by Padgett Powell
My brother’s boy, while he was in college, told me, giggling, that he had been assigned to read a story of mine and that he deigned not read it, and when I asked if he had told the professor I was his uncle he said, giggling more, “No.” I adduced him disinterested in me and all of my affairs, as Mark Twain said of Cooper’s Indian. Then, with notice of his graduation, came this handwritten note:
Dear Uncle Padgett,
Thank you for inspiring me to achieve great things outside of the life I was born into. Even though I grew up with a vendetta against the South, your writing helped me see the interesting possibilities and subtleties contained within it, and the power of storytelling.
I’m very excited for the future, and hope to see you again soon.
I sent him a check for $500 to help with the future.
I sense in Malcolm Lightner’s quest to chronicle the racing of the swamp buggy something of Perry Powell’s realization that the repudiated can deserve another look. Perhaps in Malcolm Lightner’s case the repudiation is softer, perhaps is merely an estrangement, effected by his parents’ divorce when he was four and his subsequent removal from his father’s side of the family, a family that pursued, among other alien-seeming delights, stock-car racing, which ran hand-in-hand (the tracks were at one time adjacent) with racing these weird buggies through mud. And there was another draw back to this lost, rough world: a great uncle on his mother’s side of the family was R.L. Walker, Swamp Buggy King in ’51 and ’52 in his other-worldly jeep Flying Saucer.
Whatever the mechanism or forces in his return to Naples, he has brought with it a capacity to see the interesting possibilities and subtleties contained within the place he left as a child. And that place certainly can be construed as the South and aspects of it that lower the register.
By which arcane, useless phrase I would mean this: next to the Florida Sports Park, where these races are held, is a gated development called Aventine of Naples. No one at these races is going to be going into Aventine of Naples, and no one wants to. They have their own.
When Malcolm Lightner first shows me the spectacle of these people and these races, he is curious to know my take on them, possibly even a bit apprehensive. “Refined nutbarism,” I tell him.
“Is that a word?”
“It is now.”
Refined nutbarism applies to much of human endeavor, especially that which extrapolates a practical modest low enterprise like, say, running whiskey in a car a little faster than the law’s into immodest high-art legal-alcohol-sponsored NASCAR. In the case of swamp buggy racing—a Willys jeep on fat tires (some of the first ones were from WWII bombers, the big goofy ballooney tires that needed to be soft) good for creeping through a swamp in order to shoot something to eat—is extrapolated into a water dragster on wheels as tall as a man and thin as his arm. The ancestral vehicle is now known as a woods buggy or a hunt buggy; it has still the huge and very broad tires to stay on top of the mud—it is tall; it wants to go slow. The progeny swamp buggy for racing has tall tires but they are thin enough to cut through the water and get to the mud, or hardpan, through and over which they can run, with speed. The transmutation of the woods buggy to the racing swamp buggy is powered by idleness and the desire to have some fun. Some fun is had, and occasionally some not-fun.
There are seven categories of swamp buggy, two of which, at the bottom and the top, seem the most important. The Jeep class, closest to the original vehicle, bobs along, often with nothing visible except its snorkels and the helmet of the driver in a frothing churn of buttery muddy water, between 40mph and 0mph (not infrequently stopping altogether in the holes), though they give the impression of moving at about five miles per hour for much of the course. The top-class Pro Modified looks like a giant pinewood derby car that has met Big Daddy Roth; the body resembles an airplane fuselage, the huge wheels almost obscure the tiny driver in the nose, and the thing moves at 50 to 75mph(record time computes at 111 mph but no one seems to think they really go this fast) in a rooster tail of brown spray the size of a doublewide chasing another doublewide. It is a sufficient aberration of sanity that the idea of insanity and the word itself, insane, fills the brain looking at it, and the people looking at it are thrilled and want to watch it all day.
When Malcolm Lightner, son manque, approaches these people he does not look like he teaches photography in New York, which he does. He looks more like a skateboarder, which he is. He walks softly with a big lens, in a weathered Swamp Buggy Races cap, tennis shoes, stovepipe pants, the great nephew of a famous Swamp Buggy King 60 years ago, and people throw themselves at his camera. He turns his cap around, which they see (he means business), and starts seeking the Cartier-Bresson/Walker-Evans moment, which they don’t see. You will see a photo called “Kamp Feltersnatch” in which two denizens of the races sit on a stump and feign having sex; Malcolm Lightner has known this couple approximately three minutes and he has said nothing to them.
In the other photos, Malcolm Lightner has seized the moment or not, a matter that you can see as well as or better than I. Beyond the incomparable “Kamp Feltersnatch,” I personally like most two others: “Off-season” and “Bleachers.” These address my notion that enterprises of this sort spring from idleness, and here the idleness is literal and perfect and beautiful. Take these spectral bleachers and fill the air over them with Coppertone and kettle-corn perfume and Skynyrd and rebel flags snapping and fill them with reddening people needing something to distract them from the ordinary day.
When Malcolm Lightner is told that once his father was found beating the hell out of someone outside of a bar called the Anchor, he asks, “Why was he doing that?”
“Because the guy was wearing yellow socks.”
Malcolm Lightner says, evenly, “I didn’t get that gene.” There is something of a chuckle all around at this observation by the prodigal son: fair enough.
It will develop, though, that the story is a conflation of two of his father’s adventures. The fellow being beaten for wearing yellow socks was at the Royal Castle bar, not the Anchor, and the victim was Malcolm Lightner’s father’s own best friend Chesley. They tended, when unable to find anyone else to fight, to fight each other, and in this instance Malcolm’s father had teased Chesley about his yellow socks until they achieved ignition. In the adventure outside the Anchor bar Malcolm’s father witnessed a man forcing a woman into a car—claiming the woman was his wife, the woman claiming she was not—and rescued her by pulling the man out of the car and beating the hell out of him.
Silliness in the one escapade, chivalry in the other—alas, the “interesting possibilities and subtleties contained within,” my nephew’s and maybe Malcolm Lightner’s “vendetta against the South.” Either way, Malcolm Lightner is there with his cap turned around and his observation gene and his camera.
For the final races in January 2013, the weather is good and spirits are warm and generous. During the national anthem I ask a robustly not-sober fellow next to me if he thinks we’ll get a flyover and he has yelled, embracing me, “Maybe a flying lawnmower!” and we see very high up what looks like a small Lear jet and someone says, “There goes John Travolta, that’s our flyover,” and there’s a laugh. We are positioned at the venerable Redneck Stadium, a two-story mobile tower of pressure-treated two-by positioned perfectly at the sharp turn coming out of the diagonal slash in the racecourse. If something good is to happen, it happens here.
And damned if Glen Chesser of the legendary Chesser racing family does not come around in his Pro Mod rig Dats On (the Chessers worked at a Datsun dealer in the ‘60s and named their buggies Dats Da One, Dats On and Dats It in homage to Datsun until Glen’s Uncle Lonnie put a blower on his buggy Just Passing Through that made it so fast the blower blew off and they decided to outlaw the blower and Lonnie changed the name of his buggy to Outlaw, and Eddie, Glen said, “Got with the Lord real good” and changed his buggy name from Outlaw II to Rapture) running very fast because of the shallow water (Glen will later say he was doing 100mph) and the two inside wheels leave the ground (Glen: “Buggy went to flipping, I felt my butt coming off the seat”) and the huge wheels keep tipping over in what seems to take minutes, and the giant roostertail the size of a doublewide chasing a doublewide collapses, and there is the skinny carboat upside-down in the shallow, suddenly quiet water, looking a lot like it looks rightside-up except it is not moving and there is a man under it presumably drowning.
The robustly not-sober fellow who embraced me and wanted a lawnmower flyover goes under the chainlink fence in a torpedo motion I had seen only once before, when my dog did it to have a conversation with another dog who had been talking too much trash through the fence and took the dog into my neighbor’s kitchen where I found my neighbors no longer laughing about what Champ had been saying through the fence in fact standing on the kitchen table, the one piece of furniture in the room not broken, asking me to get my dog off Champ please—and Lawnmower is about halfway across the moat when a helmet pops up out of the quiet brown water, and then Glen Chesser pops up out of the quiet brown water, holding his arm the way you do when your arm is broken, so that no one knows, for a good long while, while Glen is attended to on the island in the racecourse, how bad it is. It looks like an EMT convention out there, Glen on the ground surrounded by the EMTs and other staff, and the talk at the Redneck Stadium begins to be about the life-flight helicopter that is going to come, and a big front-loader out on the island goes to scoop up the Porta-Potti out there to get it out of the way of the helicopter, and someone up top on the Stadium says “This is a good thing” to the general chuckling concurrence of everyone who can imagine what a Porta-Potti might do in the helicopter wash—and Cindy, who has been mindful of the children Trey, Savannah and Aurora, whips around and says to the fellow observing that moving the Porta-Potti is a good thing, “Would you shut up for five fucking minutes? This is family,” and Good Thing says, “Certainly,” and Cindy says, “Good,” and Good Thing says, “Our prayers are with you,” and everybody shuts the fuck up.
Glen is flown away and the racing resumes. Late in the day the Skynyrd degrades to Nugent and that is my exit point. I went to school with Skynyrd boys and I am not going anywhere with no Nugent. My first instance of swamp buggy racing has been exceptional and I am done. I don’t stay to see Miss Swamp Buggy thrown in the mud.
Glen Chesser is prayed for and he needs it. Malcolm Lightner interviews him later. This is all you need as an intro to Malcolm Lightner’s book, I apologize for putting you through all the verbiage up to this point:
What is your occupation?
Golf course mechanic, jack-of-all-trades.
What does it feel like going around the track?
It’s a rush, a thrill, you know. Especially when you are out in front winning, not so much when you are losing.
Did you hit a rock as reported?
Buggy went to flipping, I felt my butt coming off the seat, I grabbled a hold of the roll bar and when it flipped, the roll bar hit some rocks in the track, which caused the roll bar to collapse and took my hand with it.
How did you manage to get out from under the buggy?
I crawled out. I was pinned for a little while. I came out between the roll bar and the steering wheel. I realized the mud was deeper and I was able to shove my helmet through it first. Then I was able to crawl out pushing my way through the mud.
When did you realize that your arm was injured?
When I shoved my helmet out. I was laying there telling the lord to please don’t let me die like this in front of my children. I tried shoving my helmet in the mud and realized my arm was hurt.
Can you describe your injuries?
Ripped hand practically off, two ligaments hanging. Shortened bone and reattached. Movement in fingers. Too early to tell.
Do you plan to race again?
Depends on arm. Surely like to.