A Fond Farewell To a Departed Pickup

WHEN I awoke, it was gone.

My truck. My 1987 pickup with the short bed and no extras. I had bought it used three years ago in the dead of winter from a dealer in the Maine woods. And now it had disappeared into the urban wilderness of the greater New York metropolitan area.

Even if I had had the financial wherewithal, I would not have bought a new car at the time. The concept of depreciation is too abrasive to my Yankee sensibilities. Why not buy something cheap but reliable? No matter how much its value flags, it will never be worth all that much less than what I had paid for it.

Let me tell you about this truck. It had never voiced a major complaint. It had conducted me safely and surely through three Maine winters with their accompanying storms. Although it wasn't that great on icy roads, it had once summoned the energy to pull another car out of a snowbank ("Do unto others...."). On the rare occasion when it wouldn't start, it was undoubtedly because I shouldn't have been driving on that cold or rainy morning any-way.

In the high heat of summer, I could fill the truck-bed liner to the brim with water and give my eight-year-old son the swimming pool that was his heart's delight. And on wheels, no less.

On Dec. 23 of last year, my son Alexei and I had loaded the truck with Christmas gifts for family and friends and headed south. The pickup purred along; my son slept; and the parcels jumped and jostled in the truck bed. At York, Maine - the southern terminus of the Maine Turnpike - the toll booth attendant bid us a Merry Christmas and waved us on with a mittened hand. (The farewell of a Maine toll-booth attendant has always moved me deeply. They communicate the sentiment that drivers are old friends they may never see again.)

The truck had been parked safely outside my parents' house for several days. But on the eighth day, the day of our departure, it was my father who broke the news to me. I didn't become angry. There was just a fleeting disbelief, followed by the strangest desire to talk to the culprits: to sit down with them over doughnuts and coffee and ask them why they would do such a thing.

Word spread rapidly among my relatives, who were soon arriving in force from their homes in outlying neighborhoods and towns. Each and every one had a car-theft story to tell. Then they asked me for particulars. "Was there anything of value inside?" (A small gift jug of maple syrup.) "Was the car already packed?" (No.) "How on earth did the thieves get in?" I told them I didn't know. After all, I had an anti-theft device on the car - a hardened steel bar known as "The Club."

The quorum fell silent. Then my aunt sat bolt upright.

"You had The Club on?" she exclaimed in disbelief. And then she grew conciliatory. "Don't worry," she said,. "You'll get a new car. A better car. One with power everything. A plush interior. Loaded."

But I didn't want such a car. I wanted my pickup with the bad piston, leaky oil seal, and built-in swimming pool. I smiled politely, however, realizing that all of these people, in their way, were trying to comfort me. I was plunk in the middle of the first support group I had ever belonged to, and I suddenly recognized the purpose of such gatherings - to enable you to compare your lot to those of others until you discover that things could have turned out much worse.

The hardest part of the whole ordeal was yet to come. Alexei, in a quiet moment, asked the questions that form the bedrock of any bad experience. "Why," he asked, "would someone take something that doesn't belong to them?" Followed by, "Why would they take our car?" And finally, throwing up his hands, "What will I do for a swimming pool?"

And so a very material thing - perhaps the ultimate material thing in American culture - had worked its way into the life of a composter, plastic-bag recycler, avowed non-materialist, and his young son.

I made the requisite police report, and the next day Alexei and I rented a car for the long drive north. Five days later the police called. The truck had been found: stripped, dented, and with its lights kicked in. That's what they told me. But I can't help thinking of it as beaten and abandoned. "Is it drivable?" I asked the police officer. "It's a total loss," he said with the matter-of-factness of someone who logs these incidents for a living. "You want to see it?"

"No, no," I said. "I don't want to remember it that way."

The policeman fell silent. After a few moments he spoke up. "This is a car pound, buddy, not the morgue."

"Goodbye," I said, in the plaintive manner of a ... a ... a Maine toll-booth attendant.

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