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.