Cars, Fathers, and Life

In six decades of driving, I have experienced good times and bad over hundreds of thousands of miles—road trips, traffic tickets, accidents, breakdowns, and even a Prius that threw a rod. I’ve driven everything from a ’41 Chevy truck to an Alfa Romeo, from a tracked recovery vehicle (a tow truck for tanks) in the Army to a bunch of soulless examples of either American mediocrity or Asian rice burners. Many of those experiences as well as my attitudes about vehicles have been due to my father who was a unique teacher on the subject of motor vehicles although I am sure he was not aware of his pedagogical influence at the time. Memories from my early years of driving—and particularly of him and his attitude toward cars—enrich me as I approach the age when I soon will be looking through the steering wheel, driving a safe and sane 35 everywhere, and leaving one turn signal on at all times.

I learned much about cars from my father, who by economic necessity was a shade-tree mechanic, the sort of archetypal dirt-poor Okie who could keep a car running in almost any circumstances. He believed in the parts-car theory of automobile ownership, i.e., if at all possible have a wrecked model of whatever beater vehicle he owned sitting on cinder blocks in the back yard, from which he could scavenge repair parts. As is typical of his type, he did everything himself. I recall him overhauling carburetors on the kitchen table on weekend mornings. I can still see him fixing flats by beating on a tire iron with a hammer to separate the tire from the wheel and free the inner tube (no tubeless tires for him; he was strictly a cold patch man). He changed oil himself, of course, and his idea of an oil filter wrench was a big ass screwdriver he would drive through the filter and use the protruding ends to unscrew it. You get the idea.

I sometimes helped him insert an engine back into a car after he had overhauled it, a delicate operation with the 500-pound engine suspended from a hoist connected to a sagging rafter in the garage. Had OSHA existed back then, the agency would not have viewed the arrangement favorably. The verb he used for installing an engine was “stab” as in, “Tom, I need you to help me stab that son of a bitch.” A piece of pipe in hand, I would move from one side of the car to the other prying on the engine to tweak the alignment as he raised and lowered it slightly until it mated with the transmission. After he installed the engine, he would pull the car into the back of his acre lot and then, with me behind the wheel, use another car to push it around the property. My job was to let out the clutch with the car in gear until the engine would start against the higher compression of the repaired cylinders. As cars have improved, that sort of folk knowledge has disappeared in this country, and I think we are poorer for it in a way, as well as less self-reliant. My old man was a survivor.

Sons almost always rebel in some way, and I was no exception. I don’t recall my father ever reading a book, but he could do anything with his hands—welding, masonry, electrical, plumbing, concrete, sheet metal (tin-bending as he called it, which was his paid work), and especially auto mechanics. My way of rebelling was not to learn anything about cars that he wanted to teach. After I grew up and moved away from Oklahoma, the most I ever did with any car was change the oil—when it was still possible to do so without a degree in applied mechanics.

My experience as a driver began with a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle that my father happened to own at the time. That he had a VW doesn’t make sense to me now because he was a diehard Chevy man, and it was the only foreign car he ever owned. The VW was an interesting vehicle, with a stick shift, of course, and a four-cylinder engine rated at all of 36 horsepower, but it got me around town for a couple of years in high school. In Volkswagen history, 1960 is notable because it was the last year that the company’s models did not have a gas gauge. Instead of a gauge, there was a little lever on the floorboard just to the left of the clutch pedal. When the fuel in the tank, which held about ten gallons, reached the level of one gallon remaining, the engine would begin to sputter. At that point, the driver would simply turn the lever by foot clockwise a quarter turn, opening up a lower port in the tank to allow the last gallon to flow to the engine. The system was simple and worked well enough, particularly in the outskirts of Oklahoma City where the reserve gallon was always sufficient to reach a gas station. It wasn’t foolproof, though, especially in my case. The drawback to which I was susceptible was forgetting to turn the fuel lever back to the original position after refilling the tank. I still recall the despair I would feel when the Beetle was running out of gas and I reached down with my foot to flip the lever only to realize that I had already flipped it the last time, and there was no extra gallon in reserve. Getting out of that situation in those days before cell phones and AAA was tough. Not carrying a gas can in the car, the only option was to find a way to call my old man and ask him to bring me some gas. I still wince at the memory. When he arrived, he offered some interesting counsel.

At the same time as the Volkswagen, he also owned a decade-old Ford Fairlane Victoria. He must have gotten what he thought was a good deal on the car because he had an almost pathological hatred of Fords. Despite that bias, he owned a handful of them over the years, and I can still hear him cursing the soul of Henry Ford when he worked on whichever one he had at the time. He definitely did not bleed Ford blue as fans of that make often describe themselves. The Victoria reinforced his prejudice because soon after he bought it, the car began burning oil, and he had to pull the engine and install new rings.

Unlike my father, I loved that car. It was a beautiful pale blue and white two-door hardtop with bench seats. I can still picture the elegant dashboard. Directly in front of the steering wheel was the horizontal speedometer with gauges on both sides, what is today called the “instrument cluster.” To the right came the heater control, the radio, and a clock with real hands—each of the three a circular design stylish to my high school sensibility. On the far right, the glove box cover sported the word Ford in elegant flowing script. The Victoria had a manual transmission did as most cars in those days, with the gear shift lever mounted on the steering column, an arrangement known then as “three-on-the-tree.” There was no air conditioning, but it did have 4WD50 cooling: four windows down at 50 MPH.

I used the Ford to take a girl from my class to our high school senior prom, an important rite of passage. It was our first date. I washed and waxed the car to a high sheen before picking her up at her house, meeting her father, and presenting her with the obligatory corsage. Before the prom, we had dinner at Jamal’s, a fancy steakhouse in Oklahoma City, and then went to the dance at a local college. Afterward on the way home, we stopped on a back road to make out. The term for that in 1960s Oklahoma was “parking.” Back in those antediluvian days, the way many teenagers learned about sex, at least in Oklahoma, was by parking and by going to drive-in movies. Anyhow, we were parking, having a fine time, and I was busy trying to circle the bases to home plate. I was about to reach second base when a car pulled up behind us. It was a cop. Fortunately we had just enough time to get our clothes in order when he walked up and shined a light in the window. I am sure he knew we were just teenagers making out, but the jerk wanted to hassle us and perhaps play the voyeur. Anyhow, he had me get out of the car and frisked me, the only time in my life that has happened, before telling us to get on our way. That was a disappointing end to what until then had been a fine and promising evening.

Given my family’s economic situation, I had to pay most of my way through college, which I did through scholarships, work-study employment during school, and summer jobs. Although my father did not really want me to go to college, he gave me $200 and offered to keep my car repaired when I bought one. That happened after I returned from a summer of working as a roustabout in the oil and gas fields of Western Oklahoma. I had made $430 a month that summer, more than my father. Right before school started, much to his dismay I bought a damned Ford. It was a thing of beauty: a bright red Galaxie 500 with bucket seats, a 406 cubic inch V8 with three 2-barrel carburetors, and a four-speed manual transmission with the gear shift lever on the center console, an arrangement known then as “four on the floor.” It was the epitome of 1960s American steel. With that engine, the car only got about 10 miles per gallon and took premium gas at that, but, hell, premium was a quarter a gallon. Being chronically short of cash, though, I tended to use regular, Conotane as Conoco branded it, because it was cheaper. With such low octane fuel the 406 rattled like a couple of skeletons screwing on a tin roof. Despite that, I was a Wheeled American, and I had a damned fine car for dating—except for the bucket seats.

My dad’s Curse of the Ford Gods continued with the Galaxie 500. One day when I was home from college, he decided that the car needed a tune-up. In those days before the advent of the electronic ignition, a minor tune-up involved changing the points and condenser in the distributor mounted to the top of the engine. The points and condenser were two small and inexpensive components that could normally be replaced in a few minutes. That was not the case this time. Murphy’s Law—Anything that can go wrong will go wrong—would be one way to describe what happened, but O’Toole’s Corollary is more apt—Murphy was an optimist. Even without the technical details, the story is horrific. As he was installing the condenser, my dad dropped a tiny screw used to hold it into the bottom of the distributor. That was no big deal, a fairly common although frustrating occurrence. To retrieve the screw, he disconnected the distributor and lifted it off the engine. That was when the real problem began. The rod connecting the distributor to the cam shaft pulled up with the distributor but then unexpectedly fell back into the engine. That would not normally be a problem except that when the rod fell, it missed the cam shaft and ended up in the bottom of the oil pan. By this time, the old man was adding new monosyllabic Anglo Saxon epithets to my vocabulary, which had already expanded greatly after two summers working in oil fields around roughnecks and roustabouts. To retrieve the rod, he had to drain the oil and remove the oil pan. It was even worse than that, though, much worse. Obtaining enough clearance to remove the oil pan required hoisting the engine off of its mounts. I remember little else of that day, likely having blocked it from memory the way people block traumatic events from their past.

Although my father had been unhappy at my purchasing the Galaxie, he was even more dismayed when he learned I had traded it and $100 for an Alfa Romeo Spyder convertible. When I told him what I had done, he replied, “You did what!!??” The Spyder was a beautiful, sexy sports car, the dream of a young man about to graduate with a degree in engineering. My love affair with the Alfa only lasted about three months, however, before the engine blew up due to a valve breaking and damaging a piston. My father gamely came to my apartment with a tow rope, certainly regretting his promise to keep my cars running while I was in college, and pulled the Alfa, with me behind the wheel, back twenty miles to where he lived. He was a man of few words that afternoon, damned few. Although he had never worked on such an odd and technically complex engine like the Alfa’s, he ordered the parts from the J.C. Whitney catalog, about the only source of Alfa parts back then, and figured out how to repair it. When he got it running, though, he only said one thing, “Sell the that damned car.” I did.

After the Alfa came an old Mustang (another evil Ford) that my father had bought somewhere for little money—he never had much—and passed on to me. There were two reasons he had gotten the car so cheap. First, it had been in a wreck that had caved in the right rear. My father had repaired it, more or less—actually less than more—with a hammer and plenty of Bondo, a sort of putty used for auto body repair. Second, and even worse than the scar from the wreck, was that the car had begun its life in Wisconsin and suffered rust resembling a terminal case of melanoma. Moreover, the air conditioner never worked, a particular challenge a few months later when my new wife and I spent the summer in Houston. At least the rust holes in the floorboard offered some welcome ventilation. The extra ventilation, however, turned out later to be not so welcome when in the fall we moved to Michigan where we spent a couple of winters while I was in grad school. About halfway through my time in Ann Arbor, I was applying for some sort of financial aid. In explaining my difficult financial circumstances, I described the Mustang as decrepit, the first time I ever used the word, I believe. Although the term is most often applied to people, I thought it was an apt adjective for the Mustang.

After I finally finished college and got a real job, the quality of cars I owned improved. I soon learned, however, the hard lesson about car payments and insurance costs. And I learned also one of life’s important rules, the Entropy of Automobiles. It is a version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that over time a system goes from a state of order to disorder. The application of that law to cars is quite simple: Over time, all cars turn to shit, a lesson I realize that my father had been trying to teach me. A car in a dealer’s showroom is a beautiful thing, all shiny and full of promise, and redolent with the seductive new-car smell. I learned that with cars, however, there is a substantial difference between theory and reality, that the reality of car ownership is quite different than the theory and fantasies of a young man in the showroom. The feeling of disappointment is similar to that of meeting someone in a bar one evening, going to bed with that person, and then waking up the next morning full of regret and remorse and, worse, unable to easily get untangled from the relationship.

I speak from experience—about buying new cars, not picking up women in bars—because over the next twenty years, I purchased four new cars. Changing metaphors, it was sort of like batting in a baseball game: in four times at bat, I grounded out once, struck out twice, and got one hit, for a batting average of about .250. The first car was an Oldsmobile Cutlass, which was a ground out to second base in my imaginary baseball game. A car with a name like that might sound these days like something a geezer snowbird would be driving, a big-ass bourgeois boat. Back in the day, though, when I bought the car at age 25, it was just the vehicle for an aspiring, confident young man with two degrees and his first job—and with the innocent arrogance that comes with that age. The Olds was a silver two-door hardtop with burgundy bucket seats and a burgundy vinyl roof. That last feature was quite popular and stylish at the time, and one still sees them occasionally today, peeling off the roofs of rusting hulks of the past. I was pleased with the car until I began to understand that the cost of ownership was much more than I had expected, and insurance, repair bills, and fuel costs began to take too much from my paychecks—the Entropy of Automobiles. Consequently, I decided to trade the Olds in on something else. Being environmentally conscious as well as frugal, I opted for a Chevrolet Vega, one of the new small cars American automakers were introducing to counter the growing threat from Honda, Toyota, and Datsun who were beginning to enter the domestic market.

The Vega was not a good decision, not at all. In my metaphorical baseball game it was a strikeout on three straight pitches. Small cars were not common until the Arab oil embargo in 1981, even Japanese imports. Nor were they popular due to bad press for the “unsafe at any speed” Chevrolet Corvair and the Ford Pinto with its notorious exploding gas tank. I thought the Vega would not have problems like that, but wow was I wrong. While I owned that car, I often thought of an expression my old man used when he was unpleasantly surprised by something, “I didn’t know such a big bear could get into such a little hole.” The Vega was that little hole, and its mechanical problems were a damned big bear. Within a month after I drove the Vega off the car lot, I realized that it had the quality and reliability of a Fiat built on a Monday by union strikebreakers. After I escaped from Oklahoma and moved to San Francisco, however, its small size was useful in parallel parking, although its lack of power steering was a terrible handicap. Even worse was the engine which quaffed oil and was so weak it could not power the car away from a stop sign on one of that city’s steep hills. Using another expression of my father’s, it ran like a three-legged dog.

Ever the optimist, I decided to try again, and this time I got it right, a Toyota Corolla. It was small and easy to park, frugal on gas, and unpopular with car thieves. I drove it more than a decade. At last, though, the rigors of San Francisco hills, potholed streets, and errant drivers took their toll, and it finally wore out, suffering almost simultaneously from engine, front end, and clutch problems.

The next vehicle was a minivan, a Dodge Grand Caravan, another strikeout on three pitches. The choice of a minivan was a joint decision between me and my wife. When the Toyota was well into its terminal illness and we realized that we needed to replace it, I argued for a used Toyota, while my wife wanted a new minivan. We compromised and got the new minivan. I reluctantly agreed that it was a reasonable decision since by that time we had two daughters. The Dodge was among the worst vehicles I ever owned, though, even worse than the Vega and rival to the Alfa. It was so bad that I called it the Antichrist. It, too, had the build quality of a Fiat—or a Yugo or even an East German Trebant. The transmissions were the most frustrating—I use the plural because the transmission had to be replaced twice. In addition, the Dodge had other issues like horrific fuel economy and a voracious appetite for front brake pads and rotors. Mechanical problems aside, its size made it impractical for San Francisco. Because its length rivaled that of the Exxon Valdez, the chances were vanishingly small of finding a large enough parallel parking place in the city. I used to tease my mechanic that my repair bills on the Antichrist helped him buy a condo at Tahoe. I also accused him of hanging black crepe in mourning around his shop when I sold that sucker. One of the most frustrating aspects of owning the Dodge, however, was that I could not engage in the tempting game of married couples of “I told you so” about the decision to buy that albatross, because my wife was burdened by guilt at insisting on buying it—and by the pain of repair bills on our budget.

Things got better after that. We moved to two cars as my daughters neared 16. I had a fine used Ford Ranger pickup that was easy to park and reliable—I fortunately did not seem to be affected by the Curse of Ford. Also, having a manual transmission, it allowed me to teach both daughters how to drive a stick. Of course, that experience took its toll on me. After teaching two daughters not only to drive in San Francisco but to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission, however, I look at least a decade older than my actual age, and my family doctor blames that experience for three chronic health conditions that he thinks will significantly reduce my life span. Despite that, I am quite proud that both daughters can drive about anything anywhere.

In recent years, the story has become less interesting and somewhat less traumatic—not counting the Prius that threw a rod. After the Dodge Antichrist, we had a Honda CRV that served us well for a dozen years. When we left San Francisco for snowy Eastern Oregon, I replaced the Ford Ranger with a used 4WD Toyota Tacoma pickup that ranked with the Ranger as a tough, reliable vehicle. Even with four-wheel drive, though, driving in Oregon winters was chancy at times. I would put 200 pounds of sand bags in the bed for extra traction. Further, there was the ever-present danger of black ice. More than once every winter, I would hit a patch of it, and I could feel my ass growing fingers, trying to pull cotton out of the driver’s seat. The problem of winter driving lessened when I moved to Portland. I still had the Tacoma, but I got rid of the sand bags. It was a perfect urban vehicle because it was short with great sight lines and easy to park. Of course, after thirty years in San Francisco, except for the Antichrist, parallel parking was as easy as pulling a string out of a cat’s ass, as the old man would say. I kept the Tacoma until three years ago when I gave it to my younger daughter as a gift for becoming a firefighter and medic. She later sold it, and I regret not buying it from her.

One more notable thing about the Tacoma: in all of the dozen-plus years I owned it, I never washed it. I was meticulous about preventative maintenance on the engine and replacing the tires when needed. I would pay the daughter of a friend of mine to clean out the interior once or twice a year, but I never washed it, ever. In the wet climate of Oregon, washing a vehicle is a Sisyphean endeavor because it immediately gets dirty again. But even after I moved to Tucson, I did not wash the truck. That was not because I am that lazy, although I do have a tendency toward indolence. Rather, when I consider a task like washing a car, I don’t think about how much time it would take but how much life. For after all, time and life are an exact identity: time equals life. Especially at my age, I ask myself how much of my life do I want to allocate to something that I consider generally irrelevant. When I cash in my chips on this life, I doubt I will wish I had spent more time washing my car—after all, I am no longer trying to impress a prom date.

More recently, I have learned that Karma can be cruel. Just as my father helped me with my cars, so have I helped my daughters, a sometimes frustrating experience. I, too, have come out at all hours to jump start their vehicles. I, too, have brought them gasoline. I, too, have helped them when their cars have had mechanical problems, not by repairing the cars myself but by helping them pay for the repairs. For their birthdays one year, I gave each one a membership in AAA and a portable battery jump charger.

There have been other vehicles in my life. In the last decade these have included three Ford pickup trucks. If my father were still alive, I am sure he would be shaking his head, wondering how he raised a son so cross-threaded between the ears as to buy all those damned Ford trucks. Alas, though, he died in the early 90s—leaving my mom a fine vintage Chevy El Camino.

He was a good father and wise man who did his best. I miss him still, especially as I hear his words and expressions come out of my mouth and see him slip unexpectedly into the mirror when I am shaving in the morning.

I refuse to discuss the Prius that threw a rod.

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