Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Car My Dad Bought

There are a lot of theories going around as to the reason for the rising price of gasoline. You can take your pick from a whole list that includes the ever-increasing price of crude oil, a weak dollar, unrest in the mideast and even good old-fashioned price fixing.
There is, however, a small but vocal group that is laying the blame squarely where it belongs.
On me.
It's a hypothesis based on the indisputable fact that gas prices go up every time I want to go somewhere.
So I wasn't surprised when the price per gallon pushed the four buck mark as we prepared for our latest 1000-mile jaunt back to the North Carolina beach place where we spend part of our time.
It's been enough to make us talk about making a switch from our three-row grandma-mobile to something more fuel-efficient, though the Ford Freestyle we currently drive gets remarkably good mileage for a 7-passenger vehicle, even when it carries our kayaks on the roof. It's probably not all that likely that we'll ever give up on owning a car that can carry grandchildren and other essential cargo, but it's possible--if fuel costs keep climbing--that we might consider a second car that would serve as a cost-effective, she-and-me cruiser for trips when it's just the two of us.
It's not a bad idea.
It's happened before.
Like when my dad, who drove a 1951 Packard with a giant, straight-eight engine and a back seat big enough to raise a family of four and a litter of puppies, supplemented his fleet with the first-ever Volkswagen Beetle ever owned and operated in Galva. His 1959 bug--which cost all of about $1600 brand new--had a rear-mounted 36-horsepower engine that was absolutely miniscule for that day and age. It had no radio, no radiator (it was air cooled), no meaningful heating system and, of course, no air conditioning. It featured a single electric-powered windshield wiper and, in an interesting bit of stripped-down economizing, no gas gauge. That last little detail was dealt with by the addition of a reserve tank that was accessed by kicking over a floor-mounted lever when the main tank ran dry and the engine started sputtering. This ingenious little devise failed once in awhile when it was accidently moved to the down position before the main tank emptied, or if it wasn't levered back to upright when the tank was filled. Dad and I paid for these missteps a few times with long walks down country roads with the gas can he learned to stow in the under-the-hood storage area. But despite all its little quirks, he--and we--loved the little car. It had a large canvas sun roof that slid back on a track and made the VW downright sporty as we chattered down the road. With mom and dad in the front and my older sister and brother occupying the rear, there was just enough room in the luggage space behind the back seat for yours truly, the shrimpy little brother, who sat and waved jubilantly at the kids who were unlucky enough to be riding in more commonplace vehicles, like Fords and Chevys. Volkswagens were rare in those days, so much so that we would gaily exchange horn honks when we met another one along the way. While it hardly ever needed gas, I doubt fuel economy was dad's only motive back in those 30-cent-a-gallon days. Instead, I think it was just a desire to do something a little different and have a little fun.
Eventually, dad gave the car to my sister to drive after she graduated from college and got her first teaching job. Engine problems brought it home again for a rebuild and a fresh paint job, whereupon it was presented to my brother as his first post-college car. An unexpected skid on a gravel road resulted in a rollover accident that left my brother lucky to be uninjured and the car dented and leaking profusely through the sun roof. By this time, dad was done investing any real money in the car, so it sat.
For me.
And I didn't even have to wait to graduate from college.
I landed my first "real" job in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Us baby boomers had schools bursting at the seams all over America, so Jim Murray, who owned the "trailer factory" north of town, was busy manufacturing temporary trailer/classrooms that would be built and shipped to overcrowded schools throughout the country.
The Raymur Corporation was so busy, in fact, that there was even a job for me, whose carpentry skills were pretty much limited to the rickety little bird houses I hammered together in Cub Scouts.
I proudly announced the news of my new career at supper one night. Looking back, I suppose dad was a little sorry to be losing the services of the unpaid (but fully fed, clothed, nurtured and educated) pharmacy clerk, janitor and jack-of-all-trades that I had become, but I think he was also sort of proud that I had gone out and found a job of my own.
After supper, he tossed me the keys to the Volkswagen.
"You'd better take the car," he said.
As a rite of passage and a thrilling entry into adulthood, this was absolute gangbusters.
I had never had, nor ever really needed a car of my own. Everything in Galva was pretty close by. And I had enough buddies with cars for those adventurous girl-watching forays into exotic lands like Kewanee, Toulon and LaFayette.
The old Volkswagen was the perfect self-governing way to let me test my vehicular wings. Its aging engine and all-bald tires made it reasonably likely that an unauthorized out-of-town girl-hunting excursion would result in big trouble and a return to my brother's Schwinn as my personal mode of transportation. And even I, who knew absolutely nothing about those girls and their preferences, was able to figure out that a leaky roof and the mixed aroma of mildew and exhaust fumes would do nothing to attract the cheerleaders and other glamorous creatures who regularly haunted my dreams.
I was, of course, a teenage boy, so I tried anyway. And somehow we all--me, the car and the cheerleaders--survived without incident.
When I went to college, the car stayed behind. There was no question about taking it along, as it still leaked, sputtered and smelled bad. When I'd come home, I'd start it up and drive it around a little, but for the most part, it sat.
Until one weekend when I came home and dad gave me the news.
"I sold the car," he said. "A guy said he could use the parts, and I figured it was time."
It was like hearing that Old Yeller had died.
But I understood.
I knew my dad pretty well, even then. I knew he couldn't really bring himself to say he was sorry about something as unimportant as an old car. But I knew he was.
Life went on.
I've owned a lot of cars since that beat-up old bug. Now we're thinking--kind of--about the possibility of owning something new.
She's thinking about hybrids and other fuel-efficient models, while I'm wondering if a two-seater convertible might combine the right amount of driving economy and flat-out fun. But to be honest, there's no real hurry or need to make a decision. We'll look and talk and look some more.
And maybe, just maybe, we'll see something perfect. Something that's affordable, efficient and a little bit of fun.
Just like the car my dad bought.

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