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LIVING IN A SHOTGUN SHACK
I had a mid-80's Toyota Tercel I’d bought for $1400 from a classified in the newspaper. The first time I had any work done on it the mechanic mentioned it had wrecked at some point in it’s history. The seller had told me otherwise, but the mechanic pointed out some strange things that were symptomatic of a car that had been badly wrecked and badly put back together from salvaged parts.
But it ran so I didn’t mind that the VIN on the title didn’t quite match the car – as long as the tag office didn’t notice. I drove it for a couple of years.
One day some friends picked me up and took me to dinner. When I got home I noticed the Toyota wasn’t parked anywhere near straight. “That’s weird. I don’t remember being *that* drunk when I parked it last,” I joked. As I got closer I realized the back end of the car was crunched in and the front end pushed up against the curb. There were bits and pieces of car everywhere, some of them imprinted with VW logos. An officer’s card was stuck under my windshield with “call me” written on it.
I called and got a vague story from the officer, “Yeah, you were in that car that was hit by the other car when that guy ran the light? Oh, I don’t remember, go get a copy of the accident report.”
I picked up the accident report and got the details. Some kid had run the red light and bounced off one car into another then into the car behind mine and pushed that one into my Toyota. In the end he totaled 5 cars – in his girlfriend’s father’s VW.
I went through the proper procedures. His insurance agent called me and asked me to come in and pick up the check.
She looked at me with an anxious face across the desk, “Mr. Noble, I’m sorry to have to say this, but…”
“Damn, they found out it it’s stolen,” I thought, “Some fuckin’ chop shop put it together from three different stolen cars and I’m shit out of luck. I ’m not going to get a dime and I’m going to have to deal with the cops and tell them I have no idea who the guy was that sold me the thing ‘cause I met him in the parking lot of a damn Dunkin’ Donuts after dark two fuckin’ years ago.”
She continued, “your car isn’t worth very much. I can only give you $1200.”
I coughed, suppressed my laughter, and gave her a concerned look.
“Since you didn’t get a rental car I can throw in an extra $200.”
“That sounds fair,” I said, trying to remain calm on the outside.
It was more than “fair,” it was a miracle. I paid off what I owed on the Toyota, bought a 1984 Subaru GL, paid my rent, and even had enough leftover for a 12-pack.
The Subaru had 165,000 miles on it. Some of the plastic components in the car were beginning to oxidize and the interior wasn’t in great shape. But the thing ran like a top. I don’t remember ever having to repair anything on it. It handled well, good mileage, and I liked the interior controls – a fine little car. But these attributes are not what makes this particular Subaru legendary in my past.
A couple of years and 20,000 miles later I got my first real job out of college. The pay wasn’t great, but it seemed stable. The Subaru started acting up – something to do with the alternator, causing the battery to die and making it hard to start. Rather than get it fixed, I was ready for my first new car. My then-girlfriend AA and I took the Subaru to a Saturn dealership. They wouldn’t give me anything in trade since the Sub wouldn’t start for them. I insisted it was just the battery but they weren’t interested. AA and I were pretty embarrassed at having to push the thing off the lot to get it to pop-start so we could drive it away.
But secretly I was happy they wouldn’t take the thing. After the excitement of wrecking BL’s LTD years before, I was ready to take the Subaru to Dahlonega and give it a glorious send-off. BL was in the navy, as was his brother, so the shack was empty. I’d been using the shed out back as a sculpting studio and watching over the place while they were gone. I drove the Subaru up there and parked it, awaiting the day we could get enough ballsy degenerates together to take her out for a final spin.
The holidays came and BL came home for a visit. I told him about the Subaru and he was as excited as I. Some of our friends were less enthusiastic.
“Come on, you pussies, if it ain’t dangerous it ain’t fun!” we told them.
Eventually we badgered two of them into joining us, JM and PM. We decided that Christmas Eve or Christmas Day would be a lousy time to die, forcing our families to think of us on the holiday every year after, so we stalled until the following week, the night before New Year’s Eve. It turned cold that week, dropping below freezing for days leading up to the night we were to take the car on its final ride.
We rounded up some old motorcycle helmets from the shed and I brought along a video camera to document the affair. Drunken friends had spraypainted random crap all over the thing, from portraits to obscenities. The car hadn’t started on a test attempt earlier in the day so we’d scrounged an old boat battery from the shed and got her going. We left it running long enough to charge the battery and went inside to charge our own systems, sitting around the shack drinking heavily, waiting for the cover of darkness and the late hours that would empty the dirt roads for our personal playground. Eventually we ran out the door like school kids at recess. I cranked up the camera and handed it to a volunteer. BL randomly adopted a bad Japanese accent, talking about the fine Japanese engineering that went into the car. The video is jumpy and confusing since I was the only one that knew how to operate the thing and we were all buzzed. But after building up our courage, we climbed into the car.
I patted the dash affectionately and started her up.
I tried to keep to the speed limit on the way to the dirt road. We were taking a different route this time, up into the mountains rather than the valley pass we’d taken in the LTD years before. We had taken the plates off the car and replaced them with a random dealer tag we’d found in the shed, some place none of us had ever heard of. We hoped to avoid getting pulled over on the short ride on paved roads – drunk, wearing helmets, no tag, car covered in obscenities, I had even left my driver’s license at the shack.
Luck was with us and made it to gravel road leading up the hill. I cranked up the stereo and off we flew. The little 4-cylinder engine had remarkable pick-up even hauling 4 idiots up an incline. The dirt road was frozen hard as concrete, making every little bump rattle our teeth. But at least it meant we wouldn’t get stuck in the mud somewhere.
Soon we topped the ridge and found our way to the road we had designated as the path to the Sub’s demise, a forestry service road we called Horseshoe Gap. It wasn’t well maintained, really just a recreational trail for 4-wheelers, but it wasn’t that far from civilization so if we had to walk back it wouldn’t be impossible.
I turned the car down the road. Immediately the road took a sharp turn to the right. To our left was a precipice, just black void in the dark with occasional glimpses of trees growing up from below. To the right was an embankment, sometimes jutting with rocks and fallen trees. Between was a narrow, winding dirt road.
JM had the video camera in the back seat, attempting to shoot between the two of us in front. PM held on to the seatbelt, surprisingly silent. BL was in the passenger seat, screaming “FASTER!” no matter how maniacally I drove.
And I drove pretty maniacally, thanks to the alcohol and the illusion of safety provided by helmets and seatbelts. We’d slide through a turn only to discover a tree across half the road. Some off-roader had gotten to it with a chainsaw, allowing a narrow passage off to one side and we’d fly by, noticing that the severed trunk was exactly at the height of the windshield.
The next turn would reveal a hump in the road, some hunk of granite that the road crew hadn’t been able to move. Our speed would send us flying, the back end of the car bucking up into the air, our heads hitting the ceiling inside the car, the sound of the front shocks popping as they pulled the wheels free of the ground moments before crashing back into it. Another turn revealed a long straightaway. BL screamed again, “Faster, Freddy, punch it!”
Terrified yet thrilled, I’d push the little car to my own envelope of fear, wondering what the next turn would reveal, hoping I had the skill and luck to get past it. Sometimes I’d breeze through like a pro, but other times we’d hit the ditch or the embankment or a fallen tree with a bang. Once the dust would settle and we'd realize we weren't dead, we'd whoop and holler with every outcome, but nothing was enough to satisfy BL.
“The driver has clearly not had enough to drink!” he yelled.
Down a series of turns, each sharper than the one before, the precipice switching from the left side of the road to right and back again as we switched back and forth down the mountain. A massive puddle shined gray-blue in the headlights, frozen solid. I breezed across it and on into the switchbacks beyond. Another few hairpin turns and another straightaway and suddenly the path opened to reveal – paved road.
We’d bounced, slid, and flown our way down the entire route and the Sub hadn’t met its demise. We’d pulled it off a few fallen trees, backed it out of the ditch once or twice, had to restart after it stalled due to impact with the embankment, but it had taken everything I dared dish out.
We piled out of the car to hop around in celebration.
Or at least three of us did. We discovered why PM had been so quiet during the ride. Somewhere along the route he’d passed out. JM checked his pulse to see if we’d broken his neck, despite the full-facial helmet and seatbelt precaution. He was breathing. A few pokes and he groaned. So the celebration continued for a few minutes until we leapt back into the car and back up the mountain we went.
JL narrates on the video, “The banging is now getting more hollow,” noting the rattling sheet metal sounds had developed a something-loose sound, rather than the previous tinny rattle of a solid car on frozen ground. So I turned up the stereo louder, switching from B-52’s to the Repo Man soundtrack. We san along to Black Flag’s “TV Party,” changing the lyrics as we went:
nothing better to do
than drive around
and WRECK A SUBARU”
With each hard collision the tape deck would spit the cassette out into the floor, leaving the sound of laughter and rattling sheet metal.
Up and up we went, sliding through the turns, slipping across the ice, bounding through the holes, and occasionally grinding to a halt on some obstacle only to start her up and roll on.
As “Institutionalized” blared over the stereo, building toward the explosive “I’m not crazy” we hit a hole worse than the others. The car stalled and stopped. We got out to assess the damage and found one of our tires had gone flat. We didn’t have a spare.
But learning from our LTD experience, we got in and just continued on.
The rattling of loose sheet metal was now joined by the rumbling of a flat tire on frozen gravel.
“I'm not crazy!
You're the one who's crazy!
You're driving me crazy!
They stuck me in an institution
Said it was the only solution
To give me the needed professional help
To protect me from the enemy, myself”
Louder and louder the car got as the tire began to shred, whipping the inside the wheel well. It got so loud we couldn’t hear each other’s screams. It sounded like we were inside a bucket of bolts jammed in a paint mixing machine.
But we kept moving.
Eventually the tire flew free, cutting the noise so we could hear JL in the back seat scream, “You’re gonna puncture the gas tank!” as we kept up speed, hitting bumps and holes with the ass of the car even closer to the ground due to the missing tire.
But the car kept climbing, up and up that mountain until we reached the top and met the maintained road at the ridge.
Then on down the other side, the roar not quite as deafening on the comparatively flatter section. And suddenly we were at pavement again.
The car wiggled on the road due to the flattening rim. It would’ve been the worst moment possible to pass a cop – sparks flying, drunk, one guy passed out, still wearing helmets. There is no way we could’ve avoided jail time.
But the fates were with us and we pulled into the driveway at the shack. We got out of the car and laughed at PM, still crashed out in the back seat.
The rim was worn down to the spindle, causing more laughter.
We stumbled into the house to review the video. It was sadly disappointing.
The pre-night-vision camera couldn’t handle the darkness. All that showed up was a vague blur of dancing trees in the headlights. There was no sense of speed, much less danger, and the wrecks looked like bad jump-cuts – the embankment or tree or whatever we had hit would suddenly appear in the headlights, then a moment of static as the cameraman’s hand would inevitably hit the pause button in the collision, or the camera couldn’t keep the heads on the tape, or the camera would hit the back of the seat, and suddenly we’re driving along again and indeterminable amount of time later. The rumble of the car on frozen ground makes it hard to hear much except warbly B-52’s playing behind our random yelled conversation for the first half the trip, then the flat tire and rattling sheet metal makes it impossible to hear anything the second half.
The next night we had our traditional New Year’s Eve party and showed the tape. The guests were as disappointed as we were. But it was enough for those of us that had taken the drive, and remained conscious.
The Subaru suffered minor damage beyond the flattened rim. The rear bumper had gotten bent out from the body on one end. One of the front turn signals was knocked out. Some of the trim had gotten popped off, etc.
I went back to life in Atlanta. BL returned to the navy. The Sub sat at the shack, waiting.
A year later BL was back on leave. Another night of lunacy was scheduled.
We went to a junkyard and found a Subaru wheel, complete with a decent tire, to replace the one we’d destroyed. The boat battery had died or gone missing, so we borrowed a battery from someone’s car and the Sub started up as if it were brand new.
“Goddamn, what is it going to take to kill this thing?” I asked.
We decided to take a backup team, someone that would follow us at a sane, safe speed, so that should we finally wreck we wouldn’t have to walk home.
Degenerate VA volunteered to do the job, cruising slowly behind in his old Honda.
We made a return trip to Horseshoe Gap. This time I had put together a mix tape of tunes related to cars and driving just for the occasion – random high-energy stuff that would be appropriate to the chaos that would ensue.
DN joined BL and myself on the trip. We nicknamed it Subaru II – the Search for Mud. The weather had been warm and wet so we knew the search would not be in vain.
Up the ridge we went and down the other side. I’d only driven the route that one time the year before so it wasn’t familiar by any means. DN screamed from the back seat as we bounded over bumps, “You’re gonna break the back axle!!”
BL and I cackled and I tried to respond, “It doesn’t (bang) matter, it’s (smash) front wheel (boom) drive!” But we had to scream at the top of our lungs just to be heard, three feet apart, due to the roar of rattling sheet metal.
At some point we had to bail out and pull a log from between the front wheel and the fender. We hopped back in the car and hit the gas, only to find the fender was scraping the tire. We hopped out again and hammered the thing out of the way and hopped in to resume the run, just as the backup Honda caught up, creeping along.
Down the road we bounced. A section of straight revealed a hole.
A hole? More like a chasm, something that had been dug out over years of 4-wheelers testing their vehicles.
“Go for it!” BL yelled, but at the last second I spotted a route around the thing and swung wide.
“Pussy!” BL yelled, but I didn’t think the Sub – or possibly we passengers – would survive a nosedive into that abyss. It would’ve swallowed the car whole.
Again we reached paved road with the Sub still running like a top.
I decided to give BL a turn at the wheel. I only saw BL once a year and it seemed like a good a welcome home/xmas present. Back up the mountain we went.
BL seemed determined to destroy the Sub. He hit every pothole, ran through every branch, scraped against every embankment, but the Sub took every blow.
Up and up, back and forth, and suddenly we’re back at the muddy chasm.
“Go around!” I yelled, pointing to the right.
BL swerved to the left, straight into the hole.
The car bounced, sending everyone into the ceiling, but we were still mov-BANG!
The car hit the bottom of the hole, stopped dead and the engine stalled. The tape spit out into the floorboard again, leaving only the sound of our laughter to echo down the valley.
BL started her up and gave it some gas. The Sub vibrated but didn’t move forward. He gunned it, but still nothing.
“Try reverse,” I said.
He worked the stick and hit the gas. We moved a few feet then suddenly the tail of the car sank, the nose lifted, and we thumped to a stop again. We’d bounced through the first hole on the way up, but backed into it trying to work free of the second hole. The thing wouldn’t go forward or back from this deeper chasm.
I giggled and reached for the door handle but the door wouldn’t budge. I pushed hard. The door pushed mud aside and slowly opened. We were floor-deep in the hole. Laughing, I stepped out and immediately slipped in the muck, barely catching myself.
DN opened the back door.
“Be careful man, it is slick as hell,” I warned him.
“Meh, no problem.”
“Dude, I’m not kidding, hand me the camera before you get out here.”
He reluctantly passed the camera over. I wish it had been on record because an instant later his feet flew up in the air and he landed on his ass.
When the laughter died down we got a look at our situation. The back half the car was resting on muddy ground, stuck firm. The front tires were barely on the ground. Worse, one of the rear tires was flat – a familiar sight.
“Well, let’s put a spare on there,” DN said.
“We don’t have a spare. And even if we did we couldn’t get a jack under there. And even if we did I doubt we could get it out of this hole,” I said, giggling and cursing.
The backup team caught up. We looked at the Sub one more time, piled into the Honda and headed home.
Again the video was disappointing – just darkness with occasional dancing trees and hillsides with random moments where we’re out of the car after a wreck, laughing.
In the morning we borrowed a truck from BL’s family and picked up another spare wheel and tire at the junkyard. We cruised up the road to find the Sub. On the way we could see the tire tracks from the night before. In some of the curves they were inches from the edge of the precipice. At night this wasn’t as frightening. You couldn’t see how far you’d fly should you sail off into the blackness. But by day I looked down out the truck’s window and shook my head, “Holy shit…”
The Sub’s situation looked even worse by daylight. It was as if it had been dropped from orbit and the fall had driven the rear of the car into the ground and the surrounding hole looked like an impact crater.
We dragged it out with a chain, put on the new wheel/tire and she started like a champ. I drove her back to the shack.
She didn’t handle well. One of the wheels had gotten knocked way out of alignment so she pulled a bit to one direction.
We parked her and she sat, taunting us, “You thought you could kill me, eh?”
People gave us a hard time about the video, “You can’t see anything.”
EM taunted us to the point that we finally agreed we’d do the run in daylight some time. She probably felt victorious, until her husband said he wanted to come along. By then the journey had become legendary, if for no other reason than we, and the car, kept surviving. For the first time we had to pick who could go and who'd be left behind, rather than badger people into braving the trip. But it would be another year before BL came home on leave again.
Daylight required a new tactic. We didn’t want to encounter oncoming traffic, far more likely at 3 PM than 3 AM. So we got a pair of walky-talkies (this was all pre-cellphone days) and sent a backup team ahead. They would go down the road and radio us an all-clear at the bottom.
A good plan – if our cheap walky-talkies had had the power to reach over the hills and through the woods. But they didn’t. We received choppy static, but nothing more.
“Oh well. I hope there’s nobody else down here!” I said and we headed down the bumpy road.
The conditions were both muddy and icy on this particular trip. Snow speckled parts of the ground and the tire tracks were covered in ice in some spots, muddy holes in others. CM and DB giggled incessantly in the back seat. This year’s soundtrack was a tape of the cheesiest Christmas music I could find, since the trip happened a day or two before the holiday, and we sang along cheerfully, the family-friendly fare contrasting to the decidedly non-family-friendly event. At the end of the first run we piled out of the car. The Sub was a little worse for wear. The brakes were glowing cherry red from jamming on them in the turns. We had a few new dings and dents. But the damn thing was still running.
CM took over on the trip back up. The car seemed slow and CM grumbled. I patted the dash, “She’s getting old.”
To make the trip more entertaining, CM purposefully steered us into the ditch and kept us there for most of the trip up the hill, bouncing along, scraping off chunks of embankment, laughing all the way, ho ho ho. But again we reached the top without killing the thing.
We popped the hood to see if we could spot the low-power problem and found we’d bounced one of the spark plug wires off the distributor. We’d been climbing the hill on three cylinders.
“No wonder…” I said.
DB was supposed to go next, but I had been sipping from a flask all afternoon and decided it was my turn again. We sent the backup team ahead.
They’d at least try to warn anyone on the road to turn back.
“Come ON!” BL said, impatiently.
Cheery Christmas music still played in the background, sleigh bells ringing.
“We have to give them enough time to reach the bottom,” I responded, “Right now they’ve barely gotten down the road.”
“So let’s wreck ‘em!” BL said.
He wasn’t really that chaotic, but sometimes I had to wonder. I shook my head and tapped my fingers on the steering wheel.
“Fuck it,” I said, and charged down the hill.
“Ah shit,” someone groaned. It was obvious I was going faster this time than ever before.
“We’re gonna die,” BL said, resolutely.
We bounded over the first few bumps and fishtailed through a few turns before the first serious S-curve. I decided to cut the corner as close as I could to keep up speed. But alcohol, inexperience, perhaps a soft shoulder or a patch of ice or a combination of the above conspired to pull us off the edge of the precipice.
Pause here for dramatic effect.
No, really, pause with me and take an extra moment to imagine our demise.
The car ground to a halt, straddling the edge of the cliff, tilted down on the driver’s side, my side. I looked down the hill, watching rocks bounce toward the trees some 30 yards below as the car teetering on the edge.
“Wow. Just like the movies,” said BL.
DB opened the back door, but on the downhill side. It occurred to me that this was extra leverage in the wrong direction.
“Get out the uphill side!” I said.
We climbed out of the car and looked at the situation. The car wasn’t balanced as precariously as it felt from inside it, but the front right wheel was off the ground. The car’s floor sat on the soft shoulder of the road.
VN had followed us in his Honda again so we sent him ahead to bring DN back up the hill with his four wheel drive truck in hopes of pulling the Sub free from the brink of death.
We hooked the car up and DN’s truck pulled, but the Sub only wobbled in place. The road was slick with ice, giving the truck little or no traction. And the Sub was leaning a bit too far over the edge to pull back onto the road. I was determined, but it was hopeless. There was no way we were calling a wrecker.
We unhooked the chain and gave the Sub a shove. After rocking it back and forth two or three times the ass end slid off the hill. The car turned and charged down the cliff backwards. It impacted the nearest tree, caving in the trunk and pinning it in place.
I slid down the hill and gave her a push, but she wouldn’t slide around the tree.
“Ah well. Rest in peace, Subaru,” I thought, giving the fender a parting kiss.
“Smash the windshield in!” RVI yelled from above.
I gave the fender a kick, slipping on the loose slope and causing everyone on the road to laugh. I decided to just get the hell out of there. We piled into our backup vehicles and rode home.
The daytime video is a bit more exciting, but I don’t think even a master filmmaker could manipulate someone’s emotions into the raging adrenalin rush and the mix of thrill and terror that those of us that took the ride experienced.
Two days later my phone rang. It was the county sheriff.
“Mr. Noble, do you own a 1984 Subaru?”
I was amazed they had found it so soon.
“Uh… no, I haven’t had that car in a while.”
”What did you do with it.”
”I sold that car… sheesh, must be two, three years ago.”
I hadn’t bought tags for it since I’d first parked it at the shack three years before, hadn’t renewed the insurance either. Hell, by then I’d been through another car or two. Intentionally, there were no written records of me owning the Sub for years.
“Do you remember who you sold it to?”
“Hmmm… not really. A guy in Dahlonega. He paid cash.”
“Are you sure you can’t remember?”
I paused, trying to sound like I was thinking hard.
“Not really. Why?”
“We found it abandoned up in the National Forest.”
“Yeah, someone did a number on it to. Looks like it was hotwired, so we thought it was stolen.”
The guys had gotten anxious to test drive it before the last run and didn’t want to wait on me with the keys, so they’d hotwired it.
“It has a dealer tag on it from a place up in South Carolina but they have no record of it. It was spraypainted all over and pushed off a cliff.”
I couldn’t suppress a laugh, “Ha ha ha! Oh… I guess that’s not really funny.”
“No sir, it isn’t. Somebody owes us $400 for the wrecker and fines.”
“Yeah. So if you can remember who you sold it to I’d really appreciate it.”
His tone had gotten accusatory.
“Well I didn’t get a receipt or anything so I don’t know if I’d have it written down anywhere. But I’ll look.”
“Call me if you find anything.”
The next day a forest ranger called with the same routine but I stuck to my story. The sheriff or the ranger tried again later in the week but I didn’t budge.
A few weeks later an ad appeared in the local paper listing all the impounds the county was auctioning off, including one 1984 Subaru GL. I figured the car would go for scrap metal prices and we could easily buy it back. I was sure it still ran. The rear was caved in, sure, but not fatally so. But I couldn’t get off work to get to the auction and none of the slackers I knew in Dahlonega would do it for me.
I’m guessing the Sub finally went to the scrap yard in the sky.
It’s just as well. Buying it would've created a paper trail back to us. More importantly, we had pushed our luck three times and lived to tell about it.
And we had finally sunk the Sub.
Goddamn, I miss that car.
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