RAMBLINGS • Driving Is Down To A T-Bird


It's early March, and I still don't have a truck. I also realize I'll most likely never own another because when I scrape deeply enough, I find a rather conservative person when the question at hand is about personal finances.

One of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes (so favorite that Judy cross-stitched it for me; I framed it and it is at eye-height on the wall above the desk on which I keep track of my daily income and expenses) reads, "To be young and not liberal is to have no heart; to be old and not conservative is to have no head." No one makes fun of me for being old these days, which means I must be at least approaching antiquity with a conservative approach. Some would call me cheap.

If I have only one vehicle, I have only one insurance policy to pay, one license tag to buy, one engine that constantly (it seems) needing an oil change. Selling the truck was a cost-saving measure.

I also don't do any activity that absolutely demands I own a truck. In earlier life it was a necessity, although more often it was only convenient. When Judy was alive, and after I taught her to drive–she couldn't for the first five or six years of our marriage (stop snickering, those who would label me chauvinist; she enjoyed playing the helpless female, and my ego enjoyed those days too)–we needed two vehicles. When first Dawn and then Jenni turned 16, two didn't seem to be enough, but we worked it out. Dawn bought a scooter, which I probably used more often than she, and Jenni worked as a waitress to buy her own car.

Economics aside, there were times a truck was handy. I take a turn delivering Meals on Wheels one day a week every seven weeks; usually I have a partner–Fred Blevins, a grandchild, even Dawn when she takes the couple hours needed (Fred finds less to complain about as we make the rounds). Because the truck was a supercab, we would stow the food containers on the back seat while my compatriot rode in front. My current car, a 2005 Thunderbird, doesn't have the storage capacity the job requires, so I have to make alternative plans for delivery days. I also used the truck to haul to-be-recycled materials to the center.

My right knee at times is arthritic, so falling into and climbing out of the T-bird isn't a highlight; perhaps I should have sold it rather than the F-150. The truck gave me better gas mileage, so that would have been the logical choice. However, two factors intervened.

One is selfish; with its eight cylinder engine, the T-bird is fun to drive. The other is a family matter. I bought the car back in 2006 when granddaughter Kaylyn was close to obtaining her permit. Though my reasoning was rather convoluted, I wanted the grandkids to have a better car to drive than I did when I was in high school. Now I know that what I drove then (usually a rickety old farm truck that dad owned–the cattle racks and manure-splattered bed) was aromatic, but not attractive to the opposite sex. Our cars (one at a time) came off a used car lot along Route 286, so I wasn't anxious to drive those either.

The vehicles were what we had, and dad said I was luckier than some of my friends to have anything to drive at all. When boys from the neighborhood drove into town to look for weekend adventures (thank goodness we didn't find many), we often rode with Paul, who drove too fast to be safe, but we survived. Paul much later worked as a carpenter for my contractor brother until insurance rates grew too high for Dale's company to cover.

At any rate, I wanted the grandkids to have a more attractive vehicle to drive than I had. When I took the car for a test drive, I stopped by their house (they were living next door then), and I remember Kaylyn's words, "If you buy that car, I won't call you old anymore."

I didn't care about that; she was only copying Fred and his feigned derision, and I didn't feel old. I was retiring from the high school the next year, so a bit extra (from the X-step) was in each paycheck, enough to cover the down payment. She didn't know the car would essentially be hers to drive two years later.

Besides any image deficiencies the kids might have had driving another vehicle, I had hidden motives. To some it seemed counter intuitive to give the keys to a sports car to a beginning driver, but I knew 1) the car is a two-seater, so eight people couldn't fit in it, and I'd heard horror stories about what happens if too many teens are in one vehicle; and 2) the car was/is unique enough that everyone in town knew to whom it belonged, so if either Kaylyn or later Kyle were seen speeding, squealing tires, or taking chances, I'd receive a call.

I did. A fellow teacher called to say Kaylyn pulled out in front of him after leaving a stop sign, and a fellow Journal-News employee called to say Kyle with a passenger came roaring down a street when he was sitting in his yard. Those probably weren't the only incidents, but they were enough to draw cautionary words.

I had good trips with them. The summer that Kaylyn had her permit she and I traveled to Swannanoa Valley near Asheville in North Carolina so she could drive on the interstate system (and so I could visit a past mentor at Warren Wilson College). Judy and I graduated from there in 1964, when it was a junior college, and we had been back only once when Dawn was selecting a school. By then it was a four-year school. She visited one math class while we were there and wasn't impressed; she said the college professor wasn't as knowledgeable as Mr. Reeves. That was a high standard; I suspect she realizes that now.

I wanted the kids to drive on the interstate system because it's a quick way to rack up miles, and miles driven equal experience. Kyle's trip was back to Pennsylvania to visit family–and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh to catch a Pirate game. We stopped in Indianapolis on the way home to visit Jenni; that wasn't a great experience because Hoosiers drive as if they're in the Indianapolis 500 when it's rush hour on the northern bypass loop.

I considered selling the T-bird; it has 88,000 miles on it and, as I indicated before, I have ingress and egress problems. I'm afraid to remove the hardtop for fear the rag tops won't arise from its storage space if it's needed, and it doesn't have side airbags and other electrical doodads that more recent cars have–not that I'd use them if I had them. Then I remembered Kamryn saying when she was ten or so how much she looked forward to driving that car when her turn came.

She turned 14 last October. She'll have her permit this October, and I want her to have a unique but easily identified vehicle to drive. I asked her if she still wanted to drive the T-bird, and she does.

So, I'll have it as my only vehicle for another two years. In preparation, I've already had the headlights repaired. My vision as far as night driving is concerned improved immensely. That was a relief to me.

For our first 22 years of married life, our vehicles were once someone else's problems. Before marriage my first car was a '53 Flathead six Chrysler that resembled a WWII tank. I salvaged it from a neighbor's pasture for $35, bought used tires, and drove it for over a year. Judy made even that car look good; obviously she cared more about the driver than his chariot, and I was grateful. The step up was to a '56 Buick Century with 33,000 miles on it; I bought it from a retired Pennsylvania state policeman whose wife used it to drive to her job of teaching English at Indiana High School. I worked for Mr. Wadas on his Christmas tree/cattle farm, and he gave me a deal–$350 for the most dependable car I ever owned.

I trusted that Buick motor enough to ask Judy to marry me, knowing if she said yes it would carry us to our new home in Illinois where she attended and I hoped to attend Blackburn. At the time I proposed, I didn't know that car would cart us from Pennsylvania to Illinois and back again numerous times over the years plus haul my carcass from Coffeen to Carlinville and back for three semesters after she began teaching there, but it did. That was our only vehicle until the mid-1970s, when I gave up on it before it gave up on us. It might still be running somewhere.

Our first new car was a 1988 Ford Escort station wagon; it replaced a used Mercury Montego that Dawn and Jenni refused to ride in. They were embarrassed because I pocketed the insurance money after a limb crushed a front fender instead of having the fender repaired; they didn't want to be seen in it by their high school friends. I guess I didn't care as much about how my kids felt as I do about how my grandkids see themselves. Judy suggested we trade because Greg Matthews and I were going to commute to Sangamon State in Springfield for grad school beginning that summer. That became the deciding factor. I suspect she was tired of the pulled out fender too.

The Escort was a stick shift, and it was the car in which Judy learned to drive. We kept it for years, eventually giving it to Dawn and Todd as their wedding present, and they too put many miles on it.

I'd not bought new before for several reasons, but available cash and depreciation were the major ones. The Escort experience changed my theory though. If I bought new, I'd know the history of the vehicle. I could see maintenance was done in a timely fashion, and if I drove the vehicle 15 years, depreciation wouldn't matter.

Now, though, circumstances have changed again. If I'm still driving when it's Kamryn's turn to drive the Thunderbird, (I have to renew my license this November), I'll be too old to have 15 more years with whatever I obtain.

For the first time ever, I think a lease will make sense for me. I don't drive more than 12,000 miles in a year nowadays, and I could still buy the vehicle at the end of the lease period if I like it and if I'm still roadworthy.

I dread the day I'm not. I treasure my mobility, and I've noticed vehicular mobility becomes more important as bodily mobility wanes.

Dependence in a machine may be my last vestige of independence. The thought, like many others, saddens me.