Suicide Note‎ > ‎Volume 1‎ > ‎

7. Four-Wheeled Friends

    My father, born and brought up in the hills of Kentucky, once told me a story of how he had paused at a creek that crossed a back road and had to be forded by car.  My Dad drove a Dodge.  In fact he courted my sixteen-year old mother in that car.  I was known after their marriage as The Little Dodge.  The creek was up, so my father got out of his car and stood looking at the rushing water, thinking about the chance.  Up came a guy on the other side in a Model T.  He also got out and took a look.  My Dad called to him, “What’s wrong?  Can’t you Ford it?”

    “Maybe I can’t,” said the man.  “And, by God, you can’t Dodge it either.”

    Dad got a kick out of repeating that story.  That happened in the roaring 1920s; the brands of cars had become part of American life.

    Recently I acquired a Red Tiger, with recently referring to the tag end of 2013 during the holidays.  My Si Civic, arrest-me red, with a gear stick and an engine demanding premium gas only, satisfied an elder attitude toward time running out.  I picked up the Tiger as an impulse purchase while visiting a car dealer in a snow storm.  The Tiger and I formed an immediate comradeship, the first I have ever had with an automobile.  When in my twenties, I had thought of cars as machines for transport from A to B, nothing more.  The more I have thought of the ones I have owned, the more I know they were each a friend of sort.  Remembering them remembers various times of life.

    I was older than most males to own a first car.  I went into the Navy as a teenager (seventeen) and could scarcely afford a bicycle, much less an automobile.  When I returned, I was concerned with the GI Bill and education, skimping by on a pittance, still unable to think of four wheels.  I was the eternal pedestrian who waited on streetcars or buses and could not afford girlfriends.  I always had books with me and my mind on the higher learning.  Cars were for people more into the daily world than I had time for.

    In the depression, my blue-collar family had no automobile.  My stepfather was a worker hero that kept cheap food on the table for me and my three maternal brothers.  Things like telephones and autos were foreign to us.  Late in the primary grades and into junior high school, I was always aware that we lived in a rundown red brick next to a junkyard.  It was from separation, divorce, and the commercial abilities of a working mother that finally brought the automobile and the telephone into my common experience.

    My first car was the Blue Lady, a working panel truck designed to haul things for a truck stop on the Dixie Highway a few miles north of Georgetown, Kentucky.  It was the machine in which I learned to drive without a driver’s license.  I got to drive the kitchen help home or pick up supplies from town.  It was a 1939 Chevrolet, or so honored by an untrustworthy memory of anything but the gear stick and the way it handled.  I am sure it was not a Ford or a Dodge.  I was driving it in my last year before the Navy.  Our lives are inaccurately remembered fragments strung together like dime store beads that we pretend are jewelry.  Or at least I have found it so as I reach back to that Blue Panel early in WWII. She came and went through my life’s narrative sometime later than “Twenty-one Dollars a Day Once a Month,” but surely concurrent with the Andrew Sisters’ friend, the bugle boy of Company B.  I can tell time in my memory by the heydays of popular songs.  From the Blue Panel, I learned dozens of driving tricks, such as how to hold a car on a steep hill while waiting for the light to change, using the clutch just so.  A lot of people in Georgetown knew that blue machine by sight.  It had the name of Mom’s truck stop emblazoned in yellow on its side.

    I would be already married and lost to great adventure by the time in my twenties that I owned a trashy Nash.  The door lining flapped loose and seats could be reclined flat to sleep on, or as I suspected to have sex.  I wondered how that worked as a selling point among the young parkers in the dark.  I was ashamed of that trashy car.  She was never ashamed of me and took me to work across the bridges into Ohio and far out to the sales office of the Gulf Refining Company where I worked as an unhappy accounting clerk doing payrolls and cost reports.  I could race tapes nine yards long through a ten-key adding machine.  My dancing fingers made not a single mistake in the whole nine yards.  Now and then my mind would go blank and I would pretend to be busy, opening and closing desk drawers meaninglessly and glimpsing out the window toward freedom and that trashy Nash.  It was miserable, that job and that car.  The only great fun was going out with the Catholics on Friday to feast on fish or playing chess during the brown bag lunch hour.  I beat one of the accounts more than twenty times in a row, telling him finally, “Look, Ted, I think I have figured out what is wrong with your game.”

    “Really?  What?”

    “You’re stupid.”

    The hard working crew in that office were good people that I liked. To this day, I remember each face and character.  I was just a square peg among them.  By the time Adlai Stevenson ran for President, a crazy machine had come into my life worth remembering, a castoff yellow and black roadster with worn-out upholstery and a gaudy spotlight.  I festooned it with Adlai Stevenson bumper stickers front and back that I would not remove even after he had lost.  It was much remarked upon by my fellow workers at Gulf who voted for Eisenhower except for two or three that kept quiet about their ballot and whispered admiration to me for the nerve of my political bumper stickers on an outrageous car.  For all that it was a Buick.

    My first real car was a straight-eight Pontiac coupe in good condition.  Because of a more than comely girl in Los Angeles, I made several runs from Kentucky to California and back, all but once driving while alone the entire round trips.  A non-smoker, I smoked Marlboros and drank old-fashioned cokes to stay awake on the road for twenty hours at a time.  My worst offence was a trip from Hollywood to Covington (a town across the river from Cincinnati) without once stopping anywhere to sleep because I could not afford a motel.  I should have been arrested as a menace to life. Toward the end of the trip I was hallucinating.  The Pontiac was amazingly reliable on those long, long road trips that went through the center of cities before the Eisenhower network.  I discover the Turner Turnpike as a revelation of the kind of highways yet to come.  Only once did the old car let me down with a carburetor problem that kept me pausing over and over along the road until I got it fixed in Mountain Air, New Mexico, on a Sunday.  I fit that car like the imaginary glove in the imaginary hand (well before the famous glove of Orange Juice Simpson, too bloody to fit). The Pontiac was Old Reliable.  I even took it with me to graduate school in Boulder Colorado where it died a slow death from neglect and was towed away for junk. That left me feeling like a traitor to a car in which the relationship had become somehow personal.

    When I became a professor at the assistant level with pay to match, I acquired as a family castoff another Pontiac, this one with my first car air conditioner, working OK but added on as somebody’s second thought.  She was big gas guzzler with fins, not thought well of by my students, who laughed at it.  I got it cheap and it was all I could afford.  I drove it to and fro from the Champlain Valley to the Ohio Valley on thousand-mile jaunts many times.  Toward the end of its career, I took it to Colorado and Montana, a trip it made complainingly, like the unloved bimbo she was. I continued to drive it until it was a junk heap that could not pass safety inspection.  I gave it away gladly when heading to Europe for a year of wandering happily carless there.  The only emotion I felt about losing her rusting dilapidation was relief.  I had simply exploited her friendship.  Upon returning from the wandering year in Europe, I bought my first new car, brand new, a 1973 Buick sedan.

    The other cars had been hard to start in cold weather and were short on battery life.  Now with power brakes and power steering and a decently conservative car to look at, I had a dull and happy car marriage that went on for ten smooth years.  We sometimes argued with one another in the snows of the Champlain Valley where her backwheel drive would slip and slide.  Otherwise peace.  Unfortunately, she grew old faster than I did.  So I wronged her.  The most exciting moment she gave me was on a trip to Boston. At a roadside restaurant, I turned the driving over to a lovely companion unacquainted with power brakes. I warned her that the brakes would stop the car on a dime.  I had a cup of coffee set up in front of me.  Backing up, the driver touched the brake and threw coffee all over my best suit, crotch and all.  She was not McDonald, so I could not sue her.  That scalded crotch was the most memorable moment in my life with that sweet easy going Buick.

    On my next stay in Europe, mainly Germany for a year, I made close friends with a working class Audi, who lasted as well as she could all over Europe, France, and Spain, breaking down just as I was leaving to go home, possibly upset that I would leave her.  She waited however to begin her whining with the next owner.  I was always grateful at how well she held up in the numerous jaunts, some trips a thousand miles at a time, sometimes in obscure places where there was no English.  She was nice to me.

    They say one should not speak ill of the dead but I came home from Europe to a bitch of a Toyota that I called my toy auto. Her door locks and hatch locks were always jamming.  Her floor rusted out from road salt amazingly soon until I could almost feel the road beneath my feet. Natives call the New York edge of Canada the North Country. That confuses the Canadians for whom it is the South Country.  The summers there are one tall blue queen after another, a cool place to live as compensation for its icebox winters.  I mistakenly thought I would not need an air conditioner in an ice box.  I made the cheapskate decision to do without one.  The Toyota’s malice kept me sweltering through the summers and driving with the windows open.  Once three souls from my relatives came up from the deep South on a visit.  My toy auto and I showed them all over the cool North Country, crowding them and sweating them down to their underwear until they longed for Georgia.

    Next I tried a ménage à trois with a pretty little red Saturn and a dowager Civic, neither of which ever gave me a bad moment.  The only untoward incident happened at the back of a hurricane named Iris. As I was steadying myself next to my dowager Civic, an elm tree tossed a limb twenty yards through the air, missing me so closely I had to duck.  It put a dent in that faultless friend.  Soon after that, I left the happy ménage à trois for the sake of the Red Tiger.

    At last I had a car that I did not think of as she.  Here was a comrade and a fellow soldier.  I joined up with him in a snowstorm.  He took his first weeks of mud and salt and ice like a man.  His dashboard was a brotherly dream.  His gear shift had had hard silvery knobs that talked to my hand.  His foot brake and his clutch were shining steel.  His engine growled in reply to my boot and his spoiler shaped the wind.  He said to me, “Let’s go to Hell and back.”  I knew we would.