Updated: Aug 20
"BOOM!" It was a shocker! Damn loudest, total body thunderous roaring sensation I had ever experienced in a grandstand! It rattled my brain; shook me to the core!
The year was 2003. My first cousin, Eddie, and I had just reconnected - our close friendship having been on hiatus while we raised families and careered up. Eddie was two years older than me, an only child.
Eddie was a nationally competitive NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) drag-racer back in the 60s before we really grew up. Thus a drag strip was a natural place to reconnect. Actually it was my idea.
To get the full booming effect, a little understanding of drag race procedure may be helpful here. Atlanta is a ¼ mile two lane strip of smooth asphalt much like a small airport. There is the start line. At the start line is the “Christmas Tree” called that for its multicolor lights. The “tree” has two separate sets of lights, one for each driver. The lights from top to bottom are: White light means both cars have moved precisely up even with the start line and are considered “staged” to go. Once both cars are staged, three yellow lights light up in rapid descending order. Next the green lights light – green means “GO!” If you leave at that precise split second your are said to have gotten a “hole shot” beating your opponent off the line, perhaps only a fraction of a second - but remember, the whole trip is over in 3 seconds! So a hole shot is like a home run, a three pointer, a golf hole in one. Oh and if you leave even a smidgen too early you get “red lighted” and DQed for that round. So let’s Review – white means ready, yellow prepare to go, Green means EXPLODE off the line and don’t look back! So the cars go from idle to fast in a split second when both cars are staged. The noise is sudden, explosive and deafening! There is total blaring 1000 plus horsepower noise you can hear for miles around for about 3 seconds. First one across the finish line wins. Then all is quiet until the next two cars are ready to race.
Oh and did I mention in order to warm up those gigantic rear wheels, the drivers do a full “burnout” for a couple hundred feet down the track before backing up to the start line. It's loud, the air filled with the acrid smell of nitro with thick clouds of tire smoke everywhere - the crowd going friggin’ wild!. People love John Force because he does the biggest, longest, baddest, loudest burn outs of them all. Go John!
Now back to the big boom story. Yes! "BOOM!" John Force had just launched his monster “funny car” dragster from a hole-shot that would bring Eddie, me and the entire crowd instantly to our feet. Force would literally blister the Atlanta Raceway quarter mile at 333 mph in only 3 something seconds!
While aware of, and around loud cars all my life, I had never, not in a million years, expected the magnitude of difference between dragsters in the 1950s and modern monster dragsters. The experience of a car today launched off the line on the hot Atlanta tarmac – exactly 100 feet from you is devastating, especially if you’re not prepared for it! Eddie had situated us on the front row, on purpose folks - ON PURPOSE!!!
Eddie knew what was going to happen next. I had no idea, but should have. For only moments before Eddie had maneuvered me in the pit area about 10 feet from where John Force was preparing to pre—race test his engine. I knew something was up when the pit crew suddenly dawned gas masks, then BOOM! Thank God I had my earplugs, but the acrid nitro exhaust fumes were too much. I simply couldn't breathe, nor see, it was so intense. I stumbled my way back through the small crowd of about 40 people to where Eddie had earlier retreated and was of course laughing his ass off at my expense.
Eddie was smart, witty, mischievous. He was that bold and daring rock-n-roll, non-conformist in his childhood. Actually he helped bring me outta my childhood sheltered shell. He knew exactly what he was doing that day and was enjoying every minute.
The 60s: "You see these times they are a-changing" to quote my friend Bobby. It was the time of the anti-war, anti-almost everything protesting. There was the tragedy at Kent State University. It was a Saul Alinski’s dream. From Kennedy’s Qui Moy to Johnston’s Vietnam, war raged on in a foreign land. America was at unrest. Hippies and love-ins reigned stateside. Even Bob Dylan apologized in the 2000s singing, “I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now.”
It was the sixties but Eddie was having none of that.
It was the age of the muscle car. The racing revolution was on. “Big Daddy” Don Garlits had just done “back-to-back 232s at the drag strip and “BOOM” Eddie was all in! Every car he owned was fast and furious! First there was his ’58 Corvette with three duces that “Tee Hee Healthy Colman” could tune just looking at it. Then how many times did we run through the gears street racing in “It Takes One to Catch One,” Eddie’s ’57 Chevy V8 or just loping around Jerry’s Drive-in with the guys and gals sitting on their hoods cheering us on? “Loping,” by the way is idling so slow you can count the revolutions of a big v8. The car would lurch forward with every revolution – Bad-assed! My favorite was “Outta Site,” the first. of the 63’ Dodge Ramchargers with the offset 4-barrel carbs. Eddie would bet my fiancee’ that she couldn’t reach up and get the silver dollar he kept in a tray on the dash while he power-shifted through three on the tree! Blazing down dark, straight, narrow Hikes Lane; how did we ever make it this far?
Back to the future, John Force blasted by - BOOM! I turned to Eddie half stunned, half in tears from the occasion. Our eyes met knowingly that it had been too long, way too long, and that he had pulled one over on me again.
He was laughing that oh so familiar laugh of his. I even imagined for an instant him licking the fingers of both his hands and smoothing back his meticulous "duck tails," a flashback from the fifties.
You see it was Eddie that taught me the love of explosive speed and togetherness - my love of cars, that it takes one to catch one.
Memories: It was Eddie and me in bed by that huge front third-floor window wide open echoing the old streetcar as it clanged by fourth and Hill street in Louisville, with the smell of ozone in the air as it sparkled along. Getting rowdy, we had to be stopped several times from laughing as Eddie entertained me to no end, teaching me a little about everything on the wilder side of life, and yet later teaching me how to persist and be successful with people in business. I learned respect and compassion for others from Eddie. I learned quality. First call was his dad saying, "You kids get to sleep!" The second call was my dad saying, “no more of that,” and meaning it, followed by a few last muffled giggles, then silent sleep.
Next day it was up and off on neighborhood adventures, like playing bare foot stickball with Tony (“Toenail”) and “Brother” and “Sister” who lived in the back ally shanties. There was not a prejudiced bone in his body. Eddie liked people. People liked Eddie. I took it all in.
Some days we would run to meet our Pawpaw Floersh carrying his worn leather traveling salesman grip. He always bribed the conductor to let him off at the alley as the L&N stopped albeit briefly to backup into Louisville's Union Station. Can you believe they still had steam engines in the line back then? Of course like the mischievous little rascals we were there was no nap for Pawpaw with us sneaking in to tickle his toes with a feather. Mad as heck, Pawpaw would throw his glass of water on us to rid himself of kids.
BOOM! Sadly, that explosively earth-shattering drag race in Atlanta with Eddie was my last. "BOOM," Eddie was gone! Too soon! Way too soon! We had just gotten back in touch. In 2008, melanoma stole Eddie from me and his wonderful family. Eddie loved ballroom dancing; inspired me to do the same. It’s how he met his soul mate, Brigitte. He did get to dance at his daughter’s wedding. I was there.
Death took Eddie’s body, his wit, his mischievousness, his pride and talent and success. But it didn't take it far, for its in my heart and soul. From there it still echoes. I love his influence on my inner self. I still find myself using "Eddie-isms” and anecdotal quotes, expressions, inflections, unique imitations.
Did we waste our time apart all those years? Perhaps. Perhaps we could have stayed more in contact but the brief contact we had toward the end was golden. I promised him I would take care of his two kids, now fine adults. And I stay in touch. I was asked to speak at Eddie’s funeral. I told his story, the story of father, husband, businessman, national dragracer.
More memories, memories, oh medicinal memories: A lifetime of togetherness lingers in silent memories that find their way into goodbyes. Let me take you through some Eddie memories:
Boy, how I anticipated Christmas at our house with the Wotiers and tag football in our side yard! Can you believe to get to Louisville from Nashville it took 6 hours on old 2-lane highway 31W (commonly referred to as “Dixie Dieway”)?
Memories are the glue and soul of existence. Remembering the walk to the small wooden-floored Kroger in Louisville at the corner of Fourth and Gaulbert places me instantly back in the 40s; in the 50s, we pre-teen altar boys fought over who got to ring the gong at our Uncle John’s private mass in that quaint small chapel at his country estate in Anchorage. Who fixed the wooden gong we broke wrestling over, which, next morning lay silently repaired. You see the Archbishop’s, housekeeper, his beloved sister, Lula, my great spinster aunt had in one instance taught me, humility, trust, caring and forgiveness without speaking a word. Are memories lessons of the sixth sense?
And then it was suddenly the 60s with all “those cars, grrrr,” Eddie’s mom, Aunt Jutie, used to grumble under her breath, typical mom-style (“Outta Site,” “It Takes One To Catch One,”“Hell-a-Popping,” The Wack Tack Machine”) and the reprobates we hung out with at Jerry’s Drive-in: “Teehee Healthy” Coleman, the “Boobalack,” “Os Baby,” Hal “Babe Doll” Mooney and this Louisville guy called Cassius Clay was pontificating to a small gathering how he was “The Greatest” (and he and Martin were)! Did I mention the time Eddie and the boys went and borrowed the old pressurized water fire extinguisher and drove out to “Grumpy Old Man’s house” and launched fifty gallons onto his porch from the street no less? And then how many times did we run out of gas at 2 am in one of his cars, only to be rescued by his wonderful and patient father, Ed. What a ride! What and experience. What a guy. There was never a dull moment. Eddie and I shared life, learning and humor. But whatever, the learning was, it was a life-bond of unspoken love. Not gone, rather carried in my soul. “I guess I just miss my old friend, Eddie.”
Later memories: Eddie, now Ed (always fondly Eddie to me) was an accomplished chemical engineer. He eventually graduated from my alma mater, Bellarmine College (now Bellarmine University) and held several patents. In later years he enjoyed consulting all over the southeast. Of course he drove! What did you expect? Along with his business travels he often found occasion to stop by our place in Huntsville, Alabama, for more, now so precious moments, discussing life and children and reliving rich memories. For that later time together reconnecting with my lifelong friend, I am grateful.
Alone memories often well-up from unspent grief. Grief is cleansing but must be experienced alone. Teary-eyed my hand slipped from the closed casket. I turned and returned to my life. Memories. Hold tight to them. They are gifts of the Spirit. Cherish memories as they extend one’s lifetime.
In a way, I think a close friend's spirit lives on in those left behind. Eddie is a part of me. I miss him.
Postscript - I built a hotrod, a '33 Ford in 2014 and dedicated and named it SCKNSTY in honor of Eddie (1940-2008). *photo taken at NHRA event where Eddie introduced me to all the owners/drivers in pit row. It was a wonderful, chest pounding, acrid eye-watering Day. It was our last day together. “BOOM!” Is taken from “My Wrinkle in Time: My Memoirs.”
"Backbird you! I heard you!"
SCKNSTY - Boss 302, T5, 500hp at the crank, Boom!