Relationships

My Life in Cars

I still sometimes dream about driving down a lonely highway

(Getty Images)

I've had a bunch of them—all kinds of colors and body types. Cars, that is, automobiles. I can almost measure my life by the vehicles I've owned.

The first was a 1954 Buick Special: two-tone (gray and white), a hand-me-down from my father and the car I learned to drive in. My mother taught me, sort of. I mean, she didn't seem to be paying a lot of attention during our lessons. She mostly smoked cigarettes and looked out the window. Once, when I went straight through a stop sign, she didn't even notice.

Near the end of my senior year in college, I talked my dad into putting up the money for my first brand-new car. I told him I would start paying him back when I graduated. I never did repay the full amount, which I still feel guilty about. Dad went with me to visit the auto showrooms. It was different back then, in 1966. There were fewer choices in cars, mostly American-made—Fords and Chevys and even ugly Studebakers,—but I was attracted to the new Volkswagen dealership. The tiny cars seemed almost like toys, compared to the big Pontiac and Oldsmobile cruisers Dad and I test drove.

I didn't think then about the implications of a Jewish guy buying a car from a company that supported the Nazis; neither did my dad say anything about it, which I still wonder about. I ended up buying a dark-green Beetle, with a sliding sunroof. I paid $1,300 dollars—or, rather, Dad did. I loved everything about that car: the smell, the tinny little radio, the way it tried so hard to get up to speed on the highway. I mean, I loved it for all its faults, not despite them. I felt the car was right for me.

Unfortunately, that first summer after graduation, I was driving in the rain—too fast—and hit a skid on the Long Beach Island Causeway. I spun halfway through a guard rail that stopped me from plunging a thousand feet down into Barnegat Bay. While the car careened, I remember thinking that I was about to die, which surprisingly filled me with a sort of inner peace. I survived, unhurt, but the little Bug was totaled.

After that, I didn't have the heart (or money) to purchase another new car and settled for a series of $500 junkers. Most served me about as well as I thought they would. Some were even pretty cool to own, like the black 1949 Ford that I bought for $75 before anybody realized that such cars were "classics."

After I got married and my wife and I had our first child and decided that we wanted to move out west, hippies that we were, we got our limited cash together and bought a bright red 1972 Dodge pickup. And I set to work building a camper home on the back for our cross-country voyage. I wonder now how we had such blind optimism or why we weren't more scared. Maybe that's just the nature of being young.

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The camper was way overbuilt. I used 2x4s and 3/4-inch plywood. The rear of the truck sagged, but it was cozy inside. I built bunks with storage space underneath and found an old camper stove. We felt like pioneers, traveling across the breadth of the country, stopping to camp by the side of the road or along a riverbank, waking up in a new place every day. It was all a great adventure. Our life was as expansive as the endless vistas of the country.

When our second child, Gabrielle, was born, we graduated to a full-blown recreational vehicle—an old one to be sure, but a damn beauty. Bought it from a friend for $1,000, the best deal of my life. It was a 1969 International 3/4-ton pickup with a Travel Queen camper mounted on the bed. Though old, it had been treated very well by the previous owner, my friend's dad. It had all the bells and whistles I wanted, fold-out bunks, a full kitchenette with an oven, a sink and a propane furnace and, best of all, an extension over the cab of the truck which served as a bed and hideout for Gabe and Jessie. The rig even had an intercom system, so the girls could talk to us from their bunk while we were driving down the highway. That would be considered illegal these days, but we weren't concerned then. The girls loved their little hideaway. They still talk about it.

We went camping almost every weekend and holiday when we had the Travel Queen. I was teaching during the week, but free once Friday came around. For a time, that vehicle saved our marriage. We didn't seem to fight as much when we were on the road. It wasn't just escapism, though that played a part. In the camper, we had a shared purpose and destination; we worked together well, something we failed at miserably in our stationary environment. Maybe we should have just kept traveling, on the road, all the time. It's a thought.

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As the kids grew older and developed their own sets of friends, they had less and less interest in taking camping trips with Mom and Dad, and so we eventually sold the beautiful Travel Queen. I still miss it. Funny how you can come to be so fond of an inanimate object. I still sometimes dream about driving down a lonely highway in that truck.

In mid-life, when I was a proper citizen and working hard each day to support my family, and mostly forgetting about my youthful dreams and aspirations, I had boring cars. Just whatever would get me back and forth to work and look presentable. My cars had to be dependable—that was the key word. That was my life then. The cars themselves are barely memorable: a yellow Volvo, a Ford Focus, a Volkswagen Fox, blah, blah, fucking blah.

And, then after 22 years, my wife and I decided we'd had enough. I think we both were scared, but we breathed a sigh of relief and went our separate ways. I gave Cathy whatever car we had at the time. I truthfully don't even remember what it was. Then I went out and bought another pickup, one with a shell camper, just big enough for one. It was time to start over.

   
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