The Crucifixion of James Dean

It was Connie who first attracted me to the Wilkinson’s home, a suburban tract house with an attached garage. She was maybe thirteen and I was a year older. She was just a skinny, flat-chested teenager with a beak nose; but when she smiled at me with those big bucked teeth - I was hooked. I spent a lot of time that summer chasing her around the couch; but as the summer wore on, I spent more and more of my time out in the garage. Connie had an older brother, James Dean Wilkinson, who was maybe nineteen. He and Brad Mack, Connie’s older sister’s boyfriend, were building a hot rod in the garage. I started hanging around, fetching tools and holding the droplight for them while they turned an old Model A roadster into a street rod. ‘JD’ borrowed a welder and a cutting torch from his uncle. He and ’Mack’ cut, welded and ground on that old jalopy ‘til all hours of the night with the rock and roll radio blaring, often grinding on the neighbor’s nerves in the process. They altered the frame to fit the biggest Olds engine they could find with a beefed up ‘hydro’ bolted up behind. Brad made a set of torsion bars and welded them to the rear axle. They also installed a 4-11 rearend with Posi-traction to drive the widest slicks ‘JD’ could buy. Finally, the night came when we were ready to start it up. ‘JD’ was under the car bolting the driveline up in place and Brad was leaning over the radiator, poking the spark-plug wires into the distributor cap. ‘JD’ came rolling out from under the car sprawled out on a creeper. “There it is, ‘Mack’, she’s ready to roll.” He hopped over the driver’s side door that was welded shut and settled down onto a milk crate that served as a temporary seat. They didn’t have the ignition switch wired into the dash yet, so Brad hot wired the coil direct to the battery and then grounded the starter solenoid with a screwdriver. “OK – here goes.”

2 The starter motor spun the engine to life: it roared; it coughed; it spit back through the carburetors and then roared again. ‘JD’ yelled over the racket, “kick out the chalks, kid!” so I ran around to the back and pulled the timbers from behind the wheels. ’Mack’ and I pushed the car out of the garage into the summer night. It rolled down the inclined driveway out into the street as the girls came out of the house to watch the big event. ‘JD’ told me to get him a pair of pliers, so I ran into the garage, dug into the tool box until I found a pair and ran them back out to him. He used the pliers to shift the transmission into gear. He handed them back to me and said, “y0u want to go, kid – hop in.” I started to, but Connie was standing there giving me a ‘don’t you dare leave me here all alone’ look; so I told him, “I guess I’ll wait.” I still remember the grin on his face when he tromped down on the throttle. He must have burned rubber for a hundred feet, tires smoking and squalling to beat hell. We all moved out into the middle of the road to watch him tear down the street between the parked cars. ‘Mack’ put his arm around my shoulder and smiled with pride. The glass packs barked as the hydro shifted gears and the engine picked up speed again. The rod disappeared into the night because we hadn’t hooked up the lights yet. The engine kept winding up tighter and tighter, like a jet taking off. We began to wonder when he was going to back off the throttle; at the end of the block, the street deadended into a tee with a crossroad. I can still hear the terrible crunch, the sound and then the silence that followed. We stood there in shock and then started to run down the block. Doors in the neighborhood opened as people came out onto the front lawns to see what had caused the violent crash. The car had slammed headlong into the telephone pole that stood at the end of the street. The rod was a crumpled mass of steaming steel with the broken engine shoved back into the place were the passenger sits; that is, the place were I would have been sitting had I gone for that ride. We called and called but there was no ‘JD’. We looked under the car and searched out in the field on the other side of the road. No ‘JD’.

Cruc. James Dean

3 Then Connie screamed. She was standing with her head tilted back and her hands cupped over her mouth, staring up at the telephone pole. I followed her stare up the pole and there was ‘JD’ hanging with his feet dangling ten feet off the ground. The car had bucked when it hit the pole and pitched ‘JD’ up into the air. He had somehow turned around backwards and slammed into the pole; one of the climbing pegs had driven its thick steel shaft through his back. It pierced deep into his chest, mutilating the heart and lungs as he hung there twitching. A sound came from his lungs that made your spine quiver, a rattle that is the unmistakable sound of death. He gave a shutter, then his head slumped forward and as we watched helplessly, he died. There was nothing we could do. I gathered Connie into my arms and she buried her teeth into my shoulder. We will never know why ‘JD’ hit the pole; but we did discover that no one had hooked up the return spring on the throttle; and too, we had been so intent on getting the hot rod running that no one ever thought to check to see if the brakes were working on that old jalopy. Wayne Damron © 2000

Cruc. James Dean