Due to circumstances beyond his control, bj was unable to write his column this month. We are running an earlier piece he wrote and I’m sure you’ll agree, it qualifies as a “best of”.
by bj max
When I met Sugar Booger back in 1960, her family owned a small farm and to make ends meet, they also owned and operated a little country store. Rice’s Grocery, referred to by everybody as “The Store” was the heart of the little community of Tabernacle in those days and everybody on the east side of Tipton county passed thru its doors at one time or another. They stocked everything from horseshoe nails and country ham, to twist tobacco and peanut butter. It was, by any description, a general store.
Sugar Booger’s Mom ran the store like General Patton ran the Second Armored Division. She was the boss, make no mistake about it. She once faced down an armed robber refusing to give him anything. She told him that his mask wasn’t fooling anybody and if he didn’t skedaddle she was gonna’ call his Daddy. The robber fled and was later chased down and arrested by the citizens of the community.
The “Store” opened at six o’clock every morning, Monday through Saturday, and if you had some time to kill, you could always stop by and join in on the never-ending bull session. If you bagged a big buck or landed a trophy bass, you took them to the store to show ‘em off. And if you bought a new car, the first place you drove it was to the store.
Speaking of cars, after the store closed, the young folks, teenagers and twenty somethings, gathered in their souped up cars and hung out. It was the height of the car culture and yes, it even reached the backwoods of Tennessee. Everybody leaned against or sat on car fenders under the dingy yellow light of the Gulf Oil sign and talked into the night about Richard Petty, lowering blocks, David Pearson, four on the floor, Fireball Roberts, peeling rubber and sometimes girls. For instance, Montene Bull. She was the only girl we knew that actually enjoyed hot rodding. Montene drove a wicked Plymouth Fury, one of the fastest cars around. And she was tough, too. Nobody messed with Montene. She was, well… different.
Within this group, I, like Montene Bull, was a sort of an oddity myself with my 1955 Harley Bob Job. My passion was motorcycles and I was considered strange. In the whole of Tipton County back then I doubt there was a dozen motorcycles around. Consequently, no one, except those of us who rode and worked on ‘em, knew anything about ‘em and if you did ride you were considered a social aggravation.
But I liked cars as well as the next guy I just preferred motorcycles. And naturally, with all this hot rod and racing talk and my Harley sitting right there in the middle of all those cages, the conversation eventually got around to car vs. motorcycle.
The talk began in a friendly sort of way until I mentioned a technical aspect of motorcycles that a common, off the showroom floor factory hot rod just couldn’t match; that being its power to weight ratio. I argued that every horse under the hood of Freck’s Chevy SS had to lug around twelve pounds of dead weight, while my team was only pulling eight pounds per pony. And another advantage I had over the SS was chain drive, a system long proven to lose very little power from the engine to the rear wheel. It was very efficient while Freck’s complicated driveline alone probably absorbed as much power as my motorcycle produced. Freck sputtered that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I laughed and told him to put his money where his mouth was. He did, and the race was on.
I guess I should mention here that there was a reason for my superior level of confidence. Just two weeks earlier I spotted a ‘64 Chevy 409 a half car length and dusted him with ease. Freck’s itty bitty 327 and his five spot were already toast. He just didn’t know it yet.
Our race track, from the store to the Fire Tower was roughly a quarter of a mile and had been used for years by teenagers as a testing ground for all kinds of manifolds, exhaust systems and camshafts. Nicknamed Little John Holler after the Little John Baptist Church that was just across the creek, it was straight as an arrow for a quarter of a mile. Street racing was sorta’ ignored after nine PM, except on Sundays and Wednesdays. Racing on Sundays was not tolerated, period. They’d lock you up and throw away the key for racing on Sunday. And racing on Wednesday was frowned on, too, ‘cause that was Prayer Meetin’ night at the Little John Baptist Church. Other than that, you could usually get away with a few passes before the farmers got riled up enough to call the Sheriff.
Sugar Booger’s little brother, Larry was named the official starter, mainly because he had a flashlight. The starting line was a telephone pole with a security light about half way up that gave us a good view of the starting system. The two-lane blacktop went downhill for the first couple hundred yards, then began an uphill climb to the fire tower a quarter mile away.
Freck and I got into position and Larry motioned us forward. We inched ahead until Larry clenched his fist the time honored signal to stop. Larry eyed the lineup, gave us a thumbs up, then stepped to one side. He pointed the dark flashlight at Freck, who nodded that he was ready then at me, and I nodded. Everybody held their breath. Larry waited a few tense seconds, then flicked on the flashlight and all hell broke loose.
I almost twisted the throttle off the handlebar as I poured on the coal. That old Panhead answered and took off like an X-15. Freck floor-boarded the SS at the same instant and lit up the tires, but he couldn’t get any traction and that big ‘ol Chevrolet just sat there on the starting line, roaring and squirming, converting some very expensive Firestones into boiling clouds of smoke. Meantime, I up shifted to second, reamed her out real good, then quickly pulled third and man I was flying. Piece ‘a cake. But just as I approached the fire tower, the engine started backfiring. Ka-pow, ka-pow, ka-pow! The bike slowed and Freck, who had finally got the SS hooked up, blew by me like I was tied to a tree.
I geared down, turned around and headed back towards the store. As I pulled into the lot, everybody was laughing and yelling and asking what happened to my big ol’ bad motorsicle”. Something went wrong, I said. ‘Yeah’ they laughed. “You got your doors blowed off. Well, if youda’ had any doors.” About that time, Freck came roaring into the lot and slid to a stop laughing like a hyena. “I tried to tell you man.” More laughter as Paul handed him my money.
I was humiliated and about as low as a man can get. I kneeled next to the bike to see what had caused the misfire. Didn’t take but a second to find the culprit. A simple mechanical failure common on those old V-Twins. The spark plug wires were held in the coil with a knurled nut and it wasn’t uncommon for the nut to vibrate loose. This lets the plug wire pop out of the coil, and spark to that particular cylinder is lost, robbing you of half your power.
But I didn’t say anything. What good would it do? They would just accuse me of whining so I sucked it up, shook Freck’s hand and mumbled that I’d get him next time. That was the best I could do with my #9 foot in my mouth.