Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Black Panterra

Go back in time, young grasshopper.

Spring of 1976, in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. Lakewood
reaches westward and just touches the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Heaven can’t be any better than Summer in the foothills. Winter means just
enough snow to practice cross-country skiing, but not enough to be
bothersome. Fall is crisp, with leaves that turn color and early evenings with
hot, home made soups and books by the fireside.

Then there is the Spring. What can one say about Spring in the foothills
except that it is...windy. That wind comes whistling off the mountaintops,
gathers momentum as it zips over the glaciers, swirls down the river-cut
canyons and arrives in icy gusts of up to 60 miles per hour in the
streets...and parking lots...of Lakewood.

Spring of 1976. I was a junior in high school. Enrolled in a challenging
course of study including upper level math classes, English Composition,
Concert Choir, European History...and Computer Programming. I was an
honors student, yea, I was first in my class.

Brains, alas, do not always equate to common sense. So shall you see.
Think for a moment on the Computer Science class. Computers in 1976 were not what computers are in 2005. The computer itself was huge and housed in an administration building somewhere in the middle of the district. Each school had terminals that connected into the main computer. Programs were typed into large keyboard machines and stored on punched paper tapes. The language of the day was BASIC.

I was part of a unique subset of girls who invaded the usually masculine
realm of the computer classes, the computer room, the teletype terminals,
the paper tapes. My proudest possession was my handheld calculator which I wore in a case on my belt. That calculator was 4 times the size of today’s true POCKET models, cost 10 times as much, and did only a fraction of what a CASIO model from the grocery store can accomplish today. It also had a red LED display which ate batteries like breakfast cereal. Still, I was one of the lucky elite. I HAD a portable calculator! We were not allowed to use them in class (for class we had log tables and protractors), but we could carry them on our persons and enjoy their attributes between classes and at lunch.

I also had a boyfriend. I may have belonged to the nerd set, but I had an
equally nerdy boyfriend. His name was Dean, he went to a different high
school , and he was the districtwide, undisputed master of the computer
science students. His “fun project” was an intra-school message system. In
2005, you have e-mail. In 1976, we had MESSY, a long-forgotten acronym
for a program which meant “Rush to the computer room in between classes and log in to see if you have any new messages”. Dean wrote the code, implemented the system, and went on to a brilliant career in computer programming for various Silicon Valley, California corporations. MESSY connected us, school to school, class to class and student to student. Outside of class time, Dean was a moviemaker at heart. He had a vision...sort of a Sci-Fi thriller starring a bunch of nerds with belt loop calculators at the ready. Dean was ahead of his time; Lucas’ “Star Wars” and Light Sabers were still a year in the future. Dean’s movie required one element to which he did not have access...a hot sports car. His vision for the movie required a black Detomaso Panterra. He drove his mom’s Buick.

While he didn’t have the hot sports car, he did have a hot girlfriend.

No, wait.

He The brainy nerd girlfriend. Who happened to drive...a hot car.
Not my car. No, back in 1976 very few teenagers had their own cars. They
had, if they were lucky, access to the FAMILY car. Fortunate families had
more than one car. My family was fortunate.

In addition to my father’s business sedan, my mother had a beautiful,
shining Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, the sports car of the VW line. It was
bright, bright ORANGE. Once I mastered the stick shift, I was allowed to
drive the Ghia to piano lessons, to Girl Scouts, occasionally to the mall, and
on rare, rare occasions, to meet my friends. In return, I put gas in the car
whenever I drove it. In 1976, one could do some serious benefit to the gas
tank with one dollar. Gas hovered around 29 cents per gallon.

When Dean saw the orange Ghia, his wish appeared to be granted. It wasn’t a black Panterra, but it WAS a cool sports car, and the plans began to gel. The movie camera was borrowed. The cast was assembled. Calculators were buckled onto belts. I was granted permission to use the Ghia for an afternoon.

What I didn’t mention to my mother was that the car was going to be
transformed with black poster paint. The whole CAR wasn’t going to be
painted, oh, no. Just the doors...emblazoned with BLACK PANTERRA in
painted script, just large enough and dark enough to get the idea across. The words were painted and the cameras rolled. Since I was the only person with permission to drive the car, I was featured heavily in the film.

All went well until the filming was finished. I pulled the car around the
parking lot in one final loop, braked to a stop with gravel flying and stopped
the engine. I opened the driver’s side door and prepared to step out of the
car when disaster struck.

That wind, which started its swirling descent atop a 14,000 foot peak, gained momentum across the glaciers and whistled down the canyons, came across the school parking lot like a blast from some icy realm of Hell. It whipped around the car and jerked the door from my hand, pulling the entire door backward and away from its carefully constructed hinges. There was a sickening creak and crunch, and I realized that I was going to be in serious trouble.

Dean and I borrowed a bucket and a sponge from a school custodian and
wiped away the false pride emblazoned on the car’s injured door. Dean went his way and I went mine, doomed to confess my transgressions to the true owner of the orange Ghia.

Allowances and baby-sitting wages don’t go very far toward car repairs.