Saturday, July 4, 2020

Stick Shift

 The day started like most others, except this morning I didn’t have to drive to my first call. I met Larry in the office parking garage in Coral Gables, just outside Miami. I didn’t even go inside the office. Larry asked if I could help diagnose a cantankerous communications controller in Key West, and he would drive the one hundred and sixty-five miles down to the end of US Highway One. All I had to do was sit and watch as our world transitioned from urban, glass ensconced canyons of corporate America to the dream world of white beaches and blue water that beckoned sun-starved visitors from all over the world. I didn’t even take my own tool case. I already had visions of a great pasta dinner at Mangia Mangia. Larry and his pristine, gloss-red Datsun 240Z, were famous across south Florida, from autocrosses and gymkhanas to concours d'elegance auto shows. If there was a display of Datsun sport cars, Larry’s car was sure to be there. I wouldn’t have turned down his request to ride to the Florida keys for love nor money. Well, maybe love.

“You know, we’re not going to be alone down there today,” as he pulled into his favorite breakfast stop in Layton in the middle of Long Key two hours or so later. “Jimmy T. is doing a customer call down here with one of his guys, so maybe we can all meet for lunch or dinner.”

I called dispatch in Atlanta to find out if anybody else was headed for the Florida Keys. There were two other dispatches to the keys for different products. It would be impossible for one person to service the entire spectrum of IBM products and systems, so two specifically trained techs – not usually assigned to the keys – were en-route to both Islamorada and Marathon. An unusual day as the Florida Keys simply did not have that much IBM inventory. The whole keys territory had one man assigned for typewriters and copiers, and another for everything else. We all decided to meet at Whale Harbor, in Islamorada, about half way back to the mainland, after we all wrapped up our calls. Mangia Mangia in Key West would have to wait for another day. So would lunch, as it turned out. A typical day with no lunch. It could have been snowing outside and we wouldn’t have noticed. When we finally wrapped up, it was late in the afternoon.

As we walked to Larry’s car at Boca Chica Naval Air Station, Stickshift tossed me the keys. I gave Larry that nickname back when we first met. It has stuck with him ever since. Larry knew I was also a sports car addict and had a German National Competition License while I was stationed in Germany. I raced amateur events and had done hill climbs with my Triumph GT-6. The chance to drive the famous, super-tuned Z-car the seventy-five miles from Boca Chica to Islamorada was a chance I wasn’t going to pass up. I adjusted the seat and the mirrors and the seat belts, and played cautiously with the gear shift. The engine fired up on the first touch of the key, and I glanced at Larry.

“Let me know if I do anything wrong,” I said.

“You’ll be the first to know if I bust your ass!” He laughed.

It didn’t take long to get the feel of the car. The steering was razor sharp and the handling was as balanced as it could be. Not only was it fast and stuck to the road as if it were on rails, but it had fantastic brakes to boot. I’ve driven powerful cars I wasn’t comfortable with, but Larry’s Z was perfect for me. This was a driver’s car. The first time I heeled and toed the car down through the gears, Larry laughed. “Can’t help yourself, can you?” He asked.

It came as naturally as breathing. It was that kind of car. I took it across the Bahia Honda Bridge without going under 110. It was absolutely at peace with the road. I came up on the back of a bright red TR-6 who thought he was speeding just we approached the Seven-Mile bridge. I came up on him quickly, he was probably doing 80 or so, but he had a tendency to use too much of the road for my taste, so I waited for him to make eye contact in his rear-view mirror before I passed him. His look of amazement as we went by was worth the trip. He was the only other car we saw for several miles, but I cooled it a little going across the iconic Seven Mile bridge. No speeding through Marathon, although maybe a little testy with a few of the locals. Back on the throttle headed toward Long Key.

I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant next to Jimmy T’s unmistakable, mustard-yellow 240 Z and reluctantly shut off the ignition. “I thank you sir,” I said as I handed Larry the keys.

“No problem, man, it was a fun ride,” he answered. “You know what you said to the guy in the Triumph?”

“Uh, no, was I rude?” I answered.

“You told him to crap or get off the pot!” he laughed. “The dude was in lala land, he had no idea we where there!”

We had drinks and the neckties were soon stuffed into pant’s pockets. Al, one of the other Miami CE's on call in the keys, pulled in about twenty minutes later and we ordered dinner. We were the last customers in the restaurant when we finally paid our tabs and slowly headed toward the parking lot. There had been a lot of teasing and taunting between Larry and Jimmy T while we drank and told car stories, especially about the ride up from Key West. Jimmy T’s 240 Z was pretty much stock, but he loved to rib Larry about how much Larry treasured his immaculate automobile. As we walked through the parking lot, I felt a curious air between the two Z-car owners. I knew this was serious. This was going to be a race.

Jimmy T pulled out first, and it was obvious he was just as serious as Larry was. The first ten miles back through Tavernier were cat and mouse, but Jimmy T was on his toes. He wouldn’t let Larry in front of him. Nothing Larry tried worked. Jimmy T kept his Z-car just far enough in front to maintain his advantage all the way to Key Largo where the highway opened up to a four lane, divided highway. Larry decided to back off and let Jimmy get comfortable. Larry drove as fast as he dared in the 55 mile per hour speed zone. For those who have never driven this stretch, it is one of the most highly monitored sections of the Keys. He was barely over the speed limit, trying not to draw attention as we kept inching toward Jimmy T’s odd colored sports car, cruising in the right lane of US Highway One just barely in front of us. It was a sweet, beautiful Florida night, and one of the few times the four-lane divided highway through Key Largo was empty of traffic. No one out after Midnight during the week. We had the Overseas Highway to ourselves.

The last several miles of monotonous, almost hypnotic driving along the dark, empty divided highway of north Key Largo seduced Jimmy T. He occasionally glanced at his passenger. I joked to Larry they weren’t talking about cars. We were approaching the gentle, left hand turn where the two lanes of northbound US 1 in Key Largo merge into a single lane, headed toward the drawbridge over Jewfish creek. Larry didn’t want to alert Jimmy T he was positioning for our one and only chance to pass him. If we were too early, he could have easily beat us to the apex of the curve. The gentle left curve, besides being a merge lane, also starts the beginning of a double yellow line that runs uninterrupted for the next several miles. A beautiful, empty road, late at night with perfect weather and visibility, and a once in a lifetime challenge. Nobody but us. How long will it take to get from Jewfish Creek to Florida City?

Jimmy T looked to his right toward the old Card Sound Round as we passed under the last traffic signal for the next twenty miles and I yelled “Go!" Larry downshifted to third gear and jammed the accelerator to the floor. The red Datsun 240 Z howled, and snapped my head back in the passenger’s seat. We screamed past Jimmy T, apexing the curve perfectly. Timing is everything and it was a perfect pass. There was no way short of Florida Highway Patrol intervention would Larry lift his right foot. Larry slammed into 4th, then 5th gear and I watched the speedometer hit 120 as we screamed across Lake Surprise headed toward the drawbridge over Jewfish creek. He did slow down a little as we rocketed across the metal grating on the bridge. Jimmy T was right on our rear bumper.

The first curve after the Jewfish Creek bridge was a super fast, left hand sweeper and Jimmy T’s headlights faded further and further behind. Larry lifted a little for the right-hander as we skirted Black Water Sound headed toward the bend just before the County Line Marina. Jimmy T’s headlights were immediately glaring in our fastback’s rear window. Once we were past the Marina entrance it was time to roll, and we did. Except for the Thiokol drawbridge. Larry considered the effect the metal grating would have, so he slowed down to 80 or 85 as we sped over it.

The last chance Jimmy T had to pass us was just after the bridge where the highway opened up to what was known as a suicide street, one of those wicked, three lane abominations that were designed to kill people, but the only thing in sight was the distant glare of Florida City on the horizon. Larry never lifted his foot again. The six cylinder engine was mechanical perfection. The sound of almost seven thousand RPM proved all was in harmony. Every time I looked at the Speedometer it was between 120 and 125. There were no other cars on the road. Not even one. Jimmy T faded further and further back. He wasn’t going to catch us.

We pulled into the Last Chance Saloon parking lot in Florida City just under ten minutes after we crossed the Jewfish Creek bridge. A touch over 19 miles for an average speed of a little over 115mph. We got the famous middle finger salute and a big grin from Jimmy T. His terrified passenger looked liked he had been embalmed.

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