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.