Off Neck / Thoreauvian Pursuits

I’m driving the truck I drove as a child

In the car’s dream the road goes on forever.

—Susan Mitchell, ‘The Road”.


I don’t recall the models, but I do remember the way the old cars in the orchard smelled. And I could probably still find my way to that wooded junkyard, so vividly etched in my recollections of ages nine to twelve, if the apple trees haven’t grown too thick or the surrounding tall pines succumbed to tract housing. The cars smelled like steamer trunks stored in an attic, like old leather shoes, like newspapers; old, worn, comfortable and a mite decayed. Or vintage.

It was a pastoral junkyard, if such a thing is possible. You crossed through Jeff’s yard, jumped the stone wall and took the path across the field and along the woods. The collection of twenty or so cars, beyond an old farmhouse, was a profound discovery and for a while a fanciful haunt. I remember, on mostly sunny days, exploring the rusty hulks of sedans and trucks that languished under apple trees, their hoods and trunks sprung, the doors askew, paint the texture of sand paper.

We imagined they had been driven to their resting place, carefully parked, then left in their forlorn assembly simply awaiting further usefulness with the best intention of repair. At least used for parts? Not sold for scrap! This parking lot of relics was certainly a playground for roaming nine year olds and nesting place for mice, birds and squirrels. It was sad to think of them as abandoned by the dictates of the enigmatic, arbitrary numbers rolled up on the odometers while some of their fortunate siblings no doubt endure as prized rides in July 4th parades, with flags and bunting on their fenders.

Most of their windows were intact, their bodywork only slightly rumpled. We admired their hood ornaments, like fleet figureheads in corrupted chrome, and tried mightily to release the rusty bolts and collect them. When we found a rear view mirror still in place it meant we could sit inside and realistically ‘drive’ them. Atop the bouncy spring seats, plush thrones to my cronies and me, higher than barber chairs, we twisted steering wheels that seemed as big around as the balloon tires on our bicycles—so different in scale from the Ford Falcon back in the driveway at my house.

So we would pretend to drag race, or coast along the highway, watching out the rear view mirror for the Highway Patrol, or be the Highway Patrol in hot pursuit. Or the chauffeur. Or ‘soup up the engine’ by pretending to tinker with mysterious wires and bolts. On a few of the old cars, our feet would actually reach the pedals and we could practice double clutching with ‘three on the tree.’ We learned the concept of ‘flooring it.’ Or we could just listen to the bees work the orchard and wonder archeologically about past drivers.

My fifteen-year-old daughter will remember my truck similarly for its decrepitude and smell and her first lessons in shifting its ‘four on the floor.’ She already refers to it as ready for junking and I admit it is taking on many of the characteristics of those wrecks of recollection. It’s certainly got the smell. But I prefer to think of its rust as a patina. And I relish its comfortable shabbiness, which makes it, in my mind, more useful.

It has been two years since I bought it, having looked past the rust-pocked panels and hood, torn driver’s seat, cheesy floorboards and malfunctioning radio. It is the oldest vehicle I have ever owned. The engine runs well, with coaxing and patience. It sounds good (but what do I know about engine timbre); has low mileage for the model year (but what do I know about the kind of miles they were); was a good model year (but what do I know). Four wheel drive (Location, location, location).

My first truck. The price was right. One owner, who lowered that price as we drove in the driveway. And the seller called her ‘her.’ Ah, character. In our neck of the woods, everyone seems to call trucks ‘her.’ So I began the relationship. I softened the presence of the gun rack in the cab with my Super-Soaker pump-action squirt gun, hung fuzzy dice on the rear view mirror, and started pumping money into generally expected, but unforeseen, renovations.

The hydraulic brake lines went first and, since I can still only pretend to tinker with such maintenance, Harry Webber had to replace them. Then the shocks. I was driving her up the Castine road and the heavy-duty shocks took leave of the frame mounts and almost sent me on a loop-the-loop while I rode back down to Harry’s garage to for rewelding. Time for a new gas tank as well. Then brake linings.

But what I most appreciate about my truck is the lack of fuss, like an old sofa. It is fully depreciated and derelict in appearance, so it can finally be fully used. Dirt, seaweed, manure for the garden, trash, recycling, dumpster gleanings, firewood, lumber, the wet dog—all ride in the back. We have achieved the honest heart of a vehicle’s life mission—beyond engineering, advertising and lifestyle associations: to connect two points, real and imagined.

Mechanical problems have quieted down over the winter. Perhaps she’ll hold her own for a while. But pothole season approaches. And I sense the impending cost-benefit analysis of an old car owner—of the orchard cars owners. At what point does full usefulness become too pricey? For now, I hate to reduce a vehicle with a personal pronoun, and a patina, to such a logical equation. The best connection between two points, as any driver knows, is often the most circuitous.

First published in The Christian Science Monitor.




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