A bright, cloudless Saturday morning in June of 1956, I was dropping my parents off at the train station for a weekend Christian couples retreat in North Georgia. As my dad dropped the keys into my hand, I wrapped my grip tightly around the jingling sound of metal on metal. My dad threw his arm around me with his hand on my back. With that intense characteristic look emanating from his eyes, he spoke softly but firmly.
“Look, Wayne, I’m leaving you the keys to my car.”
His car, by the way, was a ’55 Chevy Bel Air convertible. Probably one of the nicest cars to have ever graced the streets of Macon, and one he had treated himself to with the big bonus he had earned last Christmas at work as lead electrician at Bell South.
“You’re a grown man now, back from your first year of college. Soon, you’ll have your own job, and your own salary, and you’ll be able to afford your own nice things, just like this car, which I remind you, is mine. Remember, I’m letting you drive her, but she belongs to me. I’ll be checking the odometer when I get back. Don’t do anything stupid. No scratches, no dents. If I hear anything from the neighbors of the cops…”
“Yes, Dad, I understand. Your beauty is safe with me!”
“No scratches, no dents…” “Yes, Dad,” “…or you’ll be scrubbing floors and toilets in the Colored bars downtown – and God knows how dirty those people are – to pay for your tuition next year,” he grumbled.
That really hurt me when he said that, and I wished that he would stop saying all these racist things. Back in Atlanta, Black folks were organizing and starting to stand-up for their civil rights, and I supported their calls for more equality. There was a particularly charismatic young Black preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., who I had seen speak in front of a gathering one Sunday afternoon. I remember thinking about how that intelligent man was going to move mountains, if he could get past the old brigade of people like my pops. Then again, they were the older generation.
“And by the way, the Neon-O-Matic. I know you’re excited about it and everything. But we can’t let anybody see it, not a single other person, not even your own mother. Or else, we risk losing credit and rights for everything. Years of work, down the drain, just like that,” he snapped his fingers just as his tongue fell on that final word.
It was my machine, I had conceived it and created it. All he had done was help me write an instruction booklet and weld together a few parts of the casing. But everything inside, from its function to its mechanisms, were a product of my imagination.
“Wait until I’ve submitted the patent, Wayne. I know you’ve been running with ol’ Smith’s daughter lately, what’s her name… Valery. That man’s stolen more of my ideas and inventions over the past two decades than I care to count.”
“We can’t let all our hard work go to waste. Not to mention, I’m scared that if anyone so much as touches this thing, it might just break or fall apart.”
I stood silently and bit my lower lip, squinting my eyes to convey sincerity and understanding.
“Alright boy?” “Yep, everything like you said, Dad.” “Ok then. Me and your mom are off. Have fun, and be safe.”
There I was staring, at those keys in my hand, and I knew I was about to make a choice which I would probably come later to regret.
FIRST NIGHT OF SUMMER : LOVE AND NEON LIGHTS
Years later, when I think back to those days, my recollections often begin with a specific tune. The more I concentrate on its melody, as the notes unwind, the further I am taken back into time. Then I know this song must be the key to some deep underlying emotional attachment to a specific place and moment whose exact position I cannot name with precision.
But the feelings are just the same, every time. What is the name of that song again? We were so young, so fast, so jolted…
As the night progressed, we raced like Satanic horsemen bearing Apocalypse and pestilence across those roads in backcountry Georgia. Our engines roared with the pounding of horses and devils, ascending from the burning fires of rotating mechanical combustion chambers pumping under the hood. We sped past trees, beasts, and bugs in the woods under the mercurial spotlight of the moon.
Then, a deer dashed out into the road, appearing suddenly out of nowhere and running across the path of my accelerating car.
“Slow down!” screamed Valery.
The tires screeched and the dear avoided death by collision within a hair’s width. We skidded and I briefly lost control of the wheel. I grasped tightly and turned into the skid and threw the vehicle 2nd gear, bringing it to a gentle stop. I pulled the car over to catch my breath. Looking out my window, I caught just a glimpse of a white-tailed doe, who after having skipped to the other side of the road, turned around to watch us. Todd passed by me in his Studebaker pickup and kept on going. When he passed, she was gone.
“Oh my mmmmgghh mmmgh! What are you thinking? You’re going to kill us!” she continued. Those moans were the repressed swear words that she would have put in their place, except for her Christian upbringing.
“What? Not even fifteen minutes ago, you were claiming to be a rebel. Can’t let a little bit of speed break your nerves! Stay cool, look, after all everything is fine!” Despite the image of calmness and control that I wanted to project by taunting her, in fact my heart was beating at a thousand paces per minute.
We sat there for the next 5 minutes, as the late-night radio played Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.” Both of us were gasping for breath and sense. The most uncontrollable aspect of human emotion is fear. It grasps you tight and chokes you, leaving you at a loss of words. You are made to feel unsettled and turning with light nausea.
When you finally realize you are safe, then you are thrilled.
“Well, what are you waiting on? We better get going,” she urged. I pulled back onto the highway, and up ahead I noticed Todd’s taillights motionless and getting bigger. Finally as I approached he pulled back onto the highway, and he hit the accelerator hard. That big colossal engine whirred into action and the heavy metal frame carrying him and Ruth charged forward.
Now once again we were racing back, Todd and I chasing one another, Speed is good, a sign of recklessness and a catalyst of urgency. The girls, were they amused?
Arriving closer to my house, we both reduced our speed in order not to miss the obscure beginning of that long driveway that led to my house. In the night, it was easy to drive right past it and not even known you had gone too far until you came across streetlights and a stop sign at the next town 15 miles away.
Once we made it to the house and parked, Todd threw open the door to his truck and hopped onto the ground. He ran around to the other side, opened the passenger’s side, and Ruth, in her inebriated state, came tumbling down after. He caught her in his arms and, in that good-spirited and gentlemanly way that he did everything, lifted her to her feet.
“Where are we?” she asked. “We’re at Wayne’s house,” he replied, very patiently, “See? There’s Wayne, there’s Valery.” She looked up and saw us, which seemed to sober her up a little and bring her back to her senses. We had gotten out of the car, and I was checking upclose around the car to inspect for any damage.
Valery, meanwhile, lingered in the grass and looked into the skies. The night air was humid and heavy, but the stars were bright. The frogs and the crickets chirped. I announced that I had decided to go out back behind the house and start a fire. “Fire-time! Bring the beers, would you Todd?”
Normally, we would not have been allowed to conduct ourselves in such a manner. This was where my parents lived, and where I would stay for the rest of the summer. After finishing my first year of engineering school in Atlanta, I had found myself back home in Macon, Georgia. Home to my friends and family. Home to my memories, good and bad. Home to who I was as a person, or rather, as an individual.
To be honest, it wasn’t a place or a group of people that I was particularly fond of. Yet, it had been the one that had shaped my ideas about life mainly, not in a direct way as in having given me those ideas, but in the sense of feeding my generalizations about the world and what it meant to be “average,” which, for me, meant from Macon, Georgia.
While my parents were out of town for the rest of the weekend, we were secretly having our own couples get together. That’s what Todd and I joked about. We had been going over this for weeks. We weren’t so sure that the girls would have agreed on the “couples” part.
* * *
“Can’t wait to get the girls out there. This is the perfect opportunity, you know, with your parents leaving town and all.” he said to me as we sat in the Tic Toc Grill downtown, watching one of Ann’s regular acts play a show.
The music was raw and loud, so much stronger than the watered-down Elvis versions they played all the time on the radio.
“What’s the name of this cat again?” I asked
“Little Richard. Does a mean drag show, too, if you’re willing to go to certain parts of the town to watch, if you know what I mean. I’m not too into that, but I did go once just out of curiosity.”
“What?” my face was twisted in a look of repulsion.
“Eh, nevermind. Look, I hear Ruth might have a thing for me. If we’re doing this, then this will definitely be my chance. You going to invite your old crush, Valery?”
“What do you mean, ‘old crush’? She’s just a friend, always has been. Besides, I hear she’s interested in some other guy.”
“She’s always talking about you to Ruth, so Ruth tells me at least.” I didn’t respond. I just let those words work on my mind a while, half inflating my sense of ego and pride, half telling myself that he was just blowing empty wind into my ears. I don’t remember anything about the music after that point.
* * *
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something moving in the woods… another deer? Todd pulled his truck up to the backyard next to where I had just finished building the fire.
Tutti Frutti was playing on the radio. When he turned off the engine and pulled the key from the ignition, we were cast back into silence.
“What’s in the shed?” Valery asked, as though she were insisting. There were not too many utterances leaving her mouth that did not give one the impression of boldness and urgency. The question shocked me by its exigency.
The Neon-O-Matic. But I couldn’t let them to know about it, yet.
“Hold on there, just a minute y’all!” I protested. “This is my dad’s workshop. We can’t just burst into it like that. If even the most minor thing breaks or falls, he’ll recognize it,” I explained. “And then he’ll start asking a million questions about what was going on out here while he was gone.” Of course, I tried to stop them, but try telling a group of lightly inebriated late teenagers to stay out of anything. I was powerless. They would not be hindered!
Todd, who had walked over to join us, grabbed the handle of the shed door and began to pull. Locked… “Where’s the key to this thing?” he asked in a frustrated tone.
“Oh, gee, well I guess my dad must have taken it with him. Look, y’all wanna roast some marshmallows over the campfire? We can make smores!” I tried my hardest to be persuasive. Yet, now Valery and Ruth chimed in. “Come on, Wayne, where’s the key? We wanna take a look inside!”
Had I been a stronger man, and not a nineteen-year-old kid hoping to impress some girls, I would not have relented, not one bit. But Valery Smith, aged 18, blonde hair and a carefree, daring look in her eyes, stared at me. I wanted nothing other than to please her. It was crazy how she had this effect on me. And then, thinking back to what we had been through on the
road, I thought of nothing other than making her blissfully happy.
“Come on, Wayne. Since when did you become such a square?” she teased. Please, just stop Valery, I thought to myself. I may have even mentioned it under my breath. Please, I’m crazy for you. Please don’t make me do this. “I mean, engineering school has changed you, I can see it.”
“Yeah, for the better!” I quipped. “Just wait until you see what I’ve been working on. You’re going to flip! Let me go take a look inside. I think I know where there might be an extra set of keys somewhere. Valery, you’ve never seen anything like this before!”
Dammit! What are you doing, jackass? This is not a good idea. My internal voice resisted and told me better before eventually dying to a whisper, and I simply conceded defeat. Running inside, I almost tripped over the garden hose. “Wrapped around my foot like a snake…” I mumbled, kicking it away. Opening the back door, I entered the kitchen and there were the keys, hanging on the wall, where my dad always left them.
As I grabbed those keys, the sound of that metal-on-metal rattle brought me back to earlier that day: “But we can’t let anybody see it, not a single other person, not even your own mother.” I paused… yet not even the voice of filial responsibility could stop me at this point. Meanwhile, my emotions were being tossed back and forth between a queasy nervousness telling me to hold back, and an anxious exhilaration pushing me forward.
They were clapping for me when I came back out the door. Todd had opened up another beer, and Ruth had one too. Val’s eyes lit up when our eyes met, and she was smiling at me. Things were looking promising, after all. Yet to what point was I being manipulated by this young nubile female who more than likely sensed my fatal attraction to her?
She hadn’t had but a cocktail to drink. There was nothing impaired with her senses, nothing impaired with her thinking, except the shortcomings and impairments of possessing youth at a young age. She understood intuitively the compliments that I was paying to her, my weakness for her, and she was exploiting it. This train of thought was another voice in my head that I should have heeded to, but in all recklessness and abandon in hope of her favor, I of course gave in to temptation.
The pins in the lock must have been slightly rusty. It was always tricky getting this door to open, and you could hear the pins lifting before the heavy deadbolt retracted into the steel door. As we got inside, I turned on the incandescent lights which my father had recently installed. They flickered and flipped on one-by-one, and in the passing of a moment the hum of the crickets, the moonlit darkness, the woody surroundings, and the organic glow of the campfire gave way to an artificial environment of electricity, light, wiring, iron, tools and steel.
The silence of my entourage was surprising to me, and there was a collective sense of calm and awe at the intrigues scattered across the room. As expected, a wave of “oohs” and “ahs” from the crowd stroked my ego and made me confident. For them, these electrical instruments and complex mechanisms were like mirrors or oddities in a circus or a funhouse. Mystery emanated from these pieces of machinery whose inner workings were hidden and unrevealed, to the casual observer. But to those who comprehend its secrets, this technology promises a type of arcane knowledge and power reserved for the initiated.
Valery tried to suppress her delight and excitement, “This is what you brought me out here to show me?” I heard her, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted this moment to be special. She was, as usual, being somewhat bitter and aggressive. Her words, although she wasn’t cognizant, were affecting and shaping the place and the emotions that we would experience inside of it. I
chose to ignore her.
After a few moments of silence, to re-establish the equilibrium, to take off the edge of those sharp and mean ideas that she could force upon you, I suggested to her, “There’s a lot of magic that takes place here. This is where the ideas and progress of man in this age is taking place. I’m an engineer, as you know, and I can tell you that my father is building machines which have not even been imagined by these Georgia Tech, Atlanta types.
“No, the real creativity and inventiveness of this nation is taking place in small garages and sheds like the one you’re standing in now. Here in Macon, Georgia, music isn’t the only thing that we are building and contributing to the cultural heritage of the entire country.”
“You sound like you’ve been listening to one too many Eisenhower speeches.” Todd added. It was clear that his interest was waning, as he and Ruth slowly drifted outside. I continued, unaffected. “Or maybe one of those newsreels…” added Ruth.
“There are some real treasures out here. Things that my dad and I used to work on in the summers.” I pulled out several kits that we had put together. There was the boats make of cork and balsa wood, plastic hobby model kits, crystal radio sets, soldering irons and wire clippers. “My dad was always helping me work on these. But these things are just toys, compared to
what my dad was building: real machines.”
“There’s one in particular that I’d like to show you. I just found it the other day, rummaging through his things.” I picked up an old cloth sitting on the workbench and began to wipe the dust from the contraption. “It’s called the… Neon-O-Matic.”
Valery’s reaction to the machine was one of admiration and wonder. She stared for some minutes… repeating to herself, under her breath “Neon-O-Matic.” Even Todd and Ruth had quit their necking and flirting to pay more attention. It was only after some time that the question finally came, “Well, what does it do?”
“That’s a good question!” I responded, “and one whose answer I haven’t quite figured out yet. But tonight, we’re going to have it. All of us: you, Todd, Ruth, and me, finally.”
I didn’t want them to know that I had built it. There was something too personal about the investment of emotions that I had made into the Neon-O-Matic. The horror, to face possible rejection of my creation: it would have been worse than had they rejected me, personally.
“Gee golly, what a swell machine.” Todd commented. “What’s that booklet there like on the workbench? What’s it say on the front? Instructions for Using This Machine: Neon-O-Matic” His hand was quickly moving to grab it.
“Don’t you dare touch it!” I yelled furiously at the top of my voice, reflexively. Everyone stared at me as though I had just killed somebody. I turned bright red with embarrassment. “Sorry, it’s just that there are some rather personal things inside that I’d rather not have you possibly seeing, Todd. Nothing personal.”
“Okay, man, just cool it down a bit. Relax. Remember, we’re all here to have fun.” Yes, he was right. But I couldn’t risk them knowing any more. I took a couple of deep breaths and we continued.
“Valery, can you please dim the lights?” I asked. She walked over and flipped them off throwing us into darkness.
“Hey, I can’t see anything!” hollered Ruth. “That’s cause there’s no lights on, honey,” replied Todd. Valery, always the arrogant one, giggled.
My hand was already on the crank and I began to turn. The time passed slowly and heavily as everyone waited and watched in anticipation. “What are we sitting in the dark for again?” Valery exclaimed impatiently.
Ruth and Todd shushed her, thankfully.
Laboriously, the machine clicked and the mechanism began to turn. On the walls, various signs from bars and shops powered by lamps filled with noble gasses began to faintly glow: yellow, red, blue, white… “beer” “cigarettes” “restaurant” “auto” “lotto” “guns” “gas” “girls” and my favorite, “sandwiches.” They each became brighter and brighter.
Then, the record player started turning, and the sound of a piano began playing over the speaker. I had nearly forgotten about the record player, since it was a very new addition that I had installed to keep me company when my dad wasn’t there to help me with machines. The voices harmonized together into a bittersweet doo-wop number. Todd started dancing with Ruth, while Val stood next to the lights, trying to discern the mechanism behind it all, before approaching the table and standing next to me and watching intently.
The glass lamps that followed the outline of the Neon-O-Matics’s trim glowed a bright warm red color and pulsated warmly to the rhythm of the music. These red lights were the color of the blood quickening in my heart. In neon lighting, the color we see is driven by free radical electrons being liberated by the pulsations of electrical current. The electrons then emit light as they rejoin their atomic spheres revolving around neutron-heavy nuclei.
Taking her in my arms, I twirled her and her eyes lit like wildfire, in fear, in wonder, and intense emotion, a mix of alarm and excitement. She withdrew quickly and let out a quick gasp!
“What, do I scare you?” I asked her, feeling a little hurt. She stared back at me, very hardly as though I had injured her. Then she began to soften. I turned away from her and began to turn the handle on the machine again.
A faint red glow continued to emanate from the glass tubing as the song ended. The light glowed, brighter and softer, as the gears picked up. The clicks and whirs of the internal mechanism produced a constant background noise and rhythm.
I noticed she was looking up at the ceiling, where a multitude of colors and evolving shapes were being projected through tiny carvings in the surface of the box. Forms, colors, lights crawled to the surface of the room and hopped erratically like scratches and sketches in the air.
Todd must have changed the record, because I wasn’t paying attention, but the music changed all of a sudden. It was the Elvis Presley record. Ruth screamed with delight, “Yes! I love this song!” Blue shoes, red shoes, white shoes, black shoes… I didn’t see what was so special about it. But then Val started dancing, swinging her long blonde hair back and forth. She motioned for me to join her.
When the song ended, and the next one began, a slower tune, she came close and put her head on my shoulder. “Hold me and dance with me,” and my arms embraced her, my hands rested on her back. I could feel her warmth against my body. There was a tingle which ran up my spine, an electrical current that touched my brain. She electrified me.
And then, a faster song, and we turned faster and faster! I looked up, and she together with me, looking up maddeningly, we watched the Neon-O-Matic recreate Modernist paintings above, in a symphony of color: cyan, magenta, and yellow, flashing and blinking brilliantly.
Resonating in the air was poetry and color, the secret language of mechanics and technology. Just as a musician must understand how to play notes and melodies on his particular instrument in order for it to play, so was the engineer the painter and poet of electricity and mechanics.
“It’s going to turn off if we don’t keep it turnin’. Can you wind it up, please?” A confused look sprawled across her face, while she took the handle and began to crank the machine. “Like this?” she asked lacking confidence. “Perfect! It’s perfect!” I responded, and she smiled.
The Neon-O-Matic was my opus dedicated to the arts and its crossroads with science. It was a philosophy built into a mechanically operated system that converted kinetic energy to electricity. Here was my response to Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, which was realized in the living expression of performance arts: music, dance, poetry, color, and above all, the raw energy and extemporaneous character of life.
Never had I experienced emotion of such intensity before. These rushes of ecstasy and pleasure, a simulation of religion, must have been the closest that I have ever been to the ethereal realms. She (I promise it was she!) kissed me. And I wasn’t even looking. In that long embrace, I was not only inside of me, deep somewhere looking at myself looking at myself from
another universe, I was one and connected with her. For the first time in my life, I felt united and integrated with something greater than myself.
The music continued to play, and the sun and stars kept rotating in the light play above us. Was it love? It was passion, certainly. But was it love? I wondered… She whispered that she loved me.
We danced, rather mindlessly. The machine kept turning… there must have been a battery or capacitor in it somewhere that my Dad had added to store energy. I looked around and noticed that Todd and Ruth were no longer in the room. Where were they? I wondered.
Once the music stopped playing, I lost track of the time going by, and I do not recall how long we spent together. My head was spinning and I felt at moments like what I was living was more akin to a dream than something real. “Where are Todd and Ruth?” she asked me. “What time is it?”
A rather rude awakening but this was indeed necessary information to obtain. I separated myself from her with difficulty, and stepped outside. “Todd? Ruth?” His Studebaker was no longer sitting next to the shed. The fire had died out. “Todd, Ruth?” Val came out to help me look for them. No sign of anybody. I walked back into the shed. “Where are they at?” I looked at the clock: 4am. They may have well gone home.
I turned on the light and shut off the Neon-O-Matic. Where was the instruction manual? No, I had left it there in that exact place on the table. No, where was it? It wasn’t there. “Valery, have you seen those papers that were lying on the table next to my invention?” “What papers?” “An instruction manual…” “Huh?” I started searching the room and they were nowhere to be found. I started turning the place over to find them.
They had disappeared. And my mind started turning over the inevitable suggestion that they had not just been lost, but indeed, that my designs and diagrams explaining my machine had actually been stolen.