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.