Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Loving and Learning to Live with Cars

Before you get too excited, this post is not about classic cars though I admire them greatly. I visit the local Matthews Memory Lane, a vintage car business, about once a year with my brother, sister-in-law, and sister, who also feel as I do about fine vehicles. I would not mind snagging one of these shining works of design and function if I could afford such a car for sheer fun.

It is about a short history of my cars, and their untimely demises.

But I really wanted to post a video of my 2 year old granddaughter to demonstrate an early fascination with them. At the park there was an abandoned toddler-type toy that nabbed her attention. She pushed the somewhat-lame, plastic red and yellow child-sized car way down a bumpy, narrow gravel pathway. She got in it once, but it was useless on gravel with a bum wheel. Plus, she was a bit too big for it and it went too slowly for her taste.

So, she climbed out, got behind it and shoved and pushed it all the way to the end–then turned it around–no help, Grandma, she batted my hand away–and pushed it back the other direction, one hand holding onto the car, the other partly on steering wheel. When it veered off the pathway (it was often as it drove badly), she stopped to straighten it up, then got right back to work pushing, guiding it along.

“That’s the spirit, Alera, keep those wheels a-rolling!” I shouted, clapping at her success.

She grinned, kept on. She displayed such curiosity and an attentive, pleased attitude required to become a true car appreciator. The mechanics of the thing were a magnet as she tried to help it perform better. What a marvelous time she had. I had to tear her away from it.

Oh dear, another one in the family…a natural car nut. Where will the car loving, the mechanically inclined/engineering instincts take her one day?

I love cars enough to stop and walk around an interesting or sporty vehicle along the side of a road, then take numerous pictures. I ogle them at stop lights and parking lots. I go to car shows. I try to name cars running on the street from a distance by simple recognition of body style, the distinguishing features that differentiate it from another nameplate with the same or a similar platform. I am pulled in by sensory input of its design, curiosity of what is inside and what it can do, and the imagined scenario of getting in, firing her up, and taking off for a long drive, the power of the engine carrying me to another destination, another state of mind… Car passion. What a wild invention!–Even now, when we worry about emissions and efficiency and safety matters far more than we once did, there is this magnetic attraction..

I have respect for cars, how they intricately work for us, not just for how they look. I have long enjoyed driving, especially on lazy country roads where I can feel the car almost slink down and adhere to curves and take on hills and ease on down to flatter land once more when the gas pedal depresses and we fly together…. (Full disclosure: I fantasized about becoming a race car driver for a short time and like to watch races.) But routine errands as well as trips are also good. It’s relaxing, mostly; I scan the fleeting closer-to-ground views of people and the higher places. Turn on tunes and it can be even sweeter. Riding the roads over mountains, to the sea. Freedom’s bliss, and I am in control. Or so I think.

Well, maybe not so much in city traffic at rush hour. When living in the Detroit area I assiduously avoided freeways even when it took longer. It was like playing chicken; you had to drive 15-20 mph hour over the limit and stake your claim to all your space. Each time you took a car on the road it was a gamble. I don’t miss that; when we moved here, traffic congestion was mild to manageable, and the drivers were so laid back and polite it could be confusing, at times frustrating. Not so much anymore. Marc and I occasionally still say, “Time to get my Detroit on!”–which in our case means being clearly assertive when moving from point A to B successfully. Not preferred, and so I still seek innovative side street directions.

But I still appreciate driving experiences, overall. Even after being in too many car crashes, and truly missing all my lost personal vehicles. Yes, always mine, despite the accidents not being my fault…And I have had only one traffic ticket in my entire life so it’s not as if I am not careful.

My basic car romance started early with my father’s fascination with small foreign cars but also any regular sedan. Although a classical musician/teacher/conductor, he loved to tinker with most anything, especially cars–and motorbikes and bikes. He seemed to have a knack for fixing things, knew his way around things mechanical and made of mysterious parts, a talent I found magical. As a kid, I’d tag along on a Saturday afternoon, studying him as he about-disappeared under the hood of the current vehicle. I stood on tiptoe to see what he was doing in there. And ran for tools and whatever else he wanted, then handed them to him as requested, a very important part of his work, I felt. And riding in a tiny, front-opening Isetta– or even a Fiat– was a blast–even with sputters and trouble starting as much as it revved up and went.

I’d also while away time on our porch watching cars zip or meander down busy Ashman Street, learning the distinctive shapes of cars at an early age. Soon I could name the makes, models and years of increasing numbers of vehicles. If my older sister sat with me, we’d make it a competition to see who named more.

Whatever my teenaged dates drove to pick me up just fascinated me, whether a dented but sturdy GM truck or a flashy new Mercedes with leather seats; a sporty green Triumph Spider or a chugalug black VW Beetle. Let me admire it, settle in and away we go! My favorite was the turquoise 1964 Mustang that a boyfriend drove. Once we drove all the way from Midland in mid-Michigan to Detroit on the freeway and I was ecstatic, the wind blowing my hair about, his driving quite good, the beautiful car taking us far away. I may have fallen in love with the Mustang as much as with him…

I didn’t get my own car as many friends did in high school, but I enjoyed every one they had, and looked forward to the one day I’d have the pleasure of driving my very own, not just my parents’, and rarely. Yet I didn’t get a driver’s license until age 19–I saw no use for it when I got rides, just biked or walked. I didn’t possess a car–there was a truck in our lives when I married, which was fine though I got to drive it very little–until age 24. That, too, was shared with my first husband: an Opel Kadett, brand new and powder blue.

And that’s just when the trouble started. The accidents, the lost cars. It isn’t a tale of fancy or fast cars, but of cars that served me well and that I felt attached to–yes, enough to name a few. You might think I am a poor driver, but that wasn’t the case. I was a fine driver and still th8ink I do well. No, it was always an event beyond my control that happened to the car and anyone inside it– most often, me.

A note: I admire all kinds of vehicles, and require just a basic mode of transportation. I have never owned or wanted to own a really fancy car. I may stare at your Maserati, lust over the vintage turquoise Thunderbird, even secretly pine for a red Mazda RX-9 but really, I want something reliable, comfy and pleasing for daily use.

Accident #1: Driving along a quiet Michigan secondary road to a college class one dusky summer’s eve, I breathed in warm fragrances, admired very tall corn in fields lining the road. Suddenly out of nowhere (a simplistic definition of accident), came a car plowing into me (it was a preacher, full of remorse). He had missed a stop sign at a crossroads, but I knew nothing. I lost consciousness and came to looking down at my body in the speeding ambulance, wondering why I was lying there so still. I knew it had been “close”; I heard the EMTs say so. Our pretty new Opel Kadett was totaled. I had bleeding gashes and a concussion. Whiplash caused significant neck and head pain. I still have neck problems. I still have scars on my forehead–and scar tissue affects how aging skin lays above my eyebrow –and my right knee, as well as that knee gaining a slight weakness. Using crutches for weeks was not easy with a new baby at home. And I no longer drove much for a year. We didn’t replace that car–there was the truck. The scar with pale horizontal stitches is visible about 50 years later; no one remarks on it. But that knee gets crunchy and sore–in fact, has been more so since the last accident though there is nothing to see there–but that old wrinkly scar.

Accident #2: The metallic bronze Buick Century with buff leather seats was driven by one of our teen-aged daughters. She was crashed into while out and about one night. Someone hit her hard as she was joining the traffic flow on a main street in Rochester, MI. Totaled it. She was, thankfully, alright. She did not drive our cars a long time afterwards.

To replace that one was a new Saturn sedan and it lasted about 10 years, a good and dependable car–and was it never in an accident other than a bump or two at parking lots!

To take its place– when the AC didn’t keep working and it burned some oil–was a new Buick Sunfire. It was my son’s initially, but I quickly took it over when he lost a job.

Accident #3: The car of my dreams! My white jazzy Pontiac Sunfire was driven for 12 years. It still ran like a charm. I was looking forward to several more years with it. I loved its sporty lines, fuel efficiency, how it purred just a bit. Another daughter was driving this one on a busier Portland street. As a car merged from a turn, it ran into her and…it was totaled. Daughter walked away intact. I felt quite sad. They don’t even make this car, anymore. I called it Sunny-it always cheered me driving it.

Accident #4: The metallic blue Hyundai Elantra I purchased after the Sunfire was, like most of my cars, purchased for fuel efficiency, excellent safety record, and a quite moderate price. It served me very well, and as with all cars I pay off and keep driving, I liked it more each year and soon gave it the name of Bluebird. I had it so long–12 years– I thought it’d be my last as it had not once been in a shop for repairs. But it was– of course it was– totaled in a crash. I was on my way to ick up a grandson for Thanksgiving in November, 2019. I was tired and had a headache so perhaps I failed to think as fast as I would have otherwise. I made a U-turn and an SUV sped off a highway exit ramp underneath an overpass– and I didn’t see it coming soon enough. The policewoman said we were both at fault and, oddly, did not give tickets to either of us. Perhaps because it was Thanksgiving… Both grandson and I were okay enough, though I suffered a mild concussion and significant whiplash that left my long ago damaged neck in pain for weeks.

I was sorry to say goodbye to my Elantra. So I got a second one.

Accident #5: A trip to the beach for my husband’s birthday gift–as is usual–last week end ended up being a bust. The first day and a half were wonderful in and around Yachats, OR. But it ended fast as we returned to our lodgings following a hike above the ocean. From behind a passing vehicle passed one car and then barreled into my white metallic Hyundai Elantra (the “Dove”) just as we began a turn. After the sickeningly powerful impact on the driver’s side where my husband sat, we heard screams and crying beyond. He and I were very still, Marc saying, “What happened? What happened?” The double air bags had deployed against the left side of his face; he had trouble hearing, his face burned. I could barely breathe. I unclipped my seat belt. My chest and ribs hurt badly, my neck…I thought I was having a dreaded heart attack.

We both were taken by ambulance to a city 30 minutes way, as well as passengers of the passing van that hit us then flipped and landed upside down in a ditch. Six hours of CT-scans, X-rays, blood and urine tests, and then good news: no heart attack (the seat belt must have pressed very hard against me…); no ruined eardrum for Marc; no significant concussions, so we were released. Apparently the other people were, too. I never saw them. But when I understood they had fared okay, I wept. It was an astonishing occurrence that we all walked out of that hospital ER.

The good managers of the cottages where we stayed drove at 11:30 pm to pick us up, as we had no way to get back. We had one more night at our place. They brought us blankets, water, pillows for the ride back. We also were allowed to wait at another empty cottage the following afternoon until our youngest daughter drove over three hours to get us. The managers offered calm words and acts of generosity–their kindness will not be forgotten.

We stopped to find my car at an impound lot that was more a junk yard, or a cemetery of ruined, dead cars. It was not a pretty sight but we took pictures, cleaned it out, got more information from the owner.

I am in need of a new car now. I barely can ponder it after four days. Still, my mind is clearer and sleep better than it was in 2019 after the last accident. Well, soreness increases but mentally I seem less traumatized. Saddened. Weary of our various troubles over the last year and a half and now this. But if truth be told–why not us? Things happen all the time to others that are worse. I count the ways we’ve overcome, celebrated any new ray of light. We were spared this time. I feel especially fortunate once again.

Perhaps I am more at ease because I wasn’t the driver, a position which often carries with it regrets, anger, self-doubt and attendant anxiety. Marc has never been in a high speed car accident as I have, and understands now that it impacts all systems, not just visible flesh. And soon arrives random teariness, shakiness; flashbacks, sleeplessness. It takes time, patience, support and medical aid to recover well from inside out.

My love and respect for the attractive, innovative four-wheeled machines that carry us from one place to another has not decreased. However, I’ve wondered if I might just walk most places from our home as I am a veteran walker, anyway. Or get a bike. But we live in a landscape that is informed by steep hills, not a flat grid. I’m perhaps not as energetic or strong as I was at forty so it would require training for me to take a bike to these roads. The last few years I’ve longed for a moped, a zippy scooter. I sometimes ride one of my son’s down his quiet road, what a blast that is. (I once rode motorcycles, what a treat.) Perhaps a sunny yellow Vespa for this older woman’s forays into the wider world? But my husband declines to support this desire, convinced I would be at risk of another debacle, sad to say. He would have me drive a Hummer or, more to the point, a Humvee.

He may be right. The traffic has continued to worsen in Portland metro. And there are frankly a tremendous number of cyclists on the road, as well. It can be a task to doge them safely, as well, amid all the honking and lane crossings. Twenty first century hurdles. I may be better off on foot, on sidewalks. Or taking a bus or train–the train is especially useful here but not a pleasure in a pandemic.

In any case, we will get over this and go on. And be more alert, driving ever more defensively. The reality is, though, that accidents simply happen, random events that alter, damage or even end a life. In my case, the damage has been such that it can be lived with and worked with over time. We well eluded death’s snare…so thankfully.

But just now came a phone call from the car rental agency. My car is available tonight and for the next month if needed. And it’s a new Mustang convertible. Can you believe it? I’m all in!

Hold on, I may want this one–a car that is forever cheery!

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