The Roll Of Distant Thunder

Thomas Kreutzer
by Thomas Kreutzer
the roll of distant thunder

Sometime around 1977, the little orange Opel Kadette wagon that had carried the Stork family through the lean times of the Arab oil embargo disappeared from its place above the truly enormous oil stain on their carport and a midsize Chevrolet two door arrived. The kids in our neighborhood were unimpressed. It was, to our eyes, just another in the long line of well used cars that Wayne had brought home and, while we had all hoped he would bring home something cool, we were disappointed that he had chosen a Chevelle. They were quite literally everywhere, most often driven by little old ladies who plowed the country roads below the posted 35 mph limit, and as such could not possibly be of interest to us. Even if it did have white racing stripes and a bulging hood with a little flapping door that opened and closed when you stepped on the gas, we were all in agreement that Wayne’s most recent choice was a total disappointment.

Wayne ran the Chevelle hard, one hand on the wheel the other gripping the door frame as he slung it through the curves. Looking back, I am sure he had a great deal of fun in the old car and the sound of its big engine booming through the trees as he roared home after work became a regular part of our childhood afternoons. As we played outside or rode our bicycles, the sound would first reach us as a faint roll of distant thunder. It increased in intensity as he drew closer, its tone rising and falling as he crested hillocks or dropped into dips along the roadway as he worked his way closer. When he was about a mile out, we would hear the sound of sudden, explosive acceleration as he hit the straightaway and then a steady drone as he held the gas and worked the car through a sweeping right hander. At the curve’s exit, the sound would fall off to near silence as he stepped fully off the gas to slow his speed as he neared the turn off to our road. Finally would come the slow burble of the big block at near idle as he guided the car onto our road and rolled slowly past before turning into the third driveway on the left.

As time passed, we grew to the point where we learned that some cars were “different” than others. We heard the other fathers talk about the car in low tones as it passed and, although we were never specifically told, we grew to understand that the big Chevelle was marked out from the others by more than just its racing stripes and bulging hood. The other cars didn’t bear “SS” badges and although we didn’t know just what the 396 on the front fender meant, we knew it was bigger and therefore better than the 307 we saw affixed to so many other Chevelles in our neighborhood. Soon, the sound of distant thunder was a call to action and we lined our bicycles along the roadside to watch as it rolled by.

One memorable Autumn afternoon the big car appeared unexpectedly at the end of our street. The sound and fury that typically announced its arrival had gone missing and, like some battle damaged World War II fighter returning to base, the big car trailed a plume of white, wet smelling smoke in its wake. Wayne crawled slowly past, turned the wounded car into the driveway and then unexpectedly veered onto the gravel path that led back into the woods behind the house. He left it there, parked close to a barn beside a massive blackberry bush that concealed the remains of a white 58 Impala and walked back to the house. We didn’t know it then, but it was the last time the car would move under its own power.

In the days that followed, Wayne took his truck to work and then one day an ugly green AMC Gremlin appeared on the car port. Fall turned to winter and the Washington rains set in with a vengeance, soaking the earth and turning the ground by the barn into a sea of mud. Within weeks, the car had sunk up to its hubs in the mud and its paint was streaked with the first growth of moss and mold. The following summer the mud turned rock hard, tall grass grew up around the car’s body and green spots of mold appeared on the inside of the car’s windows. Nature was taking its course and the old car began to disintegrate into the elements from which it had come.

By the time I was in high school the old Chevelle was simply another lifeless hulk among many in the woods behind the Stork’s house. The 1958 Impala, which so far as I know had never moved during my lifetime, seemed as immobile and as permanent as a mountain and nearby an ancient Dodge truck was covered in so many layers of pine needles that it appeared to be a part of the tree it sat beneath. Close by sat a bulldozer, then a tractor and a machine that had once been used to bail hay. Strewn among the machines were any number of rusty bicycle frames, old motorcycles, cast off construction material and dozens of broken appliances. As children, all of these things had been our playthings, but by the time the Chevelle was left among them we had learned to keep our hands off of the things that did not belong to us. And so the car remained there, untouched, a half submerged time capsule.

Although I never laid a hand upon it, the Chevelle still spoke to me. I mentioned it often to my friends at school, speculating about the possibility of rescue, repair and restoration and, surprisingly, people listened. One Saturday morning a school friend went to the Stork’s house to ask about the car I had said lay hidden in the woods. To my shock and dismay, Wayne denied the car existed. There was an old Nova out there, he told them, but it was nothing special. He had no clue why I would be excited about the car, maybe I was just telling stories. I was left looking like a liar.

I’m not sure if it was guilt over the great car’s demise or the hope that someday he would pull the car from the forest and return it to its former glory that made Wayne deny its very existence but I learned a lesson. In the same way that I had learned not to touch things that were not mine, I learned not to speak of them either. A few years after my friend had knocked on the door, a friend of Wayne’s son showed up with a handful cold hard cash and struck the deal that would bring the Chevelle back into the light, but by then, of course, it was too late. The car, I was told, was to be broken up for the few good parts that remained.

I saw it as they hauled it away on the back of a truck. Muddy water flowed out through a thousand holes in the bottom of the great car and pooled on the deck of the big truck. As the truck rolled away, the puddle of dirty water flowed to the edge of the ramp and the wind wicked it away as individual drops; bitter tears that left sad trail upon the road to mark the car’s final passage. Not every ending is happy.

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.

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  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Sep 19, 2013

    Once again, T, your story reached my soul. The demise of the car isn't the saddest part to me - it's whatever malaise gripped its owner to walk away from it.

  • Nrd515 Nrd515 on Sep 19, 2013

    I knew a couple of people who did this to old cars. I never understood why they didn't sell them, instead of letting them rot "out back" and become totally worthless. One guy did this with two cars before I found out the cars were "out back". The first one was a '66 GTO that was in a minor wreck, and was fixed enough to drive, but then was retired due to a cracked block. The replacement for that car was a '68 (I think)Charger R/T that wasn't in great shape when bought(lots of dings), and he drove it until he blew a head gasket, about 2 years. I found out about the junk "out back" when the Charger died. It was still in fair shape at that point, just a little rusty, and of course, with the dead engine. The owner of the house was a weird guy, and was kind of infamous for letting his back yard, and it was a really big back yard, grow to over a foot tall. He called me and a friend over, we were about to turn 16, it was like April '72, and said, "I'll give you guys a couple of bucks each to help me push this thing into the back yard!", we agreed, and when we pushed it back around the house, there was the GTO, with the windows rolled down, and rusted badly and the interior had moss growing on it! Laying next to the GTO were several engines, some complete looking, some short blocks, and some bare blocks too. I asked him why he didn't sell the GTO when it died and he looked at me like I was insane. Fast forward to 2006, I went over there to see if he had anything I might want as he was selling the house, and there sat the GTO, the Charger, and a 65 Plymouth Belvedere, in good shape, both the GTO and Charger were rotted to the point they were unusable for anything but future Chinese junk. I don't think anything at all had been moved since we shoved the Charger back there. I don't understand it at all. The other guy was one of those, "Put a cover on it, and put it in the garage and it will be worth a ton of money some day" guys. He had what was once a very nice red Olds 442 under that cover. He never touched it in about 40 years! When he got feeble and had to go to assisted living, his sons came in to help clear the house out, and the 442 was mostly a rusted hulk, some guy bought it for the motor and maybe the trans. I don't think anything else was usable. The old man couldn't seem to understand what happened to it.

    • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Oct 08, 2013

      I think for a lot of folks the old cars out back take on the status of talisman: a reminder of better days, or lost loved ones, or a receptacle of broken and unspoken dreams. Never underestimate the power of the word "someday".

  • Tassos I know some would want to own a collectible Mustang. (sure as hell not me. This crappy 'secretary's car' (that was exactly its intended buying demo) was as sophisticated (transl. : CRUDE) as the FLintstone's mobile. Solid Real Axle? Are you effing kidding me?There is a huge number of these around, so they are neither expensive nor valuable.WHen it came out, it was $2,000 or so new. A colleague bought a recent one with the stupid Ecoboost which also promised good fuel economy. He drives a hard bargain and spends time shopping and I remember he paid $37k ( the fool only bought domestic crap, but luckily he is good with his hands and can fix lots of stuff on them).He told me that the alleged fuel economy is obtained only if you drive it like a VERY old lady. WHich defeats the purpose, of course, you might as well buy a used Toyota Yaris (not even a Corolla).
  • MRF 95 T-Bird Back when the Corolla consisted of a wide range of body styles. This wagon, both four door and two door sedans, a shooting brake like three door hatch as well as a sports coupe hatchback. All of which were on the popular cars on the road where I resided.
  • Wjtinfwb Jeez... I've got 3 Ford's and have been a defender due to my overall good experiences but this is getting hard to defend. Thinking the product durability testing that used to take months to rack up 100k miles or more is being replaced with computer simulations that just aren't causing these real-world issues to pop up. More time at the proving ground please...
  • Wjtinfwb Looks like Mazda put more effort into sprucing up a moribund product than Chevy did with the soon to be euthanized '24 Camaro.
  • Wjtinfwb I've seen worse on the highways around Atlanta, usually with a refrigerator or washer wedged into the trunk and secured with recycled twine...