. “Don’t you give me orders, boy!”

Lucas pushed back from the table and said, “Don’t you threaten your own father. I ought to whip your ass. Maybe get the Knights down here to take you out in the woods for a lesson.”

It was a moment for clarity for me. I wanted my dad to stand up to them, just stand up like Doc Savage, rip his shirt off, reveal his bronzed power and righteousness, strike awe into the faces at the table with the power of his razor-sharp arguments, show them the future. But my dad had not been raised in a secret laboratory to be a superhero, but by the people around this table, and in their world.

So my dad, the giant who was putting men on the moon, looked down at his plate and mumbled, “Yes, sir.  I’m sorry, Daddy,” and sat staring at his peas in shame and resignation.

My Mom’s mouth was tense but she kept quiet. I stood up and said, “I’m sorry. I’ve had enough,” and walked away with my head down without being properly dismissed. Momma Eva said, “Don’t you want some dessert, sugar? I made pineapple upside-down cake, special for you.” The last thing I heard as I walked out of the room was my uncle: “Sandwiches.”

I went out to the big swing on the porch and back to Doc Savage and the land of real heroes. I barely looked up when people started drifting out onto the porch. In Lincoln County, meals required time to settle, and civilized people would adjourn to their porches after dinner, rocking slowly and commenting on anything that happened to pass by on the road in front of the house. The men came out first, leaving the women to clean up the dishes and fetch the men sweet tea before joining them.

We all sat on the porch, hearing the news on who had died, who was dying, who might be about to die, and who should be dead already. Cheerful banter, to relieve the tension from the dinner table which still floated in everyone’s mind like the pain from a sore tooth.

Then we all heard the same sound at once, exploding as if from the heavens. It sounded like tearing cloth, or maybe a rip saw, and it was coming from the pine thicket to the east. It grew louder and became a roar. Then we saw it: a shining black car with red and orange flames freshly painted on the side, no muffler, flying down the road way too fast, the car fishtailing as it barely made the curve before the house. And at the wheel sat a young black man, arm out the window in the hot summer air, tee shirt rolled up on a pack of cigarettes, one cigarette dangling from his lips as the world flew by around him. It was his world now because he had made himself a king with an unapologetically magic chariot, commanding the world to spin faster than it had ever spun before for him, commanding us all, his subjects, to blink at the horizontal rocket ship he had created. He waved at the porch and Momma Eva grabbed her chest.

“My car!” she screamed. “My Buick!”

“Bobby Lee!” screamed Uncle Lucas at the emptying road. “Bobby Lee, you come back here!”

“Oh, Bill.” Momma Eva grabbed Daddy Bill’s arm. “He had my car on fire. He’s burning up my beautiful Buick. What if the folks at church see him and think that’s me driving like that?”

Daddy Bill just sat tight-lipped.

“Bobby Lee, I’m gonna whip your ass,” Uncle Lucas yelled at the thin cloud of black smoke inexorably drifting over us.

“I’m going to go get him and bring that car back,” he said. “Maybe I’ll call the boys when I get back.”

A few minutes later, we heard the rumbling again, subdued. My Uncle’s truck pulled into the drive first. The Buick followed behind him, the racing tires spinning in the gravel and kicking up sparks. We walked down and met them when they stopped behind the yellow Ford. My Uncle guarded the door as Bobby Lee got out.

“Give me the keys, Bobby Lee.”

Bobby Lee’s face was burning with rage. Burning, but not daring to look up at my uncle.

“Give me the keys, Bobby Lee, and we’ll go easy on you.”

His face glowed like the flames he had set proudly, defiantly, on his car for the whole world to see. He clinched his fist and for one moment I thought he would fight. But the flames faded from his face, at least for today. He opened his hand and the keys shined in his black hand like stars in the night. Uncle Lucas took Bobby Lee’s stars, and Bobby Lee could do nothing.

“Keep him here,” Uncle Lucas said. “I’m gonna go call the boys.”

“Wait,” said my Dad. “This ain’t right. Lucas, give me the keys.”

“Hell, no.”

My dad pointed at Daddy Bill smiling down from the billboard.”

“World’s changing. If you call the boys, I’ll call the Atlanta papers. They’ll call the feds. They’ll blame Daddy Bill. That face will be in a Federal prison if you do this.”

Lucas swore under his breath.

My dad said, “I’ll do it.”

Lucas looked at Daddy Bill, trapped under his own sign. Daddy Bill was staring at the ground, tight-lipped. Silent.

My dad took Uncle Lucas’s hand and pried it open. My uncle didn’t fight as my dad took the keys out and handed them back to Bobby Lee.

We went home two tense days later, the big yellow Ford kicking up native Georgia rocks and leaving little unseen sparks behind us.  We turned left on the highway, onto the invisible path blazed by Bobby Lee just a blink ago, a path Bobby Lee had ripped from the past into the present and someday, in a road we were navigating but could not yet see, into a very different future. As the V-8 growled our bright yellow cocoon up to transport speed, I opened my book and returned to the fantastic.

Nineteen sixty-two would turn out to be a precarious balance between a past that was dying and a future just being born. If this had been nineteen fifty-nine, Bobby Lee’s act of pride and defiance would have lost him his car, and maybe more. By nineteen sixty-six, he would have been able to stand up to people like my family with no help. But in nineteen sixty-two, the balance between the dying and the borning was being tilted ever so slowly towards the future by great acts of a few heroes on the TV news, and by a million small acts in insignificant places like dinner tables and front porches. It would be many years into my own future of pursuing heroes that I would come to reject their superpowers and spaceships, and learn to respect the frail, ordinary men inside, and the small, tentative acts of courage they sometimes dared, and the awesome power of that ordinary courage.

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