first car was a maroon 67 Mercury Cougar. Before it became
mine, it was parked for months in a vacant lot beside an intersection
near my house. Every time we passed it, so forlorn looking in its
weathered paint job and rimless wheels, my father would say, "Now
that was a car." This was inevitably followed by reminiscences
of dreams hed had as a teenager about driving that exact make
and model. Dreams scotched by a lack of funds and a father who believed
nothing good came of giving your children anything they could buy
on their own with a proper Calvinist application..
sold my sister to a sheik to get that car," my father said.
Me, on the other
hand, I was constitutionally indifferent to cars. Dont get
me wrong, I wanted one badly but I knew enough about
myself to know I needed one that would require absolutely no upkeep.
The Cougar, Im afraid, did not look like it would fit that
bill. Hidden from my father was the reality that I cared about cars
only insofar as they could deliver two things: one, liberation from
my cul-de-sac, which those days seemed to be contracting right along
with the universe, and two, some much-needed vinyl-seated privacy
for my girlfriend and me, out of earshot of her father who carried
a knife on his belt.
So, after failing
to interest my father in the 1978 Toyota Corolla hatchback a friends
mother was selling (upon winning a new car in a radio raffle), or
the neighbors Econoline van, I accepted that the Cougar was
my best chance of getting Dad to pony up. Each time we drove by
the thing, I would again ask him some question about the car. Whether
he knew he was being played or not, in time he so coveted the Cougar
he just couldnt keep himself from buying it.
the car, no doubt like the man who many years earlier bought it
new, had long gone to seed. It was held together by prayer and solder
and simple inertia. We bought it from a man whose close-cropped
flat-top revealed an enormous head scar, which seemed a bad omen.
Immediately after buying it, one thing after another began to break
down. Because I didnt have the money nor, I suppose, the inclination
to get them fixed, I embraced a much-overlooked automotive maintenance
No matter what
that car threw at me, or left smoking on the highway, I adapted.
The drivers side door no longer work? I simply used the passenger
side door. The radio goes south? I brought a boombox. The car begins
to routinely overheat? I kept the heater on all the time, which
I was told cooled the engine. For probably 11 months my car was
a balmy 93 degrees, except in summer when it was more like Calcutta
in a can.
Then there were
the turn signals. Anyone who knows the 67 Cougar knows that
it came equipped with these unusual turn signals; my father never
tired of praising them. Rather than simply blink, the signal light
spread from the inside out in series of red pulses. Very cool, but,
as it happened, fraught with mechanical difficulties. The damn things
completely crapped out the second month I had the car. I was told
replacements could be easily found at any number of u-pull-it junkyards.
Instead I chose to go with hand signals. Simple enough and a good
solution, but only if you live in Phoenix, or Palm Desert. In the
moist Northwest, where I lived, it meant my left arm was chronically
wet. So, I took to wearing an empty bread bag on my arm on rainy
days. Greg 1, Nature 0.
In fact, thats
how I felt about my relationship with the car, that there was some
scorecard being kept. That this was a game of automotive brinksmanship.
Who would blink first, me, or the forces of decay and obsolescence,
Nature herself? I reinterpreted my laziness as a valiant defense
against all those nagging daily concerns that keep us fromsleeping
as late as wed like or getting drunk in the middle of the
My most courageous
stand? One afternoon, the windshield wipers stopped working. I parried
by using that one-inch sliver of windshield right near the hood
that remained mostly clear no matter how hard it rained. For nearly
four months I drove like a octogenarian anytime it rained, my face
low and pressed close to the class. Windshield wipers? I didnt
need any windshield wipers. Greg 2, Nature 0.
now and have learned certain things about the ruthlessness of the
world. Ive come to realize, among other truths, that adaptation
does not favor all species. Some perish no matter how ingenious
their response to a changing environment. The other thing I learned
is there is no substitute for oil in a cars engine.
This last lesson
was underscored when the Cougar brought me to final and unceremonious
halt on a section of highway 5 between Seattle and Tacoma. Smoke
billowed from the seams in the hood. I phoned a friend to tow me
home. After hooking my fathers dream car to the friends
truck, I looked at the poor Cougar from the cab of the truck as
we rejoined traffic. I watched it bounce behind us empty and broken
and felt miserable. Then, at mile 10 or so, I watched as it very
quietly came unhitched from the truck and with some momentum, run
driverless off the road and plow nose first into a ditch at the
side of the road.
was the final sign indicating that I was soon to be bus bound.