Discovering “Whirlpool” McCoy and the Island Car
To understand the Island Car, you have to understand “Whirlpool” Eddie McCoy.
The first thing you have to understand is why he is called “Whirlpool.” It seems that when he was a young man, back shortly after World War II, he was something of a hellion. A wild thing. A daredevil. A world-class taker-of-chances. The girls loved him, the guys admired him, the police were in awe of him, and the entire town of Grayling, Michigan, struggled with the legal ramifications of renaming itself Eddie McCoyville.
Or so Eddie says. I’ve been through Grayling a few times on my way to visit family, but I’ve never stopped to ask anyone about the unchanging monotony of its name.
But Eddie was apparently quite the aficionado of derring-do. He would ride his bike backward through the traffic clogging Main Street during the handful of minutes that counted as rush hour in post-WWII Grayling. He climbed the church steeple on multiple occasions, at first shinnying up the heavy cords that led to the bell mechanism and then eventually figuring out a way to boulder up the outside of the steeple and do a handstand on the tiny flat area at the top.
But his Greatest Moment, his Piece de Resistance, the Grand Climax of his teenage years in Grayling came on a hot August afternoon. Eddie and a bunch of his high-school friends were hanging out at The Cistern, which is what people in Grayling call the deep and swirling pool of water that funnels part of the Grayling River into the Grayling power-generating dam. Swimming in the river itself is no big deal; the current is strong but gentle, and there are a lot of sand bars for resting on. But swimming in The Cistern is illegal, because the current picks up enormous speed before churning through the dam and spinning the turbines inside. Anyone who swims too close to the dam would be sucked inside and chopped to bits.
So the gang was hanging out around The Cistern, playing “Bait the Cop.” For mere mortals, that meant sitting on the bank and dangling your feet in the water until Miller and Ramirez, the weekend shift of the Grayling Police Force, scowled and ordered you to withdraw. For the bolder few, it meant actually wading into the water, thereby tempting both the Cops and the Fates.
But Eddie needed to do something spectacular. His hormonal crush of the moment, Karen Franklin, was batting eyelids with George Silverson, and so Eddie knew that the time was ripe for the Stunt to End All Stunts. Stupid things are often done to impress others, but the truly incomprehensible usually involves lust.
He had been planning it for months, even to the extent of stealing a watermelon from the Grayling Supermart and using it as a crash-test dummy. And he thought he had everything worked out just right, including the Grand Opening. He needed to get everyone’s attention — including catching the eye of Grayling’s Finest — so he waited until Miller and Ramirez were just strolling into view and the Cistern-side gathering had reached a bit of a lull.
While the Boys in the group dangled feet and got their ankles wet, the Only Man Among Them (as Eddie tells it) began to climb the outside of the power-company building. It was made of ancient brick, loose and crumbling, but it had the kind of irregular surface that people sometimes think looks artsy and design-like on brick buildings. Eddie made it to the flat roof of the two-story building just as the cops were lumbering up to the base of the wall.
Then Eddie ran along the roof to the corner closest to The Cistern. He tiptoed to the edge of the building and raised his arms over his head in an Olympic pre-dive pose.
And everyone was watching. The cops. The gang. Karen Franklin. Even George Silverson, the little bastard.
Eddie held his pose for a glorious moment, and then he pushed off from the building, executing a perfect (from his own point of view) swan dive toward The Cistern. Karen screamed. The crowd gasped. Diving from that height into The Cistern was suicide, and they all knew it.
But what they didn’t know was that The Cistern has a regulator pipe, to let some of the water flow right on through without turning the turbines. It lies about six feet below the surface, on the side farthest from the building. And it’s about three feet in diameter. That’s what Eddie had figured out with the watermelon. He had dropped the melon into the water over and over again and then watched it spurt back to the surface on the downstream side of the dam.
So all Eddie had to do was make sure his dive got him a few feet away from the building, and then the current would do the rest.
He sliced into the water like a pro, leaving not a hint of a splash. (As Eddie tells it.) He shot down six feet and felt the current grab him like a spooked little kid. He barreled through the regulator pipe in an instant and tumbled out into the still water of the downstream pool, his arms raised high in triumph.
The cops charged him with reckless endangerment, attempted suicide, trespass, and creating a public nuisance. The judge eventually let him off with a stern lecture and a barely suppressed grin. His parents inflicted a harsher sentence, grounding him until long after Karen Franklin began dating George Silverson. But from that day on, people called him Whirlpool Eddie McCoy.
And now, retired from a long and tedious career in retail-sales management, rendered a widower from a charming but frail woman who was never Karen Franklin, living alone on Grand Seal Island, where he walks the harbor wearing a black pea coat over a plaid shirt and calls out the names of every ferry, fishing boat, and cruiser that churns up a wake in the straits, Whirlpool Eddie McCoy sells cars.
He buys them used — very used — from junkyards on the mainland, and then he ferries them to his lot on the island. Once they’re deposited at his yard, surrounded on all sides by a ten-foot cinderblock-and-chain-link wall that would have been helpful on Alcatraz, Eddie entrusts their overhaul to the boys taking Mr. Mitchell’s shop course at the high school in Eastport. The boys, who love the challenge and the real-world experience of stripping down engine blocks and cannibalizing five cars to build one that works, consider the cars works of art, somewhat akin to Bo’s human-assed torpedoes. The kids paint the cars with swirls of color, accented with splashes and swoops and stripes and stars and improperly spelled graffiti slogans, not devoting too much attention to the subtle distinction between metal surfaces and glass. The emergent vehicles — rolling manifestations of high-school rock bands: noisy, foul-smelling, and garish — are then offered for sale to tourists and collectors of fine art.
After less than a week of living in The Stump and walking for long stretches of time, relieved only when the mosquitoes and black flies lifted me up by the skin and gave me a bit of a respite from actually making contact with the ground, I decided that fulfilling my duties as a correspondent in the field meant that I had to have a car. Few people on the island have cars, but most people on the island either live in The Town and stay there, or they live in The Village and stay there. As one of the few oddballs who ventured back and forth across the borders, I needed some form of transportation.
So I bought a car from Whirlpool Eddie McCoy. He had three to choose from that day. To be precise, it’s the same three that he had to choose from when I arrived on GSI, and he would have had the same three cars for sale several millennia from now, except that The Sun sent me to this island to write this column and messed up the entire continuity of the universe. The candidates:
The Star Car: A black El Camino, the old kind that looks like a pickup truck rammed into the back end of a Buick. The basic black body serves as a perfect backdrop for fleets of crab nebula, spiral galaxies, and binary star systems smattered across its canvas, depicted just as you might imagine high-school freshmen would render them when limited to two colors of spray paint. The exhaust system coughs out enough dark matter to coalesce into new dimensions of interstellar mass, and the looseness of the shocks and struts suggests long use as a make-out vehicle.
The Deathmobile: I’ve seen old Kiss albums. I get the Halloween/Satan/Serpent thing. I’ve read about Alice Cooper in history books. I’m still wondering about the connection between tongues and Death, but that’s another matter.
This vehicle, a Chevy Suburban in some previous life, is Bright Red. It’s not magenta, or pink, or even Burger King red. I don’t know where they found this paint, but I’ve only ever seen this shade of red on some hookers that I accidentally walked past on the south side of Chicago and a necktie that a friend of mine once wore with a grey suit. It’s the kind of red you might see if you stared at the sunrise after a really long night of drinking and human sacrifice at Stonehenge.
Adorning this thick layer of Magic Red is a haphazard rendering of leering skulls, dripping daggers, and the crossed femurs of something clearly too short to be human. You’ve got your cobras, your radiation iconography, and your basic cheapskate coffins. If this car had bigger wheels, it would be the worst-looking entry in a monster-truck competition.
The Island Car: Azure blue, starfish, cavorting dolphins. You get the idea. One look at this car and you’d be certain that the radio would play nothing but Calypso music. Or Jimmy Buffett when he’s singing Tampico Trauma or Miss You So Badly. It’s the sort of car that has permanently sandy floormats and smells like low tide.
I’m sure that at one narrow point in history, this car maintained a modest existence as some grandmother’s sedan that got handed down through the generations. It evidently was driven most recently by some college girl whose life was governed by the flirter/flirtee cycle. Then she got into some kind of nasty accident that was definitely not caused by her decision to apply makeup, maintain a rapid-fire conversation with some close friend on her cell-phone speed-dial, and change into that absolutely killer halter top while navigating back roads and small alleys at something akin to the speed of sound, all the while understanding that traffic signs, traffic rules, and traffic cops all mush into a pool of vague suggestions for people who aren’t actually, really, young and attractive. You know?
In the aftermath of the accident, when she realized that the entire jurisprudential force of the State of Maine — not to mention her father, who would kill her if he knew she’d wrecked the car — was bearing down upon her, she shifted into wily-guile mode. She explained away the stitches-scar on her knee with some mumbled references to a mishap on the library staircase, and she told her Daddy (and the Maine State Police) that her car had been stolen — although she had secretly sold the mangled heap to a guy who then sold it to Whirlpool Eddie McCoy.
OK — all of that was a guess. But I’ll bet it’s not far from the truth. The frame on the Island Car is bent, so that with the right cross breeze you can actually get three out of the four wheels to maintain frictional contact with the pavement at any given time. Places where the paint job fell short on its coverage (imagine that!) revealed that the original color was white, with an overlay of hot pink. And I found some lipstick, an old Cosmo, and forty-three parking tickets in the glove compartment.
I bought the car for $250.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — Leonardo: Right on, Whirl! Don’t let the man push you around.
Comment — Edith5545: I’m shocked, frankly. I don’t see what any of this has to do with journalism! I’ve got half a mind to cancel my subscription!
Comment — SunTanDude: Chill, Edith. Whirlpool’s the coolest.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.