Rescues, weddings, and running away.
Each night during the early 1980s, a pimped-out, maroon and white 1971 Ford Thunderbird with six antennas and fluorescent neon lights that illuminated over-sized tailfins cruised the streets of Birmingham. The contraption was customized to resemble the Batmobile, complete with the Caped Crusader’s bat-shaped logo. A sign on each door read: “Rescue Ship . . . Will Help Anyone In Distress.” Orange shag carpet covered the floorboards. The car’s gadgets were mostly household appliances, rather than any high-tech gear associated with the real Batmobile. A couple of television screens, a toaster, 12 audio speakers, a soda fountain dispenser, a phonograph turntable, strobe lights, a microwave oven, and a kitchen sink with running water comprised a surreal interior that recalled the high camp of Adam West’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader in the 1960s television series. The rear side panels of the car were adorned with women’s names, including each gal’s personal observation of her own sexuality: Sexy Mona, the Sex Wonder of the World; Sexy Tiffany, International Lover; and Nikecia, Sexual Dynamite.The driver of this vehicle was Willie Perry, a Good Samaritan who proudly cast himself as “Batman.” Perry spent evenings and weekends (by day he was general manager of window distributor J.F. Day & Co.) cruising streets and highways for stranded motorists in need of roadside assistance. Perry would also pick up drunks and whisk them straight home (or to other bars) without accepting so much as a dollar in compensation. The Batmobile Rescue Ship, which was once featured in an episode of the television show “That’s Incredible!,” never failed to attract attention. When the Jacksons were in town years ago rehearsing for a tour, Michael Jackson ordered his limo driver to pull over so the singer could examine the Batmobile.
With Hollywood’s current release of the film Batman Begins following closely on the heels of the springtime adventures of a runaway bride from Georgia, I couldn’t help connecting the two events by recalling my own ride in the Rescue Ship 20 years ago. A friend hailed down the Batmobile the night before my wedding and asked Perry if he’d chauffeur me to the ceremony in Pleasant Grove. At noon the next day, the Batmobile appeared at my door with lights flashing. Sporting a white crash helmet, Superfly goggles, and a solemn expression suited to the magnitude of the mission at hand, Perry reveled in his role as Batman with touching sincerity. Handing me a cherry lollipop to calm my pre-nuptial nerves, Perry pointed at a pair of stranded motorists on the interstate during our 20-minute journey, commenting, “There’s some people in trouble, but I can’t stop now. I’ll help them on the way back.” In a celebratory mode, Perry intermittently blasted his seldom-used siren as we traveled down the highway. I felt as if I were in a comic book drama en route to face one of Batman’s arch-nemeses plotting to kidnap my bride. I didn’t know then that I was actually being cast in the role of villain—The Joker.
Upon arrival at the designated wedding site, it was immediately apparent that perhaps I should have hopped a west-bound Greyhound, as the runaway bride would do 20 years later. My friends thought the Batmobile idea was hilarious. My family was not surprised, having endured my sense of humor for 30 years. My betrothed and assorted future in-laws, however, were not amused. As I entered the wedding chapel, my future ex-mother-in-law offered a Valium, no doubt believing I was unstable and in need of some temporary taming. I gallantly refused the pill, because Batman would never be high on narcotics for his wedding day.
During the exchanging of vows, I realized that my decision to get married was a big mistake. As I had observed from attending past weddings, I looked directly at my bride-to-be while reciting my portion of the vows. She, on the other hand, refused to look at me. I began to regret not accepting that Valium. All I could think about was running away. I looked away from my bride and glanced out the window, but Willie Perry was already back on the highway, rescuing travellers from flat tires and overheated engines.
Willie Perry once fulfilled the dying wish of a 100-year-old man by taking him on a Sunday afternoon drive in the Batmobile. The elderly could often count on Perry for a ride to a doctor’s appointment. His free excursions for kids at birthday parties or to McDonald’s were legendary. He always carried jumper cables and was sometimes spotted siphoning gasoline from his Batmobile into the empty tanks of stranded vehicles. Adam West would have been proud. By the end of the summer of 1985, 44-year-old Willie Perry was found lying in a garage behind his place of employment. While tinkering with his beloved Batmobile, he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A year later, I got a divorce. &