Wheels of Time

June 14, 2014 | By | Comments (14)

Illustration by Jack Unruh

Cars will always carry us back through the years, on the back roads of our memory.

The Pontiac, ragged, dented, rust-flecked, means it was ’74, since cars are the way working-class people of the Deep South truly mark time. Listen to them, when they are groping for a memory, and they will find it beside a yellow Oldsmobile, or baby-blue Malibu…

—From The Prince of Frogtown

Ever since I was 16, I have kept track of my life in an almanac welded from tail fins, fender skirts, and chrome. I think many people do. The other day, as my mother and aunts sat trying to remember the date of some trivial thing, Aunt Juanita finally asserted she knew, exactly, because it was the year Uncle Ed “got that red truck.” Her sisters nodded yes, it was. It seemed to me they were all red, his trucks, but I do not argue with women who were around when the Italians hanged Mussolini.

They recall the Depression, how their family left a rented house in early morning dark, sneaking out on the landlord. A pig they were trying to load up panicked and ran head first into the tailgate of their Ford, and fell dead. That was ’39, maybe ’40; the Depression lingered long down here. They do not recall the pig, much, but the Ford was a cut-down Model A, black, bad to rust.

My daddy’s whole life passed to the hiss of turning tires. He worked the chain gang in ’54, and it almost killed him, watching cars pass him by. He courted Mother in ’55, in a black-and-pearl ’49 Mercury. It burned a lot of oil, as she recalls. He went AWOL from the Marines soon after; drove off in a ’54 Hudson Hornet, the law close behind. He wrecked it in Georgia, steered it off the asphalt into much of the adjoining countryside, in ’56. Even when he was sitting still, he was in a car, listening to the radio in the shade of a cedar tree. It was a gray Chevy, so it was ’65. I was in first grade.

My brother Sam broke his leg in the fall of ’73; hit a tree in a powder-blue Willys. I won the Calhoun County 4-H Club speech championship that year. I spent the day rubbing pine sap off a white ’66 Corvair, hoping it might get me a date someday because being an award-winning public speaker did not. In summer ’75, Uncle John bid $540 at auction on a ’69 Mustang he could have gotten for $400 if I had not been jumping up and down, hollering “Git it!” But I hit a guardrail and warped the front end, and took my driver’s test in my Aunt Sue’s car, in fall ’75. I borrowed it again for prom. I wore a white tuxedo and my date dumped me, but I rode home, stylin’, in a green ’75 Monte Carlo. It was May, ’77.

The first time I truly flew was in a ’69 Camaro; wrecked it in August, ’76, a week before senior year. It was 92 degrees in the dark. I moved on to a ’70 MGB, but no one knew how to work on it so it sat under a tree. My buddy Mike Ponder finally wedged a transmission in place with a 2 by 4, and we motored. We were big boys; people said we looked like circus clowns riding around in that tiny car.

We buried Mike last year, but every time I see one of those cars I think of June, ’77, my friend, and British racing green.


  1. Dana Thompson

    Rick I love your writing style. It always takes to a time in the past very similar to your’s. Please keep us posted if you are going to be doing any readings. Would love to stop by Tuscaloosa to see you soon

    January 23, 2016 at 10:15 am
  2. David R SNYDER

    Wonderful story, the way it is written made me feel I was there for each episode. Also I must have southern roots for I too mark the passage of time with cars.

    January 23, 2016 at 9:32 am
  3. Helen Hassler

    I no longer live in the South, but I love authors like Rick Bragg who keep those old times alive. While on vacation earlier this month, I read and laughed my way through his new book. I love it all but the football…no one can make me like football!

    Helen Austin Hassler
    Middletown, OH

    January 22, 2016 at 8:55 pm
  4. Gail McNamara Knef

    Rick Bragg, you are among my favorite Southern writers of all time! I was fortunate enough to attend one of your classes at Bama when my daughter was a student and loved it. I love Southern Living and even more so, now, as I turn to the last page to read first with every issue. I grew up in Alabama and could tell so many of the same stories but not nearly as entertaining as you make them. Thank you for sharing.

    Gail McNamara Knef

    January 22, 2016 at 6:25 pm
  5. marlene williams

    Love reading about our hometown, Jacksonville,Al.

    January 22, 2016 at 6:19 pm
  6. Lea Currie

    I too am a child of the South and I relive my childhood when I read your books. Love you in Southern Living, in fact, your column was one of the reasons I resubsribed.

    January 22, 2016 at 6:17 pm
  7. Julie

    I loved “to “kill a mocking bird ” but your south was my south! Exclude the achohilics, your south was my south! Loved your books, laughed and cried! It was my south!

    January 22, 2016 at 5:31 pm
  8. Laurie M Snellgrove

    Love living in Fairhope, AL where Mr. Bragg resides!

    January 22, 2016 at 5:21 pm
  9. Paula Lee

    Mr. Bragg, I would very much appreciate an email from you because I want to invite you to be the featured author for the annual Indiana Authors Breakfast in Indianapolis, Indiana. The event is put on by the Dyslexia Institute of Indiana. We are a non-profit organization whose mission is to enable every child to reach their full potential. I am a retired reading tutor for the organization and my husband sits on the Board. Wow! You would be a dream come true. If I have piqued your interest, please contact me. Thanks. Paula Lee cuposloop@comcast.net

    January 22, 2016 at 5:02 pm
  10. Paula Lee

    I am a Rick Bragg adorer!!!! There is nobody living or dead who can twist a heart with a pen or pencil better than Rick Bragg! Paula Lee FYI. He is the reason why I subscribe to Southern Living magazine.

    January 22, 2016 at 4:55 pm
  11. Sharon

    I remember that blue Camero & our road trip to UnderGround! I had to drive it home!!!

    January 22, 2016 at 4:25 pm
  12. Sam Elleard

    I will have to say, Rick Bragg can paint a picture just with words. I love living in the south, and reading Ricks stories have made it even more enjoyable. Thanks Southern Living for introducing him to me. Who could have ever defined the art of Piddling or Loafering any better! Now as I settle into a new adventure referred to as retirement, I now have some guidelines to follow and a picture to boot!

    Sam Elleard
    Gulf Beach, Florida

    January 9, 2015 at 2:00 pm
  13. Karlene

    I am 63 years old and started reading when I was 3. Rick Bragg stole my heart when I read ‘All Over but the Shoutin.’ I’ve read so many books over time but Rick Bragg is my favorite author and I’ll never tire of listening to his “voice”.

    July 15, 2014 at 7:45 pm
  14. Judith Keppel

    My husband and I love to read the stories written by Rick Bragg. we look forward to them every month. His stories are one of the major reasons I subscribe to SL. I am currently reading his heart warming novel, “All Over but the Shoutin” and hope to able to find his other novels next which are very hard to find in the book stores. Please extend my thanks to Mr Bragg for his outstanding work. Please keep his stories coming.

    Judith Keppel
    Abilene, Texas

    June 20, 2014 at 5:13 pm

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