Saturday, May 19, 2012

Of Dogs and Cars

I don't mind admitting that I'm a tremendous Dave Barry fan. Over the years I particularly enjoyed his columns that dealt with either dogs or cars. These, because of my own memories with such things, always set me chuckling.

I've dealt with a few dogs myself over the years, ranging from a Heinz-57 variety when I was a toddler (known to me only via home movies), an extremely nervous chihuahua named "Twinkle" (for whom my grandmother was nicknamed), and, when I was a teenager, a neurotic whippet named "Splinter."

Her actual name was not Splinter. She was in reality an AKC-bred whippet and a name like Splinter does not sit well with the AKC for purposes of registration. So her registered name, dreamt up by my father (proving once again that his sense of humor extended beyond merely creating five interesting children) was "Fleetfoots Frangere Dubois." This appropriately pretentious-sounding name was, in fact, a loose composite of French and Italian for "splinter of wood," except for the Fleetfoots part, which was the name of the breeding farm where Splinter was dropped off by extra-terrestrials during an emergency.
Loudspeaker on ET's bridge: Warning! Transwarp engines reaching critical mass! Eject the whippet core!
ET would use whippets for their spacecraft because these dogs, bred as miniature greyhounds, are lightning fast. We were never rich or pretentious enough as a family to do anything like turn Splinter into an actual racing dog, so her primary form of physical activity was going to the school yard next door and running around like an antelope on meth. I'd let her off the leash, and she'd leave me behind in a cloud of dust. Only an occasional sonic boom would indicate her approximate position. Her favorite trick was waiting for a larger dog, like a labrador or a shepherd, to wander into the school yard and then - ZOOM - she'd run right underneath the larger dog, sending that animal into paroxysms of barking and howling, begging his owner to let him off the leash so he could hunt her down and turn her into a snack.

Ironically, they wouldn't have had to try very hard if they'd simply wanted to get rid of her. Splinter was a very high strung animal. Her nervousness was such that if our cat happened to wander into the house (on those occasions when she deigned to let us feed her), Splinter would immediately take up residence under our couch and refuse to come out until the cat stopped threatening to shred her like an old credit card.

I've since been told that whippets are, in fact, highly intelligent animals and capable of amazing feats beyond just running faster than our current fleet of F-22s.


Splinter's main amazing feat was her ability to jump over a given fence or wall, while still chained in our yard, and effectively hang herself in the neighbor's yard. She did this frequently because we spent a lot of time in our neighbor's pool next door during the summer, and Splinter could not bear to hear us having such a good time without her. Since I was a mindless teenager, I usually forgot to shorten her chain and she would easily jump the six-foot fence into the next yard. The chain, however, was only long enough to clear the fence with about three feet of chain left.

Ah, the good times.

This morning I was reading about Dave's experiences with buying a car. This reminded me of my Dad's stories about various cars he'd owned. Our family owned cars that were not what I would call muscle cars. Our cars tended to be technological weaklings that other cars could not resist kicking sand at while on the beach.

The coolest cars we owned were handed down to us by my grandparents who had themselves moved on to muscle cars and gave us what were, when they owned them, perfectly serviceable automobiles, but which became, after our family got hold of them, simpering, blithering shadows of their former selves. Even our Chevy Bel-Air (1955! Baby blue!) could not long withstand our inability to keep any car running without developing some sort of fatal car disease. In the Bel-Air's case, a transmission that somehow or other lost the ability to move in reverse. This meant never parking anywhere that we could not move out of nose-first. If we parked in a driveway, it had to be steep enough to allow us to drift backwards in neutral all the way into the street so we could then move forward.

Once upon a time, Dad told me about a car they bought mostly on the recommendation of my grandfather (my mom's Dad). It was called the "Goliath," and Dad hated this car. Thanks to the internet, I now know that the Goliath was of European design and build and was considered "revolutionary" for its time. However, the words "two cylinder, two stroke engine" helped me understand the vitriol my father felt for this car. Dad would have considered this car a lawn mower with a trunk and a steering wheel.

Dad bought the Goliath and before long developed the kind of relationship with it that was similar to Ralph and Alice Kramden in "The Honeymooners." Except that Dad's language when dealing with Alice (the Goliath) was much more colorful than anything Jackie Gleason ever came up with.

My favorite story about the Goliath, however, was one which always caused my mother to shrink back into the couch and try, if possible, to disappear. This is because she was actually with Dad when this happened, and she tried the same trick in the front seat of the car.

Dad had pulled up to a red light and - only because the law required it - stopped. The car, sensing an opportunity to get some well deserved rest, expired. Being Los Angeles (the Big City!), some gracious lady pulled up behind Dad at the light. When the light turned green and Dad was frantically trying to get the Goliath resuscitated, the lady began honking her horn. Those of us who knew and loved my Dad could just envision Dad's reaction to this lady's helpful horn blowing. After a moment or two (I reckoned Dad's legendary patience would have been strained after precisely two honks, but that may be a slight exaggeration) Dad got out of the car, walked back to the helpful lady and said something to the effect of, "Look, lady. I'll make a deal with you. You come start my car, and I'LL SIT HERE AND HONK YOUR #$&*%! HORN!" Mom, at this point, was attempting to phase into an entirely different dimension.

I'd tell you about the joys of being a two-Volkswagen family when I was a teenager, but I think Dad's patience has had all it can stand for one post.


Christy said...


Christy said...


Anonymous said...

Asrgh! The memories! I remember Splinter also jumping through our dining room window and trying to hang herself inside the house. When she couldn't get in she set up such a howl that you could hear her in Moorpark. And the honking incident is branded so deep in my memory bank that it will never leave me -- ever! It was worse than the time he almost out of the car (in Hollywood!)to have a fist fight. Fortunately both drivers cooled off and I didn't have to stay down on the floor.

Tom Wilkin said...

Greg: I remember the Goliaths. The fairest thing that can be said about them is, they seemed like a good idea at the time. They were made by Borgward, another German car company that was well-respected in the day. I remember your parent's car was a station wagon, if I recall correctly, and Grandpa's car was a 2-door coupe. I ended up driving the Goliath, and no doubt a lot of the trouble was my 17-year old lead foot. The cars simply couldn't handle the abuse. I believe your dad drove similarly. By they time they were 2 years old, they were junk. There was a fatal flaw in the engine that caused crankshaft failures, and I'm quite sure both cars eventually suffered from it.

Woody said...

Appreciate that, Tom! More background on what was one of my favorite family legends growing up. Of course, I can't really talk: my first car was a Vega. Aluminum block, no guts, sold for $35 scrap when it finally died on the freeway one morning.