1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 11: Son of Orange County
In Part 10, the Hell Project Impala got Fiat scoops on the hood and hit the I-5 trail again. By late 1993, the car looked more or less the way I’d planned when I started the project and had become a surprisingly good daily driver (thanks to more modern brakes and a reliable, HEI-equipped 350 engine). I still planned to do some suspension and horsepower upgrades, once the early 1990s recession relaxed its grip enough for me to land a decent-paying job, but the setup I had was fulfilling my driving needs very well. Then, in the spring of ’94, Richard Nixon died, and I decided to take the Nixon-hood-ornamented car down to his birthplace and mingle with the mourners.
Before all this happened, however, I’d finally managed to ditch the office- and light-industrial-temp gigs and get a full-time job: delivery driver for a tropical-fish wholesaler.
Every morning I’d drive the Impala to the company’s East Bay warehouse and report to the 120-degree, 100% humidity Fish Room to help pack the day’s merchandise.
The entire aquarium/tropical-fish business is a festival of cruelty from start to finish, particularly with the salt-water varieties; first, starving divers in various Third World coastal towns in the Pacific jump into the water while breathing from a compressor air hose, and they hose down fish habitat with cyanide to stun the fish. Most of the victims die, but some get netted and put into plastic bags, and after another death-filled journey that culminates in the few sickly survivors making it to an American airport’s cargo facility, a Fish Driver (that was me, generally at SFO) arrives in a Mitsubishi Fuso van to pick up a bunch of insulated boxes full of plastic bags containing dead, dying, and (a few) living tropical fish. The fish then take a ride to the Fish Room, where they live in aquariums until being ordered by a retailer. Then the employees of the wholesaler net the fish and dump them in 5-gallon buckets full of salt water, at which point the Fish Driver puts them in plastic bags, fills the bags with oxygen, and dumps them in a styrofoam box for delivery to the customer. Then the fish— those that survive— are sold to the public, and they spend the rest of their abbreviated lives swimming in tiny, desperate circles, searching in vain for an ocean that will never again be their homes. Yeah, this part of the job sucked. If you’re now an underemployed 20-something who’s been on the same sort of not-so-encouraging career path for a couple of years after graduation, you are experiencing a harsher, less forgiving version of the job market of the early 1990s recession, and you probably have a pretty good grasp of the Fish Driver-type jobs out there.
I had no complaints about my commuter vehicle at this time; it drove very well and looked great. My commute covered about 15 miles of some of the nastiest traffic in the East Bay, so I spent a lot of time on the plush green upholstery of my Buick (or maybe it was Oldsmobile) bench seat, inching forward in stop-and-go traffic on I-880 and listening to music on my eight-speaker, twin-amplifier, all-junkyard stereo system.
Being a Fish Driver was pretty stressful, and so I made a special mix tape to listen to while driving to and from my route. Its name: I, Fish Driver.
The vehicles in the Fish Warehouse motor pool were the Fuso, a battered diesel Ford Econoline van, and a diesel Isuzu pickup with rattly-ass camper shell. In order to play cassettes while driving, I drilled a hole in the back of a cheapo Emerson boombox (seen here with a Les Faquins sticker) and ran some long power leads terminating in alligator clips. After loading all the boxes of fish into the Isuzu, Ford, or Mitsubishi, the final step in preparing for my fish-drivin’ day involved crawling under the vehicle’s dash and connecting the alligator clips to 12V+ and ground.
At this point in my life, the Flaming Lips song “Jesus Shooting Heroin” had become more or less the theme song for my days toiling on the Fish Route. In truth, it became the theme song of my life, and my incessant replaying of the song drove everyone around me nuts in a big hurry. When the album containing this fine song first came out in 1986, I wrote off the band as an Oklahoma-fied Butthole Surfers ripoff (which, of course, they were, in most glorious fashion), and I was such a Butthole Surfers fanatic at the time that it took me until the early 1990s to begin to appreciate the genius of the Lips. It goes without saying that “Jesus Shooting Heroin” was the first song on my “I, Fish Driver” tape.
Sometimes I would allow “I, Fish Driver” to run past the first song, in order to hear the mournful Sister Double Happiness song “Wheels A Spinning.” Yes, those two songs make for sort of a Generation X, diminished-expectations/downward-spiral one-two punch, but it made perfect sense at the time. Following them up with Hüsker Dü‘s “Never Talking To You Again” and the Minutemen‘s “Jesus and Tequila,” on the rare occasion that I didn’t hit the Rewind button right after Gary Floyd’s voice stopped.
As a Fish Driver, my days started very early. Into the Impala at dawn, slave in the Fish Room for a couple hours, load the truck, then drive for the next ten or so hours. Repeat. Endlessly.
None of the Fish Driver vehicles had working air conditioning, and my route took me to the broiling-ass Central Valley at least two days a week. Here I am sweating in a Jenny Holzer T-shirt, which is appropriately meta-irono-Gen-X-esque.
I’d usually bring a camera along, so that I could capture old Buicks on Interstate 5 and weird scenes like this “Get Hooked On Fishing, Not On Drugs” bait shop in Stockton.
I shot quite a few proto- DOTS-style interesting street-parked cars during my travels. How about a partially-stripped RX-7 parked in front of an abandoned Pinto?
But mostly I saw strip malls, grim pet-supply chain stores, and about-to-go-out-of-business independent aquarium stores.
I’d finally managed to put a stop to most of the leaky windshield and rear-window weatherstripping— a common GM weak point of the era; my $113 GTO got so bad that crops of mushrooms sprouted from the carpeting by about February— using copious quantities of caulk, Henry’s Roof Cement, and JB Weld. That meant that the Impala’s interior no longer reeked of mildew during Northern California’s rainy winters.
I had gotten used to having weeks off between temp jobs and taking lengthy couch-surfing expeditions to Southern California, but being a Monday-through-Friday Fish Driver meant that my Interstate 5 expeditions had to be weekend-length.
One trip to Los Angeles seemed to promise a job much more interesting than being a Fish Driver.
My friend Ben’s girlfriend had taken a job as “ Mistress Nina” at a dungeon in City of Industry, and the dungeon management wanted somebody to weld up some proper torture equipment, preferably using rusty old car parts. Yes, underemployed 20-somethings in a recession will jump at any quasi-interesting job possibility with ice-water-in-hell enthusiasm, an effect one can see all around us today.
Truth was, Mistress Nina’s employer— I’ll call the joint Humiliation-‘Я’-Us, because I can’t recall the real name— had some pretty lame torture equipment. There was a medium-cool Triumph chopper sitting in the waiting room, and this head cage was sort of menacing… but check out the weak-ass chain running to the ceiling. How could a client of Mistress Nina feel the proper mix of fear and arousal, knowing that he could just snap the chain by not-very-desperate struggling?
Clothespins and Icy Hot are fine, sort of your bread-and-butter dungeon implements, but wouldn’t the addition of some gnarly, oxidized jumper cables and a big jar of well-used hose clamps add that extra dungeony je ne sais quoi? The mistresses wouldn’t actually have to use that stuff, so my additions to this sort of gear would be purely cosmetic. Humiliation-‘Я’-Us, after all, was a legitimate, tax-paying business, not some fly-by-night operation that sent its customers to the ER with hard-to-explain injuries.
And this so-called rack? Why, this spindly thing would be smashed to kindling by any real struggles. Why should the customers of Humiliation-‘Я’-Us have to exercise such suspension of disbelief during their ministrations at the hands of Mistress Nina and her coworkers? What this place needed was a rack based on bumper jacks! You know, the big ratcheting jobs preferred by Detroit in the 1960s, the ones that would let you hoist a Chrysler Newport at the top of a teetering shaft of cast iron. Imagine being chained to my rack, with hefty steel manacles at wrists and ankles (attached to clanking, logging-truck-grade rusty-ass chains you’d know you could never break no matter how desperate your struggles). My rack would be vertical, for a greater sense of vulnerability. Mistress Nina and her assistant would, with great deliberation, insert their tire irons into the twin bumper jacks behind your back and, at the count of three, crank down another notch. The glorious fear! Who knows what those evil torturin’ mistresses might do next? I’d use drum-brake return springs as safety devices, to limit the amount of torque on the victim. What could possibly go wrong?
Sadly, the job of dungeon-implement-maker never panned out. Negotiations with Humiliation-‘Я’-Us broke down over the subject of remuneration. First, they wanted to pay in services. No, thanks. How about speed? Hell, no! I wanted cash, and that seemed like a foreign concept to the graduates of the Dungeon School of Business.
That was sort of a bummer, because it would be unimaginably hip to be able to put “Sex Torture Equipment Designer” on my resume today. Still, I was able to put the knowledge I acquired about the world of dominatrices and dungeons to good use more than a decade later, when I wrote Torment, Incorporated (now available for the Kindle!). Actually, my disdain for the low-budget, make-believe setting of the Humiliation-‘Я’-Us facilities led me to come up with my own ideas for a really effective dungeon, and most of you will be pleased to know that I won’t subject you to any more of this digression here; jump over to MurileeMartin.com for a semi-work-safe excerpt from the novel.
The Impala was really looking and running great around this time; the Fiat hood scoops were the crucial finishing touch for the car’s look, and now only a few more years of patina acquisition were needed.
I was still loosely affiliated with the anti-nuclear canvassing organization for which I did occasional wrenching work on the donated cars used to transport canvassers to door-knocking “turf” (a great San Francisco-to-Reno road trip in a ’76 Nova with one such canvasser is documented here). After spending most of 1993 suffering under the cruel lash of the Fish Master, I finally quit my Fish Driver job, which gave me time to visit my friends protesting imminent thermonuclear annihilation at Lawrence Livermore Labs aka Edward Teller‘s Commie-Vaporizin’ Playground. The sight of the Impala among all those hippie-driven Tercel wagons and lefty-sticker-encrusted Vanagons caused some consternation among the jaded CHPs who were keeping the rabid peaceniks from storming the facilities, but no harm came to me or my wheels.
I was surprised that nobody seemed upset about the Richard Nixon hood ornament (which started life as a rubber shower-nozzle decoration, for those who wanted to feel that Tricky Dick was spitting on them in the shower) above the car’s grille. I was also surprised that no Mission District hipster ripped the thing off while the car parked in San Francisco, since the Nixon Head was held in place by a just couple of easily-sliced lengths of speaker wire.
Most who saw my car just tuned it out as “yet another hooptied-out Detroit heap,” but a few recognized it as the art car I’d intended to build all along. Here’s a note left under the windshield one night in early 1994: The Sinester (sic) Car of the Week!
Greasy handprints, three-dimensional texture, and blacked-out trim. I’d returned to the temp-gig lifestyle; the light-industrial gigs were too similar to Fish Driving, so I stuck with office-temp jobs this time around. I had some sort of weird job working a microfilm camera at a Ross Perot-owned facility with an incomprehensible purpose involving billions of cancelled checks being pumped through thousand-yard industrial lines; I still don’t know what they did in that place, which had a spy-movie-style security tunnel with remote-operated doors (through which bewildered temps had to pass after being interrogated via PA speaker every morning) and such uptight security that my job was never explained to me.
I was eating lunch in my car in the parking lot (all office temps have an aversion to eating in the break room with the perms, who look upon temps as not-quite-human creatures) when the news came over the radio: Richard Nixon was dead. At that point, I thought to glance at my car’s Nixon Head hood ornament and found that someone had cut one of the wires affixing it to the car, so that Nixon’s face was now facing the ground. It meant something, and I decided in that moment that it meant I’d better tell Ross Perot that I was done working in his mysterious check-eating facility… and head down I-5 to Richard Milhous Nixon’s homeland: Orange County, California.
So, I finished my last shift, told the temp agency I was through with that gig, packed up the Impala, and headed south. My destination: Yorba Linda, California, birthplace of Richard Nixon and home of the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.
A bit of background might be in order here. At this point, Frank Zappa’s ode to the 37th President of the United States, “Son of Orange County,” seems the appropriate background music (my dad, a big Zappa fan since the days of “ Freak Out,” i.e. my entire life, played this song endlessly during the era of the Watergate hearings; therefore it’s etched forever in my mind as “the Watergate theme song”), so crank it up.
Where did my Nixon obsession come from? As a kindergartner and first-grader in Minneapolis during the run-up to the 1972 presidential elections, I didn’t have a very clear grasp of politics; I knew we had been bombing the shit out of Southeast Asia going back to before I was born, for some reason that didn’t even make sense to the grown-ups, and that somehow the upcoming election had something to do with bombs and protesters, but that was about it. What I did know, however, was that my mom (a tough ER nurse from union-stronghold St. Paul) hated this Nixon guy’s guts, and the anti-Nixon tirades I overheard her delivering had me convinced that Terrible Things would ensue if Nixon won the election. I wasn’t sure quite what these things were (nor did I get that Nixon was already president at the time), but I somehow came up with the idea that we’d all be rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the desert if McGovern lost the election… which he did by the biggest blowout in United States presidential election history.
So, Nixon won… and a few weeks later, my parents quit their jobs, sold their house, bought a 1973 Chevrolet Beauville passenger van (shown here after the family got totally 1970s-California-ized, down to the floppy leather cowboy hats), and we left Minnesota for California… or that was the cover story. I knew that we were really heading to Nixon’s camps in the desert, where we’d be put to work digging holes and filling them up again, or whatever evil presidents did to innocent Minnesota families.
Actually, my parents left Minnesota because they’d gone to visit friends in California on a week when the temperature in Minneapolis was 25 below and the temperature in the San Francisco Bay Area was 75 above. That 100-degree difference was all they needed to ditch the Midwest, forever. The Beauville survived long enough for me to wreck it as a teenager, incidentally; here are my sisters on a family trip in the red-and-white Chevy, circa 1981.
Even though the camps in the desert never happened, I remained fascinated with Nixon. During the period starting with the Watergate hearings and peaking with the Fall of Saigon, the Malaise Era was in full effect, with a downward-spiral sense that all principles had been betrayed, no institution was trustworthy, life would always get worse, etc., and Richard Nixon’s face was always front and center for me throughout all of it.
Nixon would be regarded as a flaming socialist liberal these days, what with such Trotskyist big-government/nanny-state moves as the EPA, Clean Air Act, radical economic moves, and so on, and he might have made an OK president (in spite of his SoCal-real-estate-money-backed reprehensible campaign tactics and general lack of moral compass), but unfortunately he was driven completely insane by having the ’60 Presidential election stolen for Kennedy by the vote-generating machines of Mayor Daley and LBJ and then— a mere two years later— losing the race for Governor of California to liberal Pat Brown (no, not this Pat Brown). Nixon had spent his life up to that point convinced that he needed to crush his enemies before they crushed him (an activity at which he excelled), but after the ’62 elections he became convinced that everyone, particularly the “East Coast media elite,” was out to destroy him. By the early 1970s, he was all hopped up on Dilantin, obsessed with legions of real and imagined enemies, and surrounding himself with cronies who felt it necessary to burglarize the offices of the (obviously hapless and doomed) opposition. As I got older, I read everything I could find on the subject of Richard Milhous Nixon, and came to see him as a profoundly American tragic figure— I didn’t exactly empathize with him, what with the permanent damage he inflicted on everything America was supposed to stand for and all, but I couldn’t look away.
When the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace had its grand opening in 1990, I was living 20 minutes away and had just purchased a 1965 Chevrolet Impala sedan. Naturally, one of the first trips I took in the car was to Yorba Linda, to be there when two ex-presidents and one current president (Ford, Reagan, and Bush I) dedicated the site honoring yet another ex-president.
Even though I was an obvious freak with a huge red beard at the time, I figured that my appreciation of Nixon’s significance would be understood by the wholesome Orange County Republicans running the show, and that I’d be welcomed to the ceremony outside the little house that lemon farmer and grocer Frank Nixon had built with his own two hands.
Unfortunately, the Secret Service guys saw it differently. The nice old ladies in red-white-and-blue dresses who guide visitors around the place (right side of the above photo) are very friendly and welcoming to visitors, no matter how unlike clean-cut La Habra Republicans they might appear, but the SS guys obviously figured I was about to produce a five-gallon bucket of pig blood and dump it on Gerald Ford, screaming about millions of dead Southeast Asians, tit-for-tat presidential pardons, and so forth.
I probably risked getting hustled off to an unmarked van and given a very unpleasant lecture about the lack of wisdom shown by photographing Secret Service personnel with four United States Presidents nearby, but this guy just gritted his teeth and told me to take off and never come back.
I did come back, of course, returning a few months later to tour the place. It may be different now, but the Nixon Museum was extremely… well, Nixonian. In stark contrast to the LBJ Museum (where they’re proud of the fact that LBJ stole elections, treated his subordinates like crap, sold out his allies, and lied like a sumbitch every chance he got), the Nixon Museum is a temple to spin and revisionist history, like the sort of thing Assad will set up if he gets booted out of Syria. The Silent Majority speech has its own little house with a white picket fence, the Vietnam War is blamed entirely on Democrats (fair enough, until 1969, not counting Eisenhower and the French), and Watergate was a conspiracy to destroy the Executive Branch of the United States government. Needless to say, I loved the place, especially the gift shop that provided me with the pewter Nixon Museum & Birthplace keychain shown here with my Impala keys.
But I persevered, because I knew that I had to be present at the Richard Nixon Museum & Birthplace when the distraught Orange County mourners showed up to pay their respects to their idol.
In truth, I was a little worried that I’d be lynched by a yowling mob of enraged retirees from Laguna Hills and .38-packin’ Tustin housewives the very moment anyone caught sight of my wretched-looking car and its disrespectful hood ornament, but I had no choice. The Nixon Head hood ornament would stay, lynch mob or no.
I needn’t have worried about getting strung up on a lamppost at some Yorba Linda strip mall, because the mourners at the RNM&B were so caught up in their own grief that they didn’t even notice my car rumbling into the parking lot. The nice old Republican ladies in their red-white-and-blue dresses just wanted to make sure I had a chance to sign the guest book.
The steps of the Museum were covered with flowers, flags, and heartfelt notes. “Love from my children. Sleep well, sweet Nixon.” You can’t make this stuff up!
I hadn’t thought to bring flowers, but I did feel a sense of loss that we wouldn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more. Not quite the sadness that I felt when, say, Frank Zappa, Charles Bukowski, and Kurt Cobain died during the several months prior to Nixon’s death, of course, but it did feel strange knowing that Nixon was gone.
“Soon. Very soon. Under golden skies and in fair clime. We’ll all be there again to meet & greet you again.”
Maybe so, if heaven turns out to be something like a Corona del Mar guard-gated community, peopled with honest small businessmen out of Yorba Linda, circa 1922. I hung around the mourners for a while, then climbed in the Impala and headed out of Yorba Linda. Perhaps it’s time to let the late Hunter S. Thompson, a man whose life often seemed bound to Nixon’s, have the last word here:
If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.
Next up: Packin’ up, movin’ to Georgia!
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