The used baby-shit green AMC Gremlin arrived in the Stork’s driveway about the time their long lived 1967 Chrysler Newport made its last tip out of the driveway and into its final resting place in the forested acreage behind the house. The oil shock had meant a lot of changes, but Wayne had been willing to deal with the high prices so long as it hadn’t meant purchasing a new car, but by the time the old Chrysler finally gave up the ghost it was a given that the next vehicle he purchased would be smaller and more fuel efficient. Compared to the Chrysler, the Gremlin was smaller and more fuel efficient, but compared to my family’s Opel Kadett it was an anachronistic piece of junk. It’s a wonder it lasted an entire year before it broke down.
The little car languished at the side of the carport and gradually became a sort of semi permanent shop bench where the various odds and ends of daily life ended up when their usefulness had passed. The unused part of a 2×4 found a home atop the car as it waited to be used in some other project, a broken toaster found its way into the back seat and a well used weed-eater was placed atop the cowl at the bottom of the windshield as it awaited a trip to the hardware store. Along with these and various other things that gradually accumulated over time, virtually all of the Stork’s dozen or so outdoor cats established their own perches atop the car and soon after that, a place atop the car’s hood was cleared for their food and water dishes. Like so many other things around the Stork’s house, the car soon became a part of nature itself and we kids found ourselves ignoring it.
When the forest behind the Stork’s house grew tall enough, Wayne saw the opportunity to make some money contracted with a local logging company to come and harvest some of the trees that grew there. The entire crew appeared on our street one morning, a small group of men driving big trucks with impressive looking log skidders atop lowboy trailers. In a matter of minutes the crew had their machines off the trucks and into the woods. The sound of chainsaws and cracking trees filled the air for days and soon the big skidders had clawed out rudimentary roads through the undergrowth as they worked to bring the long logs to a central landing where the trucks could load them and carry them to the mill. Truck after truck came and went and the forest behind the house was gradually denuded of its many alders, though the tall cedar trees, which required a special permit to cut, remained. When the job was done, what had once been an are of perpetual twilight beneath the tall trees was a barren ruin of broken stumps and trimmed branches. Amidst this carnage, dozens upon dozens of primitive roads wended their way through the destruction.
The roads soon became bicycle trails and we wore them flat with the passage of our tires. Nature reasserted itself over the scene and soon a mass of undergrowth sprang up and wherever the sun’s rays shined salmon berry bushes, vine maples and large patches of giant sticker bushes we called “devil’s clubs” grew thick. As time passed many of the lesser traveled paths were lost to us, but the ones we used remained. But pedaling a bicycle through the various hills and gullies of the Pacific Northwest wilderness can be tiring and so, one day, we determined that we should find something with an engine.
The whole project began with the surreptitious questioning of Wayne Stork. Why exactly had the Gremlin been parked, and why had it not been consigned to the graveyard behind the house? It turns out that it needed a simple repair, a new alternator, and that Wayne had been waiting for the right time to fix the little car. I knew enough about basic mechanics to know that an alternator is a nice thing to have, but that it isn’t really essential to make a car run so long as you have a fully charged battery. It was a small step to dig out the Stork’s battery charger, which had been conveniently left on the front seat of the car anyhow, and hook it to the battery. A day later, we filled the car’s four flat tires from a nearby air tank and, with the battery now fully charged, commenced to cranking. Lo and the little car fired and struggled into a smokey idle.
We added a couple of gallons of fresh lawn mower gas to the car’s tank and, after we had cleared off the bits of junk and shooed away all the cats, all the neighborhood kids climbed aboard while Kenny claimed the driver’s seat as his own. Throwing the car into reverse, he backed it down the driveway, pointed it into the woods and mashed the gas. The car responded with an unhappy groan as its six cylinder engine worked to move it forward but failed to even spin the tires in the gravel driveway as it began to work up momentum.
Trees flashed by at the grand speed of around ten miles an hour and at the main intersection of the property, the area that had been used as a landing by the loggers, Kenny threw the car down into low gear and headed down one of the old skidder trails. The undergrowth closed in around us and branches slapped at us through the open windows as we passed. The Gremlin ground its way on through the brush, up and over a hill and down into a gully where a small woodland stream ran nearly empty in the summer heat. Water splashed as we dove headlong in and the car’s wheels began to sink but our momentum carried us across and up the hill on the other side. At the back of the property Kenny spun the car around and we headed back through the forest to the driveway.
All day long Kenny drove the car through the forest like a madman. At one point he missed a curve and slammed the Gremlin into a giant boulder, a remnant of Western Washington’s ice glacial past, and made a huge dent in the car’s fended. Undeterred he plowed on, back through the small saplings and assorted undergrowth and back onto the road. By the time we finally ran out of gas the car was covered in long streaks of mud, bore the scratches of a million branches and had leaves and branches hanging from the grill. The situation was so bad that there was no hiding it and so we put it back on the car port and awaited Wayne’s return, or rather Kenny did as the rest of us beat feet before he got there.
As Kenny tells it Wayne came home, walked past the little car and came into the house where he found his son watching television. A man a few words, Wayne sat down in his chair and began to watch TV before broaching the subject. “I see you’ve been driving the Gremlin.” He said simply.
“Yeah,” answered Kenny, “We had to work on it. Can you believe that it still runs?”
“Of course it does.” answered Wayne, “It ran when I parked it.” And with that, the subject became a non issue and so far as I know was never raised again.
Looking back now, I am sure that Wayne had mixed emotions about our adventure. On one hand he was probably upset that his son had virtually destroyed the little car, but on the other he was probably proud that his son had the wherewithal to actually get out under the hood of the car, figure out the problem and implement a solution. From that day on, the car was Kenny’s plaything until it had been so broken and so abused that it could not run again. Then it too joined the others in the great junkyard that it had so often passed by on the way down one trail or another. By the time it arrived there, it had truly earned its place and I am sure that it remains there today, quietly decomposing amid the others, but alive still in my memory and now yours.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.