As a six-year-old growing up in the rich farmlands of northern Illinois, I spent my days playing in the creeks that meandered along and across Flansberg and Orangeville roads. One day, I was ambling home when a thunderous roar jolted me from my reverie. A black car came out of the curve behind me and sped past. The passenger waved. Convinced that I’d seen not one but two ghosts (restless souls at that), I ran home.
I told my tale of the phantoms of Flansberg road. My father listened, and then explained my sighting in less paranormal terms. “Some crazy people aren’t happy using an automobile to get them from here to there. They think it needs to look different and move faster. It’s as foolish as standing around with a hot rod in your bare hands. Now eat your dinner and do your chores.” But the image and sound of that car never faded from my mind.
Forty-four years later, Kurt Flannery called to tell me he was building a Ford Speedster. When I said I’d never heard of such a thing, my old friend clued me in. At the beginning of the last century, amateur enthusiasts would buy a Model T or Model A and take it back to their shed or garage. They’d strip the car, soup-up the engine, lower it by a foot or so and retrofit it with aerodynamic bodywork (or leave it bare). These “speedsters” were the world's first hotrods, patterned after Henry Ford’s early efforts (including a 91.37mph land speed record on a cindered frozen lake just outside of Detroit.)
A couple years later, I went to see Kurt’s finished speedster. As the door slowly swung upward, I saw a ghost. It was the exact same car I’d seen along the Flansberg Road. It had the same sleek appearance, the same tall white steel wheels and same long, low, predator posture. And it was beautiful: a boat tailed speedster worthy of a master builder. In the dim light of the garage, Kurt’s creation lay motionless, like a monster not to be awakened.
My friend handed me a white jacket, chrome goggles, black racing gloves and a soft white helmet. The speedster’s four banger cranked into a low throaty idle. When Kurt cranked the revs, the sound transported me back through time, back a half of a century, to a dusty road just outside of town.
The speedster was fast. I felt like I was riding on the outside of a rocket, sitting beside a steely-eyed missile man in full and unfettered control. We raced past huge trees, casting ever-lengthening shadows in our path. Every bump in the road, every twitch of the ancient chassis had me glancing over at my old friend for reassurance. Each time, he smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. On and on we sped…
I don’t think it even dawned on me when Kurt slowed just enough to straighten out the turn that would put us onto Flansberg road. The sun had just slipped beneath the trees to the left as we sped north. Kurt literally screamed over the exhaust noise that there was a set of curves just up ahead that he enjoyed at speed.
When we emerged from the last bend, there was a young boy walking along side the road with a fishing pole over his shoulder, bathed in the red of a fiery sunset. As he came into our view, he turned sharply to see what was overtaking him. He was startled by our quick arrival, and the specter of two men in strange suits, helmets and goggles. I smiled and waved.
When we pulled into the drive, it was dark enough for headlights. They died at the same moment as the engine. The monster was once again sleeping. The silence was painful. Gone was the “ten on the Richter scale” noise, the immense vibration, the cool wind in our face and the fleeting intense beauty of the moment itself.
I now find myself seventy-five years of age. Whenever I get back to the Midwest, I make time to stroll in the countryside where I grew up, just for old times' sake. Sometimes I look around and find that, after all these years, it looks the same as it did back then. And when I’m walking out there during sunset, and the wind lulls momentarily, and the rustling leaves settle to a whisper, I swear I can hear the faraway distant thunder of the phantoms of Flansberg road, moving quickly out of earshot. Of course, it’s only my imagination. But then, everything worth doing starts somewhere in the imagination.