Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean You Won't Get Stranded
Years ago, when I was not yet twenty I drove my brother between my parents’ homes, a distance of five hundred miles each way, with no back-up but a gas card and some loose change. Although the journey passed without incident, it was a nerve-racking experience. My upbringing had taught me that there’s a thin line between farce and tragedy, between going to the ends of the earth and being stranded in the last place on earth.
I absorbed this wisdom during many long-distance family car trips. Various summer vacations saw us driving from Illinois to New England, Florida, and New Orleans. We also moved from Illinois to California and back, and then did the same trip for “fun” three more times.
You might think I’m leading up to a story of mechanical failure and geographical distress. But aside from a cracked radiator hose that required an overnight stay down Florida way, I don’t remember a single example of mechanical failure. But I do remember my parents’ paranoia. They viewed each trip as a kind of necessary gamble: a leap into the great unknown with an inherently suspicious automotive net.
My parents grew up in California, but they attended college in Valparaiso, Indiana. “Valpo” is a small Lutheran college located just west of Notre Dame about 60 miles east of Chicago. At the time, train tickets were a luxury and plane tickets were priced well beyond contemplation.
So they drove to Valpo from their homes in Stockton, California twice a year, for three years. They make the 2000 miles trek (about the same distance as Paris to Moscow, each way) in a collection of beaters, with balding tires (one cheapskate driver went through three (used) spares), no air conditioning and weak heaters.
With that kind of background, it wasn’t surprising that our driving vacations were long on preparation, short on “adventure” and, frequently, room. Road trips ranged from the good (three or four of us in the 6000), to the bad (four in an 80’ Accord hatch), to the ugly (seven in a Ford “Woody” Country Squire later on).
Despite their travel history, neither of my parents would qualify as “car folk." They were omnivorous car buyers, chasing reliability, value and utility. Although they weren’t the sort to hold a grudge, when it came to cars, their memories were long. My mother would not even look at a Ford because of her Father’s troublesome example back in ‘60’s. Neither went for Chevy after “the Vega incident."
The only real Devil-make-care “car buff” in either family is my first cousin once removed on my maternal side. “Uncle” Gordon grew up riding motorcycles (always BMWs) up and down California. He eventually added cars to his interests– in his own unique fashion. My mother could never quite understand the appeal of having a disassembled 58’ Dodge pickup in your back yard, or why anyone would have three Jaguars at once.
Gordon indulged in many wide-eyed automotive romances, but the family’s practical gene was still operative. He yanked engines and transmissions on two of his Jags and– sacrilege! — replaced them with Chevy V6’s and autoboxes. As he explained to my mom, Jaguar’s interiors were to die for, but the running gear showed why England almost lost the War. His V12 cat got to keep its powerplant, and gained a trailer hitch to haul his camper (somewhere, Jeremy Clarkson is vomiting).
I had my own version of my parents’ paranoia-building experience during my first year in college. I hitched a ride home from a classmate with a Corvette– that had seen better decades. He got me home with a speeding ticket plus a lecture on bald tires. Given how the engine sounded, the ticket was more of a miracle than the fact I got home safely. (Just.) Fortunately, the Vette’ threw a rod before the return trip.
This may explain my caution during the semester I took our decrepit Escort to college. I drove the arthritic Ford perhaps half-a-dozen times that semester. Partially it was poverty (gas or pizza), partly it was location (go find Kirksville Missouri on the map, then locate “fun” within 100 miles), but mostly it was a suspicion that pushing my luck would leave me stuck in the literal middle of nowhere.
These days, I’m fortunate to own a Honda CR-V (a vehicle only slightly less reliable than No. 2 pencil). Friends and acquaintances are impressed with my cute ute’s usefulness, but they are often struck speechless at the contents in the “trunk”: blankets, rope, folding shovel, a tire iron and a pile of other gear (I don’t store hardtack in the seat cushions though). They think I’m a little crazy. I just like to think I have a low tolerance for “adventure.”
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