Driving History… and Gas Costs What?

I recently had a conversation with a very good friend about explaining one’s life through flow charts. At different times I have attempted to explain my life through secondary education,1 music,2 and relationships. Explaining one’s life is not easy in most cases because of all the inaccurate memories and the harsh reality of growing older… all that shit that once happened turns into static and background noise.

I am, however, capable of providing an automobile flow chart. Cars/trucks of my life can be set up like building blocks that show my life. This is a very American thing to do, because we are a car society. America has a love affair with cars. The car and the sheer size of America has gone hand-in-hand as we have marched forward into the 21st Century. My love affair with automobiles has been more torrid than long-lasting. Each car (girlfriend) has unique memories that can instantly remind me of the time and place that I sat behind her3 wheel and moved down the road.

The following is my life’s automobile flow chart.

– A 1970’s Karman Ghia was the first car I drove. It was in 1983, I was 13, and it belonged to my Dad.4 We lived in Germany at the time and he took me to a small training area on our US Army base to teach me how to drive. This car was a four speed manual, and like all new drivers, I grinded the gears like an epileptic monkey. I can remember driving this well-engineered, but totally ugly, car5 along a trail that had been designed to train US Army tank drivers. This was the first time that I experienced the power and freedom that a car can bestow on its driver. I also learned a significant number of curse words… my Dad was very vocal and colorful as a driver instructor.

– A 1980s John Deere was the second thing I drove. We moved to a farm in Tennessee when my Dad retired from the Army. Bush-hogging,post hole digging, and fire wood hauling is how I spent my summer days. Rural communities don’t have issue with kids driving farm vehicles. Getting a stuck tractor out of a ditch is a skill everyone should learn. People should also learn how sunburned one can get just by sitting on your ass in a burlap sack covered tractor seat. I have no memory of using hearing protection and today I say “huh?” a lot when people talk to me in a low voice. Tractor driving is a completely different from driving a car on an asphalt road. Odd angles that instill the fear of a roll-over teaches 14 year-old boys the importance of (as my Dad would say) “pay the fuck attention.”

– This picture accurately reflects the piece of shit 1956 Chevy truck my Dad owned. He had plans of restoring this piece of his youth. He never fully restored it, and like the John Deere tractor he owned, the seat was covered in a burlap feed sack.6 This truck was a column shifter 3 speed. First to second gear was an astonishing one to two foot movement… it also required moving your right forearm across your vision as you shifted. You never wanted to go from first to second in traffic because you not only lost your view of traffic for a few seconds, but, because of the large amount of play in the steering, you were apt to accidentally steer into oncoming lanes of traffic. Another wonderful7 engineering aspect to this truck was the giant space between pressing the clutch and free space in the clutch pedal. I am not graced with long legs, thus it took superhuman efforts on my part to press and release the clutch when shifting gears. This coupled with the vision reducing gear shifting and play in steering leaves me in awe that I made it through my life behind the wheel of my Dad’s dream truck. I won’t even attempt to describe what it was like to be stopped on a steep grade and the soul-crushing teenage experience it was to go from a stop to a go with an 80 year-old on your ass in her oversized Cadillac.

– A 1972 yellow MG Midget is what my parents thought was a great car to give their 16-17 year-old son. This was 1986-1987 Lincoln County, Tennessee, and my parents’ farm was at the end of a 1.5 mile dirt road. A .25 mile of that dirt road was on my parent’s farm and it was extremely rutted. A 1972 MG Midget is not known for its ground clearance. To this day I am amazed I didn’t sheer a muffler off. I did wreck it a couple of times… the car zipped a little more than a car should that is driven by a teenager.8 It was a pleather topped convertible that leaked horribly when it rained and I don’t believe the British know what “defroster” means because during the winter it was impossible to clear the windshield of ice and fog. On the positive side, I felt like a king driving a British convertible sports car in high school. I installed9 an Audiovox tape player and rocked the Femmes at full volume while dragging the muffler down Lincoln County’s back roads. This car also taught me the importance of low expectations.10

– After completely destroying the MG Midget,11 my parents moved me into a 1984 diesel Ford Escort. That is correct, you just read the words “diesel” and “Ford Escort” in the same sentence. This car, to this day, is the most reliable automobile I have ever driven. Supposedly this reliability is why Ford discontinued making a diesel version. There were no follow-up maintenance costs, thus the Ford Motor Company made no extra money on this model. I drove this sweet12 machine the remainder of high school and all through college. This manual Escort sounded and felt like a hovering helicopter at stop lights. Dark and lung-retching exhaust smoke not only polluted the air, but it permanently stained the back bumper. Needless to say, this was not a nookie-getting machine.13 It’s grey cloth seats, however, were wonderful for soaking up spilled alcohol and beer.14 The fondest memory I have of this car is when, during an extremely cold Tennessee winter my sophomore year in college, the diesel fuel gelled and the car died on I-65.15 My Dad and I had to wait until the temperatures rose above freezing to resuscitate it. It took near zero temperatures to render this automobile inoperable.

– A 1991 Ford Ranger is the first vehicle I bought.16 I was so enamored with this truck that when asked what color it was I would reply “a pine tree, in the spring, at dusk.” This truck is also the vehicle that has the notoriety of being the only vehicle I have ever had an accident in that involved a DUI. I was not drunk, but the 17 year-old girl driving a Suzuki Samurai was (she is the one that got a DUI), and when she decided to pull out, and into me, my truck ripped the back off her little girl “SUV.” What followed next horrified me. Teenager after teenager piled out of this car like a bad circus clown scene. Fortunately her drunk driving only resulted in me ripping her bumper off, if she had been a little slower in darting out in front me I would have probably killed a number of drunk teenagers. I do not know what is the recommended passenger capacity of an early 1990s Suzuki Samurai, but, in my inaccurate memory, there had to be at least 15 teens in it. I sold this truck upon receiving US Army orders for Germany.

– In Germany, the cars soldiers sell to other soldiers are called “Hoopties.” Not all Hoopties are equal. My first American GI in Germany Hoopty was a 1986 BMW 735i. This car was German specs, thus no safety glass and no acceleration governor. However, in an extremely odd case of German engineering… this car had air conditioning.17 This car could fly and would sink closer to the autobahn the faster I drove. This Hoopty cost me exactly $3000. I derived more pleasures from this $3000 than should have been possible. This car was pure pleasure. I sold this Hoopty to another soldier after receiving deployment orders to Bosnia.18 I didn’t think I would ever own a sexier car until I bought this upon returning from Bosnia:

– Upon returning from Bosnia, I bought another Hoopty for $2,600. It was a 1978 Mercedes 450SL coupe and it was sex on wheels. If I thought my BMW made the autobahn its bitch, then I thought my Benz coupe made asphalt quake in fear. This car flew like lightning and I even made German drivers get over when I passed. Unfortunately, due to training and a second peacekeeping deployment to Bosnia, I only got to drive this car for about 6 months. If I could have afforded the costs of converting it to American specs I would still be driving this car today. This car was sold and ended my time in Hoopties.

– When I returned to the US with orders for Fort Hood, Texas, I knew I had to have another truck. Everyone in Texas drives a truck. Please note the dual gas tanks. This truck drank gas so quickly that you had to have two full-sized tanks. Without the dual gas tanks, you would spend all of your time refueling. This truck was perfect for deer and duck hunting, and carrying my golf clubs. Other than Army shit, my time in Texas was spent hunting and golfing. Trucks are for hunting and carrying your oversized sporting equipment… if you own a truck and you do neither of these things… you are wasting your truck’s time. I upgraded this truck in 1998 with this:

– Once I started making, what I thought was, good money,19 I bought a brand new F150. Note there is no dual gas tanks, yet this truck did not get much better gas mileage as my 1994 F150. Again this truck did nothing but hunt and golf. Also, it really handled poorly in rain and ice due to it being real wheel drive. Fortunately, I spent some time on a farm, so during bad weather I would load cinder blocks in the bed over the back wheels to increase the weight and traction. This truck met my needs as a Skoal-dipping Army officer.

– When I left the Army in 2001 and moved to the Washington, DC, suburbs, I bought a suburban vehicle. A Ford Escape was the vehicle of choice and unbelievably it too got real shitty gas mileage. Once again, its primary function was to haul golf clubs and hunting rifles. The only remarkable thing about this vehicle was the fact that after two years I started smelling burning plastic and the radio kept shorting out. Come to find out, the dash wiring was a fire hazard and my Escape was slowly smoldering to death. I replaced the wiring and then immediately sold this piece of shit. Who was I kidding, I was no soccer mom and I needed to get my ass out of this vehicle.

– The last vehicle I owned was a 2006 Honda Civic. It had XM radio, it got something like 80,000 miles to the gallon, it zipped along at a grandmotherly pace. It was the perfect commuting car. After years of sexy German cars and manly trucks, I found my short stature ass sitting in a small economical car. I had reached the point in my adult life where convenience and practicality was more important than self-identification through automobiles. I no longer hunted regularly, and the Civic’s trunk contained (barely) my golf clubs. Thus far, this car has been the pinnacle of my car ownership. I sold this car when I moved into the city.

I own no car. I have no idea what car insurance costs. I have no idea what cars cost. I have no clue what gas prices are. I walk or run everywhere. I do not fight traffic and I no longer have cursing outbursts behind the wheel. If I do need a car, I rent or use ZipCar. I grew up, literally, behind the wheel of cars, trucks, and tractors. Now I focus on comfortable footwear and curse when the cost of my running shoes increase. My mother refused to buy me $100 Air Jordans, but now I buy myself $150 Adidas Supernovas. $150 is a lot cheaper than a car payment though. Cars, trucks, and I have a history… but our torrid love affair is now just fantasy.

I still love cars though. I am not a communist or Buddhist for fucking sake. This is the car I want:

Because when you don’t need a car… you can desire a completely impractical one that screams “my penis is really, really, small!” In actuality, this is probably the car I would buy if I really need one:

This car says “hey, my first car was an ugly European and my next one will also be one.”

1 See my blog post about Department of Defense School experiences and the awesome robot I was in 1980.

2 Every time I mention music in conversations, Facebook, or a blog post, I am contemplating a moment (past or present) in my life that has some significance, even if that significance is nothing more than something like the first time I tried Red Man chew and consumed a Miller High Life pony… both were done in the same night and obviously I threw up that night. Unsurprisingly, Hank Williams Jr is the music that reminds me of this awful evening.

3 Another American “thing” is to refer to cars and boats as females. This is very sexist and so typical of a country that has a history of viewing women as property.

4 My Dad has a history of allowing children to drive his vehicles. His grandson and granddaughter were both adept at driving his farm truck at a very early age. I can remember my nephew being too small to see over the dash as he toured around the farm… so my Dad, his grandfather, would sit in the passenger seat telling him when and where to turn. I believe this is an endearing aspect to my Dad… others might say it is totally irresponsible.

5 What German car isn’t well-engineered?

6 My ass may still have pieces of burlap sack inbedded in it due to the act of me sitting on the sacks that barely covered the rusty seat springs. Pot hole avoidance became a necessity when driving this truck. Seems 1956 car technology didn’t include a decent suspension, thus every bump in the road drove a burlap covered rusty spring into my ass. I have no idea if I got regular tetanus shots as a kid, but I am convinced that, as an adult, I am now completely immune to tetanus due to driving this truck.

7 Wonderful as in “fucking horrible.” I guess America’s engineering experts were too busy in the 1950s perfecting a second nuclear strike capability over reducing the deadliness of America’s cars and trucks.

8 Fortunately, the MG Midget was made of sheet metal and my Dad had some body work experience. A ball peen hammer does wonders

9 Installed as in “I used a lot of electric tape and, fortunately, I didn’t electrocute myself.”

10 This car may have looked cool to my 16-17 year-old eye, but it was notorious for breaking down for no apparent reason. One memorable break down was when while “cruising” Fayetteville, Tennessee, (this is what you did on the weekend for entertainment) the car got stuck in first gear. The transmission gears literally melted and stuck the car in first gear. My parents live (in Hot Rock) about ten miles outside of Fayetteville… ten miles are a long way to drive in first gear at night.

11 Destroying an MG Midget isn’t really that hard because it was nothing more than gocart with sheet metal paneling. It would take a troop of monkeys approximately 15.4 seconds to destroy an MG Midget with their bare hands.

12 Sweet as in totally uncool and nondescript.

13 I did, in total collegiate male arrogance and ignorance, keep a box of (unused) condoms in the glove compartment.

14 This spilled alcohol may have been a contributing factor in the fire that consumed this car years later when my aunt had assumed possession of the White Beast. Then again, maybe my aunt was also spilling cheap vodka in the seats too. Fortunately, the fire consumed all evidence of a possible alcohol-based conflagration.

15 This incident was extremely entertaining, again in a dose of collegiate arrogance and ignorance, because I was wearing a light jacket, no socks, and inappropriate footwear. I was a fashionable dumbass, and fortunately a truck driving Samaritan rescued me that evening.

16 In an almost unrelated note: Google image search is so fucked up that upon entering “1991 Green Ford Ranger” in the search box… Google not only provided a plethora of green truck pictures, it also provided the cover shot of a 1991 porn movie entitled “Butt Park Rangers.” I’m sorry Google but that is wrong… but I am wondering if this movie is any good.

17 German cars made for Germans didn’t have air conditioning, but I imagine, because of global climate change, it is now standard.

18 In a fantastic sense of timing, the Army deployed me to Bosnia on Christmas Day, 1995 for an “unspecified” amount of time. This “unspecified” amount of time ended up being exactly 11 months… I returned home on Thanksgiving Day, 1996.

19 Good money in 1998 as an US Army captain was approximately $40K


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