Road Trip

Cover of "National Lampoon's Vacation [UM...
Cover via Amazon
 

Road Trip

This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest, a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna have so much *%$#%ing fun they’re gonna need plastic surgeons to remove the smiles from our *&^%ing faces. –  Chevy Chase, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”

In the days before emission standards, mandatory seat belts and mini vans, there was the family station wagon.  This V8, 360 horse power gas guzzler was a modern day Conestoga wagon on steroids.  Over two decades, this car and others liked it transported more adventurous families to more domestic destinations than any commercial airline.

A mixture of concern and excitement sparked with the ignition of the Chevy Impala wagon.  Like the crew aboard the Pequod, we knew that with each mile, we would be further indentured to the whims of our Captain Ahab who would not rest until he could safely guide his ship into the parking space of a distant motel.  The trip would span three states, 1000 miles, four motels, eight rest stops and one empty glass gallon Motts Apple Juice bottle.  There were no bathroom stops until we reached our destination for the day.  That’s what the Mott’s apple juice jar was for. ( I am not making this up ) The captain of this craft felt he could make better time if his sailors used a make-shift urinal.  The process of relieving one’s self was a tad humiliating as it involved crawling into the back of the wagon and trying to hit a target the size of a lacrosse ball while being heckled by three spectators.  Where’s the Flomax when you need it?

The luggage was secured to the automobile’s roof rack with a gray canvas cover and rough, hemp rope.  The cargo was tied with angry knots that would have confounded Houdini. The back of the car was a jig saw puzzle of cardboard boxes filled with groceries, clothes and odd supplies.  A sleeping bag cushioned the ground between the boxes offering a place to lay down — if you happened to be a midget or contortionist. On any given day, a child would be unnaturally curled in breech birth position between the boxes.

The anxiety was palpable. It was dawn and in the cool twilight, each child felt ill and out of sorts. Privately, each boy was confronting his “Four Horseman of Travel” – our possessed driver, the eventual need to pee, the endless purgatory of Interstate 5 and the most fearsome specter of all – carsickness. My brother was so afraid of getting sick that he once threw up before we even got out of the driveway.  Dad pumped the brakes harder than an organist during Handel’s Messiah creating a sensation not dissimilar to being on an Alaskan crab trawler on the TV show “Most Dangerous Catch”.

“Dad, can I please put down the window?”

“Go to sleep. I’ve got the air conditioning on.” He directed his comment toward my mother.  Secretly, he would have loved to open the windows to the 100 degree heat but my Mom hated July in Central California.  He did not like what air conditioning did to his mileage.  Every time he filled the car with 35 cent a gallon Shell gasoline, he copiously recorded his mileage on an index card and tucked it back into his glove compartment.  I never understood his fascination with the Impala’s miles per gallon.  One thing was certain, he hated using the air conditioning and always turned on the recycled “economy” air before yielding to our protests about the car’s heat.

My older brother was always first to barf.  He tried to roll down the window but his scrambled eggs hit the top of the windows and sprayed back toward the middle seat. We all screamed and tried to move away as if an alien had burst out of his chest.  My Dad swerved, pulling over to the shoulder of the road, a skidding plume of flying pebbles and dust.  In the rear of the car, my youngest brother had been covered with a towel trying to go to the bathroom in the Motts Apple jar.  In a flash, the bottle spilled a quart of urine onto the sleeping bag.  It was only 11am and the vehicle already smelled like a Metro North urinal during the evening commute.  Yes, we were on “vacation”.  My father looked as if he might spontaneously combust.  About this time, my Mom took control – – taking out a moist wash cloth and paper towels.  She turned around to calmly administer Dramamine and housekeeping service.

We were probably on our way to a cheese factory or perhaps to see the world’s “largest ball of string”, a sight that the AAA Road Guide insisted was a “must see”.  Just the notion of a detour adding time to our journey made me dry heave. The only antidote to nausea was a restless Dramamine induced sleep or some sort of mental distraction.  The boredom of road trips and the constant need to avoid thoughts of motion sickness required us to play games such as trying to identify license plates from different states.  Kids living on the east coast might regularly see licenses from multiple states.  However in a state the size of California, an Oregon, Idaho or even Nevada plate was a big deal.  Hawaii, Maine and Alaska plates were the rarest according to my brother and as such, not a day would go by that a boy emphatically claimed that he had seen the someone with plates whose mottoes read: The Aloha State, Vacationland or North To The Future.

Lunch was at roadside parks or rest stops.  Our rations were PBJs that bled through the white wonder bread to form soggy clotted tarts.  Grapes and cheetos followed, chased by warm Shasta Lemon Lime soda.  We lodged in motels with two queen beds for a family of six.  Kids slept on the floor or in roll away cots.  Within minutes, our room would be transformed into a refugee camp.  We would head for the green, over-chlorinated pool that was usually surrounded by a metal fence and worn chaise lounges.  We swam until we resembled shriveled Shar Peis.  As we crawled from the water, we squinted through chlorine burned eyes that produced an odd chemical halo if you would gaze directly at an illuminated light.

Despite the chaos and drama, we loved these adventures.  My parents understood that these trips were critical building anchors in our restless lives. We looked forward to each summer and begged my parents for more.  Food tasted better on the road.  We slept deeper, read more books, used our imaginations and stimulated parts of our brain that had gone dormant under the prosaic routine of the school year.  These trips were in fact, treasured times together.  The family road trip required patience, teamwork and stamina — all attributes we could not achieve on our own.

Someone once said that “a family vacation is much like love and childbirth – anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort, and remembered with nostalgia.” Even to this day, driving is still boring. “When will we get there” remains the eternal question from the back seat.  However, road trips are no longer the equivalent of a buckboard wagon lurching across an endless prairie.  Starbucks has replaced Stuckey’s Diners. Interaction has been replaced by a tangle of white earphones and hand held electronic devices. Vacations are silent passages where each person is a self contained entertainment system. Yet, despite its metamorphosis, the family car vacation remains a rite of passage.  As kids mature earlier and earlier and seek to fly the nest, the road trip is an important touchstone reconnecting family and reinforcing the ties that bind us.

As for me, I love our road trips.  Although it was years later that I realized that not every family required their male occupants to relieve themselves in a jar.  And yes, I still have to close my eyes when drinking apple juice.

What Will They Think of Next?

Booking photo of Theodore Kaczynksi
Image via Wikipedia


If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.  ~Frank Lloyd Wright

Having grown up in the era of astronauts, Star Trek, the Space Race and Isaac Asimov, I was bewitched by the constant advance of technology. It seemed that each week, a new age engineering miracle would find its way into mainstream society.  The commercial textile, aerospace, defense, food processing, automotive and manufacturing industries were huge beneficiaries of the NASA based research that focused on tackling issues related to space travel – insulation from extreme temperature swings, food preservation, satellites, survival in zero gravity and a host of other natural conundrums that conspired to keep mankind forever confined to Earth.  With the help of a few German scientists who despised the notion of Russian winters, the US procured Nazi rocket technology courtesy of Warnher von Braun and proceeded to landed on the moon – vaulting us into a technological revolution that would ultimately help win the Cold War and enhance our reputation as a world leader in innovation.

Technology has now become a centerpiece to the American way. With the advent of microprocessors and personal computers, artificial intelligence has hastened the arrival of a new cultural and social revolution.  The automotive industry has done its part to merge our love affair with motor vehicles and our fascination with the latest gadgetry.  Each year, new cars roll off assembly lines loaded with a range of seemingly indispensable features that may never actually be used.  Yet, it seems technology is proving to be a two-edged sword as our cars have become increasingly independent while our skills as drivers atrophy.

I was recently stuffing myself at industry luncheon when the table conversation shifted to cars and technology.  I rolled my eyes.  My own “ Space Odyssey” encounter with a 1994 Jaguar XJS left me with Ted Kaczynski contempt for technology and a nagging desire to get a personalized license plate that said “ Hal 9000”. I shivered recalling my misadventure – – being stuck in a Jag frozen in a 30 mph gear called “limp-home” mode, a mystery gear that had been erroneously triggered by a glitch in the electrical system that was sending a false positive engine failure message to the dashboard computer.

What was supposed to be a five-hour race up a barren Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, turned into a ten-hour consultation with six different grumpy, simian-like mechanics attempting to fix my wheezing, English Patient of a car.   On that fateful day, I was told ad nauseum that Jaguars were notorious for electrical problems and were impossibly expensive to diagnose and treat.  “ Damn, things are freaks.  Just like everything else out of Europe. Buy American!” The mechanic slammed the hood and wiped his greasy hands. He shrugged, “Hope you didn’t pay much for it.” I thought about its previous owner and how he must be smiling right now.  I would get even with him.  I knew where he lived.  He was my after all, my father.

Since my enervating summer trip to SF where I was overtaken by a man riding a horse and a 300 lb. jogger, I have chosen vehicles more wisely and have avoided the siren’s call of cars whose front panels look like jet engine cockpits.  Yet, the rest of the world is hungry for the next best thing. In Germany, the Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, with sites in Saarbrücken, Bremen and Berlin has been hard at work leading German automotive efforts in the field of innovative automotive software technology. AI and others, including BMW and Microsoft, are teaming to develop an artificially intelligent car that can one day drive itself. As my table mates were extolling the virtues of the 2011/2012 line of AI autos that can park, steer and alert drivers to a range of hostile road conditions, I kept wondering if all of this Terminator technology was such a good thing.  What would Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov say?

I kept thinking about my psychotic Jag with its schitzo electrical system. I suddenly had another Jaguar flashback to a harrowing six week period where the car’s battery would routinely die.  After replacing it three times,  I turned to a mercurial, foreign artisan mechanic who had the intellect and bedside manner of House MD.  I distinctly remember his sardonic tone as he explained that my battery was being drained by a faulty seat belt. He rolled his eyes and screamed at me like a Russian prison guard. “The automatic shoulder strap iz not fully retracting into itz sheath and as a result, it keeps engaging. Do you NOT hear zee clicking sound as it is trying to retract?” I did vaguely remember hearing a slight noise that would always stop when I turned on the ignition. He looked ready to euthanize me. “ Um, do you not figure out that when zee car is engaged, zee seatbelt would move back out and across your lap ? Are you stupid man?  OF COURSE, it is going to stop clicking!” I eventually sold the “Grey Poupon-mobile from hell” a year later but not before I had burned thousands of dollars with Dr. House who abused me every time I approached him with another problem. ” Do we haf’ anozer problem, Mizter Tuwpin?” He would shake his head. With all the money I paid and the abuse I was taking, I should have asked him to at least wear stiletto shoes.

Over the years, I have purposely avoided being seduced by the latest automotive technology.  Not unlike a golfer that refuses to trade in his favorite 2003 driver for the latest hydrocephalic 2011 titanium Black Mamba, I am resolute in not chasing technology down its dark, expensive alleys.  However, I must admit to being amazed at the gadgetry that is now finding its way into modern vehicles.  Today’s upgraded package of whistles and bells can include a range of functions that fall just short of a virtual chauffeur. After purchasing a 2010 vehicle in 2009, I still cannot comprehend 50% of its functionality.  Like my computer and its myriad applications, I just don’t seem to take advantage of technology.

While the Audi’s functionality is much more utilitarian than its Asian and Italian counterparts, there are elements baked into its package that include certain “black swan” applications – fog lights so you don’t hit a family member who might be lying down in the driveway or rear heated seats (anyone that sits in my back seat is under the age of 18 and deserves a cold rear end).  My clever automobile can alert me to low tire pressure, seat belt use, insufficient vehicle liquid levels, and miles to go before I sleep. The vehicle can break down any journey into a mind numbing range of statistics including mpg, average speed, and comparative performance to earlier trips.

My children have figured out almost every accessory in my Audi and have taken control. It took me six months to realize that I was not having hot flashes but that a 15-year-old had programmed the front seats to the highest temperature of 10.  It was 30 degrees outside and I felt like I was sitting on a metal bench in Kuwait in August.  Meanwhile, the satellite radio kept defaulting to an explicit hip-hop station. The GPS constantly mocks me choosing to direct me through the shortest route which bears no relationship to the fastest route.  I am convinced there is another setting – the most dangerous route which directs me to get off at 233nd Street in the Bronx when I am going into Midtown for dinner.  In the span of five blocks I witness two drug busts and am propositioned by three prostitutes. I feel like a tim of tuna sitting in my soft top convertible.  The GPS just laughs at my attempts to find the open parkway by repeatedly saying, ” Turn right, recalculating. Turn right, recalculating.”

My spell was broken as a middle aged motor head extolled the virtues of his AI car.  “They have incorporated a range of additional sensors into the vehicle to avert accidents due to fatigue and reckless tail-gating.  The steering column vibrates when your car nears lane lines unless the turn indicator is illuminated.  The car engages the braking system when it gets too close to another car or obstacle when parallel parking or easing into a blind spot.” Another Motor Trend junkie jumped in. “ AI even promotes effective risk management. Limits are being incorporated by moving van, rental and fleet management companies who have worked with engineers to cap the risk of reckless driving by programming their trucks to not exceed 60mph.” By this time everyone was “ooh-ing” and “aww-ing”. It seemed technology is inching into all of our driver’s seats and in the not too distant future, Miss Daisy won’t need her driver.

Yet, perhaps technology could yanks a few weeds from our logistical gardens so choked with weeds.  Given that I am a parent of three teens and will soon have another destruction derby driver weaving his way along narrow stone-walled roads, I started daydreaming of lowering my 5 digit insurance premiums. Perhaps my costs could reduce with the introduction of artificial intelligence.

I shared with a friend with Ford my idea of a new upgrade package called “Platinum Protect“ for prospective families purchasing a new car with teenaged drivers. The Platinum Protect plan could include:

1) Slow Down Feature – A GPS governed cruise control feature that correlates road, weather and speed limits to incorporate and enforce maximum vehicle speed.  A driver travelling on a rural winter road with a speed limit of  50mph would be unable to operate the car at over 40mph. This satellite fed speed minder could save thousands in speeding tickets and put a huge dent in the joy-riding industry.

2) Gotcha Feature – Made popular in the television show, “Bait Car”, digital cameras can now be installed within a car’s cab as well as on front and rear bumpers to digitally record any activities that might give rise to an accident or incident.  The digital images are housed in the Automotive Administrator Data Warehouse which can be accessed remotely via the web.  Parents and law enforcement officials can use visual data which can confirm or refute testimony related to any event. Additional applications include email notification when vehicles leave approved areas of operation, air bag deployment and sudden losses in tire pressure.

As is always the case when my medication starts to wear off, I allow my mind to wander into weird places.  I can see a science fiction future where machines run our lives, I am bald with a USB link in my head and my name is Neo. Perhaps I may be so cocooned in my virtual reality that I only require a slot in my front door for the pizza guy to slip in my nightly deep dish pizza.  I will never have to leave the house – – that is until the guy with the crane comes to lift my morbidly obese body out so I can try-out for “The Biggest Loser”.

As I pen this futuristic manifesto, my car has arrived to take me to the airport.  How did I segue so fast from automotive technology to becoming a massively overweight shut-in. What is wrong with me?

The car honks its horn.  From this angle, I could swear there is no one in the driver’s seat

C-r-e-e-p-y…

Under The Hood

Mechanics at Charles Street Shops, 1956
Image by Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr

What fools indeed we mortals are

To lavish care upon a Car,

With ne’er a bit of time to see

About our own machinery!

~John Kendrick Bangs 

It is the most unnerving sound in the world – the wheezing, asphyxiated gasps of a car in the process of having a seizure. “Click, Click, cough, ping, ping,” and a final flatulent, life flicker — “pa-tooo-hee”. 

My engine had died and was now simmering the way an egg still cooks even after the burner has been turned off. Under the auto’s hood, a complex ecosystem of moving belts, pistons and strange, rhombus shaped parts fused together with monstrous Frankenstein bolts, had frozen.  The apparent aneurysm was deep inside its steel cerebellum and not visible to my naked eye. 

I looked for the lever to open the bonnet of my Audi A6.  I had no idea what I was looking for or what I might find. A loose wire? A squirrel ejected from his wheel? A gypsy? Yet, my vehicle was in crisis and I needed to save it.  

I pulled the handle and the gas cap popped open.  Despite the fact that I had 70,000 miles on my car, I was like a child attempting brain surgery.  Relieved to find another lever, I grimaced, yanked the handle and looked away, expecting to be smashed into the seat by an exploding air bag. The Audi’s hood momentarily shuddered.  

My next challenge was probing for the ingenuously camouflaged knob that released the hood.  I needed to survey the Audi’s central nervous system – an abyss of meaningless carbon stained engine parts – but why? 

It is a pathetic fact that each time I open my hood; I am engaged in an act of open denial.  It’s as if I expect to have a sudden mechanical epiphany and will be able to solve this German Rubik’s cube. I naively expect to see a dangling extension cord or loose distributor cap that I can gently replace and be on my way – but not before I slam the hood and swipe my barely soiled hands together to the adulation of passing motorists who honk in homage to my utter self sufficiency. 

To the average male, an automotive breakdown is an opportunity to affirm one’s masculinity and prove that he can be superior to, in this case, a mocking bully named modern automotive technology. The cars of the second millennium – with their mysteriously complicated engines, electronic sensors, valves, and fuel emission alternatives – remain one of the last great places where a man can reaffirm that he is indeed, a man. 

For others, it is a sad confirmation of their feeble domestication. There are those unfortunates – and I am one of them  – who have lost their childhood interest in cars and have become grossly dependent on others.  We are eunuchs in the presence of sleek Italian, fast German and haughty English models. 

Specialists have wondered for years whether a man’s mechanical aptitude is driven by nature or nurture. In a type A society, physical prowess seems to define a male in life’s pecking order and in the 70’s, many fathers viewed mechanical prowess as a leading indicator of how a boy would likely turn out.  If Johnny was not able to get an A in wood shop, pump gas and dip an oil stick by 13, Dad was getting a little concerned. It was like a cowboy not understanding his horse or an athlete not knowing which way the jock strap was supposed to go. Next thing you know he is playing with little Suzy’s barbies.  It was – you know- unnatural.  So, like most guys, you faked it. 

It seemed everybody knew how to fix his car.  A real man could change spark plugs, oil, tires, a wayward fan belt or a blown gasket. The strip malls were filled with auto parts stores owned by guys with names like Vic, Dom and Lou.  These oracles spoke as if they personally knew Henry Ford.  At the Pep Boys, Manny, Moe and Jack could teach you to become an automotive savant, subordinate to no one – not your dealer, your mechanic or your local garage. 

Yet, ironically many of the most proficient motor-heads in my neighborhood were also annually voted most likely to do time in San Quentin.  It seemed that it was a veritable midnight in the garden of good and evil underneath that car’s hood.  Perhaps inhaling gasoline and oil caused you to skip school, smoke a jag in the east parking lot and eventually break into your neighbor’s garage.  Is this where the expression, “hood” came from? 

Yet, “man law” dictated understanding cars.  No dude would admit that he did not grasp the finer points of a 1973 Mustang’s 266hp, 8 cylinders, and 4-valve Cobra engine. You had to give the impression that you had just finished taking one apart and were close to reassembling it once you found a rare spare part at the local junkyard. It was in these conversations about cars and girls, that boys learned the fine art of hyperbole.

When the tow truck arrived for my Audi, a tattooed twenty-something kid with the Wolverine lamb chop sideburns barked at me, “Let me take a look at her.”  He peered under the hood,” Ok, give her a try.” The sound was like metal grinding across a belt sander.  “Ok, ok turn it off.” He yelled wiping off his filthy hands with oil stained cloth pulled from his back pocket. 

“Could be the alternator.” I asked rhetorically. I did not want him to know that I had no idea what an alternator actually did. Perhaps an alternator determined who stood in for whom in a high school play. 

“No, that’s not it. The ignition would click,” he said absently.  By now, I am sweating.  He senses my ignorance.  Add $500 to the bill. 

I plunged through the dark. “What about the head gasket?” Bzzzzz! Another buzzer.  Oh, I am afraid that’s not correct. $300 more to your VISA for stupid answer number two.

As he inventoried the eight million things that could have gone wrong,  I became an obsequious blob.  “Of course” I blurted with an unconvincing eye roll and smirk.  The window was closing for me to reestablish my manliness.  The bill was going to require a second mortgage on my house. 

Later, when my wife asked me the most basic of questions, I became irritated at her interrogation. “No, I did not get other estimates. I am a busy man.” No, he did not tell me the expected cost?” ” Did, I negotiate with him?”” Please, that’s so un-dude-like”.  I mean did you see the guy’s tattoo?  But, she was right. I hate it when she is right. 

I have now come to the realization that spouses should take the car to the garage. My wife is unafraid to ask any question such as “what is the cheapest option?” Or “explain that to me again. I don’t really understand what that means.” Or is “this covered under warranty if I take this to the dealer?” and the bold “ok, thanks. I am going to get another estimate and I will get back to you.” 

You see mechanics want to see guys bringing cars in. Garage owners know a man does not want to violate man law by asking questions, troubling the skillful mechanic about how things work or how much it will cost. I mean, the guy has a tattoo for God’s sake. He probably was an extra in Easy Rider and knows Peter Fonda personally.  He is obviously a cool dude and I want him to think I am a cool guy. If I piss him off he might pull a shank on me.

As the mechanic gathered under my hood, he began speaking in an advanced dialect of “motor-head”, a language I do not speak.  As he discussed the “5 speed tip-tronic transmission”, “slippage” and “cam seal problems”, I nodded as if I had performed all of these repairs in my bathroom just earlier that morning.  He was an oil stained astronomer discussing a nebula in the far off galaxy of my engine block.  I furrowed my eyebrows in feigned interest and nodded. ” Of course.  Yup.  Makes sense.  Uh-huh. Yes…Of course!” 

The car is an extension of the modern male.  I must admit that my role as an automotive consumer leaves a lot lacking. It is not unlike healthcare, where the consumer says, “just fix it.” 

You get out of it, what you put into it.  Perhaps after Washington “fixes” healthcare,  they can focus on the automotive repair industry.  It’s all so intimidating.

I just hope in the meantime, my doctor does not get a tattoo.

Passenger,47

Accidents Will Happen
Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

 

Passenger, 47

Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth.  ~Erma Bombeck

In 2003, a little known motion picture was released called “Hell’s Highway: The True Story of the Highway Safety Films.  The movie chronicled the world of Richard Wayman, an Ohio accountant, any others who in the mid 1960’s had a ghoulish hobby of filming auto accidents .  Wayman and a cadre of concerned citizens spent a decade tracking police and ambulance calls and were often first on the scene responders to film the devastating effects of unsafe driving.  These films were then packaged and force-fed to teenagers hungry for learner’s permits in Driver’s Education classes across America.

In a rite of passage reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell’s shock therapy in “A Clockwork Orange”, high school freshman of the 70’s were subjected to highly graphic movies of car crashes, mangled bodies and twisted metal.  The movies attempted to persuade us that the automobile was hardly a toy.  It was in fact, a freaking vessel of destruction. Yet, leading up to that day, we savored the opportunity to view these gruesome montages of death.

Everyone’s older sibling has told us about the highway safety films of Driver’s Ed.  As a 15 year old, we did not see many R rated movies.  Ultra violence was an emerging form of art in the minds of directors like Peckenpaugh and Kubrick, not part of kid’s video games or cable TV.  Graphic film was verboten – a forbidden fruit reserved for mature audiences only.  The idea of seeing something in school that might fetch an “M” or even “X” rating was almost too good to be true.

The lights dimmed.  The air was thick with adolescent anticipation.  As teenaged boys restlessly joked with paper-tiger bravado, the girls squirmed and shifted in their seats as if they were about to dissect a frog in biology.  This was serious stuff. You had to have a signed permission slip by your parents to attend class that day.  The canister of film had been faithfully threaded through the projector by the AV geek and the opening credits of “Death on the Highway” fell ominously down the screen like the broken lines of a lonely country road.   Within five minutes we had seen three horrific car wrecks.   Someone whispered in the dark,“ my brother told me  (the film) ‘Last Prom’ had a guy with a pipe all the way through his head.”  Suddenly, Inez Williams leapt to her feet and moaned as she tried in vain to make it to the door.  In a scene out of Red Asphalt, she stumbled and threw up all over Ron Zeck’s size 13 shoes.  It all happened so quickly, just like the young man in the coupe who decided to try to outrun the Southern Pacific train and ended up looking like a Home Economics burnt chicken.

Films like “Wheels of Tragedy” and “Mechanized Death” tried to show us what the consequences of bad choices could be for the young driver of a 2000 lb car.  However, we were too mesmerized by the site of brains, blood and guts to really register that those entrails could be ours if we chose to blindly pass an eighteen-wheeler on a two-lane highway in New Mexico.   Publically, I mastered my nausea and reveled in the gore with the other guys.  Privately, I decided when I did learn to drive I would avoid the Southwestern US and train tracks altogether.

Next to facial hair or the discovery of your father’s stash of Playboy magazines, the Learner’s Permit was the ultimate gift a 16 year old could receive on one’s birthday.  It was official recognition of one’s accelerating journey into adulthood and into the freedom that only a motor vehicle could provide. It was a plane ticket to exotic places far from the supervision of parents whose principal job description was to ruin your life.

By 16, I was under the impression that the only difference between an Eastern bloc country and my household was the lack of bread lines. My father had become intolerable as we clashed on issues as prosaic as grades, bedtime, curfew and where I would be for the evening.  My mother would linger, sweeping in like a cool breeze to gently clean up the debris of our emotional head on collisions.

Subscribing to the Bombeck School of Driver’s Education, Mom refused to accompany us as we sought to master the art of driving her Ford Pinto.  This was years before it was revealed that the green, compact car was a rolling can of C4 explosive just waiting to fry us to cinders ‘lest we be rear-ended by another teen driver.  My mother’s extra sensory perception told her that teaching any of her four son’s to drive would be her undoing.  The responsibility for motor vehicle instruction fell to my father who dreaded the act of slipping into the passenger side of the car. My father was not wired to be a passenger. It was an unnatural act. He was master and commander and had been driving the family station wagon as well as exclusively piloting his work car – the sleek silver Ford Seville – for years.  The act of turning over his keys to a 16-year-old male with acne offended him to his core.

The moment we entered his car, the tics and anxious behavior began. His signature sniffling was a strange byproduct of his anxious mind.  He was disconcerted and disoriented by lack of control. He winced as I adjusted the rearview mirror, moving his driver’s seat back, adjusting its angle.  It was as if I was putting on his clothes.

He immediately shouted out instructions and warnings. ” Turn on the indicator.”

” Watch the curb!” “Jesus, look out for that car.” ” Watch it! Wait, wait, wait. Now! Go! Go! Go!” This would all unfold within the ten-yard span of driveway leading from our two-car garage on to our empty spacious suburban street.

The journey was hell for both of us – the son, needing to follow instructions to earn the privilege to continue to learn and the father grudgingly allowing his progeny to operate his favorite child.  The Seville was a coddled sibling that was washed with a chamois cloth the size of a postage stamp and waxed faithfully each Sunday for the long week’s journey that lay ahead. My mother was allowed to operate his car only in extreme emergencies.  As a result, the pinto’s interior resembled a refugee camp while the Seville remained pure as the day it rolled of the assembly line in Flint.

The driving lesson always ended before its scheduled time of conclusion.  ” Pull over, pull over.” My father would shout.  ” You’re gonna get us killed”. ” “What?” I would yell.  “I missed that dog by three feet.” We would return home and the door would slam twice as we retreated to our individual caves of self-pity. My mother looked up and grinned. This was one of the few times where she did not get the short end of the stick.  She was content to be “ next of kin” in the event we did not return.

31 years later, I am 47 and a passenger, having relinquished the front seat of my car to my oldest child who has just obtained her learner’s permit.  I am torn between wanting to play the new age mellow father who seems outwardly indifferent to her wide turns and near misses, and wanting to seize control of the vehicle and bark orders like a coxswain.  She has clearly not seen “Highway of Blood “or “Signal 30”.  She turns to me after five minutes of driving along a bucolic country road and says,

“let’s take the Parkway, dad.  Just one exit.”  I am torn.  I don’t want to discourage her but she has hardly gained the experience to navigate a high-speed thoroughfare, let alone the Food Emporium parking lot.  I weaken.  If my wife were present, the idea would be dismissed out of hand.  I struggle between the goodwill and experience we might share and the risk of being at the whim of a new driver.

“Well?” She asks.  Just then I remember that my recent change of dentists has resulted in transitioning of my dental records.  I think of “Wheels of Tragedy” and a flaming crash as we careen over the meridian into oncoming traffic.  I think of the burnt chicken corpse and the potential for the US Postal Service losing my dental records.  How will anyone identify me?

“ You know honey, let’s wait a bit to tackle the Merritt.”  She seems momentarily disappointed but content to explore the blue roads that circle the east end of town.

Somewhere in the cosmos, Richard Wayman is smiling.

An Affair To Remember

A high-occupancy vehicle lane on Ontario Highw...
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An Affair To Remember

The car as we know it is on the way out. To a large extent, I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea: freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life, the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and confusion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society. ~ J. G. Ballard, “The Car, The Future”, Drive, 1971.

In 1960’s Southern California, rapid transit was considered ill conceived, inefficient and in many places, nonexistent.  Public transportation was considered by many Los Angelinos to be a painful, high risk last resort – – the bone marrow transplant of travel.  Unlike the great train and subway societies of the east coast, the new cities of the West had less infrastructure and little inspiration to replicate their past lives.  Voters shuddered at the thought of being one of many “trapped in the belly of a great iron beast” commuter train.    Private transportation meant independence. Self reliance was a value coveted by those who had emigrated west in search of escape from what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.

 

The American West was now a more mature version its former self.  In the 1860’s, the horse was a prized possession. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was the automobile that defined the individual.   The car not only afforded us freedom but it transformed society.  With the advent of the freeway, suburban flight accelerated.  The person who once lived, worked and served as a strong thread in the fabric of an urban area would now labor all day in a metropolis and conveniently flee the chaos and social obligation for the bucolic white fences of a distant commuter town. Suburbia thrived and urban America began its decline.

 

Los Angeles was hardly a destination, it had no real center. It was a sprawling, ever-expanding ocean of houses, apartments and condominiums.  As residential prices soared, people would increasingly travel great distances to find affordable housing, choosing to comute vast distances to jobs in the aerospace and entertainment industries.  Years later, Southern California would spawn a new term, “super commuter” to describe the poor pilgrim who travelled at least two hours each way to work.  This led to millions leading double lives – – content in the bosom of their family each weekend and then reluctantly returning to the clutches of their automobiles each work week. 

 

In age of Aquarius, affluence was a luxury automobile.  One could airbrush their circumstances with the purchase of a Cadillac or full sized sedan.  Fathers drove the “nice” car and would occasionally allow their spouses to drive their vehicle but only under strict supervision.  The matriarch got stuck with a rolling landfill, “ the second car”  that often looked and smelled like a refugee camp.  Like so many of his generation, my father adored his car and maintained it with a pathological zeal.  He scrupulously recorded his mileage and changed the oil more often then he changed his children’s diapers.  He required his sons to clean his rolling palace once a week with a special chamois, “shammy”, cloth made from animal skin no larger than a handkerchief.   Washing the car with the shammy was the equivalent to cleaning the Meadowlands with a toothbrush. He countered that the factory paint job was rubbish and only the soft shammy could preserve the color. Nothing was too good for his four wheeled girlfriend. 

 

Dad preached that how one maintained their car spoke volumes about their self discipline, respect and personal hygiene. An unattended dent or scratch was a sign of moral and financial decline. We did not realize it but we were at the tail end of a golden age of transportation where cheap gasoline and an endless horizon line of superhighways, freeways and expressways beckoned Americans to drive everywhere.  We were a society of open spaces and vast distances.  The long scenic stretches of American interstate such as Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway symbolized the unrealized potential of a nation still growing into itself.  To a Southern Californian there was nothing more satisfying than driving one’s car – – to the store, to work or just down the driveway to get the mail.  Everything was accomplished with one’s motor vehicle. 

 

Our passion for automobiles may have been brought on by excessive exposure to the sun, lack of rain or attending one too many Burt Reynolds’ Smokey and The Bandit movies.  Our need to drive everywhere and often by ourselves, was seen as a birthright and a necessity given the vast distances one needed to travel between planned communities and urban centers.  My theory on our obsession was simple – – half of us may well have been conceived in the back seat of a ‘59 Dodge Lancer.  Whatever the impetus for our relentless preoccupation, we were initiated at an early age to believe that four wheels trumped two legs. At birth, we were handed a pacifier and a Match Box or Hot Wheels racing car.  Those infants that did not choke on the toys, graduated to watching Speed Racer cartoons and riding go-carts.  We had more bootleg copies of Motor Trend than Playboy and spent hours debating the superiority of Mustangs over Cameros. Yet, our amorous obsession eventually became an unhealthy addiction.

 

The energy crises of the 1970’s shocked us and confirmed our deep dependence on our cars and the dark, narcotic sold by exotic sheiks that fueled them.  We drove, drove and drove more.  We jammed our roads so much that we created pollution called “smog“( smoke and fog) which when inhaled made you feel like you had smoked five packs of filterless Camel cigarettes.  We had “smog alerts” at school and were told to stay indoors because of poor air quality. We determined that we must wean ourselves from our transportation habit.  We promised to abandon this destructive affair with cars for the honor of energy conservation and the environment.  We grudgingly got rid of our two ton concubines and launched a generation of economy cars that consumed less gasoline.  We watched as HOV lanes condemned the solo driver to sluggish traffic.  Secretly, we despised these changes longed for our beloved Rubenesque, full figured vehicles who were now transforming into waif-like, Twiggy compacts.  We loathed taking Amtrak and Greyhound. We convulsed under automotive abstinence.  We walked, took the train and carpooled.  It was a dark time in the Force for the motor headed Jedi.

In the 90s and into the new millennium, we quietly rekindled our affair of consumption. As with all serial recidivists, we could not stay away.  We did not want to think about the consequences of fossil fuels.  We ignored the signs of global warming.  We rejected the Kyoto treaty. We tolerated what we felt were egregious pump prices of $ 1.75.  We denied that we were actually undermining ourselves.  We went back to purchasing massive gas guzzlers and rationalized that tougher emission standards and engineering advances had again made the affair possible.   

But suddenly, the jig was up.  The world went sideways and we were caught en flagrante dilecto with big cars and no protection.  Most of us can no longer even fill our car at the gas station as the pump is programmed to cap out at $75.  There’s no avoiding the truth.  We are going to have to leave her for good this time and return to tin cans and public transportation.  We may even lose GM and a few other enablers along the way. For this reformed Californian, it’s still all a little inconvenient.  Yet, I know it’s only a matter of time before there is standing room only on every train and I am cramming my oversized body into an undersized Mini, Prius or hybrid.

It’s finally over but we had some good times, didn’t we?  It was an affair to remember….. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too Young To Die

Too Young To Die

I recall my so called misspent youth
It seems more worthwhile
Every single day
Cruisin’ Van Nuys and acting so uncouth
All the joys of runnin’ away

There was no speed limit
On the Nevada state line
The air was red wine
On those top down nights
Just you and me
My old roller skate
And the common sense
To know our rights

Sweet old racin’ car of mine
Roarin’ down that broken line
I never been so much alive
Too fast for comfort
Too low to fly
Too young to die

David Crosby, Too Young To Die

She was already a decade past her debut and she was struggling to capture her audience’s imagination.  She was an aging actress – tempermental, unpredictable and the shakes in times of stress.  She was a true platinum blonde, a bantam weight whose critics maligned her for her Bavarian simplicity.  She traced her parentage back to a German industrialist who in concert with Adolph Hitler had conspired to create a legion of utilitarian vehicles known as “the people’s car”.  Her friends nicknamed her “Bug” presumably for her endearing hyperthyroid eyes, curved muscular frame and an evolutionary sense that she could somehow go on forever.  I adored her the first time I set eyes on her.

Her gas gauge would stick and often needed to be gently tapped to avoid a humiliating walk down a lonely road with a gas can.   Despite her pecadilloes, she was intelligent and resourceful, a marvel of engineering genius, deploying a clutchless manual transmission that offered all the joy of a stick shift without the hassle and wear of a manual clutch.  She could go forever on a gallon of gas and would fearlessly transport me on inexpensive road trips without so much as a whimper.  She was cautious on corners having been born just before her siblings were fitted with strut front suspension.  She punched her weight using her tiny base and light weight to maximize a 1.6-liter, 60 horse engine. And, she was all mine.  It did not matter that she was a diva and that I was ingénue arm candy.  She would spend the next several years opening my eyes to a brave new world.

Her death was a sudden, surreal crash of twisted metal and burning rubber. As we left a summer tennis match with friends, we were broadsided by a Nissan that was unable to navigate a hairpin turn, crossing the yellow lines to broadside her.  As I staggered from the wreck, I saw that she had yielded as much of her door as she could in an effort to save me.  Her side had accordioned under the pressure of the collision and the chassis was a hopeless pretzel of scrap metal.  I somehow understood that we were never going to see one another again.  Her job was done. As she lay dying, it was clear she wanted me to find a younger, more contemporary companion.

The insurance adjuster wrote me a check for $ 5,800.  She was callously referred to as a“total loss”.  It was a profane transaction.  In my mind, she could never be replaced.  I was in mourning but life in the land of freeways went on. I needed a new partner.

I moved on to a copper-toned beauty from the far east– a Datsun 280Z 2+2, I found her at a used car lot which is the equivalent of saying you met your spouse at an airport cocktail lounge.  I could tell she had been around the track but it was hard to gauge her true age.  She seduced me with promises of high speeds and a front seat that would never be without a blonde or brunette. It was a stormy romance riddled with public outbursts that left me stranded at parties and broken down along desolate stretches of interstate.  Her ancient fuel injection and manual transmission left her wild and unpredictable.  She required constant maintenance and even with bills mounting, I remained with her out of a misguided loyalty.  A phone call changed everything.

My father had received a Renault Alliance as part of a special promotion from one of his advertising clients.  This 1986 Motor Trend Car of the Year could be mine for cost.  She was French and given the French’s penchant for elegance and passion, I divined this would be the sartorial equivalent of driving a Hermes tie.  Our first date was disappointing.  She was seasick green with a thick ankle, square chassis. She had an unimpressive interior and instrumentation that resembled an arcade video game. As with all French, she was whimsical and preferred short work weeks.  She was incontinent and often left embarrassing oil and fuel stains in the garage. California traffic overheated her delicate disposition and in the end, she just sat down and went on strike.  She was the Maginot Line of automobiles. Yet, c’est la vie, we were together less tan a year and she was a cheap date.

I graduated to a rugged, patriotic stage and decided to buy an American truck. We had liberated Kuwait and oil was once again out of harm’s way.  The Chevy 4X4 was the Clydesdale of sports utility vehicles.  She would croon country and western ballads as we knifed deep into the mountains on ski, fishing and backpacking trips. It was constantly dirty from the mud and chaos of weekends away.  Yet, as I rose in business, I felt the need to find a more dignified vehicle that would come to symbolize my success. A truck simply did not convey the image that I wanted to project to the world..

My need to reinforce the perception of my progress in life began to spiral out of control. Through a series of what seemed fortuitous events, I purchased a Jaguar XJ6.  It was a car not really suited for a 30 year old American but for people who wore Burberry, spoke with a feigned Eton accent and were never seen needing to use the toilet.  They were the elite of society and I wanted in the club.  My veneer was shattered one day as I drove my wife and in-laws into San Francisco.  A VW bus filled with long haired Dead Heads pulled up alongside the Jaguar as we waited politely at a stop light.  They motioned me to roll down my window.  I lowered the tinted glass expecting a request for directions or perhaps even a compliment on the car’s incredible lines and form.  The red eyed, bandannaed twenty year old jutted his lower jaw and with his best country club lockjaw asked me, “pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”  There was an explosion of laughter and exhaust as the VW drove off.  I suddenly felt like I was driving me father’s car.   I resigned myself to return to my humbler German roots and find a partner appropriate for my standing.

I am now back in the bosom of Audi and am content.  I get restless at times and when I occasionally see a sleek Italian model, I feel like she is mocking me for even coveting her.  She seems to be suggesting that I could never handle her power or price.  When these green shadows of envy creep in, I remind myself of how happy I was in a simple yellow VW bug with a broken gas gauge, a microscopic engine and a tortoise like sense of invincibility.  I knew that when the traffic died, the bling dissolved, the advertising ended, the rain stopped and the dust and gravel setlled, she’d still be there – – two of us alone on some ancient stretch of desert road.

“Too fast for comfort, too low to fly. Too young too die. “