A Southern-fried book tour conjures memories of cool rides.
Every half decade or so, I abandon my desktop computer (not to mention my family) and take a road trip to promote my latest book. Two months is not unusual. Still, this one figures to be a bit more involved than most. The subject of my latest—The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys: The True Story—you might say, invites controversy. I will be making a circuit through Appalachia and the Deep South, where over the years the two fierce clans, along with their opposing views, have spread like banyan roots. They’re sure to be at odds with some of what I have to say.
All of which might have something to do with how I came to be holding forth to a crowd in a four-door grease bay, with a vanity-plated Mercedes waiting outside to whisk me away. Let me try to explain.
I’m not a car guy—no mourning over the recent retirement of Click and Clack for me—but a good road trip needs a suitable vehicle. Not that anyone would have forecast a Mercedes in my future. My first car? A two-tone Nova, chocolate (to put it nicely) brown with a beige vinyl top. It was a muscle car with no finesse and no pizzazz.
Picturing it brings back the cars my friends had at the time. One buddy had a blue-and-white Colt, a sardine can, amped primarily by a glove box-mounted cassette deck blaring Molly Hatchet, Styx and Kansas. Another had an electric car—electric lime green, that is—a Satellite Sebring with Cragar Mags and a floor aswim in teenage male debris: fast food refuse, athletic gear and unmentionable clothing. There was a royal blue Audi (later crumpled on a telephone pole), a Scout that went through a fence and rolled, and an early-’70s wood-paneled Buick Electra Estate station wagon that could not be defeated no matter what we did to it.
My old pal Tayloe, who is a car guy and, in fact, after graduating from VMI worked in an Army base carpool in Germany, likes to fantasize about buying all our friends the cars they had in high school. Of course, he had the coolest car, which may be the point of his fantasy—a black Monte Carlo with rear air shocks for looking baaad, and a Pioneer stereo with Jensen tri-axle speakers. “Sweet Jane” never sounded so good; “L.A. Woman” was mind-bending in those confines; and there, in “Take Me to the River,” we heard the bold future.
My college pal George from Baltimore had an infamous high school car called “The Limburger Mobile,” which earned its name after a conniving classmate pulled out the back seat and hid a wedge of the cheese underneath. On a good day, Limburger, a soft, meaty-flavored Belgian cheese, evokes dead squirrel. After it baked on the floorboards of the car for weeks, the stench was indescribable.
My Nova disappeared when I was in college after my buddy Del left it in front of a frat house—unlocked, on a Friday night, with the keys still in it. With the meager insurance payout, I bought my first Mercedes: a ’69 300 SEL; a real prince, with European lights, white fabric seats, and a sunroof so big it felt like the retractable roof of an NFL stadium. How was I able to procure this luxury? Well, it came discounted, due to the fact that it had been rebuilt by the shop class at Chapel Hill High. And the ol’ boy was in for even worse.
After I punched it on a lawn boulder on a bend near Gimghoul Castle, Del and I drove it gingerly home, rented a winch, attached it to a tree and pulled out the grill. We repaired the radiator, and a body shop applied putty and paint. Soon thereafter, my prince fell on his sword right in the middle of the busiest intersection on Franklin Street, never to stir again.
Which brings me full circle. Earlier this year, my daughter Hazel, a high school senior, and I were sharing my ’93 Volvo wagon—vintage and hip to her (though the use of the word “hip” is no longer that, she insists)—when I saw a silver Mercedes wagon for sale on the street. The sunroof was not as big as the SEL’s but, hey, it was relatively new by my standards—a 2000—had all-wheel drive, and, um, only 123,000 miles on it, just the thing for a tour of the Hatfield-McCoy feud country.
And now we arrive at the grease bay, the first stop on my book tour. My local Exxon, The Village Exxon in Richmond, embraces the arts. One Sunday each quarter, the shop is transformed by station clerk-cum-poet Hope Whitby into “Art in the Shop,” a gallery for readings, music and art displays, raising money for war veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project. You can listen to poetry with your feet propped up on the hydraulic jacks. It’s a fine place to start a tour of Appalachia and the South.
Outside, my silver bullet, lubed and oiled for a speedy exit, awaits.
The vanity plate? It reads: “The Feud”—and, to all you Hatfields and McCoys, I mean that in a neutral sense.