The physical thrill I experienced as a child from the sensation of speed certainly did not originate in any form of physical courage. I do not like the sensation of heights, or rather, the view downward that reveals the solid earth far, far below me. I never had to be told not to play with matches; the possibility of getting burned was enough to ward me off matches until my teen years.
But going fast was different. I was always a passenger – a passive participant – in these escapades, so I did not technically engage in speeding, but I certainly encouraged it.
My earliest memory of the thrill of high speed was a Sunday morning when my older brother Don had been assigned to drive me to Sunday School. My father did not attend church, and my mother attended only occasionally, but she felt that I should get some exposure to Sunday School. Most of our older cars up to this point had been wheezy, unreliable old heaps, but the Edsel was the first new car my family had ever purchased. And the speedometer went up to 120.
“Let’s do 100,” said my brother with a grin. My five-old-brain could not do the time/distance/speed thing, but I like the idea of such a big number. I could only grin and nod in agreement.
The Edsel could not accelerate very fast, but I guess it got to 100 by the end of the block we were on. It felt fast. I don’t remember anything that happened at Sunday School that day. Mrs. Mohring and my friend Leslie probably wondered why I was so quiet and could not stop grinning.
The grin probably did not disappear when I got home, which aroused Mom’s curiosity.
“What have you been up to?”
“Nothing.” Grinning. I was actually dying to tell her, because I was proud of how daring Don and I had been, but I knew I had to keep quiet. Don had bestowed a great privilege on me and had treated me like a grown-up (I thought) by entrusting me with a secret. Mom tried several more times, but for once I was able to keep from spilling the beans. Supper was a challenge; every time Don’s eyes and mine met, we had to quickly look down at our plates to keep from betraying our amusement.
My next big experience with speed was on my Uncle Bill’s motorcycle. He let me ride behind him on the condition that I hold on tight. I held on for dear life. I could barely keep my eyes open to see the world as it passed us by, the wind stung my eyes so. But I could feel that wind whipping my hair until it stood out from my head like Medusa’s snakes, and it felt glorious. Besides, 70 or so on a motorcycle was equivalent to 100 in an Edsel, sensation-wise.
Uncle Bill could hardly talk when we stopped and he took me off the motorcycle, he was laughing so hard. “Boy, ain’t you a sight,” he wheezed. “I bet you never gone so fast in your life.” I didn’t mention the 100 mph adventure with my brother, out of consideration both for my brother’s trust and for my Uncle Bill’s pride at having shown me what “fast” is.
Mom had to spend extra time trying to get the tangles out of my hair that night.
While my introduction to that high-speed thrill at the hands of male relatives had been done covertly, there were acceptable ways to continue to enjoy it with my mother’s blessing. Well, perhaps blessing is too strong a word; she didn’t object.
The proper vehicle was any of the roller coaster rides at carnivals and amusement parks. I loved roller coasters with a love that was hard to contain, and never really wanted to ride any other ride or enjoy any other amusement. Disneyland was a mixed blessing; there were only 4 D tickets (it was the D ticket, wasn’t it?); the rest of my time had to be wasted using up the other useless tickets.
Nothing else ever really approached the keen enjoyment of that thrill. Occasionally, on a family trip in the Edsel, we might approach a respectable speed with my father at the wheel. We always used to joke that he knew two speeds: 70 mph and stop. My mother’s watchful presence usually held Daddy’s speeding instincts in check, but we did go pretty fast on the open highways. In a car with no air conditioning during hot summer days in Southern California, the natural reaction of dogs and children is to face the wind to relieve the heat as much as possible. And that is what our poodle Pierre and I did, his black moptop head sticking out the front right side and my (then) red head sticking out behind him from the back seat. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend the car was going 100 miles per hour.
The motorcycle, with two of its admirers
Memory Monday: Our Edsel
Billy Jack Brinlee, 1934-2010