Thursday, September 24, 2015

John Brown's Body-by-Fisher: Returning to Antietam in the 2015 Lincoln Navigator, Part I.

They are misfit and strange in our new day, 
In Sixty-One they were not quite so strange,
Before the Fords, before the day of the Fords. 

Stephen Vincent Benėt, John Brown’s Body, 1927

Abraham Lincoln said “the best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” Of course, that's only true until it stops coming at all. Then -- if you’re anything like Lincoln the Emancipator -- you belong to the ages.

What then of Lincoln the Navigator – Ford Motor’s Columbiad of an SUV? Reports are mixed. Some say that Ford CEO Alan Mulally is intent on having the truck-based four-by join the Lincoln Town Car in belonging to the ages; while others hold that it's only this generation Navigator (around since 2007) that's about disappear into the annuls of automotive history.

Both reflect the trouble the Navigator has had in drawing buyers away from Cadillac Escalades and Land Rover Range Rover Sports. Left to wallow in the back channels of uncool truckdom, the Kentucky-built Lincoln must now chart a new course if it’s to sailor on.

Oh captain, my captain: The 2015 Lincoln Navigator

While Lincoln the Emancipator famously dreamed of his demise, Lincoln the Navigator doesn't seem to have a clue. with its turbocharged, direct-injected, 3.5 liter V6 ticking down the BTUs, the $73,000 SUV stands tall in the drive, its angular look redolent of a time when vinyl roofs enclosed opera windows and rear decks could serve as helipads. At its bow, the truck's split-wing grille stands out as a new signature feature, while aft, its taillights extend across the power liftgate's full width. Other than that, much of 2007 remains in the Lincoln's lines -- lines that reflect elements of Ford styling that go back to the post-war years. 

I ought to know, for while my friend's fathers were driving their Mercury Montereys and Pontiac Bonnevilles under Sputnik-swept skies, my dad was still negotiating highway cloverleaves in his 1951 Ford Custom Fordor. A midnight-blue flathead-eight producing 100 horsepower, the sedan seated six and featured power-equipped nothing. With its dual-bullet grille separated from winged chromium taillights by a 114-inch wheelbase, its styling built upon that of its 1949 predecessor -- a car thought to foretell an era of populuxe modernity.

By the early Sixties, with populuxe modernity in full flower, dad had added to the Ford Custom with a new Custom 300 -- its three-digit suffix lending mute testimony to our arrival in polite society. The new Ford opened the way for me -- a high-school-age Civil War buff with only a few bucks, a learner's permit and the old Ford's keys -- to take off in it on an overnight ride from the Bronx to the Battle of Antietam.

I can't say what I was thinking. I'd already been picked up once for car theft. Now while my parents thought me asleep in a back bedroom, I was tearing down the Jersey Turnpike in the old sedan -- its humped profile backlit by Bayonne's cracking tower inferno.

Eventually highway yielded to byway, where
the Fordor's NHV (noise, harshness and vibration) quieted while its instruments glowed amber as the risen moon. So with Lee Moore's* legendary "WWVA Jamboree" coming out of Wheeling over crackling airwaves, I ran the misted macadam leading to Harpers Ferry -- from which town John Brown tried to launch a slave revolt in 1859, and, three years on, A.P. Hill and his men rode to save Lee at Antietam Creek.

One-hundred years after this second event, and behind the wheel of the car Mitchum drove in "Thunder Road," I was running the length of smokey hollers and moonlit towns, my young mind uneasily aware that I was driving ever deeper into the unknown. This plunge into the Appalachian dark had me fearing that each curve hid a cliff that would send the Ford porpoising down into a ravine like some bargey sedan in an old gangster film. Spooked, I took passing comfort from the juke joints still open on outskirts of towns -- eventually stopping at one festooned with colored lights. 

The rough-hewn bar opened into a interior that was bare other than for pool table and a juke box playing "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence." Gene Pitney's gunslinger lyrics could not help but add a note of drama to my silhouette's arrival in the doorway; and regardless of whether I looked like trouble or the tenderfoot I was to them -- the trio at the bar looked to me like the somehow-surviving veterans of Chickamauga.

Sure there were toothless smiles in this
bunch -- but they were genuine ones and didn't suggest a scene out of Deliverance or anything like that. Although a rank outsider, I was soon accepted as an admirably crazy kid by these locals and eagerly accepted their offer of a coke and a ham sandwich. We talked: cars, the Civil War, George Wallace, school. One geezer had met Eleanor Roosevelt, while another obligingly emptied the remaining slosh from his gas-can to the Custom's tank. When it came time to go, I was reluctant, but the place was closing anyway, and so with a wave to my grizzled friends and saviors, I fired up the Fordor's eight-banger and headed out into another league of cold foreboding and night. 

The ensuing route threaded its way through woodland valleys studded with sleeping cabins, white clapboard houses and shuttered filling stations -- their darkened Esso and Kendall signs prompting me to sweat having enough gas to greet the dawn. In the dead of night I'd deliberately cast myself into this alien world; but with its galleon moon adrift among the cottonwoods, dead-of-night West Virginia was a place with the mountain wildness, raw character and sense of American antiquity to which I'd long been drawn. In an odd way, I was coming home -- wild as John Brown and fueled by a wish to see something of the Lincoln War's ghost firsthand. 

Now long past adolescence and fueled by a need to review the Lincoln Navigator, I regard it critically. A luxurious seven-seater that burns six gallons of gas per 100 miles of material world traveled, the SUV well reflects the age it inhabits. Other than for the name on its engine block, it's quite unlike the Ford I drove on that spectral night long ago. 

For one thing, it's ill-equipped for piercing any mystic veils of time

Even so -- I took it to Antietam.

* "This is Lee Moore, your coffee-drinkin' nighthawk, coming to you from WWVA, WHEELING, West Virginia."

To be continued . . .

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