8 Cylinders

“Oh, there’s also this one,” he said.  The librarian, having given John a fistful of books about pistons and convertibles, seemed to want a second of our time to be heard. “Some of our books are so old, they need to be recycled.”

He pulled out a thin hardback, his hand protected by one of those textile casts for people with carpal tunnel syndrome.  He pressed his lips together, and smirked, as if to say, “see, I told you this is not anything.”

The Cobra” it said.  “The Cool Classics Series.”

It was an old book.  There was a blue car on the cover.  The car was old, too.  So old, even its paint had begun to fade.  It was a car from the 1960s.  Yet, it had a jaunty look and a definite muscularity.  And, I had a feeling that it might be something special.

John grabbed it.  When you already have 18 books to take home, what is another one to lug around.  But, that title, well it caught my eye.

It’s bedtime.  I am reading our new book to John.  It turns out that Cobra is actually about Carroll Shelby.  That would be Carroll Shelby, inventor of not just the Cobra, but also the Mustang!  Carroll Shelby, who along with Junior Johnson and perhaps Mark Donahue, was elevated to highest mythic status in my house.

We ate Carroll Shelby’s chili.  We had pictures of cars Carroll Shelby drove, framed on the walls of our den.  Carroll Shelby, a person who had little in common with Connecticut and bond trading and the Metro-North, was a larger than life figure out of another world.  My dad’s world (no link).  His character was legendary, his reputation beyond impeachment.  Figures of equal status might only include Bill Evans, Ernest Hemingway, and Nepalese monks.  If my dad had realized that Junior Johnson sold pork skins, then he might have pressed my mom to serve them at home.  He didn’t, and we never did.

About the book, though.  Did I mention the photograph on the cover?  Right, it looked a snapshot, taken by a zealous car enthusiast.  It looked washed out.  It looked like a photograph that failed to say anything, except to document the literal fact of the existence of this vehicle.  It didn’t say, “this car goes fast,” or “I met my wife when I was driving this car in 1970” or “the weekend was looking fun…”  or anything.

I know this genre of photography.  I guess its the fact the photo of this Cobra could have come from one of thousands that my dad took over the years.  He took these pictures all his life.  He took them in Watkins Glen, New York.  He took them in Lakeville, Connecticut.  He took them in Elkhart Lake, Indiana.  He took them in the Poconos. He took them in Sebring, Florida.

He took them with his Pentax K-1000, usually with the a 50 mm lens.  “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints,” he was known to say.

There are two basic shots.  The first was the pit picture.  This one is a still of the car at rest, perhaps with another zealous car enthusiast or mechanic.  Often, there’s the back of some guy in the background.  Sometimes the car is in shade.  You have to know that it is, in fact, an Audi R10 TDI or a Cunningham CR4The latter photo provides a beautiful example of this genre, notable for both its composition (subject in center, humans on periphery) as well as its scattered collection of ambling white men in their 50s, most with their backs to the lens.

The car is not presented in a way that shows its capacity for purpose, or for pleasure.  No, here it is an object to be displayed.  I think the nearest representation in spirit would be the farmer with his largest pig at market day.

The other one is the action frame.  This is often deftly accomplished by panning, albeit with the same 50 mm lens.  It shows two cars moving at the end of a long straightaway.  A viewer cannot ascertain if the picture is during the last lap, if it involves the race leaders, or if there is oil on the track and the cars are merely running under caution (yellow flag).

I am not sure if the photo stirs memories for Susie.  During our “courting”, she was no different than other girlfriends in her desire to use visits to our home as a means to probe for information about my youth.

I remember the time she asked about “family pictures.”  My mom and dad were there, and my sister, too.  The request elicited groans from the rest of us.  Nonetheless, she was undeterred.  My dad pulled out the gear and we did sit through an evening with my dad and his slide projector.  We dutifully gathered in the living room, as the slide trays were produced and the slide projector was assembled.

My dad sits in a wooden chair with a pillow.  The slide show was one of his masterpiece moments.  The narration goes like this:

“So this is Adam, he was such a cute kid, in 1986.” [picture of me with thick glasses, no socks, preppy tie.  I am a sophomore in high school] “Do you notice those socks?  He didn’t wear them. That was the year I graduated from law school. [photo of dad, in his graduation gown.] Here I am.  And that year we went to Lime Rock a few times. [photo of exterior of Lime Rock Park, checkerboard flags and large inflatable Goodyear Tire display.] Yep, you know, they get the Le Mans series there. [three panning shots, virtually identical.] Here’s what Porsche was running that year. [first shot — pit shot] [second photograph — same subject, 18 inches closer] [third photograph — the dash]. That was the year that Honda really had the hot car.  [pan shot]

To emphasize this point, dad would suspend the progression of the show.  He would hold the squarish frames of his glasses in between his thumb and a curved index finger.

The important thing to note was that, much like the principles of composition in the photo above, the substance of the narration was one that put cars in the center, and any humans on the periphery.  So, at a moment when you would expect the narration to lead into say, what those middle school years were like for Adam, instead he would say:

“They really had a great car that year on all of the F1 series events.”

Susie, as a probationary family member, is wondering how photos of my childhood lead to auto racing.  Of course, no one else could fail to see how things would progress that way.

My mom is diplomatic.  Her arms are folded, her calf arched, her glasses tucked behind a forearm.  “Honey, why don’t you show us some more pictures?  You know, of the family?”

The slide show resumes.

“We used to always go to the ocean.  Here’s the house we rented that one year with Uncle Doug and Aunt Linda.”  [picture of a red house].  As if to underscore the human touch of the photo, dad looks over at Susie. “Adam went on that vacation,” he says.

A new slide drops into the tray.

“Oh, wow, that year we went to Watkins Glen.” [picture of a Formula One car, pan shot].  That year we went up there.  Notice the pit boxes! .  That’s Aryton Senna.  [photo of a guy in a racing suit.]  He had a fatal crash.  Wait, these slide must be out of date, because there were no fall races there after 1980.  When was that vacation with Uncle Doug?” [new slide, picture of F1 car on a straightaway.] [repeat with 10 more car shots].

There’d be a hiccup when humans would return.

“Here’s a picture of Gretchen,” he’d offer.

Indeed, it would be a picture of Gretchen.  At a birthday party.  Dad would offer his insight.

“Gretchen had a birthday that year.”

There would be a pause.  I think Gretchen was waiting for a bit more.

“Who are those people in the picture, Gretchen?”

Gretchen would sit up.  “Oh, that is..”

She would be interrupted by the sound of a new slide would fall into the tray.

“That is a Lola at Sebring!  What a car!  You know, they were sponsored by Red Lobster.  Kate, why don’t we eat at Red Lobster more often?  Kate…Kate?”

In that moment, many long winters ago, I think Susie learned a bit about cars, about my family, and about my childhood.  Reading Cobra: The Cool Classics, I feel my dad’s memory strongly.


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