Monthly Archives: November 2019

Me and the Automobile (Part 5 of 5)

Back to the Academy

My first trip in the car was to visit my mother at Copeland Oaks senior center in Sebring, Ohio. The first sign that something was amiss was that the car became almost uncontrollable in even the lightest snow. The second was that the 700-mile round trip ground half the tread off one of the front tires, part of a new high-performance set. The alignment shop couldn’t do a thing with it—because, as it turned out, the car had been in a serious accident which had all but severed the principal structural member of the chassis on the driver’s side, and bent the front cross-member on which the engine and front wheel assemblies were mounted. I got the structural member from BMW in Munich and found the cross-member in a U.S. junkyard. The reconstituted car was a wonder. It didn’t seem to run just right until it got up to about 95 mph—and that attracted patrolmen even on what had appeared to be empty highways. I collected more speeding tickets with that car than with all the others combined—all of them while planning calls with colleagues en route to Caterpillar, Growmark, Archer Daniels Midland and other Central Illinois clients or prospects of First Chicago.


When I proposed to the lawyer that we share the cost of the reconstruction—which I thought generous—he claimed to know nothing of the defect. When I wondered how that could be, he fell back on his Black’s law Latin and asked me whether I knew the meaning of caveat emptor. I left his office in silence, realizing that, once again, I had been diddled—and wondering whether I could ever diddle as brazenly, and how I would live with the memory if I did. I had been noticing at about that time that many of the folk I met in the commercial world were much more intently focused on their own particular “business” (as was the lawyer) than was I upon mine. I had been moving toward the conclusion that this was because they assumed that they were in charge of their lives; I knew that fortuna and a karma that I suspected as both fleeting and fragile were in charge of mine. God had not yet reentered the picture, although hints of his second coming (to me) were beginning to show up. In any case, I have ever thereafter really enjoyed bad-lawyer jokes.


The BMW was the first car whose mechanical care and maintenance I relinquished almost entirely to the manufacturer. (I set the valve-stem clearances occasionally, but that was it.) It was also the car that entered me among those of modest means who got round from place to place in really good but necessarily used cars. I left it to Ellie as part of the divorce settlement. I’m not sure she ever drove it; it served, rather, as the first permanent occupant of the parking space we bought when we moved from Gambier to Chicago. Before the BMW, it had become a putative guest space, first come, first served.


The Big Beamer’s successor—a Ford Taurus SHO—was the first brand new car I ever had the use of. I chose it as my “company car” when I signed on in 1988 as Treasurer of Tonka Corporation. It caught my eye at the Chicago Car Show of 1987. It was driven by a dangerously powerful Yamaha V-6 through a manual transmission and was fully skirted about two inches lower than the long-suffering standard Taurus. I encountered several valet  operations during my Tonka employment that were mystified by the functional separation of clutch and transmission—and a couple that were utterly fascinated by the car. Ford recalled the SHO  a little after its first birthday to replace its 6-inch clutch disc with a 7-inch one that was able without “slipping” to handle the Yamaha’s torque.


Even while I continued in Tonka’s employment and the SHO remained in my care,  I indulged a desire that had been rising in me ever since the rehabilitation of the BMW 700, viz., to own the BMW coupe of the day, the 635csi. The Minnetonka dealership to whom I gave the assignment found on the third try a European version of the model, red with white upholstery and about 20k miles.  I thus acquired the greatest ride of my life—on wet or dry pavement clear of snow or ice. Otherwise, its rear-wheel drive and perfect front-rear weight balance turned it into an ice skate with a mind of its own. On one occasion, I was within 5 miles of a visit to my mother at Copeland Oaks in Sebring, Ohio when the coupe took it upon itself to execute a couple of figure eights on a fortunately empty uphill gradient of a highway and slid sedately into the median valley between the four lanes. A pickup truck with four-wheel drive threw me a rope and dragged me along the valley until his momentum and my speed-enabled traction allowed me to ascend onto the berm. I gave the driver the only $20 bill I had. When he noticed how profoundly embarrassed I was, he accepted it cheerfully and went on up the road looking for other victims of the weather. (A profiteering Publican—for whom I was very grateful!)


And so I went off into the most extensive unemployment hiatus of my life, almost 18 months, with two great cars—the SHO and the 635CSI. I had very little use of either as conveyances. But the BMW was a great touring car, and I had the time to have a good look at the Driftless region of southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and northern Iowa; at the Kettle Moraine in northcentral Wisconsin; at the bird sanctuaries of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County; at Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Of course, my sharpest memories of these ventures were of the actual touring—of passing a dozen vehicles at one fell swoop on a two-lane road in northeastern Wisconsin (and doing it at a sedate 95 mph), or spinning smoothly up and down through three or four gears on a twisty ascending road. It wasn’t about getting out into the countryside; it was all about driving out into the countryside. The scenery was the road itself, not what I could see from it.


I favored the BMW for these outings. And the SHO overcame its redundancy about half way through the year-and-a-half between finishing up with Tonka and starting up with Pacific Lutheran University: Daughter Kelly came into need of a “new” car, and the Ford met the need—and then some!


The 635 went into the moving van with the rest of my stuff to Tacoma and PLU in February of 1993. It would have been a great drive, but I didn’t have time for it. As I expected, the car’s marque and spectacular finish gave rise to considerable speculation in Tacoma concerning its owner. I considered putting it in storage and driving something drab and inexpensive instead but decided to establish my identity in the university by means of my actions in helping Loren Anderson reverse its falling fortunes. The initial array of these entailed relieving several senior administrators of their positions, cancelling or postponing projects, and transferring authority for significant spending even for budgeted items from departments to me. We thus escaped in the last half of the Fiscal Year 1983 about half the deficit guaranteed for that year by the University’s budgetary obfuscation of its straightened circumstance in wildly wishful enrollment projections. We used these immediate savings to convince the rating agencies that we were on the mend, and traced enough of them to voluntary efforts in the departments and divisions to make the financial resurgence of the university a communal rather than a leadership project. Only a couple faculty sang the old, familiar refrain of administrative dehumanization of the academy that was being accomplished by the “invasion” of corporate “suits” practicing profit-hungry capitalism. I tried my best—not at all helped by my possession of the 635—to  convince these reactionaries of the wisdom of Peter Drucker’s remark that “profit is the cost of doing business in the future”!


Meanwhile, the 635 attracted dozens of admiring remarks and purchase offers in gas stations or at stop lights. I worried that its red color and reputation as a fast and great-cornering car would mislead my new colleagues into thinking me brash, arrogant, or rich. In fact, those with whom I worked most closely admired the car without transferring much of their approval of it to me. I had to win their embrace by the reformed manner and improving accomplishments of my work—which given the obvious connections between PLU’s financial circumstance and the deleterious practices of my predecessors was easily demonstrated. The whole experience opened me quite effectively to the blandishments of Vocation as a strategy for right living, an introduction which grew immediately out of President Anderson’s entrusting to me the drafting of the rationale of his Strategic Planning initiative.


Four and a half years after arriving at PLU, I turned in the 635 as well as Anne’s middle-aged Buick on a three-year old Mercedes E-class. Anne had always wanted just such a car. She claimed to prize it as “safe”—as I had prized the 635 as eminently “driveable”!  It was hard for her to admit that the Mercedes proclaimed her ascent from homemaking and childbearing to Certified Public Accountant—the profession she obtained after the collapse of her marriage to finance the raising and education of her children. The opportunity to trade in the BMW as well as the Buick for the Mercedes came with Augsburg College’s offer to me of its presidency in Minneapolis in August, 1997.


Although the Mercedes was much better in the snow than the BMW, the rear-wheel drive they shared made neither one good for Minnesota winters. But we took advantage of the moment to get Anne what she had long wanted with little hope of getting—in part because I could get an Audi A6 Quattro as my College Car when we actually reached Minneapolis.  Over the course of my presidency, I leased two such cars, each for three-year terms,  interrupted by a similar arrangement for a front-wheel drive S80 Volvo (the largest and most comfortable of the three cars, despite its lesser traction: great seats, large cabin, plenty of supercharged pep). But I “heard” Audi’s 4-wheel drive “calling” me yet more persuasively. (I have entertained friends on several occasions with the possibly-mythological report—on principle, I have never “researched” it—that the German name of the original owner of the company manufacturing the Audi meant “to hear”. Eventually, he sold the company and agreed, in exchange, to leave off participating in the market in his own name. Hence, he resumed his calling by naming the new venture in Latin! (German, to say nothing of Latin, lends itself to this sort of thing. Consider Martin Luther’s colleague and sometime friend Phillip, making his way from Schwartzerd to the Greek Melanchthon as he moved from Heidelberg to join Luther at Wittenberg.  So far as I know, the names of no other autos have ever been as attentive to the characteristics of the autos themselves. “Jaguar” is close!


The Volvo sedans were not regularly fitted with either standard transmissions or all or four-wheel drive when my time at Augsburg was up in 2006. I therefore turned the 2003 automatic A6 Quattro back to the dealership and went looking—and actually found—a 2003 A6 with a six-speed manual transmission. It was silver into the bargain—as though it may have needed no more dress than the naked metal of which it was composed.



In the 13 years since I left Augsburg, the  “new” Audi has carried Anne and me to the Norwegian colleges and universities in the Upper Midwest in (the largely frustrated) search for a sustained program of student and faculty exchange with Norway that would have made both of us more cosmopolitan;  to the members of the Minnesota Private College Council to drum up (a satisfying modicum of)  support for the first Liberal Arts, English Language, Church-related small college in 21st Century China;  to Tacoma, Washington, to serve a one-year appointment as Interim Dean of  the (somewhat roguish) Pacific Lutheran University School of Business; to the principal tour destinations on the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas to demonstrate the (really seductive) charms of the Pacific Northwest to the  candidates  for a  “permanent” successor  dean of the School of Business (who might  bring the School a little closer to the University’s heel); to potential investors in a (never-to-see-the light of day) senior center on a decommissioned golf course on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University; back to St. Paul for a two-year stint as (the modestly successful but embattled) Interim Chief Financial Officer of Luther Seminary, the  largest of 8  seminaries of the ELCA which had fallen into  a financial quagmire caused by the decline of church attendance (and church leadership) in the U.S.; back out to the Pacific Northwest for the grand sail of the 1953 Loki-class Sparkman and Stephens  yawl, Irolita, (that I had bought in 2009) to Desolation Sound in the Inside Passage to Alaska, and back, finally, to  Minnesota, first to St. Paul and then to Red Wing for what we hoped would be (but wasn’t) permanent retired residence on the Mississippi.


At about midway in what is now the car’s sixteen-year road life, it became more expensive to keep it running in good order than its market value could cover. It was at that point, and on the verge of spending several thousands on a clutch and a couple other vital operating components,  that I adopted for myself as well as the car a new philosophy: I was going to keep both of us going long enough to be declared antiques—entities from an earlier era that could not fairly be held accountable for the sins of the current one (but which drew praise for weathering advancing age gracefully).  Some days—while singing an anthem strongly and on key, or after writing a good paragraph—this has seemed a wise and fulfilling philosophy. On other days—when avoiding more active friends to indulge the need of a nap, a stint in the Hot Tub, or a session with Aristotle, Luther or Hannah Arendt—I only wish I could shake off the guilt of my stopping out!


In either case, I get to run my errands in a beautiful, smooth-running, stick shift from another era, indeed (dare I say it?), from a better world—made better by expanding the coverage of the lessons of the 4-H Tractor Service and Maintenance seminar (principally that understanding the design of a thing enables the repair of it), and noticing and celebrating the presence of friends in the disguise of those bearing jumper cables in their travel kits.

Me and the Automobile (Part 4 of 5)

From the Professoriate to the Corporation

Driven by this peculiar form of the reputational demon, I found and acquired a two-year old 164E, Volvo’s first luxury sedan. It answered perfectly to the purpose. She, too, was blue, but with a powerful six-cylinder, fuel-injected, dual exhaust, engine; a four-speed “short stick” manual transmission with electric overdrive, and the first leather-upholstered saloon cabin of my acquaintance. I immediately lowered the new car slightly, added stiffer struts and shock absorbers, wider alloy wheels and “high performance” Pirelli tires (attractive as much for the brand name as for their quality).  Again, I was the envy of those at the college who knew anything at all about exotic cars and accessories,  and of and for Volvos in particular.


But I acquired the 164E to declare independence of my colleagues, not to win their admiration. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to mute the sneaking conviction that my falling enrollments were my fault, not that of the College’s marketing and enrollment strategies. I certainly felt that  I was beginning to lose the nascent and unnamed competition with those with whom I joined the college. For all of us—and, we suspected, for the administration and for students—this competition was measured in enrollments and other less leading indicators of popularity. (My efforts to overcome my sense of inadequacy were not yet successful enough to immunize me from this terrible tyranny.) And so I began seeking the kind of study opportunities that abound in academe—ones that convene in warm, exotic places; that give you a chance to show off with a paper or “keynote” speech; that are funded by one’s employer because they provide “professional development”. In short, ones that would carry me out of (rather than around in) Gambier for a Summer, a semester or a year.


My first strike was a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar at the University of Georgia on the Idea of Privacy in the Western Tradition. (One could still openly study Judeo-Christianity and even the “dead white males” who contributed to it—although such preoccupations had already become faintly suspicious.) But it was exciting to find in the universities libraries in Athens, GA, in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, affirmation that child-bearing in what Tocqueville called “the European monarchy” was a public or civil, not a private, matter. After all, it distributed legal responsibility for the environment (via Riparian Rights and the Prevailing Lights Doctrine, for example) and of property management in general. Mere reference to such observations is currently inadmissible by either the friends or the foes of abortion!


This initial strike led to the mother lode—Directorship of the 1980-81 Newberry Library Program in the Humanities in Chicago, on the Idea of Privacy in the Western Tradition. The resulting encounter with Chicago was so fascinating that I landed what I interpreted as “trial” employment  as a “credit trainee” at the  First National Bank of Chicago in the Summer of 1981. It went well enough that I journeyed to Gambier the following Fall to decide  in the familiar surroundings of the College and its Department of Political Science which path I would take into the future. The answer was left entirely up to me. I chose banking. Its appeal lay entirely in its being the path less taken!


The 164E bore me through the NEH Seminar at the University of Georgia and on into Chicago for the Newberry Library program with smooth power and fine balance. It was a wonderful, perhaps even a great, car. It bore its wide stance, stiffened suspension, and powerful purr with aplomb over West Virginia’s twisting, switch-back roads and through the  Gaps in which had arisen the extraordinary figure of Doc Watson and the sophisticated furniture industry of North Carolina. The car stumbled only once; during a weekend trip from Georgia to Charlestown, SC,  she sprang a fuel leak as I entered the town of Aiken, South Carolina. One of the injectors had failed. The 164E’s mechanical formulae and ratios were directed by an on-board computer, thus releasing me from maintaining the supply of replacement parts required by its predecessor (and from even the pretense of being the car’s mechanic). Nevertheless, I got an injector from a Volvo shop before the fuel-tank emptied or the car caught fire, and installed it in 110 degree temperatures in an asphalt parking lot in Aiken. By the time I finished the job, I was standing 4” deep in the asphalt. After I extracted both feet and shoes from the pavement, I finished the trip to Charleston and back to Athens, trouble free. High point of the trip? Touring The Battery by horse-drawn buggy at a slow saunter. No car can do it as well.


The 164E’s tank-like construction (it presaged the square, blunt form of the 240 series, without the squareness and bluntness) saved the life of son Sam and a couple of his friends. They were attacked by a pickup truck in the grip of road rage as they set out for home from a concert in Kent, Ohio—the host city of  Kent State University. The truck rode up over the rear bumper and crumpled the bodywork and upper structural members of the chassis forward to the cushions of the back seat—at which point the principal structure of the car blocked the A-frames and steering assembly of the truck from making any further progress in peeling the body work off the car. Although the truck and perhaps even its occupants may not have been entirely injury-free, they left the scene with greater alacrity than could Sam and his entourage. Nevertheless, before the night was out (and after several ‘phone calls to select a convenient (i.e., patrol-free) route home and to determine that the transmission and brakes could still be operated, at least minimally) the mangled Volvo turned up in Gambier. Its passengers struck me as “chastened”. I still don’t know what precipitated the incident—and wouldn’t have been at all surprised to learn that a part of it had been an America First attitude among callow midwestern pickup truck users in the “town” who despised its “gown” for precipitating the governor’s much earlier invitation of the National Guard. In any case, I didn’t report the incident and found a back-yard body worker who did a fine job restoring the car.


Hence, the 164E lived on, only to meet its doom at the hands of son Sam two years later. He was home from his Freshman year at Dartmouth, and helping us get what we needed from Gambier to Chicago’s Gold Coast for the year at the Newberry Library.  The incident that “totaled” the 164E  was a collision precipitated by a Yellow Jacket hornet that entered the cabin through an open window on a hot August day and harassed either Sam or the girl whom he had “recruited” to help with the work. Again, no one was seriously hurt, but two automobiles—one an extraordinary driving machine, indeed—were presumably retired forever from the nation’s highways.

A car that I asked Sam to lease the very next day, to finish the moving errands he’d started, met very nearly the same fate in very nearly the same way. A bee (perhaps yesterday’s Yellow Jacket wishing to repeat the experience?) tortured the same recruit, I was told—thus distracting the same driver with a similar consequence. I reported the cash I paid for the damage to the rental-car agency as an “insurance loss”. The IRS saw it, instead, as a “gift” to Sam to cover his responsibility for the injury to the rental. That pretty completely drained me—of morale as well as cash—and Sam and I agreed that running the Newberry’s Book Store on furlough from Dartmouth in 1980-81 (an opportunity generously offered us by the Library’s directors) would be good preparation for his taking fuller advantage of his matriculation. He did a nice job of it, as all of us noticed, and graduated in good standing a year after those with whom he entered as a Freshman.

Although Ellie and I were by then separated, I drove her and her mother up to Hanover from Chicago for the Commencement. I was car-less at the time, and the three of us floated down I-90 in a rented Lincoln Town Car. It was so wide that I expected to hear scrapping sounds as we made our way through turnpike toll booths. It was so long that I was able to escape overhearing the conversation between Ellie and her mother—into which I was not in any case invited.

One sign that the bookish part of Dartmouth never really got Sam’s attention was that the College refused to give him his  diploma until his book-store debt (most of it for skiing equipment, with the use of which he broke a leg) had been settled.  I refused to pay it off–until his grandmother proposed to do it, instead. (Most other of my cash “gifts” to Sam were to cover ministrations to those for whom he cared but to whom he had no moral or legal obligation. I admire his character on this point, suspect that he got part of it from me, and wish that both of us could better afford it.

When I stayed in Chicago at the end of the Newberry year, instead of returning to my Kenyon professoriate, I went without a car of my own for three years. I didn’t really need one. I was living inside the Chicago Loop very near my employer, the First National Bank of Chicago. Renting to visit my mother in Ohio was convenient, although it restricted me to conventional, uninteresting machines. (Trains and sometimes planes kept me in touch with my college-enrolled children.) And then, when my new career began showing promise, I re-entered –and was again thrown back from—the luxury car market. This time it was a five-year-old BMW 700. It was big, powerful, quiet, smelled “new” and seemed flawless in both appearance and performance. The purchase seemed one among friends; the car had been offered exclusively within the Bank by one of First Chicago’s in-house lawyers.

Me and the Automobile (Part 3 of 5)

From the Public to the Private; from Journalism to Political Science

It took three days and two sleepless nights each week to write, publish and distribute (illegally on campus, by the way!) The Spokesman. Within 8 issues, I utterly exhausted my financial and physical capacities. Eleanor Omoto, whom I had met during my reportage of Ohio State’s student government, agreed to become my wife—just in time to save me from what I’m sure would have otherwise been a total breakdown.  She carried me through the spiraling burnout of The Spokesman, and we fled together the smoking ruins of what I had meant to be my finest hour. We started a family and went to Hawaii to give this new life, and a second (third?) effort to combine success—this time—with self-acceptance,  rather than primarily the acceptance of my peers.  It worked!


Ellie had been born on Pu’unene Sugar Plantation on Maui, down in the “waist” of the island between Haleakala and Wailuku Heights. Her Nisei parents escaped the plantation well before Pearl Harbor for employment in the Maui County public schools. They sent Ellie to the mainland for a college education that most immigrant families in Hawaii were sure would be superior to any available in the islands. Our marriage and flight to Hawaii allowed me to escape in the reverse direction a  censure more painful than my father’s when the tractor wouldn’t start—that of my fellow ideologues. Many of them had declared the launch of The Spokesman “premature” and its editor/publisher “naïve”. Both observations were true, but they came as burning criticism from those who had conspired with me to undertake such “precipitate actions” as founding The Spokesman—actions of the sort that all of us agreed was the only way to break America out of its “stultifying conservatism”. Their criticism made the magazine even more exclusively mine, and I imagined that its collapse amounted to my own political and intellectual—even my personal—demise.


To overcome the pain—to “put it behind me”, so to speak—I enrolled in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii soon after my arrival in Honolulu.  On the strength of my familiarity with cars (and with the help of friends of Ellie’s family), I got a job at a gas station and used it in part to fix up a derelict car that got me to my classes and job, and Ellie to and from the maternity ward for the births of the two Hawaii-born of our three children.


In both my initial encounter with it,  and in its resuscitated form, the car and I shared a great number of similarities.  It was a 1948 Plymouth 4-door sedan which had been left (abandoned?), along with its papers, six-years earlier by its abruptly emigrating owner. I found it reposing unused, unwashed and unwanted against the curb in a quiet residential neighborhood near Punahou School. The émigré’s designee as the car’s keeper (disposer?) offered me its title and exclusive use if I could get the car running and off his hands by qualifying it for current (1960) license tags. The night job I had just landed at a Waikiki 24-hour service station was fortuitous; the midnight shift was a good time—in that life it was really the only time—to read my political science assignments, study Chinese, work on the Plymouth, and bring both of us back to and into life.


When it was ready to take to the road, the car demonstrated a deficiency which I had under-estimated: It made too much of its own passage. It sent a potpourri of smoky crankcase and exhaust emissions into the driving compartment, especially on long-uphill pulls. My mother-in-law was rightly convinced that these emissions were unhealthy for Baby Sam and embarrassing for her. Noticing that the obnoxious fumes persisted, she came to suspect, I think, that as a mechanically-inclined “haole” male, I had a taste for them. .


In fact,  the defect was too expensive to fix. It was exacerbated by Chrysler Corp’s fluid-drive, which would lift the Plymouth inch-by-inch the two city blocks from the floor of the Manoa Valley to our diminutive apartment (an illegal 3rd unit in a duplex) more or less straight up the “Ewa” face of Mount Tantalus only under full throttle. (On Oahu, the town of Ewa marked one of the four compass points. Its opposite was “Diamond Head”, and Mauka and Makai—“mountains” and “sea”, respectively–were the others. I was never able to replace this Oahu Compass with the unerring sense of the four cardinal directions that I had carefully cultivated to win the regard of my mentors on the farm.


We were as lucky in finding and renting our apartment as in having a car that could reach it. From a certain point on the final approach to it, we had a  fragmentary view of Waikiki Beach, about three miles down the Manoa Valley in the general direction of Diamond Head. A middle-aged couple lived next door who  convened a Hawaiian hootenanny every Saturday night, always including at least a dozen ukuleles, 20 or 30 wonderful voices and an extraordinary repertoire of native music. (With Ellie’s help and inspired by the hootenannies,  I learned in those days to strum chords in basic keys on a Martin ukulele that was part of her dowry, and began to sing songs to the children—mostly from my own youth but in a couple of cases from what she remembered or what we learned from the hootenannies of the native  repertoire.) Our immediate neighbors in the duplex had a Dachshund who lactated whenever her family baby-sat the infant Sam. Another neighbor monitored the Pineapple crop for the state Department of Agriculture—and provided us with a steady supply of the most extraordinary specimens of the fruit. The back yard contained a Liche, a Coconut and a Guava tree, and a hedgerow of Mountain Apple trees lined the driveway. What with the Papayas, Bananas, and Passion Fruit brought over from Maui by Ellie’s folks on visits to their hapa-haole grandchildren, half of our diet was thus supplied free of charge—except for the gratuitous child-rearing advice that came to us with every shipment from Maui.


The apartment consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The floor was Asphalt. Because there was no sink in the kitchen, we washed ourselves, our children and our dishes in the bathtub. It was affordable—and  we got permission to add a living room at our expense and without an increase in rent. (I and a couple of student friends mixed concrete in a wheelbarrow, using one of those big garden hoes with two big holes in the blade. We raised the floor of the area where we had once parked the Plymouth 4 inches (to keep out the daily drizzle known as Hawaiian Sunshine), and closed in the space with Jalousie windows. The new room doubled the size of the apartment and became the family bedroom, living room and study center.


Just after the Plymouth brought Ellie home with No. 2 child, daughter Kelly, in March, 1963, I replaced it with a second exotic (succeeding the much-missed Metropolitan)—a 1957 Volkswagen. It came from a fellow graduate student who was returning for employment to the mainland. It had a very small rear window, a “trunk” in the front and a 35 HP motor in the rear end, and could rise to the apartment in second gear without threatening its occupants with asphyxiation. The engine was air cooled, could be “timed” with the dome light (which was known in the family as the doom light, following the preferred pronunciation of an  East Springfield neighbor), and was great fun to drive. It was the right car for a life of modest ambition, of good discipline and efficient conduct, and of financial and professional sustainability.


Back to the Mainland

In fact, the Volkswagen became so much a part of the family that we shipped it to Seattle when we moved there for the University of Washington’s Ph.D. program in Political Science and Chinese Studies. Ellie cruised up to Vancouver  on a P&O Orient Liner with the 750 lbs. of our worldly goods, and I brought Sam and Kelly on Pan Am. We moved into Married Graduate Student Housing, a complex of 2 and 4-unit townhomes that had been built during the war to house the officer-families of a Naval Air Station on Lake Washington. (The base later became Seattle’s Magnuson Park; the housing continues to serve as it did in 1964.)


About a week after we arrived, we introduced Sam and Kelly to their first snowfall. We woke them at 3 a.m., dressed them in several layers of their Hawaiian duds, and let them slide screaming joyfully down the front yard into the parking lot on the first and perhaps only Seattle snowfall of that winter.


A couple of years into our Seattle residency, while stubbing out a cigarette in the dashboard ashtray, I slid the Bug into the rear of an Alfa Romeo in a rush-hour rainstorm—my first and so far only at-fault driving accident. The Volkswagen managed to bind the Alfa’s  emergency brake cable, thus blocking 5 o’clock traffic completely at a busy intersection—an embarrassment large enough to warrant (I thought) my committing the Beetle to the forceful removal of the Alfa to the road’s edge—at considerable additional cost to the VW’s front end. As was my habit even then, as the proud owner of old but still-working things, I saw to it that the damage was undiscoverable even to the closest inspection.


The perfected Bug often purveyed three of us students of modern China and the Soviet Union up to Vancouver, B.C. to rummage through its relatively uncensored book shops. On one of those occasions, and with the front end “boot” brazenly filled with Stalin’s collected works, we “confessed” at the border that we had, indeed, acquired while in Canada  two or three volumes of Mao’s writings—probably the most widely published and reprinted writings in human history.  The American border patrol officer, foregoing an investigation of the “boot”, asked whether we meant “books or Communistic literatures!” Despite our perfectly polite replies, Mao’s essays were confiscated and held at the border for the 90 days it took me to acquire from the State Department a narrowly construed, one-time import license for “communistic literatures”.


The VW carried Ellie, me and the two children up to Mount Ranier three or four times for hikes. I can still smell that clear, cool mountain air and see those long slopes and spectacular views from above the tree line. Once, we joined a caravan of budding political scientists on a three day tour of the principal attractions of the Olympic Peninsula—the Naval Station at Bremerton, the town of Port Angeles, the Hoh Rain Forest, Cape Flattery, the Pacific Coast, Lake Quinault. The trips to Mt. Rainier from Seattle required ascent of the Cascades. The VW’s 35 hp couldn’t muster itself and its four passengers up Snoqualmie Pass any better than in second gear at a top speed of 35 mph. Hence, we drove all the way up on the berm, with the kids begging the passing trucks for an air-horn toot or two. The experience taught me the automotive virtues of both power and traction.


Our life in Hawaii and Seattle was a blessed compound of beginnings—of family, of a new American statehood, of learning informed by (rather than informing) worldly experience, of learned beer-hall repartee cut off just as it began by high-decibel Rock-‘n-Roll, of friendships growing in the preparational hopefulness of student poverty. The right conveyance for us through all that was a carefully-maintained middle-aged model of The People’s Car.


The First Great Car

But I needed something bigger and, I’m sorry to confess, more enviable to convey us to my first teaching appointment—as Instructor in the Department of Political Science at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio beginning in the Fall of 1967. And the wish was granted far beyond my expectations. From the ’57 VW, I ascended all in one leap to a current year Volvo 122S, the station-wagon form of the Amazon series that marked the company’s signature effort to set the standard of automotive reliability and design authenticity for the new generation of the 1960’s. In fact, the car’s mechanical excellence and unpretentious appearance brought us to the new job in better dress, I then thought, than the job warranted. I arrived thinking (quite wrongly, as it turned out) that the education proffered by private, especially church-related, colleges (like Kenyon) ranked far below that offered by public universities (like the University of Washington, Hawaii or Ohio State) in pedagogy, curricular depth, and interest in and knowledge of the world and its ways. For the first time in my life, I wondered (very briefly!) whether the superiority of the car to the appointment meant that I had finally escaped my father’s censure, as well as the loss of The Spokesman and the several embarrassments of my early days in post-secondary education. For a slightly longer period, I took all of this as a sign that Kenyon was just the beginning of a career that was bound to rise steeply, moving as smoothly as did the Volvo at the behest of its beautiful mechanics.


The best feature of the Volvo was its engine. Known as the B18D, its four pistons were bolted to a five-main-bearing crankshaft (resulting in smoothness unheard of in ordinary passenger cars of the day). The cylinders were aspirated by intake and exhaust valves operated by an overhead camshaft and—wonder of wonders—fueled by two SU HS6 carburetors! I quickly acquired a vacuum meter and never started out on a trip of even modest length during its 12-year life without first tuning and coordinating those SUs.


The Volvo not only purveyed us and our worldly goods to Gambier; it actually introduced us to the town, and the town to us. When my sister-in-law and I agreed on the price of this magnificent car—she had little need of it, having just had a difficult delivery of her son and second child; our negotiations occurred in her hospital room—I called the People’s Bank of Gambier, and wondered how, as a prospective employee of Kenyon, I’d go about applying for a car loan. Bill Smith, the manager, asked me how much I’d need to purchase the car; where to wire the money; to call if I got stuck while making the trip, and to stop in after arriving for coffee and to arrange a repayment plan.  I thus recognized Bill as a Midwesterner of the sort I’d known as a kid. He owned a couple of harness horses and raced them at the county fairs in central Ohio. He drove them as he lent money—generously and with a quiet care for their health and welfare. I’m sure he was never charged with “cutting off” another horse while on the track—and would have disqualified himself in the event of even an accidental infraction. I  liked him, and especially my portrait of him, much more than the Eastern academics I eventually discovered among Kenyon’s faculty.


For 15 years, the Volvo (meaning  “I run!”) bore us through the trials of driver-training—self-administered for Ellie, when it was discovered that I lacked even the minimum patience for the job; for Sam (which was punctuated by a couple of mildly-damaging encounters with ditches along trooper-free gravel roads); for Kelly, obtained from her brother in between squabbles with him. Kate learned to drive in her ‘20’s, but acquired a fascination with good machinery from our ministrations to the 122S which continues to bind her to Volvo and the short-throw “stick shift” transmissions in its sport models.


The Volvo bore the five of us back to California for visits to Hawaii four times. One of these was “straight through”—with Ellie driving while I slept and vice versa. The children complained of every trip that the time between rest stops was far too extensive and that the space in the cabin for sleeping and playing was much too restricted by the spare parts inventory with which I insisted on traveling.  That expansive inventory assuaged the fear I had long ago felt of the tractors before the 4-H maintenance and repair program. With that inventory stowed in every nook and cranny of the Volvo on the verge of any driving trip of any length, I resembled the knight in Alice in Wonderland—so armed for battle that he couldn’t stay on his horse long enough to get to the battle field.


A liability of my high-anxiety trip-making was that I wondered what was likely to break next—would it be the jury-rigged tensioning arrangement on the fan belt, or the worn knuckle in the drive shaft?—and listened so intently for the answer that I really wasn’t available during the trip for either parenting or husbanding. I found the car’s  whisperings, mutterings and happy hums much more fascinating, unfortunately, than equivalent sounds from Ellie and the children. (Indeed, I have missed a good amount of my life by being constantly in a state of high anxiety! I caught the disease from my mother, who had a worse case than mine.)

Of the several trips to and from Los Angeles, the most interesting one mechanically was a return through the Mojave Desert to The Grand Canyon and across Interstate 80 to the Ohio Turnpike. An hour after hitting the road, an odd sound welled up from under the hood each time I decelerated—like a handful of marbles shaken in an empty  three-pound Maxwell House coffee tin.  My manuals led me to surmise that the fiber timing wheel had become warped enough to allow the valves to make light (thankfully!) contact with the pistons. The repair was beyond reach en route; it required a particular wheel puller as well as a new timing wheel and an installation that required perfect understanding of the firing order of the four cylinders. My anxiety levelled out at “super stress”,  and I drove 2200 miles at an average of 50 miles an hour, using the brakes rather than the transmission for all deceleration. The repair took me and Sam an entire week after we got home. Nothing ever matched the sense of satisfaction that we both felt when the engine started up and ran smoothly.


The whole experience—the loose marbles rattling in a coffee tin from LA to Gambier; the careful coordination of the distributor drive gear and timing wheel; the terrifying similarity of appearance between the warped and the pristine timing wheel—revealed what the jumper cables incident did, viz., that the old fear of the tractors had become a lack of confidence in other of my abilities. The entirely unreasonable hoarding of tools and spare parts didn’t really address this fear. Only the embrace of the friend bearing jumper cables could do that.


After the first service of the Volvo in Ohio—in Mansfield, about an hour north of Gambier—I (with the eventual help of son Sam) maintained the car and made all necessary and discretionary repairs and modifications. It never again found itself in the hands of a professional mechanic, not even after 150,000 miles and in its tenth year when we rebuilt the engine from a “junked” 122 and substituted it for the original. Thereafter, she took to the road with renewed vigor but with a good number of cosmetic blemishes on her chrome and paintwork.


This mechanical self-sufficiency was adapted to the Volvo from the tractors to overcome a new challenge: the bullying that Kenyon’s privileged students and faculty seemed to practice upon emigres to their privileged Eastern culture. Their presumptuousness and airs of superiority produced in me the equivalent of the weakness and inadequacy I felt with my father before enrollment in the Tractor Maintenance and Repair Class. And the self-sufficiency  supplied me at Kenyon, as it had earlier on the farm, with an island of control-through-understanding from which I could launch the pilot ships that were to find my of my quest for vocation, originally as farmer and son, and now as professor and inquirer (a form of studentship that required a neologism to distinguish it from the generic enrollment of high schools, colleges and universities)


But just as I put the latter pair of these firmly on course, I was beset with new doubt concerning my mastery of them; just as I accepted as both accurate and warranted my emergent reputation as a “deep thinker”, a “tough and respected teacher” from whom the most promising students were told by their mentors “to take at least one class”—I was suddenly beset with a new case of self-doubt. It was marked (dare I say “caused”?) by declining enrollments in my upper division discretionary courses and a palpable reduction in the joy I had come to feel in teaching them. I secretly suspected this as personal failure, but I explained it publicly as Kenyon’s fault—its weak recruiting strength; the anti-intellectualism of the soft-drug culture that had flourished on campus after Vietnam; the grade inflation that had escalated when faculty teaching skill came to be measured by the admission to their students to the most prestigious graduate and professional schools.


I decided that I needed to “get ahead” of my colleagues to quell the rising sense of personal failure. I concluded, in some obscure corner of my consciousness, that a “new” car would help, one as unique and admirable as the 122S had been 10 years earlier.

Me and the Automobile (Part 2 of 5)

From Rustic Christianity to Humanism

Between high school graduation in 1956 and the early 1970’s, when I wakened to the need of my teen-aged children for religious education, I went to church about 20 times—when home for holidays and once for the baptism of each child.  And I made those visits in four distinct cars, each matched to the particular phases of a 15-year saga in which I searched among my peers—ultimately without finding—for a perfectly comfortable home and refuge. The first phase was as a pioneering farm environmentalist in the ’36 Ford sedan. The second was as an activist journalist adjourning the ‘50’s and inaugurating the ‘60’s in a ’57 Metropolitan. The third was as the father of an interracial family in an abandoned  ’47 Dodge. The fourth was a transition from academic expert on China to the first encounter with an exciting confusion that I have come to call “the Dialogue of Reason and Faith” in a  ’57 Volkswagen, a  ’67 Volvo P220 and a 1972 Volvo 164E.  This final phase marked my emergence from the fruitless effort to reconcile ambition with acceptance by my peers by way of a transition into a new form of  independence paradoxically entailing elements of sociality.


From time to time as I drove through those four stages, I both mourned the loss of my original dream of professional life—to emulate my maternal grandfather (whom I resemble physically more than any other member of the family) and become a Methodist pastor—and gratified to discover in the academic world that I was adopting instead certain equivalents of the abandoned theological dream—the classroom lectern seemed a surrogate pulpit; my best lectures amounted, I thought, to homilies, and my best essays to devotions. My life which had seemed fractured was beginning, especially in Stage 4,  to acquire signs of wholeness.


To get back to the phases: I got rid of the Ford and left off all interest in the farm when I discovered, out of the blue,  that I had a talent for journalism.  As I went scavenging among the ideologies that littered the campus for perspectives that could be pasted together into a Weltanschauung with which I might head off what was looking more and more like a second collegiate crisis, I took—and shined!—in a class associated with The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper. Almost immediately, I was made Chief Political Reporter and invited to publish a weekly column on the editorial page.


To mark this momentous occasion, I sold the Ford to a hotrodder who lived, as did I, in the residential compound built under the Ohio State Football Stadium—and invested the proceeds in the best-looking and best-engineered car of my college and early graduate-school days: a Nash Metropolitan. The Metropolitan was a diminutive, brightly two-toned (yellow and cream), English-built car. Its scintillating appearance matched the stardom obtained by the swelling frequency of my “Vern Frame” by-lines. And it seemed fitting that I, at 6’3”, should have such a small car. (And I was marginally conscious in acquiring the little car of taking my first environmentally-sensitive step toward a lighter Carbon footprint!) The Metropolitan was driven by a Morris 4 cylinder engine mounted cross-wise in front, thereby creating just enough room for a driver and one passenger. It was the Metropolitan’s tight design, size, distinctive appearance, and remarkable performance and efficiency that prejudiced me irretrievably in favor of European machines—and thus helped set me up for the as-yet undiscovered seminal scenes of the Renaissance, the Battle of the Books and ultimately the Reformation. This European bias explains even to this day my entirely unreasonable criticism of Japanese and Korean cars. The case against these was that they all too closely resembled what I saw as America’s boat-like cars.


But my life didn’t long deserve the Metropolitan. I was so thrilled by the praise I received from my readers that I missed the fact that it was for my opinions, not for my writing or thinking. Within a year of my quick rise to stardom, the advisors to the Lantern relieved me of both my reportorial and editorial assignments on the ground that I had become dogmatic, i.e., ideological. They were right.


At the time, however, I interpreted the censure as  a conservative conspiracy to weaken the kind of liberalism I was promoting in The Lantern—and I entered forthwith the second of the four phases. I sold the Metropolitan and invested the proceeds and every other liquid asset I could lay hands on in founding The Spokesman, a small 8-page weekly tabloid commenting (pontificating?) on the issues and events of the day—U.S.  policy toward Batista’s Cuba and, eventually, Guevara’s and Castro’s; the legitimacy of the Monroe Doctrine; the recalcitrance of the Ohio State administration in the face of student protest, etc., etc.

Me and the Automobile (Part 1 of 5)


On an icy day in the Winter of ’18, a friend with whom I had taken lunch insisted on walking me back to my car. We made it without incident, only to discover that I had drained the battery by leaving the lights on. I was immediately overwhelmed with the same sense of inadequacy and personal failure I felt in childhood and adolescence when I couldn’t complete my father’s directives because I couldn’t start a tractor or properly activate some machine critical for the assigned task. This was much more than embarrassment for leaving the lights on; it was a crushing, immobilizing sense of being utterly alone and helpless. But the friend started me up with “jumper cables” that were a regular part of his travel kit. With enormous gratitude, I said my goodbyes, and we set off in our separate directions.


The incident revealed a simple truth:  I feel as alone and afraid in my dotage as I did in my youth. And yet something has changed. For one thing, I’m not as immobilized by the fear as I once was. How and when did that change?  And is it possible that by digging into this a little deeper, even at this late date, I could overcome both the fear and the fiction (as the dead battery incident proves them to be) that have been inspiring it?


Guided by the fresh illumination shed by this incident, I’ll do my best to answer the two questions just above by charting the course of my life thus far by the cars I’ve owned. “Knowing” cars was important, indeed, to American boys my age—but I think knowledge of their “makes” and models was especially important to me; it put me on a par with the peers of whom I was otherwise afraid, and it gave me a competence superior to that of  father).


The Early Days

Most of my father’s disappointment in the adolescent and teenage me (and my own consequent sense of inadequacy) had to do with tractors—with the relative certainty that I couldn’t get them started, keep them going, or drive them through required tasks up and down the slick slopes of Appalachia without getting stuck or jack-knifing.


Of the three machines that took over the pulling and hauling jobs on the farm after the war from Dad’s beloved Percherons, one (a John Deere “B”) was started by spinning an external flywheel.   Another, understood as “mine”  (a battered Allis Chalmers with which I was to get the milk, which we shipped in five and ten-gallon cans, out to the end of the lane each day for pick up by the “milk truck” that took them to the creamery) was started with a crank inserted into the front of the engine. Only the “new” Co-op, purchased on credit from the Farm Bureau, had a battery (6 volt) and an electric starter. None of them ever started for me on the first try—nor, in the Winter months,  on the tenth!


I regarded the tractors as one with 1500-lb cows, 100-lb wire-tied bales of hay, 10-gallon cans of milk, and my father—when he was furious with fresh disappointment in me.  Except for him,  each of the large, heavy, uncontrollable entities on the farm seemed entirely careless of my or the farm’s welfare. Sometimes, they even went on the attack—the tractors, by back-firing when I still had hold of the crank or flywheel,  or running into a rock or frozen clod and suddenly steering straight into a snowbank or a slough. My father wished me well, but I suspect largely in the hope that my performance as his son would vindicate his own fatherhood and even, ultimately, his manhood. His particular “attacks” were said to repeat treatment to which he had been subjected by his father (after whom he and my mother named me). The “attacks” came as assignments to me, made in full view of his peers, of tasks patently beyond my strength.  Perhaps my incapacity to accomplish them confirmed an inadequacy that he had been told lay in himself. His mistreatment of me in these cases may very well have been an attempted catharsis that, unfortunately, yielded neither relief nor instruction. To this day, I wish we would have been given the time and wisdom to have figured each other out. Each of us had a deep interest in the other—amounting, I now think, to love—but we were kept from honest inquiry, he by his insecurities; I by my fear of his disappointment in me and of my own inadequacy.  In any case, he, the animals, the tractors and the impossible tasks constituted the chaotic forces to which my youth was subjected and which I constantly sought to domesticate.


It was my mother who mapped me out a route to this mastery.  She loved her husband,  cared for him as his nurse (to manage an anger that she knew or suspected was rooted in an extensive pre-marital bout with alcoholism), and protected herself and me (from him and from the exotic discomforts of life in Appalachia) by cultivating friendships with wives, mothers and colleagues who admired her Eastern sophistication and were gratified by her open-handed need of them. As a Methodist pastor’s urbane daughter, she undertook her protective befriending in the conviction that God loves all of us—including her frequently fearsome husband.


I believed (hoped?) that it was so—and developed a complicated liturgy to support this simple Faith.  If in cutting hay I made it around the field without breaking a knife or jamming the cutting bar, I repeated the pattern of prayer and song, both at the top of mylungs, that I had performed on that first circumnavigation. Another successful round, and I dared to think that Jesus did love me—but for just how long, or for how many more circuits? I’m sure my mother’s own Faith was more sophisticated and very strong, but she gave me confidence that God is Providential despite occasional evidence to the contrary, and that saw me through my youth, my long and continuing effort to satisfy my father, and the vicissitudes of an academic career immersed in and largely expected to comply with the Secular Humanism of the Enlightenment.


But what really began to grant me some semblance of control over my father and the other farm forces with which he seemed allied was a week-long Tractor Maintenance and Repair Program offered by the Jefferson County 4-H. Silently acknowledging what I was just beginning to realize (that my father knew no more about the internal workings of the tractors than I did), he signed me up for the course and then drove me the 30-miles there and back each day. (At age 11, I had been “stopped” on an Ohio highway by a State Trooper while running an errand in the farm Jeep, and neither my father nor I wanted to go through that again.)


I learned to clear vapor locks, clean and “gap” spark plugs, began to grasp the basic principles of ignition and carburetion, and even got a peek at clutch and brake assemblies. I graduated from that program as the budding master of the machines that had bullied and shamed me for years—and with a new and insistent sense of responsibility for their mechanical welfare and general appearance. This sense of responsibility was literally proprietary. It grew from the primary teaching of the 4-H program: Know how a thing works and you can keep it from breaking—and fix it if it does. (Later, I encountered a higher version of this principle which turned out to be applicable to the Liberal as well as the Mechanical Arts: Know the intention in the design of a literary work or of a device and you can teach the argument and explain the mechanism.) These and other insights of the 4-H program helped shape my eventual academic perspectives, making me, for example, critical of the basic Social Science axiom that people and institutions constitute “systems” (of inputs, outputs and feedback) just as mechanisms do. Despite a large quantum of  academic  uncertainty about what the human condition is and whether it is truly unique, I have never been convinced that the material and human worlds can be illuminated by a single methodology. But  most of my graduate-school teachers, being social-scientifically inclined,  thought they could.


From its beginning in the Tractor Maintenance and Repair Program, this notion that big things and powerful forces could be understood and thereby tamed pointed at an even deeper and more providential possibility, viz., the coexistence of  another world—not the one of Jesus riding Shotgun with me during the harvest, or of  my mother’s protective love, but one as yet inarticulate and un-named whose imminence somehow explained the lovely possibility of the others. Only later, after I had excused Jesus from any role in any imaginable personal existence, did I notice that I had made myself bereft thereby. Thus began the search for a reconciliation of all three providential co-existences—of a constantly accompanying Jesus, of my mother’s protective love, and of worlds purified by the exclusion of materialism or history (indeed of something resembling the Joy by which C.S. Lewis was frequently surprised). Taken altogether, this sense of life as multi-dimensional and yet comprehensible led me willy-nilly to the academy, to the classroom, the library—and to the need of friendship.


Still, I remained a callow youth inhabiting the no-man’s land between adolescence and Young Adulthood when, in my 15th year, my father died of heart failure at age  47. Within a year, Mom moved the family off the farm and into town. In that great transition, I relied heavily on the rudimentary sense of personal power that was rooted in my new-found ability to fix things,  It helped me deal with the fact that Mom’s prudent removal of us from farm to village effectively took me out of a world in which I was just beginning to feel fully at home and  moved me into a noisy, congested refugee camp. And there I sought two kinds of relief. One aimed at a kind of escape in the form of the kind of employment available to the itinerant—organizing a dance band and playing gigs; submitting an occasional article to various magazines as a free-lance journalist;  being an important part, ironically,  of a political cabal; studying something in an exotic college. The other aimed at a thorough inclusion in the urbane world as a “professional”—working as a byline journalist for a famous newspaper; publishing my own magazine, and—yes!—professing political science and the specialized knowledge of an exotic part of the world.


From Farm to City

Guided by this epidemic-sized confusion, I set out after high-school graduation on both the itinerant employment and professional ambition tracks simultaneously—a strategy portending slow progress at best, and utter catastrophe sooner or later. I was sustained in this confusion through its long tenure by my swelling mechanical husbandry. Now lacking a fleet of tractors and farm implements for which to care,  I turned to automobiles. All the way through high school, college, graduate school, and well into the first years of the professoriate, I ministered to the ordinary automobiles of the day that were owned or operated by neighbors and friends—diagnosing their illnesses, starting them, tuning them up, and repairing them, and winning thereby a passable quantum of the standing for which I yearned. Most of the machines on which I practiced in those days were still rear-wheel driven, and none were as yet computerized—although some required metric tools.


My specialty became clutch and drive-shaft replacement. I must have lain under two dozen cars along curbs in Amsterdam, Ohio, on the Ohio State campus in Columbus, and in Honolulu, removing transmissions, bell housings, pressure plates and sometimes fly wheels—and putting them all back together in alignment and (most of the time) with nothing left over. Twice, I let the car of the moment down off jacks only to discover that I’d left out the new clutch! Fortunately, such mistakes were so egregious that I never even started excusing them; I simply apologized for them and went back to work to correct them.


The mechanical know-how on which I then relied went far beyond but was nonetheless an extension of the familiarity common among us adolescent boys to know at a glance the make, year and model of all American brands, many  English brands, the prestigious German brands, (Mercedes,  Porsche, Audi), even  the almost never seen  Italian marques, and (in Hawaii) the Japanese brands.  This instantaneous recognition, especially of the model year, depended on observational powers that our teachers of grammar and mathematics  never suspected we had. And these powers extended to other especially interesting features of the automotive world.  Even before we could drive, we knew the location and jurisdiction represented by any patrol car within a mile radius of our position.


This extra-sensory awareness of the proximity of policemen was, for me,  an instinctive effort to protect the critical collateral value of the automobile—a private, personal, portable space.  Having my own car gave me a standby means of escape from the conventional  competitive world (in which I often embarrassed myself by failing) to  the romantic Grand Ole Opry world of  the Open Road. Knowing cars and how to fix mine allowed me to dream with Jimmy Rogers and Merle Haggard of ramblin’, of ranging on my own out from a world in which I was all too familiar to places where I was altogether unknown. The anonymity promised me immunity from any recorded recognition for my failures. The combination of privacy and anonymity reminded me of the fixed spaces I was able to confiscate on the farm—personal places where I skinned out the Muskrats, Racoon and occasional Mink that wound up in my traps, or closets where I kept my cornhusking and hoeing tools, or the lean-to shelters I built in the woods and used for my semi-annual trapline scouting expeditions with Teddy, the farm guard dog. This concatenation of privacy and anonymity helped me to imagine a random smattering of havens across the course of my life through a world fundamentally uninterested in me or my welfare—and opened a chance, at least, that I might find alone (among itinerant jobs or in the course of professional training) the success that I had so far failed to find publicly at home. It was my way of keeping ambition alive in the paradox of a private mobility.


The first car that I made my own and thus opened a route to this peculiar world of privacy and anonymity was a 1936 Ford two-door sedan. I found it retired onto the back row of a used-car lot (suggestively close to the entrance of an associated junk yard).  I saw promise in this derelict, much more at first than in myself. It took me half a day to get the car started, and almost a full day to get it home; its mechanical brakes were worn out as well as maladjusted. The most reliable way to stop it was to run into something, which a couple of times was another car at a stop sign. The resulting bumps were pretty gentle. Still, none of us in Appalachia had yet heard of or experienced road rage; every one we encountered within 20-30 miles of home was likely to be familiar—if not to us then to our parents.

My reconstruction of that car from related vehicles left to rust away in junkyards was analogous to the reconstruction I thought I had to make then of my life as a whole. That summer (of 1957), I was “stopping out”, perforce, of an aborted college start at Westminster in Pennsylvania. I feigned illness and was permitted to withdraw “incomplete” from classes that I was bound to fail just in the nick of time. I got home just in time to help a friend of my mother’s keep his gas station going while he recovered from the kind of heart attack that had killed my father.  That summer, Mom and sister Polly landed housekeeping employment at Chautauqua, a day’s drive to the East in Western Pennsylvania.  I used the camouflage and income of the gas station—and the accompanying freedom from parental and collegiate audits—to scavenge through dozens of junkyards along the Ohio for parts from fallen Mercuries, Lincolns, and Fords (all models between 1932 and ’52) that I could fit onto and into the ’36 sedan. Ultimately, I traded a pistol I had acquired (without my mother’s knowledge) for a Candy Apple Red paint job to get the car road-ready in time for my Fall transfer to Ohio State University, about 150 miles West of Amsterdam.


As I should have known, and certainly didn’t, the readiness of the car for Ohio State considerably exceeded mine.  I see clearly now what I should have seen then—that I sought relief from my personal un-assuredness by owning and embellishing things that were admired by the taste mavens of the day. If such things also worked well, I escaped the embarrassing charge that all I cared about was appearance! In fact, I was preoccupied in those days with reputation; I was trying to create rather than find my place in the world.


The strategy I adopted for this—and applied simultaneously to the reconstruction of the ’36 Ford—amounted to Individualism. I would build both my life and the Ford with the kind of self-reliance enabled by the Tractor Maintenance and Repair program. The earliest stages of this individualistic strategy  governed my abortive collegiate initiation at Westminster: I did everything but study. I directed  the Sigma Nu chorus; organized and arranged the music for  the Bill Vern Quintet (and played the Traps on our dance gigs); played softball and basketball on intramural teams, and spent a lot of time “thumbing” back and forth to Pittsburg for sheet music and percussion accessories.  But it was the mysteriously scented whiffs of progressive rationalism that I encountered at Ohio State that swelled the individualist longing for personal recognition well beyond the containment of the Revival Meeting Christianity that had helped me handle the fears I encountered on the farm.