My first car was a 1954 Chevrolet sedan, gray. I crashed it into a bridge abutment on the
Edsel Ford Expressway, in Detroit, in 1958. I fell asleep at the wheel, about six a.m.,
enroute to my post as a weather observer at Willow Run Air Force Station, near Ypsilanti,
Michigan. It was a good running car and I hated to lose it (I think it cost me $400),
especially under those circumstances, but it wasnt a great car. I replaced it with a
1955 Ford, which was a better car. My girlfriends father, Ernie Kuhn, found it for
me. He owned a gas station on Jefferson Avenue, in Detroit, not far from the Belle Isle
Bridge (very close to "Pinkys," a restaurant which has appeared in at
least a couple of my books). Ernie took care of my cars for me. The Ford needed a new
radiator, so I left it at his shop while I returned to the Air Force -- by now, I was
stationed about 500 miles north, at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, near Marquette. When I
came back to town, a month later, Ernie sorrowfully told me that Id have to give up
the Ford. It seemed that an elderly man from the neighborhood, a retired postal worker,
had fallen in love with my car. He had prevailed upon Ernie to let him sit in it every day
(it was usually parked on the side street, because Ernies lot was often
over-flowing). Ernie had thought it would be okay, but he hadnt reckoned on the old
guy falling in love. Reluctantly, I conceded that it would have to be surrendered -- you
cant come between a man and his love. I remember seeing the old guy sitting in the
parked car. I dont think he ever drove it, just listened to the ballgame on its
I learned to
drive only at the age of 18. My father was a stern man who had little patience with modern
attitudes, so I didnt even approach him about getting a license. Many of my friends
had cars, so it wasnt a very pressing problem. One car I especially remember was a
1948 Plymouth coupe, belonging to my best friend, Dick Cattrysse. "The gray limousine
looms through the night," Id intone, as he picked me up to go out cruising. My
girlfriend, Ernies daughter, had a fabulous 1956 Mercury hardtop convertible. It
also had an automatic transmission. That was very important. Learning to drive was a snap
in that boat. I really liked that car, and not just for its ease of driver education.
There are elements of auto-eroticism here. This picture is very much like it.
But my lack of driving skills
had already caused me genuine grief. In high school, Dick and I worked at a Wrigleys
supermarket. The manager of the store, a huge fat man named Warren, was extremely
irascible. He liked me, but he generally found it difficult to be kind. On Saturdays he
bought his own weeks groceries for his large family. One of the packers would have
to take a list around the store before closing and fill the four or five carts with items,
then check them out. Often, I did this. When I had bagged them -- at least ten bags! --
Warren tossed me the keys of his car, a hopelessly beat-up, broken seated slum of a 1950
Ford. "Bring it over to the lot," he said. (Being a good manager, he didnt
take up valuable parking space in the store lot, but parked a block away.) Usually, it was
Dick who brought the miserable jalopy around, but he wasnt there that day. I was
fearful of Warren and his temper, but also a hotdog. I didnt want to tell him I
didnt know how to drive; besides, I thought I did know how to drive. It was winter,
icy. I ran to get the car. I got it going all right, but when I turned into the lot I
wasnt in the right gear and the car stalled. It slid back onto Mack avenue on the
ice. A passing car struck Warrens car broadside and wrecked it. I wasnt hurt.
I remember fearfully telling Warren what happened. To my surprise, he merely shook his
head and said, "At least you werent hurt." The other managers for the
Wrigleys chain thanked me; they hated riding to managers meetings in that old heap
when it was Warrens turn to drive. Now he had a new car.
After the romantic loss of my
`55 Ford, I made a really stupid purchase: a Renault "Dauphine". Frances
silly response to the Volkswagen challenge. What a wretched piece of junk! I replaced the
transmission and many other parts. It wasnt stable on the road, especially ice.
Ernie didnt approve of it, but by then I had split with his daughter, so I
wasnt taking my trade to Ernie anyway. But why would a Detroit boy buy a Renault? It
was some kind of rebelliousness. But I learned one thing: the French can cook circles
around the Germans, but a sauce dont have wheels.
I got out of the service in
November, 1960, and I bought a 1959 Chevy Impala (thanks to a loan co-signed by Dick
Cattrysse, who took a loss for several years, until I paid it back). It was a beautiful,
silver-gray car with elegant fins that resembled Batmans cape when he leaped through
space. In 1962, with my friend Dan Cotler, I drove this car from Detroit to San Francisco,
down to Tijuana, back up to Seattle, and home via Montana and the upper peninsula of
Michigan. We felt like Kerouac and Neal Cassady. It was a great trip and it convinced me
that I should live in Montana. But first I had to prepare myself for life, some way to
make a living out west. I had been working for the AFL-CIO, but I didnt think that
would get me far in cowboy country. I went to Wayne State University, thinking Id
get a teaching permit, but that didnt really appeal. I studied English lit, instead.
I stored my car in a garage -- it needed a valve job -- and forgot about it, literally: I
never reclaimed it.
After four years of night
school, I gave up and moved to my boyhood home in Kingsley, Michigan (about 250 miles
north of Detroit, near Traverse City), my father very kindly bought me a new Volkswagen
beetle. It cost about $1800, in 1965. I was planning to be a writer. Id met Jim
Harrison up there and he was making a living as a writer, sort of. After one starving
winter, I decided to be a carpenter, instead. This VW was pretty tough: one night I rolled
it, but except for a lot of dents and the need for a new windshield, it kept running. But
I had to spend five days in jail for failing to report an accident. (The judge was
convinced Id been drunk.) Jim Harrison brought me some books to read, including
Isaac Bashevis Singers The Slave, and Malcolm Lowrys Under the Volcano.
Inspiring reading in my depressed state, but I read both of them in a day.
After a couple more years,
writing in the winter, building houses in the summer, I decided to be a wildlife
biologist. I used the G.I. Bill to go to the University of Montana, in Missoula, to get a
degree in wildlife biology. I drove the battered VW out there, in 1968.
I married Ruth Baum, a nice
Jewish girl from Detroit, in Missoula. By 1970, we had a daughter, Sarah (Buzzy), and I
had bought a newer VW bug. I went to Iowa, to the Writers Workshop, in 1971. The
marriage broke up and I bought an old Chevy pickup truck and drove it back to Montana, now
with an MFA degree, but still no novel, although Id written a mystery novel, with
the help of David Morrell. This novel was never published, although parts of it became The
While I was in Iowa I had bought Ray Carvers old 1964
Falcon convertible for $50, but he could never provide a
title. I drove that back to Montana and got away with an
out-of-date California license for awhile, but one day I
was stopped by the Missoula County Sheriff. Thank heaven,
it was my brother! He said there was an indication that
the car was stolen and advised me to park it behind the
barn up at Annick Smiths ranch, on the Blackfoot River,
where I was living and writing my second mystery novel,
The Diehard (the first to be published.) The Smiths used
it for a hay feeder, for awhile, and then had the county
tow it away.
I went down to southern
California, in 1975, to build houses, and when I learned belatedly that Random House had
bought THE DIEHARD, I bought a great old Ford pickup, a 1964 V-8, and drove it back to
In 1978, I married again, to
Cinda Purdy, and we had a son, Devin. We were living in Butte, my second novel -- THE
BLIND PIG -- was out, Jack Webb was planning to make a film of it, when my wife was killed
in a plane crash. Devin and I moved to the Bitterroot Valley.
I still had the `64 Ford pickup,
but now I sold Cindas `76 Toyota station wagon and bought a brand-new 1981 Toyota
Corona. It was my first new car. Tracy Kidder was visiting me for some trout fishing when
a guy ran into the new car, while it was parked on the street. The insurance company
didnt want to total the car, but it would take $3500 to fix. I sold it and bought a
new, 1984 Toyota, a bright red, low-slung Celica. It was great!
Being a little flush at the
time, I was happy to pay back my father for the Volkswagen hed bought me. Here was a
guy who had worked in the auto factories all of his adult working life, first at Dodge
Main, then for Plymouth for many years, and finally for some twenty years at Pontiac. He
was a machine repairman, a skilled position which meant he was rarely if ever laid off. He
always bought cars like the `52 Buick, or later, an Oldsmobile 98. When I offered to buy
him a new car, he chose a Volkswagen Jetta! Go figure.
Eventually, my literary
prospects having dried up (Jack Webb had died without making the movie and no one seemed
to want GROOTKA, or any of the subsequent novels I started), I was living with a nice
woman named Janet MacMillan. When that relationship folded, I gave her my Toyota and took
her old Datsun pickup. I still had the old Ford pickup, but I reluctantly sold it. I still
see it running around the valley -- it has a great decal for Arabian horses on the
drivers door. An indomitable vehicle.
Eventually, GROOTKA was
published by Countryman Press imprint, Foul Play Press. Dell bought my paperback
rights and I was back in business. My house burned down in 1990, on Christmas Eve, and I
was able to buy a 1989 Toyota pickup, black, with the extended cab. The Atlantic Monthly
Press published HIT ON THE HOUSE, I wrecked the truck, quit drinking, and bought a crappy
white `73 Datsun pickup, which my son now drives. A few years ago, thanks to the
publication by Grove/Atlantic of DEADMAN, DEAD FOLKS, and most recently, MAN WITH AN AXE,
Im happy with my 1994 Toyota pickup, blue with an extended cab. This is a great car.
After my recent peregrinations to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, etc., it wears its
109,000 miles effortlessly.
One day, perhaps when GROOTKA,
or maybe, my new novel, LA DONNA DETROIT, is sold to the movies, Ill buy a new Jeep
Cherokee. More likely, Ill keep the pickup and buy the Cherokee for my darling,
Jean, with whom I now live in Missoula.
Sometimes I wonder whatever
happened to my dads old `36 Dodge, a black sedan that -- depending how you looked at
it in the sunlight -- took on the iridescent colors of an oil slick, or the plumage of a
grackle. It had a funny taste, too ... sort of metallic, but bitter. But I loved its
smell. I never liked its replacement, a baby blue 1941 Ford. It had a kind of moderness
that was too frank, too bland. But I loved the `52 Buick, with its heavy grill like the
mouth of a sperm whale. For Carvers old Falcon I harbor the hope that it was used by
the county for rip-rap on the Blackfoot River, although, as a fisherman I find that kind
of bank restoration regrettable. Still, Id love to catch a rainbow trout out of its
front seat, some day.