My Father's Cars

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The many dangers of borrowing Dad's car

I am a first-born son but my parents never had any intention of stopping with me; my status as an only child evaporated before I had any memory of being one and my family's private baby boomlet only topped out fourteen years later when the youngest of my siblings, number seven, was born. Our family was large by neighborhood standards but hardly huge; broods of eight or nine attended the same school and families with double digits of offspring were not unheard of.

We were poor, which my parents blamed on our numbers. When we asked them why we couldn't afford something we wanted from seeing it on TV, they would answer "Because there's seven of you!" resentfully, as if our appearance at their table was some sort of debilitating miracle and they were entirely innocent of our germinations. My father in particular, despite supporting all of us and building with his own hands half of the house we lived in, never seemed to regard incepting any of us as having been a particular good idea. He treated us all with doleful mistrust, as if we existed solely to sap his strength and capital, which we did, cheerfully and constantly. He was particularly aggravated by our borrowing his carpenter's tools to build tree forts and then leaving them in the grass to rust. As the oldest, I was held to a higher standard of responsibility, up to which I inevitably failed to live. By the time I was ready to drive at the age of sixteen, my father's suspicion that I existed only to wreck everything he owned had hardened into a certainty, but he nonetheless lent me his car to drive to my new girlfriend's house, twenty miles away in the neighboring state of Delaware.

Because they were poor, my parents drove used cars. In the case of my father, they were very well-used cars. He bought them from Lou at Lou's Junkyard. Lou would estimate which of the heaps his customers had sold him for scrap had enough mechanical integrity remaining that it could transport my father back and forth from his work, a distance of nine miles each way, for a few months or possibly a year before it completely gave out, for the few hundred bucks my father could pay him.

My mother drove the better car, usually a station wagon. Not that better meant perfect; having a car that started up every single time its key was turned in the ignition was not something we could afford. Often turning the key in the wagon resulted in mere mechanical clicking and then silence. This was our signal that the morning was about to be re-scheduled.

After I became a more experienced driver, I was sometimes called to push the wagon out of the driveway and hop in it before it started tracking down the steep hill that fronted our home when this happened, so the machine would kick-start. It's necessary to get a car with an automatic transmission going about thirty miles an hour  before it will begin to run on its own. Fortunately we had the convenient downgrade, but it had a couple of tight turns in it, so the task was part chore, part thrill ride. Usually the engine would roar to life before I had to take the last hairpin without an assist from the power steering, but not always. After it started I would drive it down the hill and around the block and leave the wagon rumbling in the driveway so my mother could run her errands.

That was well after my first drive in my dad's car, however. His car when I was first licensed was a decrepit Mercury Comet, dirty white embellished with pitted chrome. We youngsters disrespectfully called it the Vomit. He also at various points owned a purple Mustang that we called the Muskrat, a blue Ford Fairlane that we christened the Blue Turd and a faded yellow Pontiac Bonneville, a full-size car back when that term really meant something, with a 450 cubic inch V-8 and the turning radius of the USS Vinson which we, in a tribute to the then already-fading Age of Aquarius, called the Yellow Submarine.

My father did not go in much for auto maintenance. The changing of fluids in his machines was a practice unknown to him. It probably wouldn't have helped much, anyway. We had a selection of automotive liquids in bottles in the garage; oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, anti-freeze. Occasionally we were called to add a few drops of fresh oil or anti-freeze to one of his cars. You could liken this to a hospice nurse administering a morphine drip. It didn't make the cars run longer, but it quieted them down.

I had found the Delaware girlfriend because she spent some weekends at her half-sister's house down the road. Her half-sister was much older and married to a teacher at the local technical school, a big man with big hands. I remembered the hands distinctly, because he had once jacked me up with them and accused me of throwing rocks at his house, a charge of which I was entirely innocent. Although by the time I started dating his teenage sister-in-law he had assured me that all was forgiven, the chance to make out with the object of my desire somewhere other than his rec room was one I took with alacrity. I hopped behind the wheel for Newark.

I set off down one of the sections of I-95 that was then complete, keeping a steady speed and the wheels pointed evenly south. All went smoothly as I rolled through Wilmington. The first sign of trouble appeared as the tallish buildings of the city vanished from my rear view. A red light marked "Temp" began to glow on the dashboard. Naturally, I expected it to go back off, as all things that worked on my father's cars stopped working eventually, but just when this failed to happen an alarming spurt of white smoke shot out from under the hood, as if they had just elected a Pope there. The engine began to throb as if it, like me, was overfull of demanding hormones. Right before it stopped running, I managed to guide the car to an emergency stop at the side of the road.

The problem was analyzed later as being a thermostat frozen in the closed position. When this happens, no coolant can enter the engine, which results in it turning into a useless hot hunk of metal slag if run long enough, which I had done. The thermostat had probably been frozen since my father had owned the car; the car just didn't warm up enough on his short commute to work to blow up the engine. However, the attempted trip to Delaware was enough to achieve metallic conflagration.

My father never forgave me for destroying the Comet. When I was in my forties, and had lived on the other side of the continent and further for twenty years, owning many cars of my own, he still handed me his keys with the air of a martyr if I needed to borrow his wheels when I returned to visit, convinced that any time I took his car out it would end like the first, that something in my driving style inevitably resulted in motor death.

My girlfriend did forgive me for not showing up for our date, and we engaged in many warm-blooded grapplings after that, until I dumped her before going off to college, convinced that many lusty couplings with intellectually gifted heiresses were possible with my scholarship package, and I didn't want to be encumbered by an emotional attachment to a townie. I was dead wrong about that. Maybe she knew that would happen. If I want to, I can ask. She found me on Facebook last year. Says she has some old pictures of us.

I asked her if there were cars in any of them.

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