Over the winter break, my daughter’s car needed repairs. I sighed when the service department called and discussed the needed work; the cost exceeded the car’s value. It was a gold 2002 Saab 9 3 purchased when we lived in Ohio, and a good first car for her to drive around her college town and to travel home for breaks. She used that car for her 50 hours of driving instruction and another 50 hours practice-driving. We remember the difficulty of concocting bogus errands (e.g., visiting an ice cream place in another community) to use up the 50 hours. I was a “jumpy” instructor but I tried to think of experiences where she could learn how to merge, to pass, and other challenges, while building confidence.
For a trade-in, we got her a red 2005 Saab 9 3 Aero. She laments that, now, even more classmates will be hitting her up for rides. Of course, as we transferred seat covers, the GPS, CDs, and other items from one car to the other, we all felt wistful that a service appointment for the old car had unexpectedly led to its replacement. On the other hand, the number of necessary repairs and replacements for the car were lessening the pleasure of driving it.
My first car was a 1963 Chevy. In his book The Ferrari in the Bedroom, the humorist Jean Shepherd tells the story of “Lillian,” an old car which swore at him (the transmission had a repetitive noise that sounded like an oath) as he tooled up U.S. 41. My unnamed car was friendlier than the resentful Lillian, but no prettier. Only ten years old the year I got my license, the car had a serviceable, box-like body, a rusting underside, and a thin coat of rust on the hood and roof. It had no AC, of course. It had a poor AM radio and a hole in the floorboard. The stick shift, which emerged from the steering column, took a little effort. It wasn’t my car, but my mother’s; the title was in her name. My dad’s stepfather had owned it, and when he could no longer drive he gave the car to my mother, who had done him and my grandmother many selfless favors.
I learned to drive in that car, when I was 14 or 15. A clear stretch of Illinois 185 east of Vandalia seemed a good place for Dad to teach me. Dad was a truck driver, he knew driving. Generous and eager to help, he could also be imperious and impatient, and he made me hurt and nervous as he taught things I did remember:
Never let out the clutch too quickly; you’ll kill the engine.
Never ride the clutch, you’ll burn it out.
Always look over your shoulder to check your blind spot before you pass.
Always check your tire inflation and oil, especially before a trip.
Always pull up to the next gas pump so that someone can pull in behind you.
Always top off the tank when filling up; you’ll get more miles. (This is the only one of these things I had to unlearn later.)
Always remember that speed cops hide on interstate entrance ramps.
Always drive the speed limit through Odin, IL, because a state trooper lives there.
An acquaintance read this essay several years ago and declared, “I got pulled over by that same cop in Odin!!!”
Once I got my license, I drove the Chevy for a few years. I don’t think I felt the need for a fancier car; I was quite pleased with the Chevy. I made the car uglier still. I dented the fenders twice trying the master the vagaries of backing-out and turning, once at the IGA and once in the high school parking lot. If my dad was imperious, my mother was fussy and couldn’t understand why I might have to learn by doing, making mistakes, and trying again. As I recall, the car needed servicing only once. Some pipe in the engine cracked. We simply drove up to Yarbrough’s auto lot on U.S. 51, found a wreck with a comparable part, and bolted the part on. So simple, compared to the highly technological and electronic aspects of cars today.
One summer I had a girlfriend in Farina, Illinois, several miles down Route 185 in the southeast corner of the county. My folks hated the thought of me driving to Farina: the busy Illinois 37 crossed 185 near Farina, and many people had been killed at that intersection. From their anxiety, I had an image of a Road Runner cartoon where the coyote looks both ways at a completely empty highway, and once he steps into the road he’s suddenly flattened by a truck! When I arrived at the intersection, I found it reasonably safe with clear visibility both ways: not a place for carelessness, but not a death trap, either.
Without air conditioning, I drove the car with the window down in summertime. The hot, rushing air blew my long hair. Pollen collected on the worn seats. My feet became dusty from the dry breeze that entered the hole in the floorboard. Once I tried to wax the car, but the finish had long since faded and the paint could no longer shine. For many weeks the hood showed great white circles where the wax had baked hard.
I never drove the car very far: just around the county, and to college during my first year. The background photo of this blog reminds me of driving west of town to visit a buddy at his family’s farm; during one such trip, the Allman Brothers’ song “Jessica” came on the radio, surely one of the great “on the road” songs! Eventually Dad traded my old car at Oldfield’s Auto Sales in Vandalia. For the trade he bought me a bright red Dodge two-door with black vinyl seats. I loved the Dodge but, as we drove away, I looked wistfully at the Chevy. In a small town one often sees former cars being driven around by new owners, but we never saw the Chevy again. It probably went to scrap.
Something about our first cars haunts us. My dad remembered his parents’ first car: a 1925 4-door Ford sedan, purchased with seventeen head of cattle from John Eakin in Vandalia. I’ve known people who kept their first cars, caring tenderly for them over the years. Adolescence can be a difficult time, and amid those struggles, one finds solace and pleasure in the ability to drive. Perhaps that is why we don’t forget our first cars. Thinking of my old Chevy reminds me of that special freedom gained as a teenager. It is a freedom which, once acquired, mastered, and then taken for granted, never again seems quite so sweet.
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in Springhouse magazine and my book Journeys Home.)