Forty, maybe even 50 years ago, I heard a country and western song on the radio.
At least I think I did. I heard it once and once only, paying little attention to it at the time. But now that I need it, I am unable to recover it. And since no Google, Bing or Yahoo search can retrieve it, I am left to doubt my memory or perhaps my sanity.
But here’s a big clue: it very improbably rhymed the words vehicle and icicle, improperly stressing the final elements of each and pronouncing them as a Hollywood cowboy might imagine them to be pronounced in Skunk Creek, West Virginia. If any of my unusually erudite readers can identify it for me, I will be most grateful. Though, its identification is not the point of my mentioning it.
The current relevance of the song lay in its theme, which was the fidelity, reliability, unwavering allegiance and trustworthiness of the singer’s automobile. This man appeared to have had a hard life. A lifetime of frustrations and letdowns left him emotionally wounded and fearful. His erotic life, in particular, had been a long string of disappointments and betrayals. He had been walked out on, cheated, stomped on, two-timed and generally humiliated by a string of females.
He could never love again — love women, that is. What he loved was his car. His car never let him down.
Only decades later would I come to appreciate the singer’s particular form of auto-eroticism, which at the time seemed a little strange to me. It was, I believe, in 1994 that I purchased from a colleague-friend a steel gray, 1990 Toyota Corolla with about 25,000 miles on its odometer. The general appearance and feel of the car were confirmed by the seller, who reported that it worked just fine, that it indeed had recently initiated his teenage son into the ranks of licensed New Jersey drivers with success. My colleague and his wife, however, now wished to purchase a Saturn, and the Saturn dealer was offering such a pathetic trade-in offer for the Toyota that he preferred to sell it privately. In case you blinked and missed the Saturn, it was a General Motors flash-in-the-pan of the decade of the 1990s.
Although I made no unnatural or unchaste emotional investment in my car, I did in time come to assign to it a feminine pronoun. I certainly came to think of her as a member of my family. I drove her happily through two terms of Bill Clinton and then two of George W. Bush. Eventually in the Obama era, pieces started falling off and needing to be replaced. I hovered between hope and change. My children drove the car. Eventually my eldest granddaughter, now known as The Graduate, needed to prepare for her driving test, and the trusty and experienced Corolla was, as they say, there for her.
My car aged gracefully, but she did age. At some point recently I became aware that she was commanding only modified approval from my wife, Joan. Ken Larini, on the other hand, approved unconditionally. He was the proprietor of Larini’s Garage, and he has just this last month gone out of business — one of many venerable local institutions my car outlasted.
How strange are the operations of the invisible hand. Not too long ago my athletic spouse required a consultation with an orthopedist. She found herself talking with a doctor she had never met before — a youngish man, though no stripling youth — who seemed to recognize her name.
“I believe my father sold a car to your husband years ago,” he said. It had been the first car he himself had ever driven. He had been through high school, college, medical school, residency and several years of professional practice since then. The news that I was still driving the car flabbergasted this man. It was in turn his astonishment, perhaps, that led Joan to draw my attention to a cunning scheme participated in by our local NPR station, WHYY in Philadelphia. They have a nearly painless way in which you can give them your old car in lieu of a cash donation.
Even so, had not a massive fluid leak appeared suddenly in the left rear wheel, leaving the Toyota literally unstoppable, I might have persevered. I put the car up on the lawn Arkansas style, but Princeton just isn’t that kind of place. My neighbors are reasonably tolerant of my eccentricities, but I don’t want to press my luck.
The guy from Browns Mills who came with the flatbed to take her away couldn’t believe his good fortune. He judged any mileage under 300,000 as “hardly broken in.” I’d be very surprised if the old car ever shows up at the wholesaler in Rhode Island to whom I signed over the title. I expect the tow-truck guy will be driving it around the Pine Barrens for the next decade or so.