Sunday drives carried us past junkyards, past James Dickey’s “parking lot of the dead” into no man’s land. There they were, wrecks by the score open to the sun and open to my little boy eyes. Wrecks that scared me, that fascinated me with all their colors and randomly parked conveyances, parked seemingly forever. People died in some of the wreckage. Did I know any children left to grieve their parents, seemingly forever? No, but the day came when I knew a young girl who left grieving parents behind.

Junkyards. So many cars, so many trucks, so much mangled steel. Junkyards scared me because of my first contact with a wreck. When I was 7, a speeding car lost control in a curve about a mile from home, killing a local girl. It so happens I rode the school bus with this dark-haired beauty. It so happens the wreck was in a friend’s driveway. In a case of morbid curiosity, Dad drove me to the scene.

People stood and stared. Shattered glass glittered and littered the road like sequins. The careening car had gashed open the ground and car parts lay scattered like the bones of a luckless, long-gone dog. As everyone stared, I picked up a round, black knob with one word in white set into it, “Heater.” I slipped it into my pocket. Why? I still do not know.

Gift that keeps on giving

Days later, the brutality that knob participated in got to me. I threw it as hard as I could into the pines, never to be seen again. Thus, did it escape the junkyard.

Remembering Challenger

All these years later I asked my friend, Eddie Drinkard, if he remembered the accident. I knew he would. “I will never forget it, may have blocked some of it out. It was at night but not late. I think her name was Lucinda Marie. The car was coming from your direction and hit the culvert at our driveway. I remember her brother coming. I took him into the house to use the phone. Not much talking between us. A few days later, her father put up a white wooden cross where my brother and I would wait for the bus. Don’t think he ever quite got over it.” I remember that cross. Each time the bus stopped at Eddie’s I stared at it. I know the car responsible for that cross must have ended up in a junkyard.

And then many years passed and I began to see junkyards, iron bone yards of abandonment, as a museum of sorts. Among the peeling paint, missing hoods and doors, cracked windshields, shattered headlights, and strewn hubcaps, I’d spot old Fords and Chevies, chrome-shining beauties once upon a time turned queens ravaged by time, gravity, and sunlight. I’d spot a car with huge fins, a prehistoric shark sent to devour Volkswagon Beetles crushed at the intersection of bad luck and destiny. I spotted wrecks no mortal could live through, a junkyards dark side.

Memories of church homecomings from long ago

For better or worse, junkyards became a necessity, and junkyards are where some ill-fated Sunday drives ended, but you can’t see car morgues liked you once did. Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act required that fence screens conceal junkyards. More than that, some simply vanished, relocated to parts unknown, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I find strange beauty in the occasional multicolored crushed, twisted, smashed cars and trucks I stumble across. For one thing, they keep the past alive. Seeing the old Plymouths reminds me of Dad’s devotion to Chrysler products and King Richard. I’m sure many a classic ’57 Chevy has been cannibalized and reassembled as a restored beauty. And how many shade tree mechanics found cheap parts in the chain link kingdom where tires can’t roll but dry rot instead. For many a fellow a trip to a junkyard was mining for gold.

No, you just don’t see junkyards like you used to. Back in the day, though, we’d pass an old junkyard and all heads would turn in its direction, drawn by some unknown force. No one said a word, but I know what we were thinking. “How many people died in all those rusting trucks and cars?” Blood and rust, they’re a bit like twins are they not? On we drove with many a question lingering in my mind. Junkyards. Strange places.

'I am plain worn out by plastic'

Years down the road now, from the comfort of my writing studio, I stretch my imagination and up rises an image of junkyards as the old folks home for cars and trucks. Their best days done, they find themselves heaped together in this final resting place, forced to be roommates. If each wreck could speak it would recall its favorite trips, its favorite place to park, beneath a chinaberry, perhaps, and the people it ferried across Mother Earth’s face. Perhaps, too, it would reveal its fate … blown engine, head-on collision, obsolescence, and a cancer called rust.

Dickey’s “parking lot of the dead” was Steve Goodman’s “graveyards of rusted automobiles” in the “The City of New Orleans.” As for me, all the colors, collisions, and carnage make for a morgue of sorts, and I see a dark future some cannot avoid. A death synchronized with their car’s demise. Others will ride off into the sunset like some scene from an old Western. Either way, all roads lead to junkyards. Janisse Ray knows all too well that junkyards will never empty, and she’s right.

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Tom Poland is the author of 12 books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, “Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It,” in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s “Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II” in 2014. This story comes from "The Last Sunday Drive -- Vanishing Southland," due out fall 2019.


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