After Thoughts
The Poetry of J. Hodges

Dragway 42

Don’t know much ‘bout racin’
Seen just a few
They were a thrill my daddy liked.
I even met Paul Newman once.
The biggest deal, for me, wasn’t he
but was Dragway 42.

Somewhere south of me
Don’t remember quite
Perhaps New Philly,
Could be wrong, don’t care.
Memories are like that.

One sunny Saturday
in my bell bottoms and tank top
my dad’s head covered in Merthiolate and a ball cap
took me there for the thrill of a lifetime
a spectacle that no three-ring circus
could ever have provided.

We arrived after a bit of a drive and walked around.
We looked at cars and the trucks that hauled them in.
Don Garlits, perhaps the only name I remember
from the side of a truck except one.
One that I will never forget
It was red, on the side it said, “Evel Knievel”
I stared and wondered what the day would bring.

We eventually found our seats along a quarter-mile track.
There in the middle were 21 buses side by side, ready
for my hero, the real-life superman to take flight.
Lights changing from yellow to red, from red to green
the dragons breathing fire, leaving smoke
left their mark with a roar and scream.
Ten seconds later, a winner gleaned
as he emerged from the belly of a long slippery serpent.

We watched one after another
with no real sense of danger
‘till one jiggled, then wiggled out of control
flipped like an acrobat end over end
then skid to a halt as did my heart, beating.

It burst into a ring of fire.
Rails and wheels seemed
hundreds of feet in the air
bouncing like balls on a trampoline
down the track and into the stands
no safety net at all.
What a show!

The driver escaped but in flames,
extinguished by big red cans of white ice
carried in a stretcher to a white vehicle
with colored lights and winding sounds
like clowns, the crew piled in.
Twelve seconds and gone
was the dragon screaming.

Then came the stock and the funny-cars
the crowd standing, dots on the board marking time
the applause, the excitement, as the unseen ring master
announced each driver and each blazing-fast winner.

I saw a clown on top a V8
all engine, two wheels, and a seat
lay rubber, burn-out
for half a quarter-mile
smoke and rubber choking me
as handkerchiefs flew out and
covered the noses and mouths of every
man, woman, and child
coughing and gasping for more.

Then a man and woman, naked as jaybirds,
running from the stands to across the track,
around the buses and into the back
Yellow, then red, then green, again,
but this time, on a bike, another just like
naked and tan, made it down the track in no time flat
when suddenly the place exploded in streakers, galore.
So much more fun was this racing than any animal act I’d ever seen
I just kept looking at my dad as he smiled that smile
then laughed that laugh and I knew everything was all right.

I saw a man in the distance
dressed in white, wearing a cape, walk to a bike
and mount its leather, its steel, its oily guts
he rose and dropped with a stomp
so to start its cold heart to pump and its tail to gurgle
a plume of smoke and a snort of its throttle,
a shift and off he rode, wheels on the ground
he circled around, rode through the gate,
stood up on his seat, pulled the bike back
and rode the entire length of the track
on one wheel, a one-man act, a devil,
duly known as Evel Knievel.

He waved as he rode back, still standing on his seat
then a repeat, not one but several and the crowd,
ten thousand if one, cheered aloud
with thunderous approval and anticipation
never mind the other acts, the amusement, or occasion
The show had just begun!

I watched his every move, every glance,
every expression that I could make-out
he was a man determined
he set out to do what had to be done
what no one should have ever expected
known as a “man’s man” and well respected,
daring, brave, fearless, true, and principled
his duty to show the rest his best
He seemed much like the man in the stands
sitting next to me.

He rode a distance from the ramp and took off
only to stop just before the top and surveil his fate
I sat and wondered what he saw and what he thought
He looked straight ahead and was still,
he took this moment (and mine)
before the chance of death, before the chance of glory,
before the result of his decision and its consequences
Was he afraid? Was this just part of the show?
It was eerie and for a moment I was scared
scared, not for him, but by any eventual consequences
In this case, my own.

He glided back down the ramp and out of sight
I could hear the throttle turn and the engine rev
the motor whined as he appeared, this time, all out
up the ramp, he and his bike accelerated
suddenly, the bottom fell out where he had stopped before
then time slowed.
the silent crowd, the silent flight
he and his bike, without wings, soared and leveled.
the sound of shutters zeroed-in on his fate
he looked all right but as he dropped
his wheel in back looked slight home plate.

thump and the wheel landed barely on its mark
the man, his bike as if fired from a rocket
gasps and awe’s abounded
hit his target and settled down to earth
a short silence, then mayhem
as the crowd went absolutely wild.

Triumphantly, he let go
to throw his hands in the air.
He made his way back, over to the track
where he stood up, again,
on his seat and rode that back wheel
the wheel that saved him
thousands were stunned in utter amazement
astonished fans, wild, and jumping fences
jumping for joy without containment
they reached for the man as he rode just out of sight.

As the roar of the crowd began to subside
I heard the throttle turn and the engine rev
the motor whined as he appeared again
and repeated the jump six more times
each time, riding over to the track and to the stands
where I stood with my dad, astonished!
As we left the track, my dad, while holding my hand and smiling that smile,
made me marvel again as only he could and as only a boy, that age, can
Dragway 42, the circus I most remember because of a superman, flying,
named Evel Knievel and another just holding my hand.