That October of 1959, Reggie Radcliffe sat in the lounge of the Delta Kappa Epsilon frat house at UCLA when a friend called him over to the telephone. It was Sally.
“Hello, Reggie. I needed to call and tell you I’m pregnant….”
Two years before this event, Reggie’s mother embraced Christian faith listening to evangelist Charles Fuller’s Old-Fashioned Revival Hour, and she drew her whole family to Stanton Community Church, and Reggie came along. For a weekday church event, Reggie would often wear a white tee shirt and jeans with the little red “Levi” tag on the back pocket—Stanton kids were pretty informal—but on Sundays he always wore a collar shirt.
He didn’t talk much about religion, but came faithfully to Stanton where he found a lively youth group that socialized and did a little Bible study. They played circle games that Reggie called “swing the butt” games. One of the high schoolers was Bob Burchitt. Bob was not part of the “in” group. Once Reggie told Sally, “I tried to mispronounce Bob’s name ‘Burshett,’ but Mrs. Wallace [the youth leader] insisted it was ‘Birdshit’.” Sally smiled, embarrassed.
Reggie and his friends came of age in 1950s car-crazy Southern California. He bought a 1947 metallic purple Ford, nosed, decked and hung, with a 3.6L flathead V8 engine, twin pipes, seatbelts he’d installed himself by drilling holes in the floor, and furry white dice dancing from the rearview mirror. When he floored it, you saw the smoke and smelled the burnt gasoline. He single-handedly birthed the Clutchers Car Club, a sacred fraternity of motorheads.
It was a dark spring night when the Clutchers gathered in the barn at Jeff Adam’s Villa Park orange ranch. Cars pulled in, parked among the orange trees, and their drivers squished a few oranges walking into the barn, which was swept and all alight. Eight guys showed, all wearing grey jackets with “Clutchers” embroidered in white on the back. Jeff’s dad kept an old Fordson tractor in the barn, plus a harrow, a couple of plows, and a sledge with runners on it that he pulled behind the tractor to gather rocks or transport new trees for planting. In one corner was a rusted-out 1932 Ford hot rod that served as the club’s eternal project. After pushing these items against the walls, Reggie precisely circled a few equally-spaced chairs under the lights in the middle of the barn.
The guys had elected Dan Hanson president, a fact which Reggie resented. A friendly, approachable guy with a nice smile, Dan seemed a bit self-conscious. “Well, I guess we’ll get started. Anybody have anything?”
Mack said, “I wanna install three two-barrel carburetors on my Chevy to give more power. I already bought the intake manifold and carbs—cost me about $150.00.” The hard part’s getting the links adjusted so the front and back two-barrels will kick in when you stomp the throttle down.
Everybody nodded approvingly. Dan offered, “I know a guy who can adjust the links.”
A Clutcher could never let his car alone—he had to install twin pipes, mill the heads, chrome-plate various engine parts, nose and deck it, and always, repaint with metallic paint.
Then Jeff spoke up. “I’ve been working on the lime run, about 50 miles long. I figure four guys will drive their cars and each one can take a couple passengers. My dad gave me five sacks of lime. Let’s divide it into about 30 paper bags. Make sure the bags split and spread the lime when they hit the pavement. We’ll finish at a secret destination where we’ll meet for dessert. I need one guy to go with me to put the lime packets out.” Lime runs were fun. Theoretically it wasn’t a race¾most guys spend most of the time trying to track the lime route because it’s easy to miss a turn.
After about an hour the guys broke up to get some soft drinks cooling in a bucket of ice. Jeff’s mom had provided glazed doughnuts. Reggie grabbed one. “You know Hill Crest Park, where some guys park with their girlfriends? Jeff and I were driving up there last week, shining a flashlight into the cars. Startled a few people. But if we saw bare bottoms, we moved on.” People smiled. Some of the guys had girlfriends, but they didn’t talk to each other much about sex.
They walked back to the chairs. Specks of dust whirled under the single light. “We talked about a tune-up party this Saturday at my house,” Dan said. “Clean and gap spark plugs, set the timing, change points and condensers, stuff like that. You should do that every 5,000 miles. How many can come?” Several hands went up.
Reggie objected, “Dan; you and I planned this, but we said next Saturday; not this Saturday!”
Dan looked confused, shuffled his feet. “Well… I thought we’d talked about this Saturday, but maybe I’m mistaken…. I guess we can do it next Saturday ….”
Reggie frowned, “I’m sure we said next Saturday. I wrote it down. You said you’d check with your Dad.” Score one for Reggie. Dear Reggie—outgoing, confident, very easy with girls. And he gaslighted like this with his girlfriends and with people he wanted to control. Like tonight, it usually worked—getting people to doubt their own memories and minds.
Dan lived out in Westminster where his father owned a huge truck garage with lots of tarmac outside. Perfect place for a tune-up party. “You guys all know how to get to my house.” He sketched a crude map on the chalkboard hanging on the wall, carefully labeling the streets and turns.
The meeting broke up about 9:00 p.m.
That week, Reggie had a proposal for Shawn, who had never been invited to join Clutchers Car Club. “Hey, Shawn—let’s go over to Orange and race along Almond Avenue. We’ll see who has the most powerful engine.” A huge blind bump bulged up where Almond crossed the mainline Santa Fe railroad track. Shawn had bought his 1950 Chevy with its inline six engine a few months after starting at Stanton, and he had painted it metallic blue.
The next week they picked a low-traffic night and lined up side by side at Walnut Street, then they punched it. The two cars accelerated side by side to fifty miles per hour when they hit the blind bump and briefly became airborne. They squashed down on the other side where, fortunately, no cars were stopped. They weren’t worried—they assumed themselves immortal. Nearing the Main Street signal light, Reggie nosed Shawn out and won, leaving a pungent smell of burned rubber as they slid to a stop.
Later, the guys both signed up for a school-sponsored “economy run” that started at Hagen’s gas station. Reggie used his own 1947 Ford but Shawn’s dad let him drive their 1955 Chevy station wagon. Dad explained, “A better car for this type of competition—the race makes allowances for different car weights. I’ll ask our mechanic to tune the car for economy.” The route ran through El Toro, out to Laguna Beach, followed the road through the mountains to Corona, and then back to Hagens—about 100 miles total. A 1953 Cadillac won the run, but Shawn beat Reggie.
To be anybody in 1950s Southern California high schools, you had to have a car—the student parking lots were full of them. Bus riders were second-class citizens, but owning a car put you into an elite club not all guys could join. Guys would pick up their friends and drive them to school. Cars gave status, bonding, friendships.
Reggie thought his car a chick magnet—probably true. He’d already had a few serious girlfriends. But when he came to Stanton he met Sally— reserved, sophisticated, different from the other girls. Although experienced with girls and unencumbered with high moral scruples, he wasn’t a bad kid; just that when his family joined Stanton, they didn’t have a Fundamentalist background along with all its lifestyle expectations.
Reggie hoped Sally liked his car. He asked her, “Do you wanna drive down to the beach with me this Saturday evening?”
Sally hesitated. Cocky, self-confident, Reggie had a certain reputation. She considered him a monumental temptation and a monumental attraction. People didn’t know anything about his father; he lived with his mother. He didn’t “speak Fundamentalist” like most Stanton people. Sally’s parents, Ben and Jane Wilberforce, had some serious reservations, especially because Sally was only 16. But she loved his blue eyes and friendly smile and, in the end, she accepted.
They started dating regularly—driving up to Los Angeles’ Olivera Street to enjoy the smells and tastes of Mexican food, or taking long drives down the coast toward San Diego, with full-body embraces at the end of each date.
One weekend when they were walking through Disneyland, Reggie suggested a drive-in movie. Sally objected, “But you know what Pastor Carter says about going to the movies….”
“He never really forbade people,” Reggie said [a borrowed line from Eve’s tempter]. “He just said it was not the greatest of ideas. But he said we need to make our own choices.” Reggie slipped his arm around Sally’s waist. In the end, she said yes.
Reggie would drive down from UCLA to Costa Mesa to pick Sally up, and by late summer they were seeing each other two or three times a week. Reggie stayed at Sally’s apartment longer and longer, especially when her roommate wasn’t there. For the first time in her life, Sally’s summer school grades started slipping.
One night in late August they parked along the beach to watch the moon reflect on the waves, then drove back to Sally’s apartment to share a bottle of wine. The Fundamentalists preached against wine, but it had always been a part of Reggie’s family tradition. And Sally’s parents secretly used it, saw it as a sign of sophistication and style, but they used it prudently, with meals. Sally and Reggie had three or four glasses each.
That night, Reggie didn’t go home.