Back in the seventies my three oldest brothers had a buddy named Steve Slack. “Slack” was a star soccer player at Baylor and he grew up on Lookout Mountain, which is where I grew up. He and Jimmy, Henry and Bill went to the University of Virginia where they were roommates in an old, beat up house that was painted pink. Naturally, the place became known as the “Pink Palace” but lest ye be confused. I saw it and it was no palace. It was quite a dump, actually, but it was there that brother Bill’s love of the Austin Healy 3000 and the constant attention it required rubbed off on Slack.
During the summers they worked for a guy in Rossville named Manfred Myers who was raised on the Mercedes assembly line in Germany. Manfred was an absolute wizard with everything four wheeled and mechanical that came from Europe and it was there that the mechanic of exotic cars hook was firmly set in Slack’s mouth.
Years later, in 1980, Slack ran a gas station at the intersection of Hamill Road and 153. It was an Exxon station and I pumped gas there. Slack used cocky, in your face humor to pretty good affect and it was natural that the place was referred to as “Slaxxon.” Slaxxon was a full service gas station but the big draw was the mechanical service offered by Slack (Mercedes) and Butch Simpson who worked miracles on everything non-Mercedes that was ridiculously exotic from all over the globe.
I've seen a picture that one of my pump jockey compadres took back in the day that shows a parking lot packed full of cars like Jag sedans and E-Types, Mercedes sedans, coupes and SLs (one cool one was a 190SL), Porsches, and all kinds of regular stuff like Peugeots, Fiats, MGs, Triumphs, Volkswagens, etc. The coolest of cool, though, was a vintage ‘60’s deep red Lamborghini 400GT 2+2 that had a 12 cylinder beast under the hood with six Weber 2 barrel down drafts and a very, very slick six speed manual tranny. Woah baby! It was in perfect condition and is probably worth hundreds of thousands today.
Being in that environ and being in close proximity to one of the best British Leland mechanics in the southeast, I naturally set my very limited means on the tiny little two-seat pieces of excrement from the Isles. With Butch as a limitless reference, as well as a source of rescue when things got dicey, my personal mechanical abilities lurched forward exponentially. If you've ever owned a Triumph or a MG, you understand that there was no choice in the matter- you learned or you were a walkin’ man. Pretty simple.
Being a flunky in a spot like that also had serious perks. Somebody had to test drive the cars to make sure that whatever ailment that brought the steed to Slaxxon was fixed and, remember, these cars weren't designed to do what Rambler 4 doors did. So I simply did what I was told to do. Nothing more but nothing minutely less. Somebody had to do it.
One time it was threatening large rain and it was lunch time. Slack hollered "Cabbage! Test drive Doc Gothards' Jag over to Old Plantation and get us some lunch. Hurry! It's about to rain." Doc Gothard had the latest 12 cylinder XJS with all kinds of sweet smelling leather and polished wood inside. It ooooozed cool and money. I told Mr. Slaxxon that I believed I could help him out and that I would, indeed, hurry.
So there I went in a shiny mega money Brit ride that sang most beautifully like the London Symphony when you stomped on the gas pedal. The auto trans shifted like greased up grease and the leather and the wood and and and ... oh my. "Holy mackerel!" was all I could muster. I rounded the ramp that puts you southbound on Hixson Pike and right about where the Krystal is, I hit the wall of rain that Slack told me to hurry up and miss.
The water got more intense the further south I went and by the time I got to the green to yellow to almost red light at the intersection of Hixson Pike and Ashland Terrace, it was blowing sideways. With lightning fast reflexes in charge of a bad-kitty cat, I did the only logical thing: ram jam the gas pedal to the floor board.
What I failed to consider was that if a fella had 12 cylinders of man-eating feline up front in a long, heavy snout, there ain't much there to make the back side sit still in a raging monsoon. And what 20 or 30 common folk in their common cars with their common mouths agape saw was me in Doc Gothards new Jag doing multiple hydroplane 360’s through one of the busiest, flooded intersections in Chattanooga. When the spinning stopped, I was going the right direction and just proceeded on like nothing happened. I must report that my Herculean effort at not soiling that beautiful leather seat was successful. Barely.
Clearly, dear sweet God was looking at me that day. Thank you, God. Not a dent. Not a scratch. Just major, major private humble pie. I rightly didn't tell anybody about that, except for 20 or so of my closest friends, for years. Dang sure didn’t tell Slack. I got over it, though, because somebody would eventually need to test the Lambo.
All of that great memory was a side note to an initial very serious memory of Slaxxon that was joggled by Roy Exums' words on Bataan the other day. The only regret I have about Slaxxon, one of the biggest regrets of my whole life, was the fact that when I could have learned something incredible and could have recognized in some insignificant way a real hero for who he was, I was clueless.
For those who are less than 40, full service gas meant the pump jockey pumped the gas, checked the oil, checked the tires and smiled the whole time. One of our loyal gas customers was an older man who drove one of those Detroit lead sleds whose gas cap was hidden behind the license plate. He got all of his gas at Slaxxon and he was very kind, gentlemanly and soft spoken and we sort of became pals. At some point, he started going to the self serve pump but I pumped his gas anyway. It looked like he struggled. He was a little stooped and he used a cane. He'd get out and we'd discuss that 914-6 over there or the Ferrari that Butch was tuning in the bay.
After about 300 tanks, I actually looked at his plate and noticed that it said POW on it. "Were you a POW?" His face got a touch tight and he said "Yeah." There was a pause and I said "World War II? Where?" He sighed and said "Bataan." His face got gray and it was clear that, like 99 percent of the people who’ve faced things like that, Bataan was not what he wanted to talk about that day. While I did know that being a POW was hell, I had no idea just how particularly hellish Bataan was. I said "Oh. Well, nice weather.” Or “Gas is expensive.” Or “Lah dee dah dee dah" and I pumped his gas, took his money and went back to tinkering with my rattle trap TR6.
How brain dead and idiotic can a boy be?
Having read a good bit about it later, I have carried large regret that I didn't at least give him a free tank of Slacks' gas or something. Maybe a simple thank you? Something! Anything.
I don't remember if it was Ghost Soldiers or another book or article I read but most all of them said the prisoners at Bataan were shocked at how big, powerful and fearless the GI's that rescued them were. The GI's were in turn shocked at the skeletal sight of the prisoners whom they carried on their backs in the escape. I recall something that was written about a prisoner, programmed by years of unspeakable horror, who asked the soldier who was carrying him if it would be okay if they stopped for a second so he could have a drink out of the creek they were crossing. The soldier gently let him down and through tears said “Sir? You can have anything you want.”
The more I read, the more I understood the likely reason why my friend stooped and used a cane. I don’t know if he was on the death march or if he got to Bataan later but, regardless, in 1980 he looked to me to be pillar of peace and I just let him drive away.
Who was he? He lived simply and quietly in the Hamill Road area of Hixson in the early 1980's. He's very likely gone now and that is an enormous loss. That guy could teach the entire world would a thing or two. I hope he had family and I hope he was loved.
He earned his drink in the creek and I really wish I’d given him a free tank of gas. Slack would have approved.
* * *
Envious, indeed I am, of my brother's ability to capture a moment in time and put it down on a piece of paper. He makes it look so easy. I struggle with every word and always end up throwing the whole mess in the trash. However, sometimes a story just has to be told and my story is an extension of the one written above.
In the late sixties, Mercedes-Benz, the stalwart German marque, watched as GM, Chrysler and Ford jumped, whole hog, into the muscle car market. Huge engines with outrageous horsepower were jammed into Dodge Coronets and Chevy Impalas. The results were impressive all the way to 100 mph. Above 100 they all had the tendency to take flight.
Mercedes wanted to show them how to do it and they did with just one car. The Mercedes 280SE 6.3. debuted in 1967 and was billed as “the fastest production sedan in the world”. It was. Steve McQueen made movies with a hot Mustang, but he drove to work in a 6.3. Only a Mazz, a Lambo or a Ferarri could outrun it and those cars were built to race at Lemans. The 6.3 could take you to the country club or the racetrack. The big muscle cars could beat it in the first 200 yards but after that it was untouchable.
My story is about one of those cars. It was owned by Steve Slack's mother-in-law. Yes, the same cocky Slack mentioned in my brother's story. Slack graduated from college with a degree in international relations but his passion for fast cars was as strong as mine. He didn’t talk like a mechanic. He talked like an intelligent Italian with a strong hint of a--hole. So, when the rednecks came into his shop to get their muscle cars worked on, he refused to allow them on the lot. “Junk”, he called them. To this day he refuses to work on “junk”.
One day back in the late seventies, the Glascock boys were gathered at the Slaxxon garage. My memory stinks but I believe brothers Battle and Savage were there along with Ricky Nelson (now known as “Rick” Nelson of local banking fame). Well, while we’re talking about chain driven dual overhead cams and such, Slack pulls up in his mother-in-law’s 6.3.
There was no question about what would happen next. We all piled into that car to go get lunch and I mean go. Seat belts were just being installed in cars and they were considered worthless by all macho mechanics. I was in the back seat (the suicide seat ) between my two fat brothers. Slack saw his chance to prove for evermore the dominance of German engineering.
Slaxxon Garage was located at the intersection of Hamill Road and 153. Slack pulled onto 153 going north and dropped the hammer. Blue smoke from the tires engulfed the car. He methodically called out the speed as he read from the odometer. “Seventy, eighty, ninety.” The airbag suspension kicked in and the car began to lower itself to just inches off the ground. “One hundred.”
My sphincter muscles began to release. “One hundred ten.” I’m not a religious person but I was raised by a conservative catholic mother. So strong was her faith that she refused birth control until she had birthed a grand total of 12 kids. That’s called faith all right. My faith was strong early because of her, but a liberal education and a pension for hippiedom had turned me into a confused existentialist.
“One hundred twenty.“ We were passing under the Hixson Pike overpass and it looked like a blip on the screen. “One hundred thirty.” I began to prepare to meet my maker, when, behold! I was a Catholic believer all over again! Transubstantiation? Heck, yes! Mandatory confession? Why not? Suddenly I’m a temple of the Holy Spirit! At that point Slack’s nerves began to waver, but the 6.3 wanted more. This was the moment in time that I’ll never forget. My eyes were glued onto the burled Walnut trim on the dashboard. My fingers were dug into the succulent leather seats and my mind snapped a permanent picture of what was going on.
To the relief of all present, Slack finally throttled back and a collective sigh of relief floated through the machine. All the newly baptized Christians went on to lunch.
Slack eventually bought the 6.3 from his mother-in-law and it still rests in a secret garage in Chattanooga along with two more of those awesome machines now owned by Ricky Nelson.
I still drop by the garage occasionally for a dose of mechanical religion, but I’ll never get in another car with Slack at the helm.