"Merton & Ruth Bogart," photographer unknown, March 1961. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 001-8600.

The Middle Distance 5.4.12: Four-Wheel Affairs

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Photo by Sean Cayton

On a recent airplane trip, the tiny television screen just in front of my crammed knees played over and over, in a continuous loop, an ad for luxury SUV’s. Three multi-raced, fashionable and young American couples test-drove and debated the merits of a BMW, a Lincoln, and a Lexus. The subliminal message was clear: you are what you drive.

I know it’s politically incorrect in this era of $4 per gallon gasoline and a fossil fuel crisis to confess love for a car, but because we are Americans, most of us, unless we grew up in New York City, have been in relationship with a car. We remember four-wheel affairs that fell flat, and plenty that were merely serviceable — dependable, reliable, and dull. But if we are honest, many of us have to admit that at one point in time, we had a fling with a car that thrilled us.

I couldn’t help but wonder where these young couples got enough money, in the middle of this Great Recession, to buy $50,000 cars. The cars my husband and I drove when we were first married were his ten-year old giant green 1960s Buick, and a Chrysler New Yorker, older and even bigger, passed on to us by my husband’s grandfather when he died. We floated down the streets of Memphis in those long cars that moved like slow boats over water. The Chrysler was an object of curiosity for passengers. It was equipped with hand controls for the brakes and gas pedal; my husband’s grandfather had been wheelchair-bound and paraplegic since his military service in World War II. I could drive it with no feet, and comfortably fit five wiggling little girls from the Girls Club where I worked across the back seat. Don’t even ask about seat belts.

Both of those cars expired in the parking lot of our apartment complex, and we had to pay a tow truck driver to take them away to the car cemetery.

As our fortunes changed over the years, so did our cars. In our lean early years, we bought a used Datsun that over-heated every time we drove it the 200 miles from our home in Nashville to visit family in Memphis. We kept gallon milk jugs filled with water in its shallow trunk.

The year we moved to Hawaii, where my husband would work for a government hospital and draw a steady salary, we splurged wildly and bought the car I loved most, a yellow Volkswagen Rabbit convertible. Every morning I put the top down, loaded up my daughter, and zipped down the H-1 freeway through Honolulu to our respective schools. In the afternoons, we drove the long, circular route home around Diamond Head, up the coast to Waimanalo and around to Kailua, then across the Pali Highway and through the clouds to our cinder block housing at the top of a mountain above a pink hospital. That car remained my great love and became my daughter’s first car more than a decade later.

I remember the let down of having to switch from a sporty convertible to a functional Toyota mini-van when our needs, in the middle years of our marriage, included enough room and adequate hardware to secure three plastic baby seats. It was a fine, safe car, a bore that smelled more often than not like spit-up milk.

Two years before our marriage ended, flush with cash and relocated to the Wild West of Colorado, we drove his-and-her black Jeep Cherokees, mine a ragtop, his a hardtop. The Jeep was like the good-looking, muscle-bound guy in high school you went out with because you didn’t really know what was beneath the hood. The romance was short-lived.

My sons, sweaty soccer and hockey players with massive bags of equipment, picked out my post-divorce car on a Saturday afternoon in a used car lot: a white Dodge Caravan with bordello red plush seats. I think they chose it for its prominent and numerous cup-holders. It was my work-horse, shuttling loads of boys to playing fields for years, until it threw a rod one summer morning, just as we were cresting the mountain pass before Buena Vista. A nice tow-truck driver hauled us back to Colorado Springs.

Out here in the middle distance, I have enjoyed a ten-year, 100,000-mile relationship with a red Subaru. It rarely surprises me, has never taken my breath away, and always starts on a dime. The acceleration’s not bad either. What else could I want at this stage of the game? It’s the car I’ve been looking for all my life.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


11 Responses to The Middle Distance, 5/4/12: Four-Wheel Affairs

  1. julia says:

    I am driving the older sibling, a red 17 year old Subaru with 160,000 miles on it. Your feelings on your Subie echo mine exactly, and I don’t apologize for it anymore.

  2. Rose Enyeart says:

    I drive a Honda Accord, wonderful, trustworthy, and still dream of a 2 seat, convertible, sports car!!!

  3. Eve Tilley says:

    I definately “am my cars”. One is a big old 1991 black Mercedes “saloon” and the other is my new 1984 “time machine” Morgan – still built today by hand in England and still impossibly fun and hard to drive. All my bases are covered. My husband drives a truck! Thanks for the trip down memory road.

  4. Desiree Lipka says:

    Silver Mustange Convertable…what a magnet!!

  5. Cate Boddington says:

    Kathe- I love this article, especially imagining you driving with your daughter in Hawaii, such fun, but also because it brought to mind how important (and disapointing) some of my cars have been to me. My first car- a green Ford F-100 pickup- made me cowgirl-tough and I drove it many times to college in Vermont and back, where, in the John Denver era,I couln’t have been cooler. Tim had a Pacer but fell in love with him anyway. His Rabbits for salesman driving bored me, the first minivan was ho-hum, the huge four row seat van was terrifying to drive and ugly, my beloved white with fake wood-paneled sides Ford Luxury station wagon with burgundy plush seats”My Doris Day Mobile” was heaven to glide serenely around town, despite being filed with loud stinky kids, and the first car I ever bought with my own money, my “Kids are Grown No More Taco Bell in the Seats” car, a brand new!! Toyota Corolla thrilled me for a few years but now seems boring, staid,conventional. And the Pacer Guy drives an awesome BMW convertable! Almost forgot to mention the years of used Explorers that ended up being handed down to the kids. Thanks, Kathryn!

  6. hannahfriend says:

    The car companies are always trying to sell us the idea that a new car is the best car. The opposing point of view is that the best car is the one that you’ve kept going for the longest time. My husband has always prided himself on keeping our cars running via continuous small repairs, ’til he knows each one intimately.

  7. Liz says:

    My best and first car was a yellow 1971 Volkswagon squareback – not a bug but a “beetle”. It was my mother’s car and my dad wanted me to have it in college so that I wouldn’t need to rely on my boyfriend to get me around! I drove it until the floor rusted out, and if it was raining, you had to take of your shoes or they would get wet from the sloshing of water that sprayed in from the road. I eventually sold it to another boyfriend, and I’ve missed it ever since!

  8. Eva says:

    My first car was a baby blue ex-police car that my parents bought at auction as their first car in America. Ford Custom, and yes, it overheated frequently enough that I too had a five-gallon jug of water behind the front seat, and used that water at least once a month. But I’m lucky enough to have my favorite-ever car right now – a Yaris that my boyfriend regularly, jokingly attempts to squash because of its bug-like looks and I’ve named Cleo because its bright blue and scarab looks remind me of ancient Egypt. Runs like a dream and sips gas drop by drop..

  9. Soph says:

    My first car was a 77 Datsun Nissan S30 Fairlady Zebra hardtop. It was riddled with bullet holes but I loved it, though. I named it Herbie because it talked but I later renamed it Kit because it mostly wanted to talk about crime-fighting.

  10. John says:

    My first car that wasn’t a family hand-me-down was a white 1994 Subaru Legacy. That car lasted until I was involved in a car accident in 2005. I’m hoping my latest car, a red 2005 Subaru Impreza will last at least twice as long.

    • Kathryn says:

      My red Subaru is an Impreza, 2002. Made me understand the term “zippy” when applied to cars.


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