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.