News From The Woods - July 22, 2013

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published July 22, 2013


"A Tale Of Three Comets"

It was the fall of 1965. My father was still alive, so that meant the money machine was still cranking it out. I was almost 20 years old and had not a care in the world. I suppose I was spoiled by some people's standards, but not "filthy rich" spoiled like some of the boys I had just graduated from military school with. Some of them had fathers that were CEO's of large corporations, military brats, or came from families of heads of state.

On graduation day in May of 1964, when I somehow made it through five years of attending a prestigious naval military school in Florida, my father showed me in a single gesture how much it meant to him that I had finally made it! After the Class of '64 had thrown our caps in the air and the crowd began to disperse, a roar was heard, and we all turned to see a brand new fire engine red 1964 Plymouth Barracuda come to a screeching halt in the parking lot adjoining the commencement grounds. No one had ever seen a car like this! As my pals gathered around the sports car, out steps my father! He calmly walks over to where I am standing and with a wink he drops the keys into my hand. I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. Of ALL the rich kids there, no one else was honored with such a gift. I was King of the World!

I never really considered if I was spoiled or not. I was too busy having fun and exploring life. I had the 'Cuda through my fist year and a half of college. Being young and stupid I never once thought that perhaps my first car might be one that I would be attached to for a long time, or that years later I would wish a hundred times that I had kept it. My father's real estate business was booming in the mid 60's. He bought a new Lincoln Continental every year. Mom always got a new Cadillac every year. For some reason, this did not seem odd to me. It was the way I was brought up, I guess. I carry no guilt for my fortune.

Muscle cars in America were at the height of their popularity during this time, and my 'Cuda was straining under the miles and abuse I heaped on it. By the end of August 1965, Dad mentioned to me that perhaps I might want to "move up" to a new car. I certainly did not want to disappoint him, so I eagerly began to pour over the latest Detroit muscle car offerings for the year 1966. All the new models came out in September, and I finally chose what I wanted. It was a 1966 Mercury Comet Cyclone GT. . . . . A canary yellow hardtop. The Cyclone was based on the Comet, which had been completely redesigned for that year, sharing its chassis and basic body shell with the Ford Fairlane. These cars were true intermediates. The $452 GT package came with plenty of performance and included a 390-335hp V-8, dual exhausts, engine dress-up kit, fiberglass hood with non-functional scoops, handling package, front disc brakes, GT striping and badging. It had a 4-in-the-floor Hurst mystery shifter for the manual transmission. I had a local machinist weld "dumps" right under the doors. These were short extensions connected to the exhaust pipes, with plumber caps that screwed onto the ends. When unscrewed and removed, the engine exhaust would come straight out of the manifold, bypassing the mufflers, and produce the incredible loud sound of 335 horses at full gallop. I was told it gave more performance as well, but it was the sound that got me.

This was Detroit muscle at its finest. A totally high-performance street machine that could straighten out the curviest Ozark mountain road and would pass everything made in America except perhaps a Corvette Sting Ray. I ate Pontiac Catalina's with 421 tri-powered engines for lunch. Chevy Impala's (other than the 409) did not stand a chance. It was the weight that made the difference. The Comet body was smaller than a full size sedan. I took it to George Ray's Wildcat drag strip in Paragould, Arkansas on a regular basis, and usually walked away with a win.

In May of 1967, my father passed away unexpectedly. When the dust settled I realized that I needed to find some work, and quick. College was a real waste of time for me. I had no aspirations of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or Indian Chief. I liked music. Period. I guess I had too much of my mother in me. One day she told me I should be a DJ. When she said that it reminded me of the hours I used to spend at the local radio station (KTLO) watching my favorite DJ, Monte Manchester, spin discs on the "House Party" radio program. It looked very exciting. So I checked around and discovered there was a broadcasting course being offered at Draughon's School of Business in Little Rock. I moved to the river city and got a job selling magazines door to door to help pay my expenses while going to school. I lived in a rental trailer on Shackleford Road and drove home on the weekends I was free from work.

In November I was half way through the radio courses when I was involved in an auto accident. A dump truck belonging to the City of Little Rock lost control and totaled out my Comet (with me in it). Mom had to hire an attorney to persuade the city to "allow" me to sue them since they were at fault. It was the end of my beautiful Comet, but when the city reimbursed me for my medical expenses and for a new car, I ordered another yellow Comet. The main differences were that this 1967 Cyclone GT had a black vinyl top and an automatic transmission. I guess I had tired of constantly shifting gears. Also, the body style was slightly heavier, but by then the majority of my drag racing days were largely behind me. The interior of this one was plusher, with black leather front buckets and a stylish console between the seats. My girlfriend made me buy a small sofa pillow so the ride was a bit softer for her, sitting on the center console.

Exactly a year later, while I was visiting mom at home on a weekend, she confided in me that she was "tightening up the belt". Dad had been gone for a year and mom was wrestling with Housing and Urban Development over regulations concerning the subdivision she had inherited. She had no discernable income, and what little money she was taking in from property payments was beginning to dwindle out. She had decided to let dad's car go, and gave me the option of buying a new car for myself (probably the last one) or selling the Comet and taking dad's car, a 1964 Lincoln Continental 4-door Convertible with suicide doors (just like the one JFK was shot in). This was the top of the line for Detroit, with plush leather interior, all the appointments, and a 4-way 8-track Lear Jet stereo system. Like an idiot (STILL young and stupid) I chose the new car over dad's Connie. Another regret that I will always carry with me……

The new car was (again) a Cyclone GT, but it was almost an entirely different body style from the previous two models. This one - a brand new '68 model - was Madras Blue with a white vinyl top. It still had the Marauder 390 GT V-8, and I got lonely for the power of a manual transmission so I ordered it with a Hurst 4-speed. It came with posi-traction rear end, a sports package, and the performance handling package. Total cost in 1967 was right at $4,000. That was a lot of money back then, but monthly payments made it fairly easy to make ends meet. Besides, I did not own a house and I wasn't (yet) married, so I really didn't have a lot of expenses. Of course, I also wasn't really thinking about my future either. I was by this time a DJ, working at KOTN and living in Pine Bluff. My girlfriend lived in Little Rock (I had met her while selling magazine subscriptions) and so I commuted a lot between Pine Bluff and Little Rock. Two weekends a month Norma and I would head for Mountain Home.

On January 18, 1969, Norma and I got married in Little Rock. By this time I had already changed jobs (the turnover in radio broadcasting is high) and was living in Rogers, working at KAMO. Less than a year later we had moved again, this time to Ft. Smith where I took a job with KFPW. In 1971, our daughter Melissa was born, and I was trying to settle down into family life. Eventually, the Comet got a lot of miles on it and I traded it in for a station wagon… more in keeping with the family life expectations. It was the end of my run with Detroit muscle cars, but for almost four years I drove the baddest of the bad.

Incidentally, the number of speeding tickets I collected during that time was reduced greatly with the changeover to the station wagon.

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