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Cruisers can find some middle ground

It may seem strange, but I thought about Tom and Lois Weaver the other day while covering the Whiteville cruising controversy. It’s possible I mention my parents too often, and I understand if some of my readers roll their eyes and turn away, but that’s okay. I try hard to live by what they taught me, every single day.

I was a cruiser around the same time that many folks involved in the Whiteville tradition were making the Madison run on Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday afternoons. Of course, I cruised Benson, while my wife and her buddies rolled through Whiteville, Fair Bluff, Chadbourn and Tabor, but the principle was the same. It has been so since the first teenagers gained access to automobiles, I think.

In the early 80s, when my buddy Rick and I cruised Benson, we went for several reasons: to socialize (read that: meet girls); show off my ’55 Chevy (which far too few thought was cool back then) and to be teenagers. I rarely drove up and down the strip, but instead was one of those who preferred parking beside the route, sitting on the hood of my car and being cool. The same practice applied when I drove my truck or later, my motorcycle.

We wanted to see and be seen, sometimes play our music little too loud, and just be kids.

Carolina Cruising – I didn’t know the practice had a name until recently – stretches back to the 1920s, from what I have seen. Some accounts actually tie cruising to another bygone tradition, the start of tobacco market sales, when everybody had a little bit of cash in their pocket.

The peak of popularity came when cruising was popular across the country, in the late 50s and early 60s, thanks in part to movies that focused on what it took for teenagers to be cool. By the time I came along, things were beginning to get a bit out of hand – and that’s where Mother and the Old Man came in.

Before I ever got behind the wheel of a car, I knew what my parents expected from me. Out of love, respect and yes, fear, I knew I had to uphold those values, or there would be consequences. I reckon that’s one reason why I was really a rather boring teenager, as were most of my friends, at least in the eyes of many.

Did we stray from the rules taught by our parents? Of course. Thankfully, the statute of limitations has expired on all of my misdeeds from back then. I can honestly say I didn’t drink or use drugs, but speed limits were more of a challenge than a guideline. Many of us considered ourselves far wiser than our years by coming up with pettifogging and complicated explanations around why certain behaviors were not technically against the law, or even subject to the law. However, our libertarian ideals paled when confronted with the benevolent yet occasionally wrathful dictatorships wielded by good and Godly parents.

Rick and I quit going to Benson when things began going downhill; the honorable duels on the dirt road behind the adult drive-in gave way to fights on the sidewalks. I had to replace two tires on my Bel Air due to broken beer bottles on the street. Guys (and girls) from out of town started coming to Benson with intentions to do more than socialize with the teenagers who frequented the town every weekend.

As society digressed, cruising also digressed, and exponentially so, from a watered-down version of the movie American Graffiti to something more on the lines of the early films of Quentin Tarentino. All the things that were wrong with American society seemed to creep into cruising around the same time, like ticks on a far-ranging hound.

The very last time I went to Benson, I rode my motorcycle, and ended up two hours late getting home. I was approached by a girl I knew very well, who was 16, who confided in me that she thought the Bible college fellow she was with had biblical designs for the end of the evening – and that she was extremely drunk.

Leather jacket, riding boots and all, I reckon I probably wasn’t as intimidating as I thought I was, but it was enough to frustrate the would-be Lothario who had charmed the girl’s parents into an innocent pizza date and a pre-approved movie. The trip to Benson, by the way, was completely unauthorized.

After I spoke to a policeman (whose solution terrified my female friend: “I can call her parents.”) I ended up recruiting a fellow I sort-of knew to drive her home. I had no misperceptions about what could result from the combination of an impaired teenage girl on the back of a motorcycle under the command of a barely-competent operator. The girl, who we’ll call Jane, was returned home with her virtue intact. After a discreet and suspicious interview at church the next morning, her parents thanked me profusely. I had to explain to my parents why I was late, too, and they were skeptical until they saw the obviously hungover ingénue queasily making it through church.

I should note that the spot where I habitually parked was conveniently adjacent to an attempt by a downtown devotee to take entrepreneurial advantage of the cruisers. The fellow opened a traditional soda fountain and ice cream shop on a good corner, as a testimonial to his love of cruising when he was a kid, back when the loud music was Elvis, not Lynard Skynard.

Sadly, the shop was damaged in a fire started in a trashcan when the town began cracking down on the behavior that eventually killed cruising.

Before the onset of bacchanalia, my friends and I knew better than to be a part of any of that stuff. Instead we refocused on other activities.

Did some of our gang drink illegally? Of course, and those of us who disapproved weren’t invited along to those parties. Did some of us drive too fast and loud? Of course we did. We spent every waking hour trying to find a way to increase horsepower and get a few more decibels out of our car stereos.

Did some of us fight? Of course. We were teenagers, but nobody I knew ever even pulled a knife; we couldn’t conceive of using a gun except for hunting. If it was bad enough to justify a fight, you fought with your fists, and the issue was settled.

It was a bad few who killed the age-old tradition of cruising in Benson; I have a distinct feeling it was just a few bad apples that spoiled the barrel in Whiteville. However, just biting into one worm can turn you from ever eating an apple again.

Times have changed; downtowns have changed. People have changed. Kids have changed. With those changes, good and bad, businesses and families and people have had to adapt.

I was heading back to the office the other night when I got caught up in the “protest cruise” through downtown Whiteville. It was frustrating, especially when I was trapped – twice — under a red light blocking an intersection. At the same time, I understand a desire for one’s children to be able to enjoy some of the same activities that one enjoyed at the same age.

I sincerely doubt any modern downtown can handle the cruising that was popular when I was a cruiser; at the same time, I think there is a way to find a balance between the needs of businesses, property owners and the non-cruising public and those who want to help a new generation create their own memories of glory days.

If Whiteville – or any other town that once was a destination for young people wanting to see and be seen – is to see a return of cruising, the tradition will have to be tweaked to fit into the modern community. Whether one cares for this little fact or not is beside the point. There are a lot of things I don’t like, but if I choose to live in society with other folks, I have to make some adjustments. One doesn’t have to compromise the core to get along with everyone else, and that applies to virtually everything in life that I’ve encountered. Your mileage may vary.

At the same time, if properly handled and embraced, I could see where cruising could become an economic boom for many downtowns. Perhaps not as much as proponents think, but far more than detractors claim.

While I would never participate, I’d love to see a time when those folks the age of my nieces and nephews could enjoy an evening driving back and forth (or parking) along the main drag of their preferred small town, enjoying ice cream or a burger, showing off their cars and trucks, making new friends and just being kids.

At the same time, we need parents, leaders and friends to find a way to make sure the burger shop doesn’t get burned down, and that broken bottles don’t flatten the tires of other folks who also love their downtowns.

I truly think there is some middle ground somewhere, and there’s no need for the principals involved to take their fight to the dirt road outside of town to settle the issue, either literally or metaphorically.

After all – that’s the type of behavior we should only expect from the people our parents warned us about, and who wants to hang out with that crowd on a Saturday night?

That’s what my mom and dad taught me, anyway.

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