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 sedan powered by a flathead-eight producing 100 horsepower, the Ford seated six and featured power-equipped nothing. With its dual-bullet grille separated from winged chromium taillights by an 114-inch wheelbase, its styling followed that of its much heralded 1949 predecessor -- a car thought to have foretold an era of Populuxe modernity.

By the early Sixties, with populuxe modernity in full flower, father had sufficiently fallen under its sway to add a late model Arctic White over Apache Red Ford Custom 300 to the family lineup, its three-digit suffix lending its mute testimony to our arrival into polite society. In response to this glittering purchase, I began regarding the old Ford with a secret sense of proprietorship -- and it would be only weeks later when I, a high-school age Civil War fanatic armed with nothing more than a learner's permit and a desire to see something of the Lincoln War firsthand, stole the keys to the old Custom and set out on a journey leading 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 Rahway's cracking tower inferno.

Eventually highway yielded to byway, where the Fordor's instruments glowed amber as the risen moon as its radio
whined, whistled and crashed in concert with some storm that thrashed somewhere far beyond the reach of the old Ford's high beams. 

In the same car in which Mitchum had repeatedly outran the law in "Thunder Road," I was beginning to feel less like a ducktailed outlaw than a seriously spooked kid. With my hands tight on the wheel, I sought what comfort I could from those noises emerging from the Custom's radio that didn't sound like banshee howls. It was then that something of a miracle happened: "This is Lee Moore, your Coffee-Drinking Nighthawk, coming to you from WWVA,WHEELING, West Virginia," declared a voice from the suddenly becalmed Philco. It was a late-night announcement I'd heard countless times before while secreted under blankets back in the Bronx. Now, at last, I was in the magically remote realm from where Moore and his Jamboree originated. With my coffee-drinking nighthawk comforting me from the dash like a hillbilly plastic Jesus, I drove along to the music of such Jamboree regulars as Flatt & Scruggs, Hylo Brown and Hardrock Gunter. Amid ads for prayer shawls, miracle waters, tent revivals and the honkey tonks where bands like Power in the Blood would be appearing come Saturday -- these artists would play their bluegrass and rockabilly standards.

I picked up speed, seeing all as guideposts on the road to Harpers Ferry, where the abolitionist John Brown tried to foment a slave revolt in 1859, and, three years on, A.P. Hill and his men rode at full gallop to save Lee's bacon at nearby Antietam Creek. Nearly a century to the month from this second event, I was at full gallop too, running the length of smokey hollers and moonlit hamlets. All were darkened save for the juke joints that were still open on outskirts of towns. I stopped at one, drawn in by the strings of colored lights lining its cornices and posts. 

The opened into a room that was bare other than for pool table and a juke box playing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Gene Pitney's gunslinger lyrics couldn't 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 also genuine ones that 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 old-timer 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 for 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 Civil 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.

To be continued . . .

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