by Brett Van Emst
AS PUBLISHED IN MIDNIGHT MIND NUMBER THREE
Published January 6th, 2002.
Cars have always meant so much to me. The feeling of getting into a clean car at the beginning of a long road trip is a joy like few others. Similar is the feeling of wiping the grease off your hands on a dirty towel after swapping a single barrel carburetor with a double barrel (a task so much easier than it sounds). It is a simple satisfaction, but one that is increasingly rare these days due to spending one’s life in big cities, or leasing a car every three years, or simply leaving the repairs up to the local mechanic at Sears. Who can upgrade a carburetor when they no longer exist and everything is run by a computer chip?
Perhaps this interest in cars comes from a few different sources. The first and foremost factor must be my dad who, since his childhood, was “into” cars. His first car was a ’26 Ford Model T roadster pick-up with a later model Ford motor. He bought it from a guy in Otsego, Michigan for $100. My father was 14 years old at the time, so this forced him to keep to the fields and back roads. This may seem tough until you consider he grew up in Hickory Corners, Michigan, which was a two horse town at best. He eventually traded this for a stack of 45 records and half interest in a 1937 Ford Coupe. When he met my mother, he was driving a 1966 Chevy Chevelle with a 360. She didn’t see much need in that car as it spent most of its time in the gas station being refueled.
It wasn’t long after this that my dad began buying and selling antique cars. Sometimes profit was the motivation, but usually it was curiosity. Have you ever seen a 1931 Marmon topping out at 50 miles an hour? What about pulling the top off of a 1935 Auburn and taking it out to the back roads west of Kalamazoo and getting it up to around 90? Not much of a feat for cars today, but for 1935, this was quite a big deal. And this was how my father’s spare time with spent with my brother and myself.
Over the years my father bought and sold numerous antique cars which led to some interesting encounters.
We drove a 1931 Buick in Buick’s Seventieth Anniversary Parade. After a few miles we came to the grandstands – the end of the parade – when the Buick suddenly and loudly belched out black smoke and then started to squeal.
“The fan belt’s seized up.” My father said. He was trying hard to keep the car moving in the slowness of the parade’s end.
“Kent,” my mother yelled. “The car is on fire.”
“Honey,” my father said, calmly. “The car is not on fire.”
People were pointing and yelling as we moved through the parade. I watched them with my eyes barely peeking above the back seat. I believed my father, of course. And he was right. The car was fine, just smoking.
Together my father and I have jump-started cars hundreds of times, towed cars, and watched as a friend siphoned gas through a hose to see if the tank of his Buick had gas in it. It did and he found out with a mouthful of gas. My dad also showed me how to isolate the problem of a non-working car. Is it getting “juice”? Is it turning over? When exactly does it stall?
My father’s love of cars proved contagious and, as certain people pointed out to him, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The first car I bought was a 1971 Landcruiser. A car built three years prior to me being born. I loved it, of course. All the truck consisted of was an engine, a frame and a chassis. No air-conditioning, no power steering, no power brakes. There was nothing in the way of emissions control.
Two months later I bought a 1973 Landcruiser as a parts car for $300 on Beaver Island, Michigan. I took the bumper, rear-view mirrors, and a few other small items then parked the truck in the back lawn where it sat for three years. My dad would stand there looking at it while my mom would shake her head and say, “he’s your son.”
Another factor for this interest in cars must be growing up in Michigan. Back when we were younger, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting an employee of Fisher Body, or General Motors or Ford. If anyone thinks this is an exaggeration, visit Flint now and see what the pull-out of GM did to that town.
Cars were serious business in Michigan. People knew their stuff and knew specifics. People could be overheard talking about rumors of a new model. When the Ford Expedition finally came out, owners would come out of stores to get in their new truck and find it surrounded by unshaven men with their hats tilted back, rubbing their chins.
“Nice truck,” they would say.
“Thanks,” the driver would say as he clicked the automatic locks. “Just got it.”
Perhaps this “niceness” that everyone assumes of Midwesterners is born in these early encounters – let your guard down, act friendly, and someone might just pop the hood and let you look under.
The last major factor is universal – as you will see by the writing in this issue. Cars equal so much of what we see ourselves as, that it is sometimes hard to separate the car from the owner. The automobile becomes the lifeline – the ride – to our favorite fishing holes, our summer houses, our favorite bookstores, the lakes, the coasts, America. Roads take on special places in our minds and we remember details and feel like relatives to the lines, curbs, and signs.
My favorite road? Not sure, but the road from Sault St. Marie to Whitefish Point has to be one of them. The thing that is strange is that you can’t even see the water at first, but you can feel it. You have seen the lines on the map and finally you are part of those lines. Just south of the actual Whitefish Point, the road opens up and suddenly you are the guy in the Simon and Garfunkel song “gone to look for America”.
Another of my favorite roads is the stubby little road my parents live on. It can’t be more than a quarter of a mile long – a short suburban sidestreet off of a slightly bigger suburban sidestreet – but I have to face the fact that the street itself may be where “home” begins. And it is always a powerful feeling to turn on to that street and see the old house.
Much of the writing in [MIDNIGHT MIND NUMBER THREE] is in praise of roads and highways and certain cars. But, mostly, I believe it is in praise of movement that we write. Movement in the physical sense, and movement in a much broader, deeper sense that is important to what it means to be American, what it means to be free, and what it means to be human. That may be over dramatizing things a bit, but the next time you open the hood of your car, and put in oil or check fluids or change a carburetor to give your Toyota Landcruiser some high-end power, remember your father’s first car and think of your son’s first car. It defines them as much as it defines their generation.
– Brett Van Emst – January 6th, 2002 NYC, NY