As good a sample as any of Ned's, uh, work
...What we do for vacations is pile into our van and drive to weird East Coast destinations, like Binghamton, New York, birthplace of The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. (Seriously. I've been in the Rod Serling museum.)
On one of these jaunts, we ended up at the Allentown, Pennsylvania, county fair. We had meant to go to the Poconos, but Dad decided at the last minute that we needed some real culture, so we headed for "The Largest County Fair in Eastern P.A."
The place was full of suburban guys my age, traveling in groups, chatting up girls, and smoking cigarettes. I was being led around by Mom and Dad, with Daniel and Nora in tow. I tried walking fifty feet ahead of my family or trailing far behind them, but the suburban kids were onto me no matter what. They gave me dirty looks and snickered as I passed by.
"Hey, Ned?" Dad asked at a particularly low moment. "How would you like to see that?" I looked where he was pointing - a stadium marquee with red letters:
6 P.M. TONITE COME SEE THE WORLD'S LARGEST DEMOLITION DERBY!!! $5
Destruction can really cheer up a thirteen-year-old. I wasn't sure what a demolition derby was, but it sounded violent and it would give me a chance to stop walking around with my parents. I told Dad, "Sure."
Here's how a derby works: some redneck with a car so screwed up that no one will buy it decides to have fun and compete for prize money. He pays about fifty bucks; his vehicle gets a paint job, and its engine is "modified" so it'll run for a few more hours. On derby day, he drives to a stadium where he slams into other cars until he totals them all, or just his own. If his is the last car running, he gets a big check.
We bought our tickets. "It's just like a baseball game," Mom announced, but she would soon learn.
We entered the stadium - a racetrack used for derbies every other week - through a Coliseum-like stone arch. We went to our seats in the very back of the stands, right in front of two young mothers holding toddlers. We were such tourists: Dad kept checking our tickets ("6Y, 6Y, where is 6Y?"), and Mom read off events from the county fair calendar ("Look, kids, tomorrow there's a pig judging!") as we sat down. I rolled my eyes.
"Why are you embarrassed?" Dad asked quietly. "Look around--do you really care what these people think of you?"
I did look around. The stadium was filled with burnt-out blondes, dirty drunks, and thirty-year-old guys with their mothers, but somehow, my family stuck out the most.
I tried to concentrate on the track below. In the middle, on a big concrete island, stood a podium and mike. A bald announcer came out and intoned, "Thank you, folks, for coming to our Saturday evening derby."
The crowd booed. The mothers in back of us booed loudest. Disgusting.
"Ah . . . tonight," the announcer continued, "we have something special for you. Our own Miss Kate Daugherty will sing our national anthem." A tiny girl in a flowered dress minced up to the podium, planted her face too close to the mic, and in a cute but somehow terrible way croaked out "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Without hesitation, the crowd hissed and jeered. Some people even threw soda cans and Styrofoam cups at Miss Daugherty. They didn't hit her - they were too far back in the stands for that - but the girl looked ready to flee, and the announcer quickly hustled her off-stage after her song. Mom and Nora were shocked. So was I, outwardly, but part of me sort of liked the booing, and when my parents weren't looking, I did a little myself.
As the announcer droned on about derby "rules," the cars emerged. There were about thirty of them - two-doors, mostly, with a few four-doors and station wagons. Each car was painted with a number and a name like, "#92, The Avenger." Everyone chose a car to root for. I liked an orange station wagon that had gigantic faces of Beavis and Butt-head on its side.
The cars formed a circle, front ends facing in. The announcer began the countdown: "Five . . . four . . ."
Engines revved, kicking up smoke. "Three . . . two . . ."
Three rows down, a fat guy lifted his chin to the sky and shouted, "Yeehah!"
"One . . . Go!" The screeching of cars and fans melded in a roar.
That Beavis and Butt-head station wagon was the first to die. While the other vehicles charged forward, it vroomed backward, smashing into the stadium wall. It was quickly sandwiched by a Pontiac. The Beavismobile's driver jumped through his windshield - the glass had been removed "to prevent injury" - and yelled at his car as it burst into flames. The blaze licked the stadium wall, obscuring other cars, spreading a stench of burnt-rubber smoke.
Derby clowns - like rodeo clowns, except with hoses - ran out and extinguished the fire. Everyone cheered. In another corner, two cars were going at it like mechanical elk: backing up, smashing into each other, backing up again. Each confrontation produced a metallic groan and thick black fumes. Six-year-old Nora was going through her environmental phase. She stood on her seat and yelled, "This is pollution!"
The crowd around us told her to sit the hell down. The mothers in back of us shot especially fiery looks.
Mom had had enough. "Jim," she said. "This is not an appropriate place for children." She grabbed Nora's hand and left the stands. Dad said we'd see her when the derby was over.
By now it was clear: the two best cars were "Dickhead" and "Bonehead." Bonehead was a big old black station wagon, covered with decals of skulls and crossbones. He was a brute; he smashed smaller cars easily. Dickhead - that's what it said right on the side in huge brown letters - was a gray two-door with oversized wheels. The driver was wily; he didn't do much smashing, but he avoided hits and outlasted his competitors. Dickhead and Bonehead seemed to have a pact that they wouldn't clash until all the other cars were out.
There was so much to watch. Number Forty-one lost all its tires and was driving on hubs. Number Twenty-two leaked so much oil that it couldn't move - no traction. Suddenly the announcer called, "Halftime!" The still-mobile cars were driven to a pit-stop area, where the drivers got out and daintily stretched. Nonmoving cars were towed away to become scrap-metal cubes in a Pennsylvania junkyard.
Halftime began. Two derby clowns, dressed as firemen, drove into the stadium in a little red fire truck. They circled the racetrack, tooting a shrill horn and drenching each other with a hose. For a really big laugh, they stuck the hose between their legs and pretended to pee on the crowd. The patrons were not amused. They yelled, "What the hell is this? Romper Room?" and threw empty food containers. The clowns flipped them off and continued their act.
As the clowns did their thing, I muttered something to Dad about how AC/DC would have made a much better halftime act. This attracted the immediate attention of one of the mothers behind us.
"AC/DC! I love them!"
"Yeah?" I said, turning around. "So do I. I have all the CDs with Bon-"
"Highway to hell!" she began singing, rather well actually, bouncing her toddler on her knee. "Highway to hell! I love that song! Highway to hell! That's my favorite!"
"You know what would be really cool?" Daniel chimed in. I smiled. My little brother looked like a smaller version of me, and he tended to come up with warped ideas like me as well. "It would be really cool if AC/DC was playing on little harnesses, like, flying over the derby as the cars crashed into each other."
"Wow," one of the mothers said. The other one was still bouncing her child and singing. "That is a really, really cool idea."
"Not exactly," I said, challenging my brother.
"How are you going to suspend the drummer over a demolition derby?"
"They could suspend the drums, too!"
"Or they could use electronic drums." This from my dad.
"It wouldn't be the same," the singing mother said. "Highway to hell! Dun, dun! It would be a lot better than these clowns, y'know?"
The second half of the derby was the same as the first but drunker--more rowdy cheers, more mangled autos. Four cars remained. Number Twenty-three got blind-sided and whipped around, slamming into Number Sixteen. Sixteen revved his engine too fast, and a piece of tire ripped off and flew across the stadium.
Then, finally, Dickhead and Bonehead faced off. I decided to root for Dickhead--the underdog, the sly trickster, constantly running from danger. Except he didn't always run successfully. Bonehead gave him a few good hits, tore off his bumpers, and crumpled up his hood like a mountain range.
Front end skewed, engine dragging, parts trailing, Dickhead gave one last gasp as his engine fell out. By then, it was no longer even a car - just a heap of metal with three wheels. The announcer thundered, "We haaaave a champion!"
A dinky recorded version of the national anthem played over the loudspeakers. The clowns rushed out and presented Bonehead's driver with a nine-hundred-dollar check and a medal. He gave the audience a grimy smile.
The two mothers walked with us out of the stadium, back through that stone arch, rehashing the details of our AC/DC Demolition Derby World Tour.
Daniel: "You could have the whole band playing on a see-through net, like, above the derby."
Mother #1: "I don't think you can stand up or play drums on a net."
Me: "Forget about the drums. We already said electronic drums."
Dad: "I hate electronic drums."
Me: "Who cares?"
We found Mom and Nora, and on our way out of the county fair, I bought a T-shirt that read "35th Annual Destructo-rama Derby." The suburban kids eyed it jealously as I walked behind my family.