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Seventeen

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I grew up in a quirky Dutch-tulip farm community called Holland, Michigan, where everyone was a Van de Something. Once a year we would don authentic Dutch costumes and clomp down Main Street for the Tulip Time Parade. In the summer, my best friend Callie and I worked on the blueberry farms learning gringo-lingo from the Mexican immigrants while picking, sorting and consuming the grape-size blueberries until we popped. We would fashion sheet tents on the backyard clothes line, catch fireflies in a jar for our light, and produce comedy shows on our cassette-tape recorder, giggling until dawn. Relentless adventurers, we would bike along the endless shores of Lake Michigan, tumble down sand dunes, champion the frigid waves, and engineer some sizeable sand castles. After meandering our way home under the glow of the orangey-pink summer sunset, we would grill up our secret recipe mayonnaise sandwiches and drift off to sleep dreaming of horses, naming our baby bunnies, and charting the next addition to the cardboard fort in the basement. I’d do anything to re-live just one of those days.

Rex & Velma Wedding 1963

Rex & Velma’s Wedding, 1963

M y parental units were still in high school when they fell in love in the back seat of cousin Bobby’s ’59 Plymouth, shot-gunned the wedding in their ’56 turquoise Chevy Bel Aire, and named me Karen Susette instead of Crystal Star. A year later my twin brothers One-y and Two-ey appeared in the playpen and from then on it was two against one and I was on my own. It’s hard for me to comprehend being so young and raising three children. Although maybe it was easier back in the days you could order the kids to go play and not come home until supper. Once when I was four I wandered off to the big lake and spent the entire day by myself and at some point I realized I didn’t know how to get home and asked for help. Not sure I can blame my parents for a lack of supervision, I’ve always been a wanderer.

Rex & Velma 1965

Rex & Velma 1965

My mom, Velma, worked at the highway hotel on the edge of town. With her big hoops, hair-bump headband, fake lashes, and bell-bottom polyester pantsuit, she rolled in before dawn pimping her jet-fast, white-striped ’72 Olds 442 Cutlass. Under the neon glow of the iconic Holiday Inn sign, I pretended we were the Hollywood elite cruising the Vegas strip. My Aunt Bonnie, who played Cher in my fantasy, would just be getting off the night shift at the hotel bar. I’d spin my gangly legs around the glittery-gold vinyl bar stools in anticipation of my Shirley Temple, while Elton John booming from the jukebox marched the parade of drunken patrons home. After mom finished her coffee and caught up on the hotel gossip, she ushered me off to the kitchen where I was tasked with loading the bread into a lumbering machine that spewed out toast at the other end. Scurrying with purpose to the toast pile, I’d swish the brush into the butter vat, sloshing it on thick for the morning regulars while poaching a few for my school lunch.

Velma and her children

Velma, age 22, with her three children, Randy, Karen & Terry.

My dad, Rex—he was a weekend race car driver. A fiery blend of Tony Orlando and Burt Reynolds, dad knew how to flash a razor-straight smile under his thick circle ’stash. When he wasn’t bussing tables, pumping gasoline at his full-service station, machining rear-views at Donnelly Mirrors, or designing Ergon chairs at Herman & Miller, he was in the garage tinkering, cursing, and drinking, or he was out chasing women and leaving. He owned several race cars in this 20 year obsession, but his eyes twinkled the twinkliest when the garage door opened to reveal his favorite mistress, the ‘Dandy Lion’. A classical funny car, the Dandy Lion had a fervent fan following at Martin US 131 Dragway. She won every single race every single weekend, with an entire orange-shag-carpeted basement trophy room to prove it. I spent most of my weekends in the crew pits developing my affinity for the smell of warm Naugahyde, dirty oil, sweat, and beer. I often joined dad’s pit crew sticking my head under the hood with my wispy strawberry-blonde locks flowing in the gasoline breeze of the turning pistons. While the drags were happening, I’d be out trick-or-treating for sponsorship swag or smack-talking gears and fears with the ‘pit kids’ and acquiring new cuss words from the contenders.

rexandkarendandylion

1969, Rex and Karen with The Dandy Lion at Martin US 131 Dragway

We owned every conceivable motorized vehicle you could possibly own in the ‘70s. Dad built a mini-bike that develop my riding chops for our ’71 Pursang Bultaco dirt bike. ABC’s Wide World of Sports was my favorite TV show, and I’d jump and crash that bike like my idol Evel Knievel. Dad wisely never let me drive his Honda 750 four, but he had no problem popping wheelies with me on the back clutching the sissy bars or in front running the clutch. We had a ’72 Artic Cat racing snowmobile that I flipped several times and drove until dark and the gas was gone. Dad transformed a ’56 Packard with huge V8 engine into a wicked Dune Buggy completely with shift buttons in the middle of the steering column. My all time favorite creation was the custom sparkley-red fiberglass quarter-midget go-cart that landed me my first ride in the backseat of a cop car. I was one of those hooligans roaming the streets, pretty much.

Rex's #44 Stock Car | Berlin Raceway

Rex’s #44 Stock Car | Berlin Raceway

Probably I romanticized most of my childhood memories to disguise the bitterness of the other darker, more terrible, and worth-forgetting ones. When the forecast at home included a 100-percent probability of flying objects, I would sneak away under the all-encompassing flowing tresses of a solitary willow tree that stood unmovable in a golden field near my house. She swayed in tempo and listened intently to free-flowing songs of my innocent childhood heart. I’d imagine I was Tinkerbell flitting unfettered under her protective, wise arms. To this day, when I am alone and troubled, I hide myself away and sing until my heart is free.

Karen with Randy & Terry

One-y (Randy) and Two-y (Terry) with Karen 1968

Dad eventually forgot the racing scene. Maybe it was that frosty night his No. 44 cartwheeled ablaze into the scattering pit crews that made him hang up his helmet. Maybe it was the horrified faces of his own hell-raising prodigies emerging through the fire extinguisher fog that broke his adrenaline addiction. Maybe it was time to push ‘pause’ on the speed at which his little princess was fast-forwarding into adulthood with her own teenage pregnancy. Maybe it was the recession that blind-sided the car industry in Detroit and made earning a living in Michigan impossible. Maybe it was the ‘come to Jesus’ that life hands out to all the hell-raisin’ seventeeners who walk this earth. Yeah, it was probably, finally, most assuredly ‘everything’ that sent us packing. Turning out the lights on all the dark influences that Michigan represented for our little family, we set out on a new adventure to the music-soaked streets of Austin.

Though I have written many songs to process the darkness of some of those days, I wrote ‘Seventeen’ to capture the thrill I felt when my Dad would flash across that finish line to the aluminum roar of the bleacher-stomping fans and the majestic unfurling of the checkered flag. The Dandy Lion is now in the loving hands of a stranger, putting a twinkle in the eye of her new lover and drag racing fans all over the country at car shows. May she be forever Seventeen.

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SEVENTEEN THE BOOK
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A short story about the music video ‘Seventeen’ and a nostalgic look at the ’70s racing scene. Written by Karen Chisholm.

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