So I watched my old Jetta get towed away for good in 2016 – and it made me sadder than I expected. I mean, I know all cars die eventually. But beyond losing the only cassette deck left in my life, it felt like I’d said goodbye to a longtime friend. And it made me think of other cars that transported me and my family through the decades – of where they brought us, what they brought out in us, and of my one all-time favorite.
I’ve never been a huge car enthusiast or anything. I do watch Formula 1. And I loved getting to go on a NASCAR ride-along once! It turned out, though, to be 165 mph proof that race car drivers and Top Guns may feel a need for speed – but me? Not so much…No, if there’s a family gene for auto appreciation, it was probably most expressed in my Grandpa K. Feeling flush after many lean years, Grandpa treated himself to a Jaguar convertible. Mum says Grandma was appalled at first by this extravagance. She couldn’t set aside all those years they’d eaten oatmeal three times a day (and not because they loved oatmeal…). But eventually, and with stoic resignation, Grandma nobly resolved to try and enjoy whizzing around SoCal in such style. And I think she pulled it off! My big brother Jack also enjoyed trading up on cars as his fortunes allowed. I think for him, it was more for the procurement of proficiency than for the pride and prestige. At one point, he bought a Golf GTI which he was advised to baby for the first few thousand miles – so he promptly set off to test it on the back roads and off-roads of California’s Death Valley. Years later, on a vacation we took to Hawaii’s Big Island, Jack had to promise the car rental people not to tackle the steep, washboardy road that ground its way 13,000 feet up to the summit of Mauna Kea volcano. So guess what activity moved to the top of our list..? When it came to challenges, that was dear Jack in a nutshell (and later, an Audi). If you ever wanted to see him do something, just tell him he couldn’t do it.
I don’t really think I’ve used cars to fly in the face of advice or authority – just perhaps of common sense. Like when I inherited the family Chevette and, with no real car care knowledge, took it right out on the road.
Ah, our old Chevette! I can’t say anything bad about it – I’ll just suggest that its finest feature may have been how easy it was to spot in parking lots.The Chevette came to me with some “refinements” Dad had made over the years, including a silver racing stripe across the trunk where the metal was rusting, Velcro holding the glove box closed, a radio antenna made of a repurposed (and not entirely straightened) bucket handle, and some sort of clampy thing that kept the clutch functioning.
But I was still so proud to drive my very own wheels up to my other big brother Rich’s in Oregon, and travel with him all around the state to work on our family tree. We weren’t far into our genealogical journey, though, when Rich casually asked how long the brake lights hadn’t been working – to which I less proudly replied: “Um, what..?”
Car savvy Rich fixed the problem immediately, then taught me one of the many life lessons he imparted – to glance every so often in the rear view mirror to make sure my brake lights reflected off the car behind me. We went on to have a super (not to mention safer) time touring Dad’s home town of The Dalles, paying respects to kin resting in a hillside cemetery in Dufur, and chatting up old folks who’d actually eaten in the restaurant my great grandpa ran in Bandon in the ’20’s. And throughout our adventures, the Chevette worked just fine!
Well – after the new windshield wipers.Given my sustained lack of car knowledge, it wasn’t the most sensible choice either to take the Chevette on a solo trip from California to Missouri because of my thing for the writings of Mark Twain. Nevertheless, I spent a glorious month rambling out to, and all around, the “Show Me State” (read The Location Location Location Bit for more on this trip) and making it to within a couple hours of home before that clampy thing on the clutch popped off. (The glove box, however, did stay shut the entire trip!)
With no hesitation or admonishment, dearest Dad grabbed his red tool box and drove from the Bay Area to Placerville to perform repairs, take me to dinner and lead me home. I guess neither Dad nor Mum figured they could very well blame me for indulging a need to explore – because they knew where it came from.
It came from them.
Love of travel was among the many interests the folks shared throughout their marriage. Their honeymoon trip was a drive around upper Wisconsin in “the Green Chev” – their first car together.Within a couple years, the Green Chev would shuttle them and baby Rich to California where Dad accepted a professorship at UC Berkeley, and where by and by, they came to need a vehicle big enough to haul a family of five.
That’s the vehicle parked in the dearest space in my heart – our International Harvester Travelall.Substantial, sturdy and spacious, the Travelall was our Endeavor. It was our Beagle. Our Starship Enterprise that boldly took a young family to all parts of the country it had never gone before.
Trading his fedora for a baseball cap or cowboy hat, Dad did all the driving, sometimes all day long to make it across the country and back in whatever vacation time we had. But, from what I could see, he enjoyed clocking those miles – cruising along with his left arm out the window and his right hand on the wheel, tossing out a friendly salute here and there to any driver who granted him room on the highway to pass.
Always beside him, Mum wore many hats of her own including navigator, campsite or motel chooser, and rambunctious child wrangler. She juggled all the tour books, searched the radio for classical music or a good local football match-up, conjured up games for us kids to play, and doled out comics and treats at carefully measured intervals.
She was also on one end of the epic front seat tug-of-war over when to stop for gas. Sort of like Jiminy Cricket, Mum constantly lobbied for conscientious pit stopping while Dad was more willing to let his gut be his guide:
“About time to gas up?” / “Nope.”
A bit later:
“S’eetheart, how about the kids and I start looking for a gas station?” / “Nope.”
“S’eetheart! The needle’s on the ‘E.’ Doesn’t that mean we need gas?” / “Nope. I bet we can go another 50 miles!”
Was Dad such a gas gauge guru that he never once let the Travelall run out of fuel and strand us by the side of the road to make a game of throwing pebbles at a tin can on a fence post while we waited for rescue?
As for the back seat, there was plenty of room – but we youngsters still endlessly struggled to occupy and defend the portions of it we felt were ours. “Dickie”, “Jackie” and I didn’t need to spot a VW Beetle to play Slug Bug – slugging happened quite organically for us. Sharing, however, did not. The concept tended to be forgotten when buttons on a museum display needed pressing, or when there was only change enough to activate the “Magic Fingers” on one motel room bed. But somehow we got along.
Well – mostly.
I recall Rich’s loving to read aloud from travel guides and pamphlets as we toured every kind of natural and historical wonder throughout the country. And from age nine, Jack began developing his own visual sense by capturing moments with a camera:I was very young for most of these trips. And while I can remember details here and there, much of what I carry is just the feeling of being on the road, exploring the world as a family – and absolutely loving it!
And ohhh, the things we saw! I hope that when I’m old, as the recollection of where I leave my keys starts to dim, more details from these trips will actually bubble up. But I do hold some images in my mind. Like when Dad made a party out of a lengthy road work delay near the Grand Canyon by breaking out the camp stove for hot drinks and befriending the similarly stranded bakery truck driver just ahead. And when we rode through the night to beat triple-digit heat and saw the sun come up near Gila Bend, Arizona. And when we dined anywhere we pleased on simple fare served off the Travelall’s tailgate – the first and best food truck meals I’ve ever had.
So maybe I am a car enthusiast! Because I love those cars for enabling me to go on some of the most meaningful and cherished journeys of my life. They’re long gone now, those cars. But the mileage I get from remembering where they carried me and those I’ve loved?
Well – there’s not a dashboard long enough for the number.
Once again, Happy New Year! And may 2017 hold for you a wealth of sweet and special journeys!