Me and the Automobile (Part 5 of 5)

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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.