sludgo’s Mile Marker 35 & 36
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A little past dawn. An August Saturday, 1971. I’d been up a while. Always an early-riser. Was zoned out watching cartoons in the living room on Pop’s 36” Zenith console–The Big TV. The Bugs Bunny/Road-Runner Hour was just starting and I was thinking about a second bowl of Lucky Charms when the Beehive rushed in and told me to turn off the TV and go get cleaned up and into my Good Clothes because we were heading out to Billings to visit Stu. Stu Patterson. Because The Oldsmobile Man wanted to. He’d already washed and filled the Delta. Was in putting on a tie. Yes, a tie. Big Sis was waiting in the car.

I started to Whine. Complain. Bugs Bunny, Mom. The Road-Runner. Got a look back that Meant Business and twenty-minutes later I was freshly-scrubbed and Sunday-Bested and the sludgos were pulling out of the driveway on their way to Billings. To visit Stu.

Now, Billings is a long way from sludgoville, especially when you’re ten. And don’t have much of an attention-span. And are buzzing on Lucky Charms. I started to get bored. Tried small-talking with Big Sis. Dropped a Serious License-Plate-Bingo Challenge on her. Got out the cards for some High-Stake Matchstick Gin-Rummy. Nope. Closed For Business, sludge. She was buried deep in her Teen Beat, reading about Bobby Sherman or Davy Jones or David Cassidy or David Whoever. So I shrugged and sighed and turned my attention back to my new MAD, trying to get the ‘fold-in’ to work right and trying not to think about how hot it was.

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August in North Dakota. When muggy mornings lead to scorchingly damp afternoons that breed cotton-ball-white thunderheads that gather and grow Evil on the Western skyline, becoming darker and grayer and blacker as evening falls when they hit town full-force with hot-cold gales and shock-white lightning and crackling snaps of mountainous thunder. Probably hail. Maybe a tornado. But always a rain that falls in warm, heavy sheets and passes quickly, leaving more Humid behind and more Hot to follow. And that Saturday morning, it was Humid. And Hot.

Fortunately the Delta had Air-Conditioning. Mom loved it. Fell in love with it when Pop test-drove the Wildcat a couple years back. Insisted the new Olds have it and Pop checked the box, but he wasn’t a Believer. He saw A/C as a Luxury. Nice, but not Necessary. Killed mileage. Sapped power. All for Comfort. Hmph. But by the time we hit Dickinson, Mom was willing to make The Sacrifice. She wanted Comfort. Told us to roll up our windows and switched the air to MAX and almost instantly a glorious rush of Coolness flushed into the sweltering cabin. Big Sis and I leaned forward, wanting to catch a direct breeze from any one of the roaring dash-vents, trying to wash our sweaty faces dry with the Holy Breath of St. Frigidaire.

Then Pop crushed our groove. Switched the air back off. Said it wasn’t that hot yet. That we were being sissies. That maybe later he’d turn it back on. He’d just drive faster. Get some more air moving through. Windows down, everyone.

Windows went back down. Pop punched it. Got some more air moving through. Faster. Louder. And just as hot. The Beehive stewed, hotter still. Silently squinting out her cat-eye tiger-striped shades at the endless rolling plains of waving grain speeding by. Pop turned up KFYR. News at the top of the hour. Sis got out her macramé. Too windy to keep reading. I leaned back into my seat and closed my eyes.

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Pop stopped hard and I startled awake. Stu’s. A long, rambling, V-shaped, white-bricked rancher plopped in the middle of a sprawling and deep-green weedless yard. Four-car garage. Flagpole out front, sprouting from the center of a full-bloom rose garden, Stars-and-Stripes flying high.

Pop and Stu. Stu and Pop. Neighbor kids who grew up like Brothers during Tough Times in sludgoville. Had Bad Dads and Tired Moms and nothing but Sisters. Were inseparable. Then Life happened and Pop went one way and Stu went the other and Stu made it big. Really Big. Big Cash. Big Connections. Big Power. Went to Important Places. Knew Important People. CEO’s. Senators. A President. And Pop. His Best Friend.

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Stu met us at the frosted-glass double-front door. Gave Pop and me a Big Handshake. Mom and Big Sis a Big Hug. Threw both doors open wide and we walked into a stone-tiled foyer as big as our garage. Three stone steps down into the living room. White. All white. Carpet. Furniture. Drapes. Sculptures. Paintings. Poodle.

Stu’s wife Arlene floated in from Stage Left. Hugged everyone ‘Hi!’ Still a Model. Beautiful and statuesque. But funny and open and light and friendly. Said there were refreshments in the kitchen but she was taking them poolside. Could use some help. Mom and Big Sis swung into gear and the gals strolled off Stage Right chatting away and Pop and Stu kicked back in like they’d never stopped. Talked about Army things. sludgoville things. Business things.

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Then Stu looked down at me. Gave me a smile. Said he’d heard I was a Car Guy. I nodded. Told him I was into Hot Wheels. He said he was too. Asked me if I wanted to see his collection. My eyes lit up. Sure, Stu.

We walked outside, around the corner of the four-car, past the tennis court and down the gravel drive to a long, low, red-brick garage. Stu keyed open the fist-sized MasterLock on the heavy green-stained wood door and dropped it on the ground. Gave the door a sideways shove and it silently rolled open. I peered into the half-dark and That Smell hit both barrels. Concrete and wood and metal and oil and leather and rubber and gasoline.

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Stu reached up inside the opened door. Snicked on the overheads.

And every single hair on the back of my neck stood up.

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