Now that I’m firmly entrenched in my middle age years, I feel strongly that it is my right, nay, my duty, to point out at every opportunity exactly what’s wrong with young people today. This time the focus is on their cars. As I look around at what these whippersnappers are cruising around in, I can’t help but notice their rides all seem to be in mint condition compared to what I used to ramble around in when I was their age. There’s not a missing antenna, cracked windshield, or primer-covered door in the bunch. The brakes don’t squeak, oily smoke doesn’t billow out of the exhaust, and when they hit the windshield washer button, actual cleaning fluid comes out. All of this makes me kinda sad because an important opportunity for growth is being lost. When I was young man, being behind the wheel used to be an adventure. I’m not referring to today when every idiot around you today is either texting, taking a selfie, or applying for a home-loan online while driving; I’m talking in terms of whether or not your vehicle would actually make it home without conking out on the side of the road. Remember having to give your car a life-saving infusion of oil or coolant every third trip out of the garage? Nowadays, most teenagers couldn’t even find the hood release, much less know what to do if they got it open. Having to deal with a marginally operating automobile taught me some of the most valuable life lessons I ever learned, and I’m afraid our kids are missing out on them.
When I got my driver’s license, back in the eighty-two, what you drove was your calling card. Cruising the loop around my hometown of Houghton, Michigan, I could identify every one of my friend’s cars by just their taillights. Eventually, the time came when you cut the cord from your father’s Oldsmobile and bought your own means of transportation. This purchase not only reflected your unique personality; this vehicle played a pivotal role in creating it. How you maintained your first automobile and dealt with its inevitable breakdowns helped mold the kind of person you were going to be for the rest of your life. My introductory car sure showed me what kind of man I would be. And that man was someone who used profanity. A lot.
The first target of all that cursing was a lime-green, 1975 Plymouth Gran Fury sedan that set me back a cool $100. It looked just like Jake and Elwood’s car from The Blues Brothers. She was missing some hubcaps, the black vinyl roof was cracked and weathered, her sides were covered with rust, but none of that mattered. To me, she symbolized a dream come true. She was freedom and love and cookie dough ice cream all rolled into one. Our torrid affair began in the summer of ’86, and, as often happens in such things, did not start off on a positive note. You can imagine my chagrin when I took her to a service station for the first time and couldn’t find where to fill it up. I checked both the driver and passenger sides of the car for a fuel filler cover. Nothing. I circled the car in vain several times with the gas pump hanging limply in my hand – no good. It was only when I remembered a scene from the movie Vacation where Chevy Chase’s character finds himself in a same situation that I thought to look behind the license plate. Lo and behold, it flipped down to reveal the gas cap. Fully fueled, I next brought her home for some much needed cosmetic enhancements, which leads me to one of my biggest concerns about the next generation.
They just don’t seem interested in learning how to fix things, at least not mechanically. Many happy hours of my youth were spent messing around with car engines trying to figure out how they worked, which I don’t see happening much anymore. Tinkering is simply not in kids’ vocabulary today, unless it involves having their phones make obscene sounds when they get a text. For example, only yesterday my son couldn’t get our lawnmower to run. It would idle for a few seconds, then the motor would fizzle out and die. Instead of trying to figure out the problem, his answer was, “Just buy a new one.” (This solution didn’t come with an offer to help pay for it.) I’m no mechanical genius, but it barely took two minutes of fiddling with the throttle to get it working again. This skill is only developed through countless attempts of wringing a few more miles out of cars suffering their last stages of automotive hospice. Teenagers are too quick to replace instead of repair. I know it took a serious beater car to teach me the value of patience, the joy of solving a problem, and the magically restorative properties of duct tape and baling wire. The lesson my car hammered home to me on several occasions was that you have to think outside the box a new part comes in. Sometimes, you just have to get your hands dirty and fix it yourself.
Surveying my new chariot, the first thing I needed to address was the rusted out door panels. With all of today’s plastic body parts, it’s easy to forget how rust, if left unchecked, can eat a car right down to the tires, especially in those towns like mine that use lots of salt for de-icing. Typically, one would apply some bondo, sand it smooth and paint the repaired area; however, that only works when the hole in question is relatively small. Since I could still see the side windows even when they were rolled down, a more radical approach was necessary. Needing large sheets of sheet metal, I strolled downtown to the The Daily Mining Gazette, where I procured some used newspaper printing plates. I then attached them to what remained of the original door panels with 1/4″ sheet metal screws. A couple of coats of black spray paint and no one would be the wiser, at least until next winter when icy slush would wear off the paint and leave the previous summer’s news exposed for pedestrians to read.
Left with some surplus paint and masking tape, I had an artist friend of mine stencil out the head of a reptilian beast across the hood. A couple passes with the spray can and the Dragon Wagon was born. From the outset, I adored my that car. It became an extension of my personality. When she was happy, I was happy. Driving her during the harsh Michigan winters was always a pleasure because of its heater that rivaled many iron-ore blast furnaces. I often received quizzical stares from other motorists due to my habit of driving around shirtless despite sub-zero temperatures outside (and snow swirling inside because of the rusted out floorboards). It had a certain panache all its own, even when it left me stranded, which it often did.
There is nothing in the world that will help you develop the problem solving skills of an Apollo 13 astronaut like an engine that just won’t turn over. This is especially true for those cars who are immune to the “Magic Words” my older brother Mark taught me while trying to get his Harvester Jeep going one frosty morn. My first opportunity came the time the Dragon Wagon refused to start when I was returning to Michigan State after a break. I said my goodbyes to the family, got in the car, turned the key, and nothing happened. Of course, it was on a Sunday morning when all of the service garages were closed. The “Magic Words” having proved ineffective, I called one of Mark’s friends who was the only mechanic I knew. This was not an easy call to make because A) he was most likely hungover and B) most of our previous interactions involved him trying to drown me at the local beach. After convincing him of the seriousness of my plight and a vague offer of beer, he wobbled on over. It only took a quick look-see for him to diagnose the problem as a broken ignition relay switch. Since I had classes less than 24 hours and more than six-hundred miles away, I couldn’t wait around for the week it would take to order a new part. A quicker solution was needed. Through experimentation and the continued judicious application of profanity, I discovered that if I turned the ignition key with my right hand while simultaneously reaching under the hood with a long-bladed screwdriver in my left hand, I could create a connection between two exposed bolts on the broken relay switch. This had the effect of bypassing it and thus starting the car. Granted, this operation required the flexibility of a contortionist with the Cirque du Soleil, but it got the job done. Unfortunately, there was always a new job a few miles down the road.
The next opportunity for problem-solving the Dragon Wagon presented me took place while I was student teaching near Grand Rapids. The radiator had eventually been clogged by rust to the point where my arrival at school each morning was accompanied by blinking red lights on my dash and voluminous clouds of steam pouring out from my hood. I knew I couldn’t afford to have it fixed by a mechanic, but my car was the only way I could get to class. Using the resources available to me, I brought my tale of woe to the auto-shop teacher. He took pity and helped me find a replacement radiator at a nearby junk yard, a process not helped by the brilliant engineers at Plymouth who used three different kinds of radiators in the Gran Fury that year. Miraculously, we found one and, with much manly grunting, installed it in place. Of course, it wasn’t until we filled it with coolant that we discovered the replacement radiator leaked in numerous places. After the storm of cursing subsided, we were able to circumscribe the leaks by crimping off several of the core tubes with a handy pair of pliers. Finishing well after dark, I triumphantly stopped at a gas station to top off the tank before heading back to my apartment. Refueling completed, I got back into the car only to discover my key would no longer fit into the ignition. No matter how I finagled it or cranked the steering wheel; the key refused to enter the switch. Desperate, deflated and cold, I begged the service station attendant for help. He suggested a pen-knife looking device used to de-ice the locks on gas caps. After a few short stabs with this tool, I was able to get my key inserted. But when I took it out to test it a few seconds later, it refused to go back in. After borrowing the lock de-icer again and finally getting the key seated properly, I permanently sealed it in place by wrapping masking tape around the entire ignition switch. Since it was the only copy of the it I had, I had no choice but to always leave my vehicle ready to be stolen with the doors unlocked and the keys in it. Fortunately, the typical car thief has far too much self-esteem to risk jail over a joyride in my car.
By no means did the challenges that car provided stop there. About a week later, while I was still in the midst of student teaching, my starter decided it was a good time to quit working. I then had to replace it with the outside temperature hovering around ten degrees below zero. As an added bonus, since it wouldn’t start, I couldn’t move it from the busy side street where it was parked. I was thus forced to attempt a repair with both of my legs hanging out in traffic. Luckily, my roommate would yell out, “Car!” whenever one approached, so I could awkwardly twist my lower half sideways hoping to not get run over. I remember one particular bolt was really giving my trouble since I couldn’t reach it from above or see it when I was underneath. I tried having my roommate verbally guide me, but I just couldn’t feel the nut with my fingers. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t feeling anything at all. I pulled back my arm, looked at my bluish-white fingers, and smacked the back of my hand on a piece of the suspension. Since I didn’t feel that either, I decided it was probably time to go inside and warm up a minute with a mug of hot chocolate before trying again.
Oh, first cars can be so much fun. The battery died next, followed in quick succession by the transmission and the fuel pump. In contrast to what our young ones face today with the help of a cell phone and their parent’s AAA card, each of these events was an opportunity for me to gain confidence by dealing with tragedy. Sometimes, just to mix things up, the issues weren’t always mechanical. One day, while I was outside at my girlfriend’s house, an odd noise caught my attention. I kept hearing puffs of air followed by a metallic “Ting!” sound. Going around the corner, I discovered her eleven-year-old brother was using my beloved car as target practice for his BB gun. This situation offered a great lesson in diplomacy. I didn’t want tiny holes all over my car, yet I knew wrapping the rifle around his little head wouldn’t sit well with her parents either. In the end, I resolved the situation using a hybrid solution combining the threat of physical violence and an offer of ice cream. Such is the bond between man and machine that despite all the aggravation that car had caused me, I still rushed to her defense. Yet, all good things must come to an end, and my relationship with the Dragon Wagon was no exception.
My final journey with her came when I went back up north to see my folks before starting my first teaching job. By that point, the Dragon Wagon was leaking oil, anti-freeze, and transmission fluid; yet she made that last trip like a champ. With great sorrow, I sold her to a junk yard for fifty bucks, half of what I had paid for her two years earlier. As I left the salvage lot, I took a moment to stop and look back at her one last time. I silently reminisced about of all the miles and hours and dreams we shared together while I was behind her steering wheel. As a first car should, that pile of rusting iron and leaking gaskets represented an important time of transition for me. When she first came into my life, I was almost completely dependent on my parents for survival with few real-world problem solving skills. However, from that moment on, this was no longer going to be the case. My sixteen-year-long career as a helpless student was over, and my adult life as a self-supporting citizen was just beginning. By that Christmas, I would take another big step and become engaged to that girl whose brother had shot my car. Things were changing for me, and even with all the lessons my Dragon Wagon had taught me, I still needed a no-nonsense vehicle I could depend on. I found it in my next car, or so I thought: a blue 1985 Ford Escort.
But that, as they say, is another story.