Way back in 1973, a relatively young and inexperienced director by the name of George Lucas made a movie that starred a whole bunch of nobodies. Called “American Graffiti,” it turned out to be the little movie that could. Co-Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz for just $775,000, it went on to become one of the most profitable films of all time, making an estimated $200 million dollars and, in the process, turned several of those “nobodies,” people like Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, Suzanne Summers, and Cindy Williams, into bankable stars. In 1995, the National Library of Congress declared it to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation by adding it to the National Film Registry.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the story by revealing any of the finer points of the plot. Generally speaking, it is the story of teenage angst and antics set amid classic cars and punctuated by great old-time rock and roll music and the action follows several teens on a hot August night in the far away year of 1962 as they cruise their cars around the California town of Modesto in search of action and adventure. The movie hit theaters just as the first wave of the baby boom generation, people born between 1946 and 64, began to close-in on the ripe old age of 30 and to see it now is to look back upon the days of their youth through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia.
It has taken me a long time to appreciate it. I was all of 7 years old when American Graffiti went into theatrical release and didn’t actually sit down and watch it until VCRs became commonplace in the American home sometime in the early 1980s. Frankly, I didn‘t get it. For me, a founding member of Generation X who was born in 1966, the movie seemed a cloying tale of ancient silliness that had long since been wiped away the decades that had followed them. I think now, however, that the real problem was that, even though I was the same age as the kids depicted, I would never have done the things they did. Having nothing real in common with any of the characters, I ended up listening to the dated, but admittedly wonderful, soundtrack and watching that old Detroit iron endlessly circling the town. In that regard, at least, the movie reflected a reality that I actually knew. That’s because, despite the 20 years that had elapsed between the action depicted in American Graffiti and the tawdry days of my own youth, virtually nothing had changed.
I got my driver’s license in early 1983 and by my senior year of high school, 1984, my Nova and I were a regular part of the street scene. My car, armed with a six cylinder and a three on the tree, was never competitive but, thanks to my ability with pin stripe tape and a set of rallye wheels that came from my brother Tracy I had a good looking little cruiser that was both reliable and about as fuel efficient as I could get. It was my buddies who had the heavy iron, Rick with his Javelin at first and later a 69 Charger and Denny with a 340 Demon, who carried the honor of our small group. Even so, we were never the “fast guys.”
The fast guys were older than us. Already working solid $4.00 and hour jobs 40 hours a week, they had real money to throw at their cars. There was Jim, who had an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with a 442 front end grafted on. It wasn’t fast, but it was custom. Then came Dave, whose father owned a local body shop, who had a wickedly fast 68 Camaro but who spent most of his time selling and smoking pot rather than actually racing. Next was Bob, who had a custom bodied Comet Caliente that mounted square headlights above a front spoiler do big we called it “The Bulldozer.” And finally Tye, our own local hot-rodder who had finished school just a year earlier. His 68 Mustang had none of the shine or polish the other cars enjoyed, but he worked relentlessly to make it just a little bit faster each week.
Perhaps it was because their cars were so similar beneath the skin, or perhaps it was because, when everything was said and done, they were both a couple of jerks way down deep inside, but for some reason Bob and Tye who should have been, in my opinion, friends were instead mortal enemies. I remember them now, a couple of wanna-be toughs in greasy pants and with cigarettes dangling from their lower lips as they glowered at one another from opposite ends of our local video game arcade’s parking lot. They got there early and staked out their spots, their supporters filling in around them while the rest of us endlessly circled around like a giant school of fish.
Like stags in the rutting season, each boy was compelled to trumpet his prowess in the loudest way possible and every so often, one or the other would jump into his car to start and rev his uncorked engine. If we were lucky, the other boy would respond to the challenge and a burn off contest would ensue. Back and forth it would go, the pressure of imminent conflict gradually increasing by the hour as the witching hour drew nigh. Then, just before midnight, when most of us had to be home, both boys would lead their troops to the battlefield.
We had a special spot close to the Everett Boeing 747/777 assembly plant. The factory is immense and tens of thousands of people work there. Every shift change floods the roadway with commuters and as a result the plant is served by its own 6 lane wide highway spur. At one end, close to the factory gate is a stoplight to control ingress and egress from the huge parking lots that line the roadway and approximately ¼ mile away is a giant overhead sign that directs traffic onto the main highway, East to Mukilteo or West to Everett. The course was wide, safe and, at anytime other than shift change, totally desolate.
The two caravans of cars, and those of us who had dared to break our curfews to become hangers on, would converge on the spot just prior to the main event. Looking back on it now, the local police had to know what we were doing but for the most part they left us alone. Generally they were good to us so long as we were good to them and, unlike the movie (spoiler alert!) we played no shenanigans. Usually we would get about 30 minutes on-site before a single cruiser would roll through with its lights on reminding us that we needed to go home.
In that 30 minutes we had, however, the ritual was unvaried. Bob and Tye would stage up singly and make a practice run while the other watched. Final adjustments would be made and burn offs would follow. At last, the night culminated as they came to the lone, door handle to door handle.
The stoplight switched to green and both drivers hammered the gas. The sound of their Fords’ engines pounded the night and reflecting back at us off the wall of the factory as the two cars accelerated. Bob hit his shifts perfectly while Tye’s automatic did the work for him as they came out of the hole and ran up to speed. It was neck and neck and then, slowly the Bob’s Bulldozer began to inch away. He stretched out his lead to one car length as then two before they passed the finish line. The winner would slow and turn, making a victory lap along the line of kids while the loser, unwilling to face the jeers of the masses, would continue up the on ramp and onto the freeway.
With the main movers done, the rest of us would take our own turns. Rick or Denny would take on all comers, sometimes winning sometimes losing, while I looked for someone whose engine was as deficient in acceleration as my own lest I be beaten to a pulp every time. There was never money involved, we never had more than a few dollars in our pockets anyhow, it was all for fun and, perhaps, just a bit of pride. And then, as he 30 minute mark would approach, that single police cruiser would come and, as quickly as it started, it would end.
At the end of the movie, we get to find out what happened to the kids those “nobodies” played. As the credits rolled, a single subtitled line told us their fates. Without ruining for you, all I can say is that some of them went far in life and some of them didn’t. I would imagine it is the same for the kids I knew too. Some of us have found our way to places no one would ever have believed we could go while others of us still struggle. The one thing we have in common now are those nights and the heady days that came at the ends of our own childhoods. Maybe one day, someone will make a movie about that.
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.