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My Love Affair (With Cars)

My love affair with automobiles began at an early age, maybe even prenatally. Maybe I was conceived in the backseat of a ’36 Ford. I asked my mother that one time, but her response was to hit me with her cane.

I grew up at a time when automobiles were much simpler, but not nearly as safe as they are today. Many of my childhood friends fell victim to their “need-for-speed” or their lack of understanding that alcohol and gasoline don’t mix very well. It was quite common for fenders to be customized by collision in our neck of the woods and there were no padded dashboards, airbags, seatbelts and collapsible frame members to lessen the impact with an oak tree or concrete abutment.

Despite the dangers, I couldn’t wait to drive, in fact I began sneaking my father’s car out of the driveway at night when I was fifteen and not licensed to drive. I had “borrowed” his keys one time and had about ten copies made that I hid in various places in my room, closet and the attic. I would wait until my parents had retired for the evening and I would climb down a ladder conveniently left beside my bedroom window. With the parking brake released and the gear lever in neutral, I would gently push the car down the long sloping driveway. When it was rolling, I would leap into the driver’s seat, engage first gear, turn on the key and pop the clutch to start that Ford.

On the roll, I would cruise by a couple of friends’ houses and we would then drive around doing nothing. We would pool our pocket change and put in gas before I took the car home, but we were never quite sure how much we had burned. This was brought to light when I my father said to my mother at the dinner table, “Es, I don’t know what’s the matter with that Ford. On some fill-ups I calculate that I get 20 miles-per-gallon and on others I may get as much as twenty-five or as little as fifteen.”

To ally any suspicions, I took to disconnecting the speedometer cable from the back of the speedo during our cruises. One night at dinner my father told my mother that he had noticed the speedometer on his Ford wasn’t working. He was early for work and had time to stop at the Ford dealer service department. The mechanic stuck his head under the instrument panel and said to my father, “Andy, do you have a kid old enough to drive?” My dad said “Yes.” The mechanic said, “That’s your problem,” as he reconnected the cable.

I think he was secretly pleased that I had an adventuresome spirit. I was, in fact, just acting out some of the tales he had told of his youthful escapades. With this in the back of my mind, I made sure that I never told my growing children of any of my adventures until long after they were adults. I also never left my car keys around for them to “borrow.” Even so, two of them developed the same feeling about cars that I have.