The Course to the Horizon


First Prize winner of the 16th Annual Geist Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest

We were fast men and the media loved us: John Cobb and me, George E.T. Eyston, friendly rivals and fellow Brits, racing across the American salt. At dawn, we gathered near the silver tent and took turns with the binoculars, inspecting the mountains that looked blue, though we knew they were brown and would show it when the sun was high. Everything was illusion at the Salt Flats: what looked like snow was salt. What looked like a scurrying lizard was the sleekest, fastest car in the world.

I watched from the tent as eight men carried the shell of Cobb’s Railton Special. It looked like one of those Chinese dragons that dance in parades, a dragon from the future walking on a million human legs. The crew lowered the shell carefully over the frame, over Cobb himself who was sitting in the seat wearing his goggles and hood. My own car, the Thunderbolt, was heavier, but more powerful. It looked like a blowfish with bulging eyes, an open mouth for air intake, and a fin to keep it steady. I loved the focus that driving demanded. My attention narrowed to the black line that marked my course to the horizon.

By midday the salt rose like fog in the wake of our tires. Cobb broke my land speed record that day, but I broke his the next. I hit 357.5 miles per hour, but a year later, in 1939, he took the record back, and then there was the war, and we all stopped racing for a time.

The next time Cobb broke the land speed record was in 1947: 394.19 miles per hour. I was home in London then, a man with a wife and daughters, a man who had seen two wars, a tired man with a paunch. My Thunderbolt was on display in a New Zealand museum, and then it burned up in a warehouse fire, poor girl. But Cobb kept on. He broke my record and came home to London triumphant, married a woman named Glass, and turned his attention to the water, seeking new types of speed.

Every day for six weeks, he drove his speedboat on Loch Ness. I was there on the day the Queen came and shook his hand and wished him well, for we were friends, John Cobb and me. And I was there, too, on the day he drove his boat to 240 miles per hour. I was one of the crew, holding a clipboard, the competitions manager, standing on shore beside Cobb’s wife who leaned down and kissed him before he fired up the engine. But the water was not as smooth as it appeared. The boat hit a wake and disintegrated in a puff. What looked like a water bug, what looked like an ice skate, what looked like a fishing lure or a lightning bolt or a flimsy piece of tin, was a man airborne, a man flying free, the body of the world’s fastest man.



Shena McAuliffe is the author of a novel, The Good Echo, and a collection of essays, Glass, Light, Electricity. She is an Assistant Professor at Union College in Schenectady, New York.


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