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Jim Duke | Author

Rambler American

The same Rambler American that I drove from Austin, Texas, to Allenspark, Colorado, full of mushrooms and poultry was eventually driven to Unityville, South Dakota, full of the same poultry and considerably fewer mushrooms. In Unityville, now a ghost town, I had purchased, for a couple hundred dollars in back taxes, two acres and a dilapidated house that had belonged to a great aunt. The poultry remained in South Dakota, but the Rambler rambled on.

Somewhere along the line, the starter had gone out. This was no big deal because the car was light enough to push either forward or backward, even on level ground, jump in and throw it in gear and pop the clutch to start the engine. This was easy enough until someone slammed into my driver’s door, permanently shutting it. I overcame this obstacle by leaving the window down so I could push the car, jump in the window, throw it in gear and pop the clutch. The process became only slightly more complex when the gear shift level, apparently tired of too many rapid and jerky shifting maneuvers, finally broke free of the steering column and had to be picked up, fished into the ‘three on the tree’ steering column, pulled into gear and clutch popped.

For whatever reason it never even occurred to me to repair any of these parts. The starter, at least, would have been cheap and easy and was sort of the key to the rest of the circus. But as the problems evolved and it became more challenging to start the car, it became ridiculous enough to become a source of pride. Certainly, nobody was going to steal this vehicle.

Even when I’d first left Austin, I was driving on bald tires with no spare. Things didn’t improve much over the next couple of years and by the time I drove back to Iowa City to give the Rambler to my little brother, John, there seemed to be only one brake shoe left, making the car pull hard right whenever the brakes were applied. John actually reported to me the next year that this dangerous tendency probably saved the lives of himself and three passengers driving to Colorado through a bad blizzard. Coming down the hill from Council Bluffs, Iowa into Nebraska, John encountered a pile-up ahead blocking most of the road. Instinctively hitting the brakes, the right front locked up throwing the car into a fishtail to the left, swinging back to the right hard enough to slide the car over like a high-speed parallel parking maneuver, and shooting them through a slim gap in the pile-up. His friends still extoll his incredible driving skills, ignorant of the faulty brakes and their serendipitous survival.

Somehow, the Rambler ended up back in Allenspark at my parent’s cabin where, being the redneck of the family, I was becoming notorious for leaving junk cars. It was pathetically nosed into a grove of aspen trees on three flat tires with the driver’s door crammed shut and the rest of the doors stuck open. Boulder County had recently issued some sort of mandate outlawing the presence of junk vehicles. A good friend, Berg, with an excavating business and some property on the other side of Allenspark, had dug a huge hole and was accepting junkers from all his friends. Another good friend, Toby, had a ’56 ford crown Victoria jacked up on a ¾ ton 4x4 truck frame that could pull just about anything just about anywhere. He liked to hook up hitch to hitch and have pulling contests with anyone who would take him on. What he didn’t tell the competition was that once he got you going backwards, he wouldn’t stop.

Toby offered to tow my old Rambler over to Bergs house a few miles away. The first order of business was to pull the Rambler out of the aspen grove and get it turned around so we could then drag it over to Berg’s house. Why I ever thought he would stop after he got me going backwards is still a mystery to me. I’d seen the same show too many times.

The first quarter mile or so was up our two-track drive through tight trees before we hit pavement on Hwy 7. I couldn’t have jumped out the window through the tight trees and by the time we hit the Highway, we were going way too fast to consider that option. With about a twenty-foot logging chain latched to my back bumper, Toby played ‘crack the whip’ with my Rambler trying to knock down every road sign and reflector post he could with my car. I tried to resist his whipping by counter steering, but almost lost my fingers to a wild steering wheel as the last of my flat tires spun off leaving me skidding backward at high speed on bare wheel rims. I was glad to arrive at the pit.

I don’t think the notion of potential soil contamination and pollution ever crossed my mind as we watched Berg bury the last of our junkers. While I was still a little pissed at Toby for the terrorizing ride to the pit, it also seemed appropriate for the old Rambler to have provided one more thrill on the way to his grave.