“Living a Life in Cars” as it appears in the 2020 issue of Oyster River Pages

I am eight and experiencing the first of many traumas in my father’s old Pontiac. In a family night trip to visit relatives at Christmas, Dad slams into a deer, throwing my sister and me to the floor in back, leaving us bruised and frightened.  The second trauma months later is more serious. Again in my father’s Pontiac, this time returning from an autumn foliage excursion, Mom implies my father is failing as a beer salesman. She starts the argument by saying she’s having trouble paying the bills.https://www.oysterriverpages.com/living-a-life-in-cars

The rationales for spending or not spending escalate until Dad’s shoulders jerk back. “So you’re saying it’s my fault then. So you’re saying it’s all my fault. Okay. If I’m such a failure, then I see no point in living. I’m going to kill us all.” And then Dad jams the gas pedal to the floor and rockets our old Pontiac down the road until the steering wheel shimmies. I try to comfort my whimpering sister by saying he’s just trying to scare us. Ultimately he lets up on the gas, deciding he doesn’t want to die after all. Riding in a car with a crazy man makes me an anxious child with an indelible memory.

A few rocky years later my father buys a Studebaker. Vanilla-colored with white-wall tires. It has a shiny cone-shaped front that makes it appear he is driving a rocket. When the snow arrives, my father can’t drive the Studebaker up any hill in town without getting stuck. No matter how fast he starts at the base of the hill, the car’s rear end fish-tails like crazy by the middle of the hill, causing my sisters and me to cling to the back seat as if we are riding the whip at the county fair. Then the car smashes into a snow bank, shooting a white tornado into the air. As he spins the tires and tries to back the rocket-nose Studebaker out of the snow bank, he swears as though life is against him. He tells us kids to shut up when we comment about the folly of this vehicle. He insists that Mom get out and push while he spins the tires.

Just before I turn sixteen, when I will be old enough for a driver’s license, I take my high school driver’s education class, during which Lizzy Fulghum lets go of the steering wheel and screams half-way through a turn. Like others in the back seat, I brace myself for the crash. Mister Hazen slams down on his set of brakes from the passenger’s side. The next time Mister Hazen pushes his set of brakes, I’m driving down a snow-covered hill. He sends the car into a skid deliberately. I turn the wheel slowly one way and then the other until the car is straight again. I’m ready to get my driver’s license.

My father makes it clear I won’t be driving his Studebaker. So, by default, I’ll drive Mom’s old Dodge. I don’t care what I drive. I just dream about the day when I can stick keys in the ignition and drive down the road. When I finally do that, the snow banks are still high on the sides of our snow-slick country road. On a straightaway, I jam the brakes and yank the steering wheel hard left, causing the car to spin until it hits the snow bank. Each time I repeat these spins, I feel an astonishing exhilaration that is crazier even than learning how to French kiss weeks earlier on a double date in my friend Stuart’s car with a stick of girl named Sweetie Pie, who told us a French kiss was “an upper persuasion for a lower invasion.”

My father keeps the Studebaker until my parents divorce during my senior year in high school. His next wife makes him buy a practical Ford station wagon.

My first car is a dirty-white Oldsmobile with a missing front grill that exposes the radiator. I buy it for $115 at a used-car lot in Lansing, Michigan, because it has a Michigan State University faculty sticker on the rear window, allowing me to park anywhere on campus. And with wheels, I can move from the dormitory into a ranch house with a couple fellow engineering students. I am a twenty-two-year-old transfer from Annapolis.

Weeks later in the Holiday Inn kitchen where I work off campus, Norman the cook sets me up with a blind date. One evening after making out at a drive-in movie, this nineteen-year-old waitress removes her clothes, folds them in her lap, and sits quietly while I drive toward the ranch house. Her motivation may be the summer heat, even though the car windows are open and a night breeze is blowing in. Having escaped the monastic Annapolis existence the previous year, I am naïve about uninhibited women with exhibitionist tendencies. In fact, it’s really a dangerous distraction if, like me, you’re trying to concentrate on the road. Even though it’s a rural road where pheasants fly up sometimes, I worry that some Michigan state trooper is out there, just waiting for a naked woman to go flying by. I don’t even know if it’s legal or illegal to transport a naked woman.

By the end of the following summer, I have somehow managed to graduate with a BS in mechanical engineering despite the myriad distractions of college life. But the Oldsmobile’s steering wheel doesn’t turn the car to the right anymore. So I drive it from East Lansing to a junkyard in Lansing by making only left turns. The junkyard gives me fifteen dollars for the car.

I fly to Detroit then with considerable optimism about my future. However, as a trainee with IBM, I visit a new car showroom and purchase a red British sports car called a Triumph Spitfire, even though the training managers have suggested its future sales engineers should purchase General Motors cars (we might have to take a GM customer to lunch). I suppose it is partly the foreign car purchase and partly my indifference to punch card machines that leads to my expedited demise at IBM. After returning home to New Hampshire, I soon find a job troubleshooting water purification equipment for a Boston company while flying to exotic cities like Buffalo and Omaha. I’ve always dreamed of having a beautiful woman next to me in the red Spitfire, the top down, the wind blowing our hair. When that eventually happens, the beautiful woman decides riding in a sports car is stupid if it doesn’t lead to marriage. We begin arguing in the car, which reminds me of my parents. Eight months after we part, I quit my job, sell the sports car to a high school kid, and fly to Europe, embarking on a one-year road trip that includes staying initially with my German pen pal and her family and then traveling by train to the Volkswagen factory to pickup of the new VW Super Beetle that I’d ordered through the Europe by Car organization.

After leaving Germany, I often give rides to young students traveling in pairs. From Athens I transport two Oxford University women through Greece and over a mountain range to Dubrovnik. Along the way these British women request toilet facilities where there are none, causing me to worry that bumpy roads and their refusal to pee in the bushes will injure their urinary tracts and possibly damage my car.

Then there are those with larger problems. On the French Riviera I spend time with a young Danish woman who struggles with depression and tried to kill herself at fifteen, when she became pregnant by a disingenuous older boyfriend and her stepmother kicked her out of the house. In Munich it is a German mother who’d had an emotional breakdown when her husband said the scratches on his back were from “a real woman.” In London I drive the MINI Cooper of a Quantas airline pilot who seems a nervous wreck from simultaneous relationships with too many women in England and Australia.

Perhaps the most enigmatic individual lives in Dubrovnik — a volatile Robin Hood character named Misha, who borrows my VW to transport stolen building material and side-swipes a tourist bus, crunching the left front fender.

After I ship the VW back home, the damaged fender becomes a conversation piece, and at a singles nightclub, I bump into the same sophisticated Boston woman who’d ridden in the Spitfire. Although she owns a red Ford Mustang, she doesn’t mind riding in a battered VW as long as it leads to marriage. Two years after our wedding, we move from our Boston apartment to my abandoned childhood house in New Hampshire, where I give the VW to a neighborhood kid because the head gasket leaks and my love for a car with 90,000 hard miles has faded.

We are living for a couple years in the house of my childhood ghosts, while I try to sustain a writing career. I object to bad problems in our marriage. My wife and I split up. She drives her new Ford Pinto out west with a dog named Droopy, and, at age thirty-five, I’m left with a friendly beagle named Pupper, a balky typewriter, and a three-speed bicycle. No car. My recently published YA novel provides little impetus for another book. As writers block sets in, I talk mostly to the dog. I think perhaps I need to get out of the house.

So I ride the bike four hilly miles to the local inn and get a job there, doing work like cleaning the swimming pool and eventually tending the front desk, the bar, and even subbing as the chambermaid. I ride the bike all summer until the inn’s owner sells me a Ford station wagon that has so much rust as to imply that a multitude of crazy people probably oxidized while riding in it. The inn is where I met the future next wife, and we sometimes go skiing with our skis in the back of the big Ford wagon. She is driving a faded VW Beatle.

By the time I leave the inn for a better-paying job as a magazine editor, the Ford wagon has too much rust to pass inspection again. So I sell it to a kid who wants the car’s 350 hp engine, and I buy a new Fiat 128. It’s a peppy, dark blue sedan that feels almost racy but is designed to ultimately set itself on fire. Some crazy Italian designers have installed a cooling fan near the engine, which can switch itself on an off as needed, and they’ve mounted the spare tire in front over the engine. The new Fiat takes the future wife and me on a camping trip out west, including a sputtering and stalling ride to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado (no carburetor adjustment for the thin air), a stop in San Francisco to visit my cousin, and a drive up the coast to Vancouver Island to visit my sister and her husband, who is flying a logging helicopter. But the following summer there is a slight gasoline smell from the engine, and as I drive through town one day, there is a small pop, the car slows to a stop, and flames rise through the air vent in front of windshield. I jump out and run away, forgetting my most recent manuscript.  I should let the novel burn, but I run back for it and watch at a distance as flames eat into the tire mounted above the engine, causing the largest black plume of smoke the town has ever seen. The cooling fan in the Italian engine has kicked on with a little spark. Leaky carburetor, a little spark, and voilá. The local volunteer firemen chuckle and advise me to buy an American car.

So after moving to Massachusetts temporarily while the future wife works on her master’s degree in Occupational Therapy at Boston University, we buy a new Chevy Chevette hatchback and turn in her old VW Beetle. As a low-budget purchase, the Chevette comes without air-conditioning and with a pea-size hole in the rear wheel well, allowing the tire to spin rain water through the little hole into the back-seat area. When I tell the dealer about it, he says they will spray some crap under the wheel well to seal it. But the hole is still there after the spraying and, hating confrontations with auto dealers, I find some goop at a hardware store and stick it in the hole. But while the spitting hole was temporary, the black vinyl upholstery is permanent, making the car a hot box in sunny weather and causing Pupper to pant and drool each time he has to travel with us.

Our marriage takes place on a drive-up mountain six years after our first meeting, with some flat-landers from Ohio being antsy about driving their cars up and down. Our son is born six years later, after we move back to my run-down boyhood house. We still have the rusting Chevette, but my technical writing career raises our financial status to the degree of affording a new Toyota Camry wagon in which to drive the baby home from the hospital. And because the Chevette has a badly rusted shock absorber mount that is close to breaking through the fender on the next bump and sending me to my death in some deep ravine, I take advantage of a dealer who says you can tow any old junk into their establishment for a couple thousand dollars trade-in on a “fleet” Mitsubishi Mirage that has only 11,000 miles on it and will never set itself on fire.

The Camry wagon is the family vehicle in which the infant boy, strapped into his car seat with books, stuffed animals, and a snack bag, hollers periodically, “When are we gonna be there?” The repetition of this question hundreds of times within the confines of the vehicle feels like God’s threshold test on the road too long. As if on autopilot, the Camry wagon screeches into every rest area so that the boy can speed across its terrain. Then one of us straps him in again. He seemed incredulous that each rest area is not the journey’s end.

A few years later, while returning from one of his baseball games in my silver Mirage and noticing that the engine area is steaming, the boy asks if the car is going to blow up. I say no, that the car probably just needs a new water pump, but as soon as I bring the car to a safe stop, the boy jumps out as if he doesn’t believe me. At 170,000 miles, the Mirage is my trade-in to a grumpy dealer for a new Honda Accord.

When the Camry eclipses 200,000 miles, we donate it to an outfit that collects old cars to support the Special Olympics. Its replacement is a new Honda Odyssey van, the vehicle that eventually pulls a small trailer to transport the boy’s Kawasaki dirt bike to local motocross races. Race time with the boy is when my wife and I most question our sanity and competence as parents.

When the boy acquires a motor vehicle license, it is the Honda van that he drives alone for the first time to an evening high school function. As he pulls out of the driveway, my wife and I wave to him from the window, fighting queasy stomachs because he’ll be returning after dark. My wife puts her arm around me and says, “Our little boy is growing up.”

“I don’t want to think about it,” I say, remembering when I first got my license, I deliberately spun my mother’s car on this same country road to feel the thrill of crashing into high snow banks. I hope the boy will satisfy his need for thrills through the controlled environment of his dirt bike racing. If so, he’ll have no need to use a car as a means to that end.

The boy’s first vehicle is a Toyota Tacoma truck that he uses as part of his high school senior project, designing and installing a dashboard computer system that will play his recorded music at the touch of a button. Subsequently, he drives the truck from home to a local college and to dirt bike races for four years.

We drive mostly olderToyotas now — Camry, RAV4, and Tundra. The boy’s 10-year-old BMW Z3 convertible is a bargain used-car purchase that he says can be a mild-weather car and uses less gas than his big truck. Now an adult software engineer employed by a prestigious company, he also owns a Mazda race car that he runs at various speedways with an abandon not meant for the eyes and ears of aging parents.

I drive my 98-year-old mother each Tuesday afternoon in my Camry for a grocery shopping excursion. Though her eyesight is poor, she still runs her own house and steers her own shopping cart along the route of semi-independence while I shop for my family’s food. While riding with me, she tests her eyes by attempting to read bumper stickers on the car ahead. One day she squints at the tail of an SUV and says, “I like that one. ‘I don’t brake for Yankee fans.’” Then she cackle-laughs all the way to the supermarket, sounding as if she is some demented old lady who believes life is actually funny.  As her sole caretaker for ten years, I know life is less about comedy and more about endurance. Although comedy helps.

Mom dies six months after her 100th birthday. I miss the cackling old lady who used to ride with me.

In September I become nervous about teetering on the edge of a Grand Mesa cliff in Colorado. My brother-in-law is driving us up a narrow mountain road with no guard rails to protect us from plunging into a deep ravine. His left hand holds the steering wheel of his old SUV, and the right hand, a cup of coffee. Occasionally he looks out across the ravine to point out some scenic wonder to my wife, who is in the front with him. My sister and I are in back, tensing up. In the novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, the author says, “They say your car goes where your eyes go.” Our car is drifting. My sister shouts. But a long career as a helicopter pilot has rendered him almost deaf. When he finally hears her, he turns his head and says, “What?” After a steep, winding descent from the mesa, we relieve our anxiety by soaking in the Ouray hot springs.

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