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Porsche - Time Machine

Time Machine

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Guitarist Dale Miller in the 1970s, in his mid-twenties.

Vietnam, guitars, love, cancer—it’s an unusual and poignant life story from America that made its way to Germany. Yes, the story has to do with a Porsche.

Somewhere between the continents, a green fleck is floating on the vast, cold ocean. The green fleck is an old car from the 1970s, secured in an angular container on the deck of a cargo ship. The car, a classic and somewhat scratched Porsche 911 SC, was loaded on board in Los Angeles. The ship left the port of San Pedro heading south along the coast of Baja California and Central America, then carried the Porsche through the Panama Canal, and is now in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A few weeks later, that same 911 will be standing in my garage.

That is what will happen, but in that moment when the green fleck is still out on the ocean, I do not even know it exists, or that it will be headed my way. An old Porsche will land in Rotterdam, with so many years of American history in its faded paint and cracked artificial leather, with the warm music of California and memories of a war in Vietnam, the riffs of guitars, and bygone days in the White House. I still have no idea that the green fleck will soon come to my home. But a few weeks later it is here.

And when the car is in my garage, I watch a YouTube video of a dying man in my living room. He is in his late sixties, singing his last songs, strumming his guitar, and what song could be more fitting as the end nears than what he is playing, Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”? The man is so delicate and fragile, already frail, but full of music, full of melodies and a shimmering wistfulness. He is a guitarist from Berkeley, California, and when I see these last images of him on YouTube he has already passed away, but that is not yet clear to me at the moment. Ultimately, this man’s life and his green car will act as a time machine, bringing a few decades of American history to life for me.

Dale Miller is the name that I find in the old papers of the Porsche. He died of lymphatic cancer, so it was clear that I was never going to meet him. But this old car that tells his story is now parked in a garage in Munich. On the other side of the world in Berkeley, his widow, the lawyer Terry Helbush, lives in a beautiful old house in the hills that still keeps Dale’s guitars. And its basement still holds a few quarts of engine oil for the old Porsche, a car that Dale had bought used in the 1990s, when he realized he should be making a few dreams come true.

Especially when they are so green. “Olive green” is what Porsche called the car’s paint job. Dale himself said “avocado,” because it fit in better with his Californian view of the world. A view which he struggled to achieve—with his guitars, his music, and a gentle rebellion—because his father, Dale Senior, had come from a different world in America, an olive-green world, a world of uniforms. Dale Senior was an advisor to Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who inherited the problems in Vietnam from John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s—and who ended up desperately pursuing the war in Hanoi and Saigon from the White House, for years.

But how could I have known that when I saw the green Porsche for the first time at a vintage-car dealership in a Bavarian town between Munich and Augsburg? How could anyone have known that? Even Matthias Pinske, the low-key, friendly dealer who acquired the Porsche from America, had no idea what the green fleck had experienced. But he had a hunch that an avocado-hued Porsche from California would not have the most common of histories. Pinske is surely not one to believe that objects have souls, but he knows that old cars accrue layers of experience. So he advertised the Porsche as “Evergreen, a somewhat different 911.” He was quite certain of its unique qualities, before anyone was able to research them.

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The green Porsche 911 SC was already 21 years old when Dale Miller bought it in 1998.

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Lyndon B. Johnson, here still a senator, with the children of his staff—at the far left is Dale Miller.

Later, after Dale Miller had passed away, his wife Terry would tell the story of how they had driven the Porsche to Mexico, into the desert, many miles into the canyons and sandy wastelands, and how the Mexicans had ended up gathering around the green car and exclaiming “Alemania, Alemania,” or “Germany.” She would tell how Dale, the Porsche driver, would play his guitar for her, his wife, at sundown. And she would recall how she simply danced in the last rays of light upon the hills. But that story wasn’t there yet. There was still nothing more than an old Porsche in my garage, a tough old sports car that I had purchased for the price of a used Golf, just as I have always tended to buy older cars, perhaps in part because they occasionally enable you to feel how you once did in the past. I suspect that I would not have had to explain that to Dale. Nor that some objects, even if they are just a car, can carry the fleeting moments of decades within them, always and everywhere.

That evening as I watched Dale Miller sing his last songs on the YouTube video, his fingers gently strumming the strings, it was suddenly clear to me why such a good music system with Blaupunkt loudspeakers had been installed in the Porsche. I had bought the car of a guitarist, a finger picker who had been making LPs and CDs since the 1970s. Sometimes, when he drove from the studio back to his home in Berkeley, he would listen in his Porsche to a track he had just recorded. The engine of the 911 was not too loud; it had a cultivated presence and did not drown out the guitars. That was important to Dale. Late that evening I went online and ordered two CDs by Dale Miller. They had appealing titles: Fingerpicking Rags & Other Delights and Time Goes By.

I wanted to put Dale’s music into the glove compartment of the Porsche and listen to his songs on the country roads of Bavaria in the fall. That night I read everything about him that the search engines could dig up, on into the early hours of the morning. I discovered Dale’s blog. He had documented the months of his illness, his fight against cancer, in thoughts and stories. He recorded the process of dying, in poetic and humorous form; maybe he wrote in such a way because he thought the doctors could save him. He also wrote about the Porsche, which he wanted to sell because he was too weak to operate the stiff gearshift in rush hour on the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Berkeley.

He wanted to live, but the disease moved fast. Five months after the diagnosis of cancer, the blog stops. Then there is only an obituary on the Internet, clever and warm-hearted, written by a fellow guitarist, Teja Gerken, and in the last sentences of the obituary he writes about the green Porsche.

On an early fall evening I place a CD into the sound system of the Porsche. As twilight falls I take a country road to the north of Munich, rolling along in fourth gear, and the propulsion comes from the loudspeakers. Dale Miller is playing “All My Loving,” interpreting the old Beatles’ song so clearly that you would start to soar even if the car were standing still. I shift down, drift effortlessly through a curve on the tree-lined road. It is good, but also sad, because 10,000 kilometers to the west, Dale Miller’s name will once again figure large in a concert hall. A memo­rial concert is being held for him today in Berkeley; a great many musicians will share the stage, and the hall is sold out. His wife Terry still cannot believe that she has lost him, yet somehow Dale is still there, in his music, his life.

“In the last few weeks he was still driving the Porsche to the cancer clinic,” she says. “And he was playing the guitar.” She sits in her garden in Berkeley and describes how she drove the green car on Highway 1, overlooking the Pacific, from San Francisco down to Los Angeles, the car whose color always reminded her of kitchens in the 1970s. She liked that.

A small lemon tree is at her back, and the timeless strains of Neil Young waft from the house: “Keep on rockin’ in the free world!” The music is from Dale’s old iPod. Terry lets the shuffle function run; it has a lot of Bob Dylan, The Band, also the Dire Straits. At one end of the garden, toward the rear, there is a garage with a slanted wooden roof and in it a new Porsche, a black Cayman. Terry drives it nearly every day. She knows that Dale would like that too.

The message that I wrote from Munich to Terry Helbush in Berkeley on the evening of the memorial concert following my brief drive in the green fleck was a little sentimental. Terry shed a few tears. Despite that she wrote back to say that I should come to Berkeley, soon, and that she would tell Dale’s story, and her own.

Nine months after Dale’s death I landed in San Francisco on a nonstop Lufthansa flight and rented a car at the airport. On the highway I was overtaken by two Tesla sedans, fully electric, fully American, gadgets for the road. Playfulness is always part of the picture on the Pacific coast, which is why Porsche sold so many 911s in California in the 1970s. Terry had given me very precise directions on how to reach her home in Berkeley, and had also suggested where I might park, because finding a space in Berkeley is notoriously difficult. She was disarmingly friendly on opening the door.

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Love of his life: Dale Miller with his wife Terry Helbush in 1999.

“He hated Washington,” she said. His parents, from a long line of Texans, had come to the capital to work for Democratic Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. There are photos of Dale as a little boy with Johnson in Washington. The politician looks kindly, while Dale is wearing a cowboy hat and has a toy pistol in his hand. His parents were lobbyists in Washington, later also lobbyists for the Vietnam War in the White House. They sent Dale to a military school, and he knew what was coming his way. But chance came to his rescue, an incident that made a beatnik with long hair out of him instead of a Vietnam veteran with nightmares from the highlands. Dale and a few friends had ordered pizza from a delivery service to the barracks. That was a violation of the rules, so they were demoted and not allowed to fight for their country.

Nobody helped John Maloney. About 15 miles east of Terry’s garden in Berkeley, he is still working at his garage in Lafayette. The garage is called “Valhalla,” because he has been repairing Porsches there for forty years and someone thought that “Valhalla” was a sufficiently Germanic-sounding name. Maloney survived Vietnam, and when he returned to the United States in the early 1970s, he concentrated on cars, including a green Porsche that was built in 1977 and would one day belong to Dale Miller. “That horrible green; I’ll never forget it,” he remarks. In contrast to that other thing—but “let’s not talk about the war.” Then he talks about Paul Newman, to whom he once sold a Porsche, a car that was good for the racetrack.

Dale Miller never knew that John Maloney, the Vietnam vereran, had worked on his Porsche back in the 1970s and 1980s when it belonged to a physician in northern California. Miller was making music at the time and driving a taxi in San Francisco. He was a bohemian, who had to wait a while until those earning good money in the 1970s gave up their old Porsches.

“Everything was different back then,” says Terry. She didn’t have a garden, or a house in Berkeley, or a green Porsche. She was a lawyer who worked with refugees who had placed their hopes in America. Refugees from Iran, Afghanistan, and El Salvador. She managed to get residence permits for them, and made it possible for the U.S. government to give them a chance to escape the killings, revolutions, and wars in their home countries.

The 1960s and 1970s were only a vivid memory by 1998, when Dale bought the green Porsche. Terry’s work still focused on securing residence permits for newcomers to the United States, but she was now paving the way for a different set of clients and earning more in the process. Terry was assisting the nationalization process for computer programmers from India for Silicon Valley. And when she drove there, she took the Porsche because the director of the Indian software company that was contracting with Google was thrilled to drive in the green 911. Terry offered him the passenger seat when the two would go out for lunch. The software director knew the number of the Porsche’s license plate by heart.

Dale had also understood the new times. He had the Porsche maintained by Hi-Tec Auto, a garage in San Rafael in wealthy Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Dale wasn’t interested in driving the car in races, as the clients of John Maloney’s Valhalla garage would have been. Instead, he wanted the catalytic converter to work, the air-conditioning system not to hurt the atmosphere, and the car not to leak any oil; in short, he wanted his Porsche to do the right thing for Berkeley, the home of organic and farmers’ markets, and of Dale and Terry.

In this university town, Dale and Terry went out to eat at Chez Panisse every Friday evening. They left the car at home and walked when they set off for Alice Waters’s restaurant, credited with launching California cuisine, famous for being healthy, high-quality, and cool. They were always given a table at this small, fixed-menu, very popular restaurant on Shattuck Avenue. To this day, Terry just has to call and a place will be set for her that evening.

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Today the 911 SC belongs to Jochen Arntz and is parked in a Munich garage.

She sits erect at a small table and recalls the past years and what they were like when she was still working in downtown San Francisco. Sometimes she drove the Porsche to the office, and if so she set off early. Sometimes one of Dale’s guitars was still in the luggage compartment in the front. He knew exactly how to stow all of his things in the small car, such as the guitars and the amplifiers. That was how he wanted it. An old 911 was his idea of a car.

And that is the man who led hikers through the hills behind Berkeley, who showed them the most beautiful paths, the views, the forests, and who listened to Dylan every day. He wanted a lot; one of his last CDs was entitled Both of Me. He played a duet with himself on it, with two tracks, plucking a wooden guitar on one and a steel guitar on the other. Terry was earning a lot of money at the time and supporting Barack Obama.

In Marin County, where there are many people of considerable fortunes, in addition to a good number of aging hippies, Teja Gerken sits under a tree in the back courtyard of a small café. This evening he will play his guitar around the corner at a benefit concert. Gerken is a good man: he wrote the obituary for Dale Miller, organized the memorial concert for him, and spoke at the funeral service in Berkeley. Born in 1970 in the German city of Essen, Gerken was predestined to land in California, even if he never imagined becoming friends with a Porsche driver there.

Gerken’s father is a psychoanalyst who always wanted to leave Germany; he had lived in communes in the United States with his son back in the 1970s. When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in the mid-1980s, he took his son and moved from Germany to the town of Mendocino in California, 155 miles north of San Francisco. At some point Teja went to San Francisco and met Dale. “I thought, Wow, most blues guitarists don’t drive a Porsche, or wear Italian shoes, or have a weakness for unusual hats. But that was Dale,” he says. Teja immediately liked him.

As a child, Teja had toured Mexico with his father, so when Dale wanted to set off for the Mexican desert in the 911, Teja helped him find a luggage rack for the car in Germany. Easier for Teja, because he speaks German. Then Dale drove off with Terry, guitars, and luggage, sporting a light-colored hat. Teja had already recorded a new version of one of Dale’s beautiful old songs on his own CD: “Noe Valley Sunday.” That’s how California worked for them.

On my last day in Berkeley, Terry asks me whether I would like to help her clean up the basement. It could be interesting. Underneath the big house, between low brick walls, is Dale’s story, including many records still in their original packaging. There are piles of CDs, repair manuals for the Porsche, and a child’s T-shirt from the 1950s that says “If I were old enough I’d vote for Johnson.” That’s what the Miller children had to wear in Washington.

And then there’s a little primer in which Dale instructs other guitarists on the right way to handle the strings, how to get the sound out of them that his fans later describe as “warm and coaxing.” Fingers Don’t Fail Me Now is the name of one of his first records. This, too, is down in the basement, next to the Christmas decorations. Terry is keeping all of that.

When I return to Munich I go down to the garage at night and stand in front of the Porsche in the pale light. I now know which of the scratches on the green fleck come from Mexico, and which of the dents from the trash can on the driveway in Berkeley. I see the screws that a Vietnam veteran mechanic once tightened, the passenger seat that carried a programmer in Silicon Valley, and the radio on which the son of an advisor to President Johnson listened to Bob Dylan. I see the decades, and the moments. And, with all of these feelings washing over me, I sense that I’ve made a mistake. The steering wheel, I think.

When I saw Dale Miller’s old Porsche for the first time, in a town in Bavaria, I didn’t know who had driven it or where it had come from. But I knew that I didn’t like the steering wheel. It was not the original one, and it was too small. Dale had installed it because it had a good grip, which was important to him. But I had Matthias Pinske, the dealer, exchange it for an original component. Pinske sold Dale’s steering wheel to another one of his customers. They got the leather steering wheel of a Californian guitarist, the wheel that had been handled by a fingerpicker. Pinske could not remember in whose hands it is now.

Someone is now driving another old Porsche with Dale Miller’s steering wheel through Germany, mastering the curves on the road and in life. Thus the story of the green fleck continues beyond the car itself. Dale would like that: Fingers Don’t Fail Me Now.

Translation of an article published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, 2014

By Jochen Arntz
Photos Fritz Beck