Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Remember that first ‘black hole?’

Writer's Note: This column appeared in the Oct. 12 edition of the Dallas Morning News' Collin County Opinions Page.
My youngest child, a 16-year-old high school junior, is about to enter the biggest black hole of life – she’s getting her own car. Her mother’s brother-in-law is in the final stages of preparing a car he purchased sat a police auction (a 1996 Grand Am). It needs a new engine and other “minor” things, but she has these wonderful visions of freedom and romping to the mall in a car not dependant upon her mother’s ownership.
She dreams of that; I have nightmares about constant addition of oil, radiator fluid and flat tires as numerous as IHOP has pancakes. But it is her milestone in life and she is ready to roll.
Do any of you older than 50 remember that very first car/vehicle you actually “owned?” You know, the one you spent your hard-earned money to purchase? Mine was a 1962 Mercury Comet and I bought it while in college merely to avoid walking everywhere. The first car certainly was not an SUV, Lexus or hot-rodding sports car that too many Plano teens seem to believe are owed to them as a rite of passage.
The Comet cost all of $25 and had a rusted-out hole under the gas pedal, which offered a delightful view of the passing pavement at any speed. It was white and was never washed (a proud tradition I continue today). It served its purpose well and when the heater actually functioned, it was a fairly comfortable ride.
Then … one summer night, returning from a 30-mile trip from Tiger Stadium to Ann Arbor (the University of Michigan), a sudden thunk was followed by a stream of sparks from the back. I stopped on the shoulder of Interstate-94 and discovered that the Comet had broken its axle.
Since Michigan law did not permit shooting cars like broken horses, we snipped off the license plates and stuck out our thumbs. I knew the Michigan State Police would retrieve the Comet after 72 hours and that agency could provide a decent burial for the car better than any poor college student could.
My son, Robert, got his vehicle when he was 18 - a 1991 red Chevrolet pickup. It didn’t take long for it to sit ... idle ... not functioning ... dead. The truck became true testament to a favorite saying of mine, “Never buy a used car (or anything used) from a relative.” Robert learned the hard way.
In less than seven months, it became that black hole where his money kept disappearing. If it wasn’t an errant water pump, it was something else, culminating with an engine fire (the electrical wiring went haywire) on a trip to his old hometown over Spring Break. He was understandably downcast about the whole thing. He spent good money, working long hours to earn, and he still owed his cousin a considerable amount for the piece of junk that sat in the front yard for the longest time – a memorial to what might have been.
Unfortunately, wise words from fathers are seldom heeded.
“How many miles does it have?” his father asked upon purchase.
“At 100,000, but they aren’t ‘hard’ miles, only driven on highways,” was the response.
“Robert, miles are miles because it’s all the same in terms of engine wear,” the father retorted. “Are you sure about this?”
“I know what I’m doing,” was Robert’s final thought on the matter.
My other daughter, Lisa, bought a huge pickup truck to move to Oklahoma City right after high school, but we did not realize the length and difficulty of the trip. The truck’s engine literally blew up and with it went her first automotive ownership experience, as well as most of her money. Lisa learned the hard way.
When I stepped off the Trailways bus in 1976 in Conroe, I knew immediately that four-wheel transportation (not a bicycle or walking) would be essential. But at $140 a week starting pay, the Bentley I desired was kinda out of the question. So another $25 was plunked down on a powder blue 1964 Ford Fairlaine that could not be started in park (the transmission needed to be in neutral and I had to jiggle the lever with one hand while turning the ignition with the other), got less than 8 miles to the gallon and had a footprint for a gas pedal.
It belched smoke and sounded like a sick bovine in heat. When you stepped on the foot pedal, the front end lurched up and forward and took off like a bandit. It was ugly, but what did you expect for $25?
Since that time, I’ve gone through minivans, SUVs, station wagons, small Japanese pickup trucks and four-door sedans for family use. But nothing can replace the feeling and memories of that very first car, whose existence in your life came directly out of your own pocket.
Perhaps Kelsey won’t have to learn the hard way. Hers (hopefully) will actually work.
Then again, it’s a used car. Her first. And the odds say otherwise.

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