An amiable heap

Some cars grow gracefully into prized antiques, while others just rust their way to the dump. My station wagon had to almost disintegrate before it was appreciated properly.

When this small import was new it looked smart as a green frog, but it ran so badly that twice I had to be towed back from Boston, a good sixty miles. Now that the body has corroded and the left fender hangs like a tattered skirt, wafting in the wind, the engine perversely purrs. Since I have a respectable sedan in which to drive to church and transport my resident writing and art students from the airport, it doesn't matter that I sometimes ramble around town in the rusty heap. There's even a sort of distinction about it as I drive up to the post office carrying a load of books to mail out to customers, with an audience of at least one head shaking in amused puzzlement. No one in town can boast so much rust still on the road. It's so awful it's wonderful.

I will not part with the heap, because it's thrifty on fuel and useful in ways that ordinary cars can't be. For one thing, it is Becky's favorite place to sleep. She is my German shepherd, who was rescued from Boston's streets and brought here to the woods of New Hampshire. Becky, unlike my other dogs, can't be confined to a run because she climbs every fence we've put up. So she's on a long chain outdoors and, when the weather's inclement, climbs into the station wagon and happily goes to sleep. Even in thunderstorms which terrify her, Becky seems to understand she's safe in the car and gets behind the steering wheel as if this were preferred seating, like the back of a plane.

So Becky and I are partial to the heap and a little on the defensive with those who don't appreciate real distinction. The local gas station attendant, who fills up the heap, always smiles and asks, ''Still running?''

''You bet,'' I answer smugly, since our rusty wonder is serviced by an expert mechanic who lives in a nearby town and doesn't make jokes about venerable vehicles because he's a collector of horse-drawn buggies. ''Just wait till inspection time,'' the joker tells me.

It seems the motor vehicle authorities at our state capitol don't care how well a car runs, but if it has too much rust it won't pass inspection as a passenger vehicle. When the time of judgment approached this year I noticed that my neighbor was riding around in a pickup truck almost as rusty as my wagon.

''How come they let you on the road?'' I asked with a smile at his fender which half hung on.

''I'm a farmer,'' he answered with a grin. ''Farm vehicles can have all sorts of rust as long as the brakes and headlights work. You just can't go on the major highways.''

''Go on,'' I said. ''If you're a farmer, what do you grow?''

''Trees,'' he answered with his Popeye grin.

''I've got trees, too,'' I countered, ''but that doesn't make me a tree farmer.''

''If you've got more than ten acres, maybe it does,'' he answered, and rattled down the road.

With this tantalizing prospect I went down to our town office where they take your money and dispense licenses.

''I want to register my station wagon as a farm vehicle,'' I said in matter-of-fact tones.

The clerk who's married to one of our town fathers and knows all of us citizens by heart looked at me sharply and pronounced what I expected. ''You're not a farmer.''

I repeated what my neighbor had said. ''I've got thirty acres of trees, two barns full of wood, and a lot of it I'd be glad to sell you.'' She tightened her lips. ''Tree farming isn't your primary occupation,'' she announced to the line of citizens behind me.

''I'd like to see where the rules say it has to be,'' I asked respectfully, beginning to enjoy myself.

She picked up a sheaf of papers stapled together. ''Here are the new rules, read them.'' Apparently she hadn't. There wasn't a word about primary occupation. It just said the vehicle couldn't travel farther than twenty miles, which I wouldn't on any account do, and that it mustn't be used to bring produce to market, which I could readily agree to unless you consider my books my produce.

When I pointed all this out to her, she broke into a smile and proceeded to declare on paper that my station wagon was an agricultural vehicle. It even cost a lot less than the regular registration fee. Then I got my heap inspected by our mechanic, who's one of the old school, willing to do a perfect job without making your wallet thin. He pronounced our wagon in perfect mechanical condition and duly affixed the agricultural plates.

Something of its new status must have gotten through to the heap, because it did something I have never known a car to do - grew mushrooms. It started with a leaky roof that we've tried unsuccessfully for two years to seal up with those commercial goos which come in efficient-looking tubes. The wagon just went on leaking and the carpeting in the front of the car was so continually soaked that I was afraid it would rust out the frame below. I piled layers of newspaper over the floor to absorb what they could. Sometime later, when the newspapers were thoroughly soaked, I went to change them and discovered underneath a lovely layer of mushrooms. The heap had taken to heart its agricultural plates.

The next time we drove up to the local station for gas - after achieving agricultural status--the attendant noticed our new inspection sticker.

''How'd you get that?''

I told him to look at our plates indicating AG for an agricultural vehicle.

''Pretty good,'' he grinned and had the grace to give our windshield an extra swipe. So now we haul firewood from the barn to the house and trash to the dump as usual, with new respect for ourselves. Becky goes on sleeping in her favorite car, unaware that she is now a farm dog and should work for a living chasing sheep instead of cats. To stick to the rules I've persuaded my tree-farming neighbor to cut down some of our dead trees and store them in the barn, and should you be in the market for firewood you know where to come. We've got professional standing to keep up and a heap to support. We might even throw in some mushrooms.

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