One man's Merc is another's Pinto

A son's dream for a flashy new car kicks into high gear when the family jalopy seizes up. But he hadn't reckoned on his father's resourcefulness.

My teenage son is ashamed of our car.

This, despite my having recited to Alyosha my philosophy about owning a vehicle, to wit: A car should last forever.

In truth, I believe that it's almost always cheaper to repair a car than to buy a new one. My rig is a bright red 1989 Dodge Raider with a Mitsubishi engine - a model that ceased production 11 years ago (or, in my son's words, "in the last millennium").

True, it's gone through a set of brakes, a battery, a clutch, a head gasket, tie rods, an exhaust system, a windshield, and a power-steering unit, but repairing a car with such frequency makes it all the more mine, because I feel that I've numbered every one of its bones. And the sum total of the repairs is still far, far less than the price of a new car.

Beyond this, my car is unique, resembling nothing so much as a big red box on wheels that lists and chatters along, in constant danger of being fetched sideways by the wind. For this reason I enjoy high visibility in my community, and I am often approached with preambles such as, "I saw your car down at the hardware store today and was wondering...."

Of course, this attribute is lost on my son, who thinks only of our breakdown record. For him, the repairs only serve to lend volume to his long, mournful song of lament as he watches the latest models zip by while we lumber, tanklike, along Maine's rolling and winding byways.

Last year, however, I must admit that I came frightfully close to actualizing Alyosha's dream of dreams. On our way to one of his soccer matches on a searing day, the car began to wheeze and hiccup before finally giving up the ghost with a harsh metallic shudder.

There we were, my son and I, 70 miles from home, standing alongside my useless heap while it hissed and steamed. Then Alyosha did some hissing and steaming of his own and demanded, "Now will you get a new car?"

"We shall see," I murmured, and I could sense his spirits rise.

I had the car towed all the way back to our local garage, where the diagnosis was grave: "Tossed a bearing," pronounced the mechanic. "That's it."

"It?" I questioned.

The veteran looked at me and nodded. "It," he repeated.

Hmmm. I sat home that night, pensive and solitary in my easy chair while my son paged through new-car brochures with gleeful abandon. "Look at this one!" he'd cry out. "It's on sale for only $20,000. It says there are only a few left and they're going fast, so we'd better hurry."

As he continued to pore and dream, I reached for the newspaper.

Turning to the auto section, I listlessly scanned the offerings. And then I took notice of something and sat bolt upright. A display ad. I INSTALL REBUILT ENGINES. 5-YEAR WARRANTY. Followed by a short list of engines, including the very one I needed: a Mitsubishi 2.6 liter, 4 cylinder. For only $960!

Of course. Why hadn't I thought of it? It was foolish to get rid of a car just because its engine had burned out. This was, in my mind, akin to buying a new house because the furnace had stopped working.

"Alyosha!" I announced, springing to my feet. "I've just saved us $19,000!"

Immediately cognizant of what was afoot, my son slapped his head and rolled his eyes.

The next day I had my car towed 20 miles into hill country, to the garage that would do the engine transplant. It was just as advertised. They had my motor, installed it, and handed me a five-year warranty.

When I arrived back home in my old, familiar rig, I felt as if I were returning in triumph from some heroic deed. Friends along the way leaned out to wave at me, the mechanic in my local garage shouted his congratulations, and some unfamiliar - but pleasant-looking - woman blew me a kiss.

I turned onto the school grounds and rolled into a space just as my son was coming off the soccer field. When he saw what I was driving his expression dropped.

"Look!" I said to him as he approached the car. "Fixed. She's running like a watch."

My son plopped himself into the passenger seat, looking grim and overburdened.

"Aren't you happy, sport?" I asked him.

Silence.

"But everyone else is happy," I said by way of encouragement.

He looked at me with big eyes. "That's because they all have new cars!"

With that, I drove us to the nearest restaurant, where Alyosha availed himself of the calming power of pepperoni pizza.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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