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.