I went out to the garage where I had some metal Diebold bank cabinets that I bought years ago at a surplus furniture place on Main Street in Buffalo. They’d followed me around from house to house.

My marriage had disintegrated. I’d moved and was setting up my new place. What I was looking for in the Diebold cabinets was a Porsche Carrera badge that I thought might be in an old plastic bag I used to store mementos from the sixties. The badge was brass script and had two sharp prongs that had attached it to the Porsche. I was thinking I’d tap it into the drywall behind my desk, under a thick Sacred Heart of Jesus Auto League membership card I’d already stuck up with double-sided tape.

The bag had been in one of the drawers for years, sliding back and forth as I rooted around looking for small tools. It was torn and cloudy and when I grabbed it my wisdom teeth, extracted in 1964, fell out, and so did a scratched stainless-steel Glenn R. Martin Company promotional Zippo lighter. What it was promoting was the  SM-68 Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile, an image of which was nicely engraved on it.

My girlfriend Karen gave it to me in 1961, and I remembered asking her who, exactly, was supposed to be influenced by the Zippo. Was it to attract buyers in need of an ICBM, perhaps to threaten annoying neighbors or launch at a distant government they didn’t like? Or was it meant to steer buyers away from the SM-65 Atlas missile? Did she know if there was an Atlas Zippo, or had General Dynamics used Ronson for their lighter promotions? Ronson made military flame throwers, so it was possible. She thought my questions were amusing, but this was before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Karen returned from Christmas break with news of the latest weapons development, a Death Ray. Her father, source of the Titan Zippo, told her about it in confidence. It used a special kind of light, and it vaporized whatever you pointed it at. Even without Death Ray lighter to back it up, I believed her.

The missing Carrera badge came from a Porsche wrecked near Carpinteria, California in late summer, 1961. I was working for an avocado rancher who was the father of a kid I knew from the freshman dorm, Tom. My family didn’t have enough money to bring me home from college, so I drove down to Carpinteria with Tom.

That summer I had a hillside to myself, me and the ditch-digging tools and piles of plastic pipe. I dug trenches for the irrigation system and laid pipes in them. On the hillside I encountered rattlesnakes and a tarantula. In fear I killed them with my shovel, and was ashamed of myself.

In the middle of the summer Karen came out from Colorado, and I took her to the hill and showed her the work I had done, and made love to her there. Afterwards I lit our cigarettes with the Titan Zippo.

One day after work Tom’s father said, “Boys, come with me,” and he drove us in his pickup truck over to the California Highway Patrol substation. He took us around the back and there was a crumpled Porsche Carrera, and he said, “Look inside,” and we did, and there was blood everywhere.

“Boys,” he said, “Two people got killed in this car last night on 101, took that curve too fast and now they are dead. And I want you boys to remember this because it’s one thing to see a wrecked car on TV, but it’s another thing to see it up close, and that’s real blood there, two people, a man and his girlfriend, they died. Now you see it. Don’t forget it.”

He left us alone with the wreck. When I felt I understood what had happened, I took out my pocket knife and pried off the badge. I wanted a piece of the Carrera, but could not have said why.

Later when we were hanging out at the A&W Root Beer, the kids were saying that when they opened up the girl’s mouth the guy’s dick was in it. That obscenity might have pulled me away from what was important, except I had the script Carrera in my pocket and its mounting prongs were poking into my thigh. That kept me focused on the simple true thing I’d understood: there are boundaries you don’t know exist, and if you push past them you can die.

I won’t claim I wasn’t titillated by the blow-job-of-death, but even at seventeen I understood that was not what I needed to remember.

Standing at the Diebold, the script Carrera lost, it came to me that in my new life, my aides-memoire would be the Titan Zippo, simulacrum of a deadly weapon never launched, my wisdom teeth, then wise in name only, and the razor-edged broadhead arrow point I had forgotten was in the bag – it, too, from that hot Carpinteria summer, when, after the digging and laying out, I took my bow and went among the scrub oaks after deer, killing in the old way my father taught me before Karen and the Titan. Before the death ray. Before the Carrera.

 

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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

23 responses to “Script Carrera”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Don, wonderful story!

    This makes me wonder what my kids would think were they one day to come across a similar plastic bag holding mementos lying in a drawer in our empty house. “Another bag of crap,” they might say to one another. I guess I’d better set about telling my stories.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Irene, just go around to all those bags and put a slip of paper in each, saying something like “don’t throw this out for no reason.” Or something like that. But who does that? I was faced by boxes and bags when cleaning out my mother’s house, and had no way to know what was precious and what wasn’t. Objects and their associations. I use the word “cathected” every now and then, as in “cathected object.” I didn’t know that word until I was almost 60.

  2. Tom Hansen says:

    Great piece Don. The bit about being left there with the bloody Porsche was excellent, and enhanced the smooth nostalgic feel of the piece to that point. I have an old General Dynamics Zippo from the 60’s. I can’t remember the exact year at the moment…there’s a book you can get and by decoding the dots and slashes on the bottom of a Zippo find out what year it was made. I had one at one time because I have a Slimline Zippo with an RCA Records badge on it. I found it was from 1958.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      It’s true! (Not that I doubted you.) It takes just the right light, but I can see dots and dashes. I bet the key is online.

      I’m glad you liked it, Tom. I’ve never forgotten that feeling the bloody Porsche gave me.

  3. So… this Death Ray… uh, you don’t have any blueprints lying around, do you?

    “That kept me focused on the simple true thing I’d understood: there are boundaries you don’t know exist, and if you push past them you can die.”

    Man. Ain’t it the truth.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Was I unclear about the Death Ray? Maybe you’re teasing me. So I’ll put on my Captain Obvious suit and say that it was early news about devices called lasers.

      • Only the most good-natured teasing, I swear.

        Although I’m endlessly fascinated by the story of Harry Grindell Mathews (I think that’s how it’s spelled) who, around the early 1920s, started telling governments on either side of the Channel that he had a death ray patent and he’d gladly sell it for an exorbitant sum.

        It was just he couldn’t demonstrate it, for some reason. Which, to his mind, shouldn’t have interrupted the sale.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Grindell_Matthews

        • Don Mitchell says:

          The SSE’s in effect, as usual. In the Wikipedia article you linked to:

          “Harry Grindell Matthews was the fifth husband of singer Ganna Walska, who created Lotusland in Montecito, California.”

          Montecito is of course where Yves and Manon lived.

  4. Great piece, Don, as usual. I, too, would’ve asked the same question about the Zippo: who were they trying to sell ICBMs to? I wonder that sometimes when you see random bits of advertisements. Are they just promoting the brand? Trying to get the public to understand their wealth and power? Or are they hoping that some general’s kid is sitting out there, saying, “Daddy! Daddy! Buy my country’s army a goddamn ICBM or I’ll throw a tantrum!”

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Yeah. I like being next to you in the lineup. I don’t think that’s happened before.

      I’ve always wondered about that sort of ad, even as an adult. I should start asking marketing people, because I’m sure there’s some kind of received wisdom about it. It’s got to be a power/prestige thing.

      The NY Times used to carry GE’s ads for locomotives on their front page. And when I was a boy, reading National Geographic, I saw ads for “Timken Roller Bearings,” which had to do with railroad cars. I remember asking my father if he knew anybody who bought Timken Roller Bearings and he said no, because he didn’t know anybody who dealt with railroad cars.

      And thus sixty years later all that stuff remains a mystery, except in truth I think the Titan Zippo was probably manufactured and distributed more for group solidarity among the engineers or workers than for advertising, much as today we might distribute t-shirts or ball caps. But that wouldn’t be as much fun to write about.

      Back when I was a race timer, I was working for the Army (timing the “Army Ten-Miler”) and some of the runner bibs simply said “Bofors.” Generally, runner bibs say Nike or Citibank or Ford or whatever — reasonable advertising. But Bofors? Bofors makes anti-aircraft and machine guns. Yeah! Need some AA equipment? Think Bofors!

      • I suppose if you’re selling locomotives and arms, you probably don’t need that many buyers. Pay for an advert and reach the right person and you’ll likely make enough cash.

        But, as you said, there are other reasons for ads.

        On a related note, I was reading something about tourism adverts for South Korea, and how they’re notoriously awful. The blog I was reading pointed out that they show these adverts more in Korea than they do elsewhere… Which begs the obvious question: Why would you need to sell Korea to people that are already there? But the answer, ultimately, is that they’re selling Korea to Koreans. The ads are bad precisely because they’re made for Korean people who just want to know how great their country is. They are completely ineffective as a means of persuading people around the world that it is a worthwhile destination.

        Which, I suppose, goes to show that people sometimes make adverts to make themselves feel good.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    Great piece, Don! I still carry my old Peugeot 504 badges around too. Although the car is long gone, keeping the badges keeps that car alive for me!
    It’s so good to see you on the TNB front page!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Z. I really wish I could find that badge. I still have hope.

      It took me a long time to find a script Carrera image of the right vintage, out on the net. There weren’t many Carreras out there on the roads in 1961.

  6. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Fascinating piece, I like the way you present these objects here and connect the stories and their meanings. Something about the proof of the event in the script and the newspaper clipping offered up beside your retelling of its memory made this very effective. Nice work, Don.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’m glad you liked it, Nate.

      About a year ago I got to wondering how much of what I remembered about it might be false. None, I hoped, but I got to work looking for evidence of the crash. Eventually I found the Carpinteria Valley Museum of History’s website, and David Griggs (the Director) found the newspaper article for me.

      I had felt certain that the car was owned by somebody with wealth (because Carreras were very rare and expensive in 1961) and that turned out to be true. The article went on to say that Yves was the son of Baron and Baroness Patrick Surcouf.

  7. Joe Daly says:

    Another stellar piece. Love the way the stories behind the objects come forth and weave together, carrying you along for the ride.

    If this is the kind of prose we can expect for your current project, I’ll be carving out a summer to read it.

    Good stuff, Don.

  8. Vee Rowe says:

    Don Mitchell. might it be possible to have a copy of that newspaper please.Scan etc.
    I am researching the Singer(Sewing machine)/ Surcouf family tree. This is the first I have heard of the accident.
    Hope to hear from you.
    Vee in ENGLAND

    • Michele Surcouf says:

      Hello Vee,
      I am the daughter of Yves Surcouf who did indeed die in the car accident mentioned in the blog. Are you still interested in researching the Singer/Surcouf family tree?
      Cheers
      Michele Surcouf

      • Vern Margard says:

        Michele –

        I’m doing some research on the family of the young woman killed in the accident, Manon deCastle. They had only been married 8 months. Since she was only 17, and he was 10 years older, my initial reaction is that Manon was not your mother. Is that correct?

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Hello Vee.

      What a surprise! I haven’t looked at this piece on line for many months, which is why I missed your comment. There was a system that sent the writer an email if a comment were made, but it doesn’t seem to be functioning. I would be glad to send you the scan that David Griggs sent to me.

      If you go to the site

      http://www.a-red-woman-was-crying.com

      you can find a way to contact me.

      Michele, I very much hope that my piece did not distress you, but if it did, that you can forgive me.

      Don

  9. Michele Surcouf says:

    Hello Don, thank you for your kind consideration. I have to admit, there were bits in your article that were not part of the family mythology surrounding my father’s death, and bits that had never crossed my mind… But no need for applogies. It was a long time ago and he was a very young man in a very fast car – not always a good combo. In fact, your article allowed me to revisit my father’s death from a different perspective, as an adult, with nothing but love and compassion for those two young people who’s lives were tragically cut short, and with sympathy for those he’d injured. It amazed me how impactful their deaths were. That you remembered it 50 years on made me realise that the impact of that crash affected more than just our family. Kind regards, Michele

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