About 15-20 years ago, there was a Ranger kick in the Ranger Regiment. “Huh?” Yeah, the Thing To Drive, at one brief moment, was a Ford Ranger small pick-up truck, with a scroll or tab in place of your front license plate and as much aftermarket Ranger badassery as your pay grade, marital status, alimony payments and chidrens’ hunger permitted. Preferred color: black, with windows tinted blacker than the inside of a rhinoceros.
That much window tint was illegal but the cops seemed not to bother, unless the Ranger was weaving. Gottta stop drunks from driving even when you don’t really want to arrest ’em, you know? More than one local rozzer had a duty NCO phone line in his little notebook and got some guy picked up by his unit (and smoked for a while) rather than transport him downtown, have a bunch of paperwork to do, and get some exuberant kid tossed out of Regiment on his ear. (Of course, if the guy did not realize the deal he was getting and preferred to attempt fisticuffs or mock the officer’s non-Ranger state of physical readiness, all bets were off. Drunks can get arrested, but drunken jerks always get arrested. Or if the guy had already hit something before the cops came, there was nothing they could do to avoid cuffing him).
Seeing one of these time-capsule Ranger Rangers recently made us think about the military and cars, especially SF. All the ingredients for car passion were there.
- Young men;
- High levels of individuality and ego;
- High levels of taste for adventure, and love of machinery;
- Low levels of taste, period, as defined by the coastal glitterati;
- Disposable income (now, thanks to proficiency pays, etc.; now and then, thanks to deployments with no place to spend your money).
In the 70s and 80s, this usually appeared as muscle or sports cars.
At 10th Group, we had a guy who took the then-common Smokey and the Bandit firebird with the bird on the hood and wedge an aluminum bored-and-stroked big-block Chevy engine in there. He probably had about equal amounts of money in the engine, the wheel-and-tire combination, and the whole rest of the car.
Then, on the other hand, we were a Eurocentric group. Some fellows had to drive Euro stuff.
Anyone in Group then will remember Bill C. and his Porsche 944, just like this one. The payments were high enough on a buck sergeant’s pay that he ate in the mess hall a lot. (Last time we saw him he was driving a pickup truck).
There was a guy with a classic XKE, too, but he left not long after we signed in.
There were a lot of Corvettes. Usually they were black or silver, occasionally red or white. (Ours, which came from a buddy in 11th group and went to a buddy in 20th three engines later, was black). Someone in 10th MI Company had one that was egg-shell blue — can’t remember whether it was Maceo M. who would go on to SMUs, or Kris K. who would endure a crippling jump accident… but we do remember both had Corvettes. Anybody in that unit had the right to drive a baby-blue Corvette if he wanted to.
There was a big intersection between the Vette set and the Harley set.
Todd had an unmistakable and enormous 1975 Olds 98. What made it unmistakeable is that it was black, but after crunching the plastic or fiberglass nose cap, he got one from a pale yellow ’98 and replaced it, never painting it to match. The yellow nose announced Trouble and that’s spelled with T and that means Todd.
Todd also, briefly, owned a red Corvair. It didn’t have any plates, or maybe it was lacking current plates, and so he stashed it in the Service Company parking lot (the group support guys). The first sergeant over there, who did not speak English in any material way — you needed to find a Spanish interpreter if you really cared why he was yelling at you — and didn’t seem to be able to read in any language at all, did get around to asking his men whose car the old Corvair was. Nobody knew, so he had it towed to DRMO as unclaimed property, where it would be auctioned off after a 30-day hold. Well, at the time we were Somewhere In Europe on a mission or an exercise, and when we got back Todd couldn’t find his car, and when he began questioning the first sergeant, the guy’s limited English evaporated entirely. It took him a couple days to figure out where it had gone, and bum a ride to DRMO, only to find that his Corvair had been auctioned off. By the time he got back over to the Service Company area, just ahead of the guys sent to intercept him and prevent mayhem, the linguistically challenged NCO had suddenly retired and was never seen again.
Your Humble Blogger had a maroon-and-faded ’63 Lincoln Continental, a 1970 or so Buick Skylark station wagon with a skylight (everyone called it a “Vista Cruiser,” which was the well-advertised Olds version of the same car, and bedamned if anyone can remember what Buick called theirs), and a ’65 Galaxie 500 XL. More or less all at once. Why so many cars? They were all so old, only one was running at any given time.
The Buick, in fact, only made it 100 miles towards SFQC, dying somewhere near Hartford when the frame crossmember finally rusted out, depositing the two-speed GM slushbox in the high-speed lane of I-84. Had to call for help on that one; Steve and Doc showed up, in a little Mitsubishi, which forced a hard triage of the station wagon full of gear. We dragged the tranny out of the travel lane, between thundering trucks. Paid somebody $150 to haul off the Buick. Never owned another Buick.
The Galaxie was a Ranger School pickup, meaning, Your Humble Blogger picked it up at Ragnar School. It would be too twaumatizing to fly back the day after graduation, so we phoned in a request for leave and went out that night and picked out the most idiosyncratic car on Victory Boulevard, driving it back to Fort Devens with periodic stops to gorge on food and sleep until functional.
Jerry S owned a Bricklin, of all things, a hunter orange plastic “safety car,” but we never saw it run. It sat. Instead, we could tell who he was dating by the car he showed up in. “Oh, he’s driving that silver Jeep today, he’s back with the redhead, that’s hers.” Until Bob went to SFQC and loaned Jerry his then-newish ’79 Mustang Turbo. Nobody figured that Jerry was dating Bob (it was a different Army then; today, people probably would assume that).
One day in formation, they called Bob out. Before the tac NCO could say anything Bob announced, “I bet Jerry wrecked my car.” He did. Around a tree. In front of the Shirley, MA police station… and then Jerry, who may have been a little beery to desire any interaction with the cops, locked the one door that wasn’t shaped like the inverse of a stout oak, and left the car on the spot, walking back to Fort Devens. In the morning, the cops put out an APB for the owner of the car, only to find he was 800 miles away and accounted for at the time. (Bob passed SFQC and forgave Jerry. Not sure if Jerry ever paid him for the damage. Jerry died young of a fast-moving brain cancer, so if anyone from Shirley PD reads this, you can close that case from 1981 or so, now).
Another time, the MPs found an old suicide-door Lincoln doing donuts on a baseball field on post. The MP carefully locked the car, dropped the keys in the chest pocket of the driver, now snoring in the back seat of the MP car, and dropped him — Your Humble Blogger, younger and perhaps not as mature as today — in the hands of the Duty NCO. (It was a different era). The next day, with no recollection of the incident, the hunt for the missing car began. It was found on the 2nd Base line about three hours later. How did it get there? The story took several more hours to work out.
And then there was the NCO, a few years older than us, who had a vehicle we all admired — a WWII Kubelwagen. No, not the 1970s VW re-engineering of the WWII vehicle as “The Thing,” the actual, primitive, 36-hp 4WD German vehicle. He had it pretty much restored the way the SS used to have it painted, and had a running joke about an uncle who died in a concentration camp… too much schnapps, and a fall from the south tower.
Still, that was at Devens, not at Bad Tölz, where some of the teams used SS rank in-house… the TL was Herr Hauptsturmführer, and so on. (The kaserne at Tölz was the former SS-Junkerschule. Even though it was a young building by German standards, mid-1930s, it radiated history… not always good history. As we understand it, it’s an office park now).
Getting stationed in Germany, in those days, meant access to a whole other continent of cars, plus, something the average American did not have, to wit, the ability to import them. The US safety nazis refused to accept, at the time, that the European safety nazis were capable of signing off on a car that wasn’t a primitive deathtrap. And the US environmental nazis refused to believe that their Euro opposite numbers weren’t signing off on cars that would choke a gas mask with their exhaust. (Actually, their Eastern Euro oppos were signing off on cars like that. If you ever smelt a Trabant, you know what we’re talking about). But there was some kind of loophole for GIs that had bought cars overseas.
Meanwhile, in 1985, the mark crashed against the dollar, putting the keys to gently used 911s into the hands of any sergeant who saved a little of his pay. The wise ones brought them to the States at the end of their tour, arbitraging the Porsche for a nice nest egg. The unwise ones tested the NHTSA’s primitive-deathtrap hypothesis at triple-digit speeds against an Autobahn overpass abutment, and were featured in a battalion mandatory memorial service.
Yes, they were different times.