CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At 79, John Gilbert just bought a snazzy, customized high-performance Chevy Camaro. The speedometer stops at 180 (probably a very good thing).
"I have a need for speed," he said.
He grew up poor in a coal community in Cabin Creek, did two four-year terms in the Marines and discovered the excitement of car racing after a trip to a drag strip in Winfield in the late 1950s.
He started racing with a new 1960 Chevy, bought one Corvette after another, went to hundreds of NASCAR races and spent thousands of dollars on Dale Earnhardt paraphernalia. He saw Earnhardt hit the wall that fateful day at Daytona.
Faced with his ex-wife's family-or-racing ultimatum, he surrendered. Sort of. Now, he feeds that insatiable need for speed with "hot street machines" like his spanking new Camaro.
Once a gearhead, always a gearhead.
"I was born near the head of Cabin Creek in a community called Laing. My dad was a coal miner for 44 years. I was the oldest of five boys. As the oldest, my mother made me the domestic in the family.
"It was so hardscrabble in those days up on Cabin Creek that you never took time to think about your future. We never had any idea whatsoever that we would ever get an education beyond junior high.
"We were poor as church mice. When school was out in the spring, our mother required us to take our shoes off, and we wore no shoes during the summer. Come fall, we would start with the shoes we completed with in the spring. Somewhere between the start of school and Christmas, we would get a new pair of boots for school and bib overalls.
"We had no automobile. My dad actually got arrested by the revenuers for running moonshine up Cabin Creek. His license was suspended for life.
"I didn't have a driver's license until I went in the Marine Corps in 1951. In the Marines, I was not associated in any way with transportation. Evidently it was inborn in me, what speed and sound and a racing motor can do for your psyche.
"When I became 17, about three months from high school graduation, a recruiter kept coming up to the old East Bank High School and insisting that we go in. They needed people in Korea. I finally relented. I passed the physical even though I weighed only 105 pounds, the minimum weight.
"I knew my mother would never sign my enlistment papers. I told my dad what was going on. I had the papers in my underwear. He reminded me there was a war going on.
"I told him I didn't want to be addicted to the coal mine. It was against his better judgment, but he signed for my mother and him."
"I was in the infantry, a grunt. I was in the Marine Corps for eight years, two four-year active duty enlistments.
"You could enlist for four years then get released and become a member of the active reserves. I decided to stay full time. The military fit my MO.
"My mother taught me how to keep house and cook and sew. The professional drill instructors think they're tough. They should have met my mother.
"I was all over the world as a Marine security guard. I did two tours with the Sixth Fleet.
"I was in Korea 17 months. I decided to get out while the getting was good. Vietnam was on the horizon, and I would be right out front with some infantry company.
"Within a year, I got married and moved into an apartment near Lock Six. On a sunny September day, a guy there asked if I wanted to go to a drag race. I said, 'Drag race? What's that?'
"There was a little drag strip at Winfield. That day, there were two '59 Chevrolets. Those two Chevrolets just cleaned everybody's plow. They ended up with the trophies.
"On the way home, I told him I had to get one of those '59 Chevys. I went to Landers Chevrolet in Hurricane. It was too late for a '59, but they ordered me a 1960 Bel-Air two-door hardtop with a 348-cubic-inch motor and a 4-speed transmission, and I turned it into a race car.