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Spinning, but going nowhere

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this column previously appeared in The News.

It’s been a while since I’ve laughed so hard I lost control — couldn’t stop.

I suspect you’ve laughed that hard, as well — I hope it wasn’t that long ago.

Good, hard laughing can be exhausting, but invigorate and restore. There’s not much that’s better for the soul than a good laugh.

Dave once made me laugh that hard during French class. As a result, I had to do “bench time,” but it was worth it. My friend Bob could do the same, but, with Bob, it wasn’t what he said, it was what he did.

Bob had a 1948 Ford, its engine tied to a manual, three-speed transmission. He had paid $20 for the car, and, at that price, expected good performance. Bob claimed the Ford had a special racing engine — it didn’t.

One summer evening, my friends and I were at a local drive-in, Jim and Anne’s, dedicated as we so often were to some form of sophomoric coordination. Seven or eight of us were leveraged into a friend’s old Pontiac Chieftain sedan when Bob pulled alongside in his Ford Custom. He ordered a Coke for 10 cents and either a hamburger for a quarter or a hotdog for 15 cents. I suspect Bob went with the hotdog.

Tony was a waitress there. We would flirt with her, but she was mature and smart — fully aware of what our flirting was worth. Still, Tony never made us feel foolish, always allowed us to maintain whatever grand personas we were attempting to project at the time.

When it came time for Bob to leave, he backed away and began preparing to make his exit — a performance calculated to demonstrate both his driving skills and the superior qualities of the old Ford.

This demonstration involved no pretense. What you saw was what there was. What was occurring was what any normal adolescent male would be doing under the same circumstances — attempting to secure an enhanced status among his peers with the assistance of a trusted automobile — a time-honored tradition.

While racing its engine, Bob began engaging and disengaging the Ford’s clutch, causing the car to literally dance before us. After one final double-clutch-induced pirouette, he allowed the clutch to remain fully engaged, directing all the Ford’s power to its aging drivetrain. This sudden exertion overtaxed its diminished capacity, snapping the universal joint and allowing the old Ford’s driveshaft to spin freely on the lot’s graveled surface.

There, the shaft moved dirt and stones, but not the Ford or Bob.

Despite the preparatory dance, Bob’s posturing, and all that noise, the old Ford gained no ground – not unlike our flirtation efforts with Tony.

Of course, we all lost control — laughed so hard we began falling over each other as we rolled onto the ground from the formidable Pontiac’s doors and windows. Some of us couldn’t breathe for near-critical lengths of time — gasping for air — convulsed with laughter.

Indelibly burned in my memory is the image of Bob sitting in the old Ford’s driver’s seat, hands on the steering wheel, its driveshaft spinning. He is looking out the passenger-side window, glorifying in an expectation of distinction, but his expression is slowly changing, reflecting the dawning of a realization that neither he nor the Ford was going anywhere.

Jim and Anne’s is gone now. I don’t know where Tony is — I hope she’s well. Bob took a final pirouette a few years ago.

If you look around this world, you can still see driveshafts spinning in dirt, but it’s not likely you will witness this in a drive-in’s lot — they’re all paved now. To find spinnings that take you nowhere, you will have to look elsewhere.

But if you do, you can easily find them, still witness the preparation, the dance, the noise — feel again the expectation. Only now, many of these demonstrations come with a pretense — a purpose unlike Bob’s reach for adolescent glory.

These new demonstrations of going nowhere, these spins upon the stages of our times, are not so often born of innocence. More often now, of some deception.

No longer can one assume a laugh or a restorative benefit.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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