I was born into a binary world. This was the mid- to late-1950s onward, when you were taught to put yourself on one side or the other of a passel of either/or’s. You were to be on the side of either
Coke or Pepsi
Ford or Chevy
Bama or Auburn
U.S. Keds or P.F. Flyers
Mantle or Maris
Elvis or Johnny Cash
Mayonnaise or Miracle Whip
to name only a few.
Each side of any either/or was supported by doctrine. For example, on one side: “Coca-Cola is from Atlanta, Georgia, and that makes it Southern like us; Pepsi’s for Yankees.” And on the other side: “Nah-ah!”
Discourse could turn fierce—even violent. On the playground, I saw a kid get his ass whipped for devotion to Miracle Whip.
All this was terribly tough for me because my mother raised me to be a lover not a fighter, i.e., an inveterate people-pleaser. And to choose a side in any either/or was to disappoint (actually to piss off) those on the other side.
So I tried not to offend by going rogue, by making choices beyond the binary. I chose 7Up, Rambler, Maryville College (Mom’s alma mater), Hush Puppies, Pee Wee Reese, dry bologna sandwiches. But this served only to unite the binary bunch in labeling me a “weirdo” or “double-pansy.” “Nerd” wouldn’t sashay into adolescent vernacular for another couple of decades. But I was—and pretty much am—a nerd.
Shortly after I graduated high school, my cup of nerd runneth over. I took a menial job—not a manly construction job, nor a brawny steel factory job—a “position” at a local bank where I was trained to run something called an IBM 1419 Check-Sorter. This required me to lift (very delicately) tall stacks of checks and load them repeatedly onto an elevating platform that shot them one-by-one down a belt where the checks’ magnetic ink was read digit-by-digit and slotted into segregated stacks. Thus does a nerd stroke the great beast of capitalism.
The job’s wage was neither abundant nor meager. And I was able, with my dad’s co-signature, to get the bank to lend me money to buy a car. This was 1972 when non-nerds went after Ford Mustangs or Chevy Camaros, or maybe the Pontiac GTO.
My allegiance. however, ran toward Rambler, which had since become AMC (American Motors Corp), and in my eyes no car was more beautiful than the Gremlin.
I had my dad drive me down to Roy Bridges Rambler where, at the edge of the showroom, there squatted my new best friend: a blue Gremlin with white stripe running down either side in whose end was smartly inscribed “Gremlin X” (X, mind you!) I lay my hand gently, admiringly, on its roof and said to my dad, “This is it!”
With the mien of a man who just sucked a lemon, my dad cast his vision down the length of the car, and then to me. Raising his eyebrows he asked, “This?”
Yes, this! The sticker price was $2,700. Dad whittled it to $2,560. A couple hours later I was proudly driving home in my own car when, at a stoplight on 3rd Avenue, a sun-glassed guy in a red Mustang shouted, “Hey pal! Where’s the rest of your car?” He slapped his dashboard laughingly.
It took me two weeks to wreck the thing. I was en route home, going round the block in order to hear (on the radio) the end of Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride.” when there appeared before me, a silver Camaro with a former high school classmate at the wheel. She’d not heeded ithe stop sign. So, like David v. Goliath, my little Gremlin felled the mighty Camaro—thankfully without human injury. But the investigating officer was clearly frustrated by his inability to pin the blame on me. He kept looking back and forth between 1) the beauty of my former classmate and her car, and 2) the nerdity of me and my car.
After a week’s repair, me and my Gremlin were again rolling down Humiliation Highway. Not long after, while innocently parked alongside a curved boulevard, the car suffered a hit and run. More than a sideswipe, this was a deep door-bashing. I don’t believe it was an accident. But the Gremlin was the paragon of resilience. You just couldn’t kill him.
A few years later, my Gremlin took me to Louisville, Kentucky, where I sojourned several years as a seminarian. A clever classmate, citing the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” zeroed in on the lines, “the prince of darkness grim / we tremble not for him”. Ignoring the vowel-difference between grim and Gremlin, he dubbed my car the Prince of Darkness—a perfectly nerdy name for an unquestionably nerdy car.
After about ten years, the P of D finally succumbed to old age. I mean, he just fell apart—as I myself have already begun to do. But he’s still rolling in my memory as testimony to the thrill of rejecting the binary game, the joy of going rogue, of choosing beyond what culture expects of you.
Long live the Prince of Darkness!
(Stay nerdy, Ponyboy.)