Favorite Son

It was the spring of 1974, the kind of day just perfect for cruising Ocean Drive in Newport.

In, say, a soft top Maserati Ghibli Spider 5-speed.

At about 80 MPH.

My buddy Dave Mercer and I were doing just that, more or less. We actually only topped out at 80 on a straightaway. We took the curves at much more reasonable speeds — especially when you consider we’d discovered this car could do 135 like it was nothing.

Sadly, the Newport police defined “reasonable speeds” differently than we did. When the lights went on and the cruiser pulled out behind us, we did the first thing that came to our adolescent minds: we pushed the GO pedal to the floor.

At this point, I’d been working for Ed Butler seven days a week for the better part of a year. The Maserati had become my vehicle of choice, and though it belonged to Ed, I drove it more than he did.

It was one of the carrots in our carrots-and-sticks relationship. He’d unleash his temper on me regularly, a verbal assault designed to ensure I would do what he wanted, and fast. But then he’d just as quickly throw an arm over my shoulder, pass me the keys to some amazing car, and say, “Barry, you’re the son I never had.”

Looking back, I see that there’s another layer to what was going on. I’d been only 13 when my father passed away, and while he was alive, we hadn’t really connected. He saw my interests — music and cars and boats — as frivolous. He’d been 50 years old when I was born. His son from a previous marriage was 18 already, and I suppose he felt he’d been there, done that. He was distant at best, and he had no patience with my antics. William H. Bixby was a man I could admire, but “fun” was not a word he called to mind.

Contrast that with Ed Butler, who was every bit as exacting as my father, but rewarded my efforts with access to the vehicles I’d always been fascinated with. Fun was part of the lifestyle. If I resented the way he barked at me, I suppose running his cars off their wheels gave me the sort of passive-aggressive thrill all teenagers get when defying their parents.

Which is at least part of the reason Dave Mercer and I took Newport police on a chase down Ten Mile Drive. Dave had joined me working at Union Toyota, and we’d both quickly taken to the surreal total immersion in Mr. Butler’s world. It never occurred to us that we shouldn’t try to outrun the police.

And when we succeeded? It only affirmed in our warped young minds that we were the shit.

By the time we got back to Barrington, though, it was clear we’d done serious damage to the Maserati. It was running rough, didn’t sound right at all. We tucked it into Ed Butler’s garage and crossed our fingers.

The next morning, Dave and I sat frozen and breathless at the dealership, waiting for Mr. Butler to come in and unleash his wrath over whatever we’d done to his car.

Instead, he came in and grumbled to me in a low voice about the Maserati.

“Get it to Lee Girardi,” he told me. “It seems I didn’t warm it up properly.”

My eyes went to Dave, and we both exhaled for the first time that morning.

Still — our unease remained. Did Ed Butler really think he’d ruined the Maserati engine? Had we gotten away with something, or were we being given a pass? What if this was a test? Were we supposed to confess? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?

While my mind and conscience struggled, I overheard Mr. Butler addressing one of my colleagues.

“You’re like a son to me,” he said, patting him on the back.

I looked over at Dave.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s get that car out of here.”

Next week: Flying

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Mr. Butler's Maserati on Ocean Drive that fateful day...

Mr. Butler's Maserati on Ocean Drive that fateful day...