William Butler Yeats is buried in the Protestant churchyard at Drumcliff, Co. Sligo, Ireland.
He directed the following epitaph be inscribed on his gravestone.
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Horseman, pass by!
William Butler Yeats is buried in the Protestant churchyard at Drumcliff, Co. Sligo, Ireland.
He directed the following epitaph be inscribed on his gravestone.
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Horseman, pass by!
There was a clacking noise coming from the front end of our 1957 Citroën 2CV. At first, I only heard it when turning left, but then, as the kilometers rolled by, it changed from clacking to non-stop grinding. Wheel bearing, maybe. Or a CV (constant velocity) joint, perhaps. Time to find a garage and see what was going on.
This was to be my first repair on this ancient and primitive vehicle, which could best be described as a tin can powered by a lawn mower engine with seats made of rubber bands. We’d purchased it for $200 in Brittany, not long after arriving in France, to transport us on our adventures in Europe and Africa.
We began our travels in Rennes, drove down the Atlantic coast of France, cutting inland at Bordeaux, then south at Toulouse into the Catalan Pyrenees. Our last port of call in France was the sun-drenched Mediterranean city of Perpignon. From there, we set a new direction south again into Spain, through Barcelona and Valencia, crossing the Alboran Sea by ferry from Almeria to the Spanish enclave in North Africa of Mellila – see THE MIDNIGHT FERRY FROM ALMERIA TO MELILLA
Destination: Africa. From Mellila, we crossed into Morocco and scaled the Rif Mountains to Tangier, laboring up the inclines in second gear, then plunging down in rapid descent while standing on the totally inadequate and barely functioning brakes. From Tangier, it was south again to Casablanca and the imperial city of Marrakech, set against the towering Atlas Mountains.
The Atlantic Ocean beckoned, and we crossed the parched uplands, dropping down into the coastal city of Agadir. Here we camped on the beach alongside an Austrian trader with his girlfriend (“she is so lazy,” he complained) in their Land Rover 109. We pulled the front seat out of the 2CV and stretched out inside. We’d left the back seat in France. The Austrian advised us to chain our front seat to the car, however, as during the night it would be stolen if unsecured.
I’d hoped to drive to Sidi Ifni and then on to Tantan, where the Western Sahara Desert begins, but my well-traveled Austrian friend advised against it. He said that from Sidi Ifni on, the roads disappeared and reappeared as winds off the ocean whipped the sand into ever shifting dunes. There was nothing – no water, no fuel, no food, often for a hundred kilometers. This news exceeded my sense of adventure, so we turned north again.
It was while travelling north that the 2CV started clicking, then clacking, then grinding. We’d passed Rabat and were nearing Kenitra when I had the distinct premonition that my luck was about to run out. We drove into Kenitra, found a garage that serviced Citroëns, and left the car off while we got a hotel. When we returned, the mechanic said the wheel bearing was completely gone. Never seen anything like it – the bearing had vaporized. But the good news was that this was Morocco, where 100 times zero is still zero, and the repair would be cheap. Stop back tomorrow.
Next morning when we returned to the garage, as we were settling up – with me trying to get a “student discount,” which often worked – two Americans came up to us. In this part of Morocco, it was unusual to see fellow Yanks, so we took our conversation to a nearby café for breakfast, Moroccan style – fried flatbreads, semolina Beghrir pancakes with butter and honey, mint tea and fresh squeezed oranges.
Bob and Robin lived just out of the city of Kenitra. They rented a villa on the ocean in the tiny beach enclave of Mehdia Plage. Bob was stationed in Kenitra with the US Navy, and he’d met Robin through friends in the Peace Corps.
Wait – the US Navy? In Morocco? I had no idea there was a US base there. Naval Air Station Kenitra was a former Vichy France airfield that had been captured by the United States during World War II when the destroyer USS Dallas came up the Sebou River and landed a Raider team, taking the airfield. Just up the road at Sidi Yahia was a Navy communication station for the Sixth Fleet. And right across the street was a local pulp paper factory that was a front for a Russian surveillance operation that kept an eye on the nearby American presence. This was a very interesting breakfast.
Bob and Robin would not let us leave without spending some time at their villa, which they rented from a colonel in the Moroccan army and his wife, who was a niece of the King of Morocco, Hassan II. They shared the villa, which was right on the ocean beach, with a couple other Navy guys. Several other villas in Mehdia Plage were rented by Peace Corps volunteers, so it turned out this little village had a very high American population. There were parties and barbeques on someone’s veranda every night with fresh caught fish, booze from the Navy liquor store, Spanish beer and Moroccan wine. As we had no real plans, Bob and Robin asked us to stay for as long as we wanted. We rented a portion of the villa for a very small sum and used Mehdia Plage as our base of operations for a couple months.
Next: Mehdia Plage, the colonel, the king’s niece, and Omar, who lived in a German pillbox on the jetty.
Mehdia Plage, Morocco
This poem reminds me that seeing the end of the day is not a given, that tomorrow remains a gift I haven’t yet received, and that the fragile nuance of daily routines defines our moments.
Dennis O’Driscoll (1954-2012) is an Irish poet, essayist, editor and critic.
There it was, parked alongside the barn, almost totally obscured with weeds. A bird’s egg blue MGA roadster. Find!
In the 1960s in rural Minnesota, British sports cars were scarce. You rarely saw one. I’d already had several cars by my late teens, all American iron. But after reading an absorbing teen fiction book about a boy who discovered an MG TD parked in a barn, brought it to life, and won a sports car race – a cascade of highly unlikely scenarios – I had to have a British sports car. While cruising the country roads in my ’55 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop, I came across this gem: a 1957 MGA roadster, covered with dust and what looked like just a little rust, last licensed several years earlier. Sitting. Neglected. Calling my name. “Steve – look, look, rescue me!”
In farm country, you don’t go walking up to a stranger’s barn unannounced, unless you wanted a seat full of lead, so I knocked on the farmhouse door. Through the screen, I could see a bearded man in his middle years looking out.
“Excuse me, sir, but I noticed that old MG sitting alongside your barn and I was wondering if you might be interested in selling it.”
He opened the door and stepped outside.
“What would you want with an old piece of junk like that?” he asked.
“I like fixing cars,” I said, “and I’ve never had an MG. I’ve heard they’re fun to drive.”
“It’s been a long time since that car has been run,” he said. “I bought it brand new in 1958 when I graduated from the University of Minnesota. I drove it to New York to grad school. I was headed back to Minnesota after that and decided to take a little detour. I ended up driving through just about every state on this continent. When I got back here, I started work as a potter, and I’ve been doing it ever since. My pottery studio is in the barn. There’s a Vincent Black Shadow in the milk house. And my MG has been resting alongside the barn. Maybe you’ll be the next owner. Let’s go take a look at it and see if you’re still interested. It’s pretty rough. My name’s Dick.”
It was rough. But to me, that meant cheap. I was 18 years old and had no money. My Dad was a mechanic – he’d taught me to turn wrenches, so I was undaunted by the fact that the engine hadn’t turned over in several years, the two 6-volt batteries behind the seats were dead and covered by corrosion, and you could see the ground through the floorboards. It had well over 100,000 miles. Still, it was an MGA. The only MGA that I had ever seen up close. I loved sitting in it. It was complete and had been driven to this spot. The keys were still in the ignition. I had high hopes and very little cash, but nothing to lose by asking.
“If I can get it running, I’d like to buy it. How much do you want?”
Dick looked at me and smiled. “Well, if you’re crazy enough, you can have it for $100. Let me know when you get it running. Stop out any time and work on it. Would you like to see the Vincent?”
We walked to the milk house, and there it was – a complete, original Vincent Black Shadow, now one of the rarest of the rare and one of the most desirable classic motorcycles in the world. In the milk house, covered with dust.
“Forget about buying it,” Dick said. “My brother owns half interest and he’s not selling.”
Then we went into his barn, which was a state of the art pottery studio. It turns out that Richard Abnet was a very well-known potter and ceramist. He did mainly religious commissions, like chalices, candleholders, and large baptismal bowls. Readers who’ve lived around Stillwater, Minnesota, will know who he is.
It took a week to get the MGA running. I jerry-rigged a single 12-volt battery in the trunk, and with a push of the starter button, the engine turned. But it would not start. Spark was good, but when I disconnected the gas line, a nasty substance dribbled out. I’d added new gas, but I’d added it to the gas tank on top of a foul concoction of rust, dirt, debris and something that looked like a former petroleum product. I flushed out the tank, finding a collection of rocks and even a wrench inside. With actual gas now flowing to the carburetors, the engine coughed, coughed again, and started up. Within a few minutes the blue gray cloud that was coming out of the exhaust pipe cleared and the engine settled down to what resembled an idle.
I gathered my life savings, paid Dick, got the title and started home with the MGA. I almost made it. A few miles away, the clutch went to the floor and stayed there. I managed to limp home in second gear, running a few stop signs on the way. Thus began my education on keeping a British sports car alive long enough to enjoy driving it. The slave cylinder on the hydraulic clutch had failed. I got a repair kit at an import garage that served as the only MG dealer in the area, but when I tore down the slave cylinder, it was corroded beyond repair. After a long search, I located a used one at a wrecking yard about 50 miles away, rebuilt it, and I was on my way.
Not for long. The car had been sitting so long that one by one, everything made of rubber failed. Brake cylinders, brake lines, gas lines, master cylinder, hoses – replaced them all. My friends thought I was totally crazy. But they didn’t have an MGA and I did!
In between repairs, the MGA was an absolute joy to drive. The 1.5 liter engine pushed out about 70 horsepower, good for a top speed of about 95 miles per hour, downhill with the wind at your back.
But that wasn’t the entire story. The real pleasure of this mighty little two seater was unadorned driving pleasure. I’d drop the top on a warm summer’s evening, head for the back roads with the wind buffeting my hair, watch the tachometer rise and fall while moving the gear stick around to find the best gear for the job at hand – whether double-clutching down for a sharp curve or cranking it out on the straights – and listen to the glorious sound of that spunky little engine breathing through the special sport exhaust that I’d made with a flow-through small tractor muffler. The MGA shocks had almost no travel, so the car cornered flat and true. I loved going out on the back roads with friends in their heavy Fords and Chevys and losing them when we hit the curves. Of course, they’d catch me and pass me on the straights, but I’d catch then again in the curves.
A year or so later, I sold my little bird’s egg blue MGA to another masochist, making a tidy profit. I tired of cars quickly, and I was always moving on to something else. Later, I was to have several British sports cars, and they were all a blast to drive: another MGA roadster, a rare MGA fixed coupe, an Austin Healy 100-6, an Austin Healy 3000, a Triumph GT 6, a Triumph Spitfire, a Jaguar XK150 convertible, and others that I can’t think of at the moment.
The original owner of my first MGA, Richard Abnet, worked in his barn studio in between Stillwater and Marine, Minnesota, just off the St. Croix River for decades. I stopped back to see him from time to time, hoping to buy that Vincent Black Shadow. He passed away at 77 years, working as a potter until the end of his life. I’m forever grateful that he sold me his bird’s egg blue MGA, my first British sports car.
These are photos of an MGA roadster I found for sale on an Internet site, along with other images. This beauty is almost exactly like mine, though in far better condition.
Here are some period sales materials for the MGA
I now live in the Pacific Northwest on Puget Sound. One of my favorite places is the Kalaloch Lodge in the Olympic National Forest, at the western edge of the continent, directly on the Pacific Ocean. Kalaloch has a rustic luxury lodge and several cabins directly on the ocean shore where you go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning to the pounding surf. I prefer to visit in winter, when there are fewer people and the storms come rolling in, blackening the sky and sending mountains of water crashing to the beach.
Here are some photos from my last trip.
For many generations, Ireland has been renowned for its wonderful horses – the Connemara pony, the racing thoroughbred, and the Irish Hunter. As far back as the Crusades, armies from all over Europe came to Ireland for horses for their armies: sturdy horses of strength, speed and character.
What makes Ireland horse country? Perhaps it’s lush green fields and temperate climate of the country; perhaps it’s the almost mystical rapport the Irish have with their horses, as celebrated in art and song since early Celtic times. Some years ago, my horse-crazy nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, and I went to see for ourselves. We went to ride Irish horses in Ireland – an equestrian dream come true.
We were living in Germany at the time. Our trip got off to an auspicious start when Aer Lingus upgraded us to first class on the flight from Frankfurt to Dublin. Then three hours by rental car – driving on the left side of the road – brought us to the Flowerhill Equestrian Centre in the rolling hills and glens of east Galway. Owned by Oliver Walsh, Flowerhill specializes in cross-country riding, with over 100 obstacles set on the 200-acre estate. Jumps range from novice to Irish Championship standard – it’s an All-Ireland Championship venue. Flowerhill has over 60 ponies and horses, including two Irish Hunter stallions at stud. As you walk about the stables, horses poke their heads out from every nook and cranny to greet you. In the pastures surrounding the house, horses graze and roll in the grass. Flowerhill is for horse lovers.
Máire, Flowerhill’s excellent cook, had a fine, hearty meal waiting for us, along with the other guests, when we arrived on Saturday night. We stayed in Flowerhill House on a B&B basis, with Mary providing a sumptuous breakfast every morning that sustained us through most of the day – sausages, bacon, ham, eggs, beans and potatoes heaped on a large plate. The former home of Lord Nugent, Flowerhill House is hundreds of years old, with a hilltop view over the estate. Bedrooms are spacious, and guests are free to wander around the house and property. One of the permanent guests is rumored to be a ghost. Could that explain why the fireplace tongs suddenly fell to the floor by our feet as we sat by the fire drinking our tea one morning?
Sunday was the last East Galway “Meadows” foxhunt of the season. What better way to start out our week of riding than with an Irish hunt? I should explain that this was a “drag” hunt, where the fox scent is dragged through the countryside for the hounds to follow. Politically correct, and just as much riding action – maybe more. The lads dragging the scent that morning had a diabolical interest in having the dogs lead us through thickets and thorn bushes, as well as over almost every jump and obstacle. That included a fast run across a field and jumping over a bank directly into a river that was belly deep for the horses. Yes, we got wet! I’m sure the foxes were watching us from their dens with great amusement.
Before the hunt started, we first had a riding assessment. This consisted of a quick warm-up on the cross-country course to make sure that our horses matched our riding abilities. Shannon rode a spirited Connemara pony named Moonlight. This pony would fly – literally – over any jump he was pointed towards. He and Shannon were a perfect match, and Shannon rode him for the entire week we were there.
My first steed, and the one I rode for the hunt, was a big black Irish Hunter named Sherbo. By the end of the hunt, I’d nicknamed him Turbo Sherbo for his incredible power and speed. Within a few jumps, I began to understand where the Irish Hunter’s jumping reputation comes from. Later that week, I was to ride other Hunters who matched – and even exceeded – his capabilities.
Ready for the hunt, call to the hounds, and down the road we go. Because this was our first hunt, Shannon and I stayed toward the back, though time-wise, that was only nanoseconds from the front. There were about 30 hounds and about 40 riders. The East Galway hunters are friends and neighbors, spanning several generations, who ride together during the regular hunt season. The youngest was about 8 years old and the oldest was in his 80’s. Almost every single one went out of their way to say hello and welcome to the American newcomers. It was an honor to ride with them.
It wasn’t long before the hounds picked up the scent and started the cry. The Master of the Hounds sounded his horn, the horses put their heads up and ears forward, and off we went. Tallyho! We galloped down hedgerow roads, over Ireland’s famous stone fences, around the four-mile cross-country course, up and through combination ditches, and through the river. Sherbo was an experienced hunter and wanted to get up front, but he listened very closely to me and we stayed towards the back where I could keep an eye on Shannon. This really wasn’t necessary because Shannon was doing just fine, thank you. Every time I looked back, Moonlight was flying through the air and Shannon was grinning from ear to ear.
The hunt lasted about four hours. I jumped more fences in that time than I usually jumped in a month. The East Galway hunters told me later that if you can hunt the “Meadows” at Flowerhill, you can hunt anywhere. When the hunt ended back at Flowerhill in late afternoon, I eased myself very slowly off Sherbo, my back and leg muscles the consistency of jelly. After washing him down – he had mud up to his ears – I slithered back to the bedroom to see if a warm shower would ease my aches.
Then it was off to the pub. This is a required element of the Irish hunting tradition, and even if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t want to miss it. The entire East Galway hunting club was down at Clarence’s for liquid refreshment and sandwiches. When we walked in, the bar maid said, “Done a bit of riding today?” On my affirmative, she brought over a basket full of sandwiches. I was afraid to sit for fear that I wouldn’t be able to get back up, so I stood at the bar and had a couple pints of the black stuff. I’ve always liked Guinness, but I’d never tasted it so rich and smooth as from the tap at Clarence’s, particularly that day. I heard the next day that the hunters kept the bar open until 2 am. Shannon and I left much earlier.
I slept more soundly than I had in months. But when the sun came up, Shannon jumped down off her top bunk and announced that it was time to ride. After a hearty breakfast, we went out into the yard to saddle up and begin a day of cross-country riding. Now we could concentrate on the jumps and obstacles without the company of three dozen other horses and a pack of hounds. When I’d asked Orla, Flowerhill’s manager, if I could sample the various Hunters, she said, “You’ll be spoiled for choice.” And I was. Monday’s horse was a dapple-gray named Tommy. Tommy was as tall as Sherbo – over 17 hands – but more stout, with his Irish draught breeding showing in his huge head and muscular neck, legs and hindquarters. Tommy never saw a jump he didn’t like. The next week, he was going to Germany for show jumping competition, to give you an idea of his talent. We were to spend the next two days together, until he threw a shoe. He seemed more disappointed than I was that he had to go back to the paddock.
Then I rode Portos, similar in build, temperament, and appearance to Sherbo – tall, sleek and black, a very handsome horse. He was also a flawless and untiring jumper. On the last day, I had another big dapple gray named Melvyn. Melvyn was even bigger than Tommy. Oliver described him as a “hunting machine.” He could hunt and hunt and hunt. On the previous Sunday, he’d been the Huntmaster’s horse, and he was used to running up front. At the end of the day our little group had an informal race through a large field at Oliver’s suggestion, and I can assure you that this is about as fast as I have ever ridden a horse. When he realized a race was on and he could go full out, he sank down, stretched out, dug in and sailed past the pack like they were going the other direction. Imagine the Starship Enterprise going into warp drive – that was Melvyn. At the end of the field, he happily came back to a canter, then a trot, shook his head and snorted like, “Now, what did you think of that?”
Meanwhile, Shannon was enjoying having Moonlight as “her pony” for the entire week. Shannon usually rides the school ponies at the stables where we kept our German Warmblood just outside of Wiesbaden, Germany, so she gets a different pony almost every time. The little German princesses at the stable often get first pick. So having a great Irish pony like Moonlight for the week made her very happy. She and Moonlight just clicked. By the end of the week, she was going over big fences with great confidence. Her riding capabilities and confidence increased immeasurably during her week in Ireland.
For that matter, so did mine. By the end of the week, I was jumping fences and going through ditches that I would never have considered before. That included the famous “Irish ditch” – gallop up a mound, drop off four feet into water, one bounce stride to a three-foot fence at the bottom, two full strides through water, then up and over a three-foot fence on the other side at the top. Very exhilarating!
We took a day off in the middle of the week to do some sightseeing. Flowerhill is less than an hour from Galway City, so we drove there, then up through Connemara to Clifden on the west coast and back down through the various bays and islands. Just a couple hours away, the mountains and coast of Connemara are very different from the farming country of east Galway. Waves crash onto endless miles of beaches and rocky inlets. Big banks of clouds roll through off the Atlantic, bringing a shower an hour in April. There are plenty of riding centers there, also. An idea for our next riding vacation in Ireland?
So what were our final thoughts after a week of riding Irish horses in Ireland? Well, having Irish blood in our veins may have predisposed us, but both Shannon and I had a hard time saying goodbye to our Irish friends, both human and equine. In fact, we didn’t. It was “Until the next time.” Shannon said she had never had a better vacation or a better time riding in her entire nine years. She was sure she’d never ridden a more well-mannered, willing, spirited pony. Moonlight set a new standard for her.
My impressions are about the same. Though each of the “Irish gentlemen” that I rode was very different, one from the other, they all inspired confidence and trust. They had spirit, strength and character. They were equally happy at speed or at a leisurely walk. They jumped with vigor and energy. None of them were horses I rode were for the amateur rider, though Flowerhill can provide these as well. If you have invested sufficient time and energy into the art of riding, you will likely find fulfillment with an Irish Hunter.
Our last night at Flowerhill was not a night for parting tears – though it was a night for a parting glass. One of the student interns at Flowerhill was going back to her university equine program in Sweden, so there was a party at Clarence’s. I believe there is a party most nights at Clarence’s. After our last ride, we put our horses away and went into the town of Portumna to eat at the Shannon Oaks Hotel, on the Shannon River, then headed for Clarence’s pub. While you wouldn’t probably think of bringing your nine-year-old daughter to most bars in America, the Irish pub is a place for the whole family, from baby to grandma. About 10:30, “the twins” (Oliver’s nephews) started a round of traditional Irish music that continued non-stop until early the next morning. I had to literally pull Shannon out of there at 12:30. The next morning, Shannon said, “That was really great “craic” – an Irish word which is roughly equivalent to “fun.” You hear it often around Flowerhill.
I’m very much looking forward to my next trip to Ireland and more great “craic.”
Flowerhill Equestrian Centre – Killimor, Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, Ireland
It was a dark and stormy night. Really.
Theresa, me, and my trusty Irish Setter, Erin, were booked on the midnight ferry crossing from Almeria, Spain, to the port of Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. It would be an overnight crossing through the turbulent Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost portion of the Mediterranean Sea, lying between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. The Strait of Gibraltar is at the west end of the Alboran Sea, connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean, near where Columbus left from Palos de la Frontera.
Our journey that night was in a tempest, with the roiling seas tossing the ferry up and down like a toy. Most everyone aboard was sick. Those who could went to the toilets to vomit or went outside and heaved over the side of the ferry. The rest sat in their seats in the passenger area as the vomitus rolled back and forth in the isles as the ferry went up and over the waves.
It was pitch black and the rain was driving sideways. I knew that if I was going to get through this, I needed some booze and some food. Theresa was making her way back and forth from the passenger room to the toilets. Erin was in the car on the deck below, hunkered down. I went up to the bar and spent the early hours drinking Brandy de Jerez with a bunch of Spanish soldiers and eating sausage and ham sandwiches. My stomach and its contents remained in equilibrium. Most people stop eating when they start to get seasick – big mistake. Keep eating and drink alcohol, a tip from the bartender on the Italian ocean liner SS Michelangelo that we’d taken from New York City to Cannes, France, just a couple months before. It works. Listen to your bartender.
With the break of day, I was on the deck with a cup of black coffee watching the port of Melilla, in Mother Africa, emerge from the marine fog. The sea had calmed. We went down to the car to prepare to debark. That’s when I discovered I’d forgotten to pull the parking brake, so my 1957 Citroen 2CV had been bouncing all night between the ferry wall and a new Peugeot 504 in back of me, smashing my tail lights and the grill of the new car. The owner of the Peugeot was already there inspecting the damage. He was irritated, but pleasant. He was an economics professor at the University of Algiers in Algeria, and he said that something like this happened almost every time he took that ferry. We ended up on friendly terms, and he gave me his address in Algiers along with an invitation to visit and stay with his family. That’s North African hospitality, which I found everywhere we were to travel.
The damage was covered by insurance, so when we drove off the ferry, we picked up a representative of the ferry who had waved us down at the off ramp, and he directed us to a garage. Theresa’s face was white as a sheet. Erin was fine – but he really had to pee. I was still a bit numbed from the alcohol, but started to come around with a cup of North African coffee – the consistency of suggery mud – and a very sweet pastry. We got the cars fixed quickly – a little more than an hour. Turns out the ferry “representative” was not really a ferry employee but a free-lancer who now wanted money for “assisting” us. I told him I was a student and broke – the truth. He started to make a scene, but I was already in the car so I sped off, with him chasing me, cursing, I’d imagine, if I could have understood what he was saying.
Trouble was, we couldn’t figure out how to get out of town and on the road to Tangier, our initial destination. There was basically only one road to Tangier, so if we could find that we’d be fine. But Melilla was a labyrinth of ancient streets and alleys. Unlike most of Europe, there were no signs pointing the way in or out. In short, we didn’t know where we were or how to get where we wanted to go. We hadn’t bought a map in Spain because we thought we’d get one when we arrived on the African continent. But there were none to be found. Apparently, everyone knew where they were going. So we asked a policeman who was directing traffic in one of the squares for directions out of town. He had no idea, but he suggested going to the bus station. A very friendly fellow, he happily left his traffic post and walked us to the bus station nearby. Busses leave for Tangier every day, so his thinking went, so they must know how to get out of town. OK.
That worked. A bus was leaving soon and we followed it to the border checkpoint leading out of the Spanish autonomous city of Melilla into Morocco. Now we were truly in Africa. The Rif Mountains lay ahead, the adventure had just begun, and it wasn’t yet noon. We hadn’t even had lunch. Theresa said she wasn’t really very hungry.
Next stop: Al Hoceima, a Moroccan coastal town on the edge of the Rif Mountains. Whitewashed walls, intricate mosaics, and haunting music surrounded me that first evening in Morocco as I walked the streets with Erin. The next morning, a stranger bought us coffee and handed me a “gift” that I found later was a small brick of zero zero hashish. On the way out of town, Moroccan state police – called The Black Angels – dressed in black leather with black BMW motorcycles and machine guns, had set up an impromptu checkpoint with tire piercing spikes across the roadway. There’d been an attempt on the king’s life earlier, and they were checking every single vehicle. With a French registered car and United States passports, we seemed to perplex them a bit. But they were satisfied that we weren’t assassins and waved us through.
We were looking for a new, completely different experience, and we’d found it! Had we ever. The next stop before Tangier: Tétouan. But that’s another story.
Travel note: I was somewhat surprised that Melilla was an autonomous Spanish city on Spanish territory, as is Ceuta, another Spanish enclave in Africa. Their history, like so many other North African coastal cities, dates back thousands of years. The port we arrived at on the African continent, Melilla, has been part of the history of the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Visigoths, Kingdom of Fez, and now the Spanish. Both Ceuta and Melilla have been under Spanish control since the 15th century.
“My Cars” features some of the approximately 300 cars I’ve owned since I was 12 years old. Today’s car is a ’41 Chevy business coupe. Mine was just like the one pictured, except in slate gray.
I bought my Chevy business coupe for $100 from a college student when I was attending the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, in the early 1970’s. His dad was a mechanic and had completely rebuilt the stock 216 cubic inch inline six cylinder motor. The seller had re-done the interior upholstery in classy chocolate brown Naugahyde, an industrial quality fake leather popular at the time. The car was mechanically excellent and the body was solid, though the interior was a bit dark. A business coupe had no rear seat, just a long bench that extended from behind the front seat into the trunk. Business coupes were a popular low-priced model offered by most car manufacturers of that era. They were designed for traveling business or sales people to keep their samples and wares. This served my purposes well because I had big Irish Setter named Erin who liked to stretch out.
One salient and funky feature of that Chevy was the paint. The owner had painted the entire car bright red. With a broom. Using house paint. I bought it in the middle of winter, took it to a coin operated car wash, and started spraying. Large slabs of thick red paint went flying off the car in all directions. So I cashed in about $10 in quarters and used the high pressure wash wand to blast off every bit of red paint. Underneath was very solid, completely unrusted original gray paint in great condition.
Just as I was leaving the car wash that night, the wash owner came out and said: “You ain’t leaving until you clean up that mess of dried paint, buddy.” So after spending a small fortune in quarters stripping the paint off the car, I had a nice clean-up job sweeping up buckets of dried red paint fragments under the watchful eye of a cross old geezer. I was at that car wash for a long time that evening. But I’m pretty sure the owner had a shotgun, so it wasn’t like I had a choice.
I decided to take a break from the university about that time, and I accepted an interesting offer to be a glass blower in Milwaukee at a small shop that made head shop paraphernalia, hanging glass mobiles, vases and chess sets. Remember – this was the early 1970’s. Glassblowing had always fascinated me, and opportunity was knocking.
One evening in deep winter I left Eau Claire in that ’41 Chevy and headed down I-94 to Milwaukee, about a six-hour drive. It was bitter cold, the temperature hovering well below zero, a crystalline sky above opening to an unlimited star-lit vista. With the heater on full blast and the AM radio playing clear channel WLS out of Chicago at 890 kHz with 50,000 watts of power, it was a cozy drive through the Wisconsin farmlands.
When I stopped for gas around Wisconsin Dells, I calculated that I was getting about 25 mpg. That fine old Chevy was rock solid, never missing a beat. My hundred bucks had been well spent.
On a cold winter’s night in the Pacific Northwest, with rain banging on the roof and wind whistling through the stalls, I came into the barn to give the horses their evening feed. I found Gem laying in her stall, breathing in short, shallow breaths, with her eyes half closed, trying to kick at her stomach with her back feet.
Gem was my carriage horse, a Morgan mare, 29 years old at the time, pictured above. She had over two decades of experience competing in Combined Driving Events at the Advanced level. She was my driving teacher. She was fast, fancy and smart. She also did not suffer fools gladly. I learned most of what I know about driving a carriage from Gem.
She was colicing. For a horse, colic is life threatening. Their digestive system basically ties up, resulting in intense abdominal pain. Untreated, colic will kill a horse. Even treated, colic can kill a horse. Horses are big creatures, weighing half a ton, but they are actually quite fragile in so many ways.
I tugged, pulled and cajoled, and Gem finally stumbled to her feet, her head hanging to the floor. And that’s where we began. I spent the night in and out of the barn, into the early morning hours, alternatively trying to keep the old girl upright, syringing a quart of Milk of Magnesia down her throat with a turkey baster, mixing up some phenylbute medication, and walking her up and down the driveway 15 minutes of each hour to try to loosen up her guts so they’d start to work. Here in the Pacific Northwest, winter nights are pitch black, cold, and wet. Pure misery.
Once a horse goes down, chances of it getting up are decreased by frequency and duration. Three times while we were walking Gem simply lunged forward in the driveway onto her chest and sprawled over. It was very difficult to get her up. Each time she fell could have been the last. But I persisted, and she got up for me. She didn’t want to – she did it for me because she knew I was trying to help her.
Long story short, my old mare got through it. My grandfather’s farm remedy, Milk of Magnesia, around for over 100 years, worked through her guts and she started to relax and stand without trying to drop to her knees. I’d taken up all the hay from the stall, but now she was starting to sniff the chaff on the floor as if she was a bit hungry. I gave her a bucket of warm water – but no hay – closed the stall doors, knocked on wood and went in to sleep.
I didn’t know what I’d find the next morning, and I expected the worst. But when I opened the barn door, there she was, alert and looking for breakfast. We started off slow with a little beet pulp mash and by noon some hay. By mid-afternoon, she was fine, like the night before never happened. But it left me to wonder how many of these episodes she could get through at her age. This was the second time. It turned out there would be two more, and then her time came. She passed at 31 years after a long and eventful life. She was one of a kind. I still miss her.
Footnote (pun intended): While I was walking her up and down the driveway that night, she tripped and stepped on my little toe, breaking it. That toe is still crooked. Note to self – put on the steel-toed boots before going out to the barn.
This is the name of an Internet group made up of Jaguar enthusiasts from all over the world: Jag Lovers. By and large, the name is an accurate representation of the membership. I’m in. A Jag lover and a Jag Lover. For over 20 years, I’ve had the Jag pictured – a 1956 Jaguar 2.4 saloon, otherwise known as a Mark I. It was my father’s car before me. It’s been in the family now over 50 years. That is my cherished German Shepherd “Nikki” alongside me, now passed on after 13 years.
I can’t say I really knew my father well. Not that we didn’t get along. We did, but more or less by virtue of both coming under the iron fist with which my mother ruled the household. We could sympathize and, certainly, empathize, with each other. The oldest born, my mother would berate me: You’re just like your father. It was not meant as a compliment.
No, we just didn’t know each other very well, in most respects. We didn’t do the sports, hunting, or fishing thing together. By the time I was coming into the age when a father would have been handy to have available, to talk about those confusing issues that the early teen years bring to the forefront, he was working two jobs and took about any excuse he could to get away from the house and the wife. He moved into a space in the basement and came and went with the shadows. I ran into him in the basement stair well one morning about 4 a.m. I was sneaking in late as he was heading out to work. He put his finger to his lips beseeching me to keep quiet for fear of awakening the dragon who lay snoring fitfully above. Some years later, to the great relief of all concerned, my parents divorced, and I didn’t see him for a very long time.
My father loved cars. He loved the B-24’s that he’d worked on during the war. He loved clocks and guns and all mechanical mechanisms with machined surfaces and gears and bearings. But he loved cars most of all. I guess I learned to love cars from him. Or maybe it’s in my genetic code. His best stories, the ones I remember, were about his cars. His first car – a Model T Ford with a hot magneto, shaved head, and high-speed rear end that would let it approach speeds of over 70 mph. The time he broke his wrist when he forgot to retard the spark before hand cranking it to start. His 1932 Model B roadster with the rumble seat, fitted with Ford’s first flathead V8. His 1938 straight-eight Buick that would top 100 miles an hour. His 1936 Chevy Master Deluxe with the worn-out knee-action front suspension that made the front end of the car bob up and down as he drove down the road. His 1949 flathead Ford Coupe that ran for a year with absolutely no oil pressure. And many more. His cars were alive to him, each with its own personality and distinguishing traits.
When I was very young – four or five – he had a Ford Model A Tudor. As first-born, I was the only child at that point – pure bliss. He let me climb into and through the car as he worked on this and that. I sat in the driver’s seat, trying to peer between the spokes of the steering wheel and the dash, imaging what it must be like to drive. I had no idea what he was working on. Sometimes he’d be under the car, other times he was leaning into the engine compartment, the hood folded over. Then he’d fold the hood back, latch it down, smile, and we’d take the Model A for a drive, up the country road onto the highway to stretch her legs, or back down the dirt road where the crazy old bachelor lived in a hut with bizarre yard ornaments. Then back. Sometimes I sat in his lap, with my hands on the steering wheel, just below his, feeling the road, feeling the strength and power that came from driving, driving, driving. He pushed the clutch in and I shifted from second to third, which involved taking both my hands off the steering wheel. But Dad had the wheel so we stayed between the ditches.
So while we weren’t close in the sharing of words, we shared cars. He taught me how to drive at 10 years old, propping me on a cushion on the seat of the 1951 Dodge Coronet, telling me that as long as I kept the leaping ram ornament on the hood lined up with the right side of the road, I’d always be exactly in my lane. It worked. He helped me buy my first car when I was 12, a 1952 Chevy Deluxe sedan for $12, to drive around the yard and work on. With his help, I took that car apart and put it back together. Later, when my mother’s car broke, she drove that old Chevy for about a year.
Dad never did mention anything about Jaguars. He seemed to basically cherish American cars – straight eight Pontiacs, Buicks, and Packards were his favorites. He liked the odd-balls and unique marques, too, like Kaisers, Studebakers and Hudsons. If there was something unusual about a car, that recommended it to him. But he never talked about any foreign manufactured car. He said the best car in the world was the Duesenberg, a name he revered.
He basically left town after the divorce, and I didn’t see him for about 15 years. I more or less left the family, as well, except for my grandparents, who were my rock. Dad didn’t try to get hold of any of us kids, and we didn’t try to get hold of him. No communication, don’t know why. I guess we all just wanted to let it all go. I suppose I thought he was just tired of the whole thing. I heard of him through my uncle a couple times. He retired from the Minneapolis Post Office garage, collected cars, opened an antique store in Minneapolis, and traveled to San Diego where he’d worked on B-24’s during the war, and to Mexico to buy antiques.
One summer day, he returned. There was a note pinned to my door when I returned to my rural home: “Your father has returned. You weren’t home. I’ll stop back later.” And he did. He came up the driveway in a right-hand drive early 60’s Rambler that had been a postal vehicle, still painted the postal color scheme – that unusual characteristic that he favored. He got out of the car, shook my hand, and asked me how things were going. I made some coffee, then we sat and talked all afternoon and into the evening. He wouldn’t stay for supper. As he was getting up to leave, he asked if any of the other kids might like to see him. I said, yes, I’d imagine so. I think it took a lot of guts to do what he did. He was our father, and he wanted to make right those years of absence. He’d had a calling.
We saw him fairly frequently after that. I went to his house, which was stacked to the ceiling with antique clocks and collectible firearms of all sorts. He showed me his collection of cars. He had about a dozen at that time. Among them, a 1951 Studebaker Commander, 1954 Hudson Hornet, 1949 and 1954 Packards, a 1956 Cadillac that had been converted into a large camper, and a 1956 Jaguar 2.4 saloon.
I’d owned many British cars by this time, including a 1959 Jaguar XK150 drophead. So I took an immediate shine to the Jaguar. It was in very nice condition, a California car with low mileage. He rarely drove it. He rarely drove any of his cars. He kept them in garages all over town, going to work on them, clean them, run them, drive them around a bit, park them, and go on to the next. He had a couple cars he drove regularly – a behemoth of a 1983 Chevy Caprice wagon with the entire rear end loaded with stuff, and a pristine 1963 Chrysler New Yorker 4-door hardtop with a white leather interior and white exterior.
Then I moved. To California, then to Europe for 10 years. We kept in touch with the very occasional letter. He was busy with his antique business and old cars, buying and selling, buying and selling. On one visit, we went to look at Jaguar again. He’d just had it repainted in the original Burgundy paint it had come with from the factory. He noted my admiration and told me that the Jaguar would be mine when he passed on. He said he’d keep it for me. And he did.
We moved back to the US, first to Monterrey, then to Seattle. I invited him to visit, but he never did – too busy, he said. Didn’t like plane travel, either. He saw his granddaughter once, when we went back to Minnesota for a visit. A couple pictures are all we have.
Then his health started to deteriorate rapidly. All of a sudden, he didn’t care about his cars, his guns, or his antiques anymore. He started to give them away. My sister called and said that I’d better contact him about the Jaguar. I did. He said that now was the time to get it, as he didn’t think he’d live much longer. I tried to reassure him, but he knew better than I. He thought about committing suicide, and almost was successful at doing so. Maybe it would have been better, because a few months later he was in the nursing home, and then a month after that, dead. The autopsy showed that he had cancer throughout his body.
Before he went into the nursing home, he helped make arrangements to have the car shipped to me on the island I live on in the Puget Sound. It was a cold November night after midnight when it arrived. The driver had been stuck in a snow storm in the Cascades, and when the passes opened, he drove straight through until he got to my house. We unloaded the Jag from the enclosed car carrier. I watched as the driver backed it down. I’d never heard it run – it sounded beautiful, the throaty song of the legendary twin cam XK engine. The car looked just as I’d seen it many years ago right after the restoration. New paint, new chrome, and interior of burled walnut and bisque leather.
As the transport driver and I completed the paperwork, the car warmed up in the chilly Pacific Northwest fog, and I told him the story of how this pretty red Jaguar sedan happened to be sitting by the side of a wooded road on an island in the Puget Sound. I eased off on the choke to bring the idle down from a growl to a pulsating purr, like the cat the car is named for.
“That’s one beautiful old Jaguar you’ve got there. Your Dad must have been a real Jaguar lover,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied, “We both are.”
The unexamined life is not worth living.