It was still September. I hadn’t been in L.A. a month and Cecil had only been in town a few weeks following our return from Vietnam. We had been bunkmates assigned to the 1st Aviation Brigade and now, although assigned to different units, we shared an apartment in San Pedro overlooking Los Angeles Harbor. By all accounts we had it made. Everyone else we knew was being sent to large bases like Fort Hood, situated in the middle of nowhere but we had managed assignments at tiny Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, a stone’s throw from Los Angeles. We both had a little over a year to go on our enlistments before he would return to Alabama and I would go back to New York and we looked forward to soaking up as much of Southern California as we could.
But to do that we needed a car. A daytrip at the Dodger Stadium a week earlier had exhausted almost fifteen hours of which only three hours were at the actual ballgame, the rest consisting of bus rides and several miles of walking. The trip, which began early in the morning didn’t end until well past one o-clock in the morning. Los Angeles was simply too spread out for us to not have a car.
Ford had just come out with its newest model, the Pinto compact. It was heavily promoted that year and the $1995 sticker price made it very attractive. In a month I would be 25 years old and it was way past time for me to own my first car.
Cecil and I got up early on a Saturday morning, rented a Pinto down on Pacific Avenue, and drove into Hawthorne to a dealership where I would buy my own Pinto. After that, we reasoned, L.A. would be ours. For that matter Southern California would be ours—ball games, racetracks, concerts, golf, and all the beaches from Seal Beach to Santa Monica. Los Angeles was a world of opportunity and with a car it would be ours for the taking.
A salesman met us as we drove on the lot and I told him I was there to purchase a Pinto. Wanting to keep it simple, we passed on the test drive since we had done that on the way in and even chose a green one similar to the one we had rented. I just wanted to get the car, my car, on the road. We had thought out everything well in advance and while it might have seemed like we were moving too fast we really had everything under control. And then I made what for me was a rare,, impulsive decision.
He asked if I wanted a standard or automatic and although I had almost no experience with stick shifts I decided that with all the driving we would no doubt be doing, I should go with the better mileage standard transmission.
So that was it. I had a new car and the salesman had just made the easiest sale in his life. We went inside to do the paperwork, I wrote a check for the down payment and we were set to go—sort of.
Cecil got into the now old Pinto and I got behind the wheel of my brand new Pinto. The last stick shift I had driven was probably in the summer of ’68 when I was still in college. I knew the basics but the instincts weren’t really there. This became obvious when I tried to start it without engaging the clutch. The Pinto leaped forward while the salesman jumped back in fright and Cecil, staring at me from my rearview mirror, went nowhere.
“You going to be all right?” the salesman asked.
“Oh yeah,” I replied. “It’s just been a while. Every things okay.”
I started the engine again, this time engaging the clutch and firmly put her in first gear while slowly and deliberately attempting to make my right and left feet do what they knew they had to do but what they really hadn’t been called upon to do in a long time. To no one’s surprise it didn’t go well. I leaped forward again and again I stalled. But the good news was that I was getting ever closer to being out of the parking lot and into the street.
The man didn’t even say anything this time or maybe I just didn’t give him a chance. At any rate I started her up again and gave her a little more gas this time and again my brand new Pinto, acting more like a wild mustang, leaped forward only this time to my amazement she didn’t stall and I shot into the busy Saturday morning traffic of Hawthorne Boulevard to the sound of screeching brakes and screaming drivers. A quick glance in the mirror showed Cecil saying something to the salesman.
The good news is we were just about a block from the entrance to the Harbor Freeway that would bring us home to San Pedro. This would give me a good ten miles to figure out what I was doing wrong. The bad news is that ten miles doesn’t even take ten minutes on the freeway and before I knew it I was at the end of the Harbor Freeway and stopped at a red light with Gaffey Avenue staring at me.
The light turned green and I did what I was almost a hundred per cent sure I would do. I stalled out. The light turned red again giving me another minute to assess my situation. On the next green I did pretty much a repeat of the first green light. The line behind me was getting pretty long with cars that had just been going 60-plus miles per hour but now found themselves sitting through successive green lights and going nowhere.
The first car behind me was Cecil. I could see he was getting a little anxious. When the next green light came and went, Cecil got out of his Pinto and walked over to my driver’s side window and began talking in his unusually long drawn out Alabama drawl that, coming from New York, I found to be particularly appealing.
“Look aaah Phil—aaah buddy, aaah, this is the situation—these drivers behind us are getting pretty excited back there and aaah I’m getting a little frustrated myself. If you can’t get through the next green light, well, I’m probably just gonna have to kill you myself because it just wouldn’t be right for a stranger to do it.”
What I always liked about Cecil was that he was so even-tempered. He could say something like that with a smile on his face that said everything was gonna be all right but that if he had to he could do it.
“I think I’m getting the hang of it,” I told him, with a smile on my face that said I was pretty sure everything was going to work out but if it didn’t, I wouldn’t blame him for anything he did.
Well I did get through the next light along with about fifty other drivers who were passing me before I even got through the intersection and things did work out although living on 22nd Street with its steep incline certainly presented difficulties for a few days. But in time I got the hang of it like everybody does and Cecil and I were going to our Dodgers games and the beaches and bars farther than five blocks away and at this point my story would come to the comfortable end that all fairy tales arrive at, namely, and they lived happily ever after. Except that the story of my brand new Pinto was not finished.
It was mid October and my 25th birthday was coming up. The nice thing about being in the army during the Vietnam era was that if you weren’t serving in Vietnam they really didn’t need you. So when I approached my Sergeant Major about taking off for my birthday he said he had no objection under one condition. His niece was visiting from Japan and she wanted to see America and would I mind showing her around.
So early on the morning of October 22nd I picked Hiroko up and we headed out to see America. The problem was that she had been visiting L.A. for over a month now and there really wasn’t that much that she hadn’t already seen. Short of driving to the Grand Canyon or Pike’s Peak or Mount Rushmore,, I really didn’t know where to take her. And then I remembered a trip we had taken just two weeks after I bought the Pinto and decided to take a chance.
“Would you like to go to Tijuana?” I asked. Now I know that technically, Tijuana isn’t part of America but on the other hand, it was practically a suburb of Los Angeles. Everybody went there and there was no denying the fact that it was designed with Americans in mind. If there were no Tijuana someone would have had to invent it so Southern Californians could go there.
I don’t know if she wanted to go or not or if she even knew what I was talking about. She spoke very broken English and the tendency in that situation is to just be agreeable so she said, “Sure, we go Teewanna.”
So we headed down the Pacific Coast Highway until we picked up Interstate 5 and soon crossed the border into Mexico. I parked the car and we walked the streets of Tijuana listening to the music and street chatter that was foreign to both of us. I bought her lunch from a street vendor and she bought desert for my birthday and I think, all in all, we both enjoyed the day.
I took her picture standing next to the donkey painted up to look like a zebra. “They’ll love this back in Japan,” I told her. By late afternoon we had seen enough and it was time to start heading home.
But before crossing the border, we decided to get something to eat. We weren’t five minutes from the border when it happened. A big old Pontiac that had probably migrated to Mexico back when I was still in grade school ran a red light and slammed into the side of my tiny new Pinto. All the kinetic energy from that behemoth hunk of steel and rubber dealt a lasting deathblow from which my Pinto would never recover. The momentum sent us across the intersection and over the curb but we weren’t done yet. We still had another 20 feet to go before we finally slammed into and came to rest against a billboard sign. This was where her tour of America ended; and realistically speaking, what is more American than a billboard. Now she could say she’d seen it all.
Miraculously neither of us was hurt; the police arrived at the scene and we completed the necessary paperwork. I didn’t think anything could be easier than when I had purchased the Pinto but it took all of 30 seconds for me to hand over the keys to my one month-old Pinto in exchange for the wrecker’s business card.
The cop was nice enough to drive us to the Greyhound bus station where we bought two tickets to Los Angeles and I made a call to the Sergeant major. He was glad we were both all right and assured us he would be at the bus station when we arrived but seemed a bit confused about why we were calling from Tijuana. I only remember that none of my explanations seemed to adequately satisfy his concerns.
Like I said, neither one of us was hurt although I did discover she knew more about America than she had let on. A few days after we returned to Los Angeles she visited a doctor who verified that, yes, she may have possibly, very likely, better-to-be-on-the-safe-side,, suffered some whiplash.
Apparently she felt she owed me something for the good fortune of being possibly but not probably injured and so at Christmas dinner at the Sergeant Major’s house she gave me a “traditional” Christmas gift of socks. This gave rise to an uncomely dig from the Sergeant major’s oldest son, Mike.
“Gee,” he said, as I unwrapped the socks, “Hiroko got $300 and Phil just got socks,” to which I replied, “Gee, you’ve got a driver’s license, why didn’t you take her to see America?”
As it turned out the socks were the best deal I was going to get out of the whole ordeal. My insurance company told me the car was a total loss. They would pay off the balance and I would just be out the depreciation, which was about equal to my down payment, which made sense they explained because the car wasn’t a new car anymore. Hell no, it wasn’t new anymore. It was all of a month old—well almost a month old—as old enough as it was going to get.
So that’s the story of my brand new Pinto and my not so brand new Pinto. A few weeks later for $200, I bought a ten-year old Buick that had power windows, power antennae and got about six miles to the gallon going down 22nd Street on the way to work. It got a little less mpg at night going up the hill.
But one thing I knew for sure. If I hit another car with this one, I wouldn’t be taking no Greyhound bus home.