Smoking the Parade

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By the fall of 1965, I’d saved up about a $100. Back then, that was real capital. Sure, it wasn’t the million dollars Fred gave Donald. But those weekly savings deposited at Laredo National Bank on paydays from my summer, Saturday, and after-school job as a gofer at Yeary’s had added up.

I’d just got my driver’s license in September.

Time to shop for a car.

My father found a midnight blue, 1947 Plymouth 4-door at Luna Auto Sales on Springfield for $85.

I bought it. That Plymouth was to be the best car I’ve ever had.

Even better than the ’65 Volkswagen bus with the bandana curtains, fun as it was on seven-day transcontinental trips at 45 miles per hour, sleeping at night on the fold-out bed in the back, parked by Lake Huron or off the road in Idaho.

And way better than the ’73 Volvo 164 I bought several times over with always unsuccessful overhauls.

And the 1990 Peugeot “Familiale,” the 8-passenger station wagon with half as many cylinders as passengers, the one that had all four cylinders meet to deliberate in committee before voting whether or not to accelerate. The one known as “the [expletive deleted] silver car?” Forget about it.

It could have just been the thrill of the first time with the ’47 Plymouth.

In any case, the radio was good. Triangular vent windows in the front for flicking out ashes from the ends of Chesterfield cigarettes. Stylish sun visor at a rakish angle above the split windshield. Huge sofa seats, front and back. Room for eight guys, easy. More than enough room for two to recline in an embrace, parked in a secluded spot.

There were two big problems with it, however.

The lesser one was that the starter had a complex emotional life of its own and only worked when it was in the mood. Like moods, the starter was unpredictable. At first that problem was solved by making sure I always traveled with at least three extra guys who could push it down the road fast enough for me to pop start it with the clutch. Scenes from the Keystone Cops. Eventually, I bought a rebuilt, coolly rational starter motor from my dad at wholesale, and I could get by with less foresight and friend management.

But the other problem, the fact that the engine had completely worn out or cracked piston rings, had no simple fix.

Repairing that would require the efforts of a real mechanic who could rebuild the entire engine at considerable expense.

With its bad rings, a lot of crankcase oil was still in the combustion chamber of the six engine cylinders every time the spark plugs fired. When the motor was running, it produced impressive quantities of purple-gray smoke.

Someone observed that the Plymouth looked like a low-flying crop duster as I drove it down the street… and not because of its speed! Johnny Snyder said that the mosquitos had all buzzed over to his place on Mier St. to escape the semi-permanent cloud of smoke in front of my house around the corner on Garfield.

The car was burning at least a quart of oil a day. With my after-school job, that wasn’t a crisis. I’d bring home 5 gallon buckets of the used oil drained from the customers’ cars in oil changes at Yeary’s and refill with that. Those buckets of recycled oil lasted about a week.

Hey! The price was right.

Which, at last, brings me around to the story.

In those days there were regular youth parades in downtown Laredo. School bands marched and played. ROTC teams were on parade. School clubs rode along in cars. The September of the new car, I taped hand-lettered banners reading “J.W. Nixon Student Council” on the smoking Plymouth’s front doors and registered it as the official parade entry of that honorable organization.

In a bizarre parade order typical of Laredo, the Nixon Student Council car with me at the wheel was inserted in the parade just in front of the award-winning Martin High Tigers Marching Band.

Toward the end of the parade we crossed Convent on either Zaragoza or Grant, headed toward the parade’s end at Plaza San Agustín. Whichever street, it was one of those narrow, old, one-way streets downtown with tiny sidewalks and storefronts on either side. Like a little urban arroyo canyon.

We were rolling along in first gear and neutral at a walking pace. Actually, slower than walking because shoppers from Convent Avenue headed to their parked cars were walking past us.

As if anyone needed another proof of the truth of the saying, “idle hands are the Devil’s playthings,” my bad angel whispered, “Hey! If you race the engine while you’re in neutral, you’ll smoke out the Martin band right behind you.”

Always eager to try out a bad idea, I did.

Vrrrooom, vrrrooom!

Exhaust belches out the tail pipe in an acrid cloud. No hint of a breeze, and the dark smoke lies in a blue-gray fog bank on the narrow street behind us.

The poor Tiger Band follows orders and marches into the cloud as if it were the British cavalry in the Crimean War. “Theirs not to reason why…” etc.

The band starts choking.

Behind us, it first lost the tubas, then the trombones, the trumpets, and the rest of the brass instruments the poor musicians had to play by blowing. Next to stop were the wind instruments, until the desperate Martin band, stumbling, blind and choking, was left with only the drummers.

The usual suspects in the car, Chiqui, Rolando, Stuart, Johnny, David, Beto.

Hang on, those usual suspects weren’t even members of the Nixon High Student Council! I don’t think I was in the Student Council that year myself. It could be a matter of misremembering ancient events, but it would have been just like the way things went in those days for the car in the parade to have had nothing to do with the Student Council other than its door sign.

The four or five of us in the Plymouth were laughing so hard, we were crying — just like the Martin High band!

There was no cross-town rivalry or bad blood between the high schools in our foolish parade smoke-out.

I’d have smoked the Nixon band, too.

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