My parents always had two cars. We were a family of seven, plus assorted dogs and cats, and the cars were usually station wagons, parked in the circular driveway in front of our three-story house in the Philadelphia suburbs.
My father taught at a high school in the city, and my two oldest sisters and I attended the adjacent elementary school. We rode into Philadelphia with him in the mornings, with several older kids from the families of friends. His Mercury station wagon had a back-facing rumble seat from which my sisters and I could make faces at the drivers behind us.
The trip was 13 miles, one way. At one point I had the route memorized. The last street was Germantown Avenue, which had trolleys hooked up to overhead wires and cobblestones instead of asphalt.
We lived in what seemed like the country, between two cornfields and a cow pasture. My sisters and I could walk across one of them to an ice cream shop without touching pavement. Decades later, our old house is long gone; not a stalk of corn or a cow remains. It’s all housing developments, office buildings, and parking lots.
Maybe my parents saw the future, and Maine was their response. My father bought into a former summer camp on Deer Isle, at the end of a series of progressively smaller roads. Every year when school ended, we loaded up the station wagons for the twelve-hour drive, leaving at night, with the seats down and sleeping bags spread out across the back. My sisters and I loved those road trips. The sun came up somewhere around the Portsmouth traffic circle. We took the turnpike to Falmouth, then up the coast: over the drawbridge at Bath, lunch at a favorite rest area near Wiscasset, maybe an ice cream at Crosby’s in Bucksport, which is still there. We moved to Maine year-round the year I turned ten.
Maine was where I learned to drive, on a private dirt road in a rusting 1960 Jeep with standard-H shifting and iffy brakes. The first car I owned was an International Travel-All I bought from my mother for four hundred bucks. I still think she ripped me off. We called it “the Monster.” It had four-wheel drive and a stick shift as long as my arm, and by the time it came to me it had been pretty well beaten to death by an exuberant, careless family.
Things went quickly and predictably wrong. I replaced one wheel bearing, and then another, to the tune of several hundred bucks apiece. Then the gas tank fell off while I was driving. Meanwhile, the Monster’s body was being eaten away by car cancer. My parents had once mired it on a sand bar and watched helplessly as the ocean swirled around it – which explained why I never knew which body part was going to fall off next. It had to be the most expensive $400 vehicle in history.
That car almost killed me a couple of times. Once the gas tank fell off while I was driving. Another time the hood flew up in my face when a truck whooshed by in the other direction. By the time I finally sold it for junk, the Monster was more rust than metal.
My last car was a Ford Escort wagon I bought from my son for $600 when he went to college. It had been my mother’s car before that. My son had decided not to have a car at school, partially because he did not want to pay the inflated insurance rates that accrue when you get two speeding tickets before your seventeenth birthday.
The head gasket blew five months after I took the car off his hands. When I told him this sad news over the phone, he said, “What did you do to it?”
And that was it – my last car, like my first, a cast-off from my family.
In between, I’ve had new cars and old cars, cars I’ve loved and cars I’ve loathed, automatics and standards, vans and pickup trucks, vehicles made in Europe and Japan and America, pieces of crap and pieces of culture. I’ve driven cars owned by friends and cars owned by co-workers. I’ve had driving jobs: a school bus, a taxi. At different times I’ve been a long-distance commuter and my kids’ transportation to school. I’ve been a full, willing participant in the American Car Culture.