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  • Smash Palace—Model Four Hundred
  • Michael Coles (bio)

My eyes get lost in a matrix of muscular hips and curvature whilewandering through cemetery-like rows of timepieces. Model As and Model Ts lean and crumble on one another. Wooden spokes pop out of rusted rims. I am immersed in a stew of throwaways—Mercury Montclair, Pinto Runabout, Plymouth Cambridge, a blown out lawnmower, a broken washer, and a chunk of firewood.

Jackrabbit bounces down a line of fenders as mountain air wisps through overgrown grass on this hillside outside Butte, Montana. Entire spans of American automobile-making in this graveyard are enough to induce a nomadic trance. Yet, amidst this jumble, one particular artifact emits sparks more than others. It seduces the lens of a camera.

"No drama, take it for what it is—just another beater," I say to myself.

But I remain transfixed by this still machine. Its very sight seems a coronation of a smash palace.

"Packard 54–55?" (a speculation of the car's exact year) is scrawled beneath a back windshield rippling in cracked spider-web patterns. A hip of the car reads "Model Four Hundred." Tires are heaped on top of the hood, and typography is bleached out by years of cold rain and snow. An array of scratches and assorted dents are embedded in blotches of faded color. Bruises and slights absorbed over time start to add up and mesmerize.

Packard's advertising slogan once rang, "ASK THE MAN WHO OWNS ONE." Czars, rajahs, kings, and presidents rode in Packards. Milt Taylor, a star clown for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, drove a special edition. Poncho Villa was a Packard customer. According to Packard lore, Czar Nicholas drove a Twin Six with its front wheels substituted by skis. Perhaps a gangster out of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest drove this Model Four Hundred down Mercury Street in Butte. [End Page 139]

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Figure 1.

I gaze at the silver winged-bird hood ornament. Down below, an emblem remains lodged in the radiator grill, displaying a coat of arms originating from the old English Packard family who came to America in 1638. This coat of arms has been described as "gules, a cross lozengy between four roses argent" and "a pelican in her piety, pricking blood from her breast to feed her young."

Back in a dark room I gently roll a 48-ounce film canister half-full of developer on a countertop. One reel of Kodak Techpan film is suspended in the center between empty reels on either side serving as spacers. Kodak Techpan has recently been discontinued. I guess there is not enough interest for slow-speed, fine-grain emulsions in a digital age. A radio plays music as I hope something might come out of these frames I am developing.

Staring through a film loupe at negatives, I return to this auto boneyard. The city of Butte lies across Interstate 90 from this quiet hillside of swaying grass. Mining escarpments hover in the distance, resembling a lunarscape. Wallace Stegner once described the town dump of his childhood as a "kitchen midden of civilization." This field of cars seems such a stowaway.

My eyes become locked in the passageway of the loupe and the mind revisits. Thrusts, juts, and sharp corners of these cars offer a cubist smorgasbord. How does one make sense of all the names and shapes, the strange memories that they can trigger? "We learn to see before we talk or write," I tell myself. [End Page 140]

Junkyards can serve as wellsprings for unremembered pasts. "America, that surreal country, is full of found objects. Our junk has become art. Our junk has become history," the critic Susan Sontag proclaimed.

Photography is often a solitary effort. If I do not photograph alone, I will not arrive at certain places or follow hunches that lead to immersion in a particular environment. Images turn out different when I am shooting alongside other photographers. And so I stand awestruck on an October afternoon, my eyes sparked by generations of twisted, mangled, and smashed automotives—an affirmation of our relentless determination to replace, rebuild, and regenerate...


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pp. 139-141
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