Lifetime's love affair with the automobile has embraced some of my happiest memories. Like every kid in California, I waited expectantly until the day I'd be old enough to own a car. Dad finally broke down and bought me a Ford coupe my last year in high school. It had twin pipes, chrome side-view mirrors, and two chrome spotlights. I added new frills to it whenever I could afford to do so. I washed it, waxed it, and drove it with the caution of a man of property.
It was parked only in the safest locations, carefully serviced on the day the service booklet said it should, and locked up like a bank vault at night.
I have no idea what twin pipes were for, never used the spotlights, and never went far from home. But it was my car, so of course it was the best car in the whole world. At some point in college, for reasons that escape me, I ended up with a Pontiac convertible. Hot stuff.
Then, at graduate school I drove up in an enormously sturdy, if not massive, De Soto hardtop coupe. I'd argued successfully with my weary father that it was a long drive from Los Angeles to Cambridge, Mass., and if he hoped to see me on vacations, wouldn't it be wise to have a car that shared so many features of a Sherman tank?
It doesn't matter that you've never heard of a De Soto. I'd heard of it, and in those days it was so swank that professors pretended to stroll past my dorm, where I'd be washing it, just to check it out. It did nothing for my grades, but it definitely increased the quality of my social life. That's not why I was attending grad school, but it was a rich antidote to long nights at the library.
In the fullness of time, however, the long arm of the Selective Service System touched me on the shoulder. I had to serve in the Army before I could complete my schooling. Selective Service was not all that selective, for they drafted me. I was not a soldier by instinct or training, but all of that changed. Goodbye, hardtop coupes and foulard ties; hello, basic training and a luxury cruise across the Atlantic in a bitter January storm courtesy of the United States Army.
Our ship, the Gen. Harry N. Taylor, had been fitted to carry tanks, but it was now 10 years since the end of World War II. In a thrifty move, the Army simply strung hammocks in the hold and brought us over for occupation duties in Germany. For some reason only Army people understand, my ship contained 3,000 Puerto Rican soldiers and me. I knew I should have studied Spanish, not Latin, in school, but we had perfect communication because of two things we all had in common: We were all in the Army, and we all loved talking about cars.
Soon enough I was settled into a quartermaster depot near Frankfurt/Main and had met Claus, a young German graduate student my age from Wiesbaden. His grandfathers were distinguished men, one having won a Nobel Prize and the other having co-founded the Leitz camera company. None of that mattered to either of us. We became fast friends, and whenever Claus could find the time away from his studies or his girlfriend, we would journey together to see some part of Germany.
Extensive, emotional pleas from me to my family finally produced the $1,300 it cost to buy a new Volkswagen Beetle, and we traveled in it to Paris, Berlin, and all over Europe. What a car! How I loved it! I decided to name it after Claus's Uncle Otto. He must have impressed me.
I SUPPOSE it is possible that one could have had more fun than we did, but I don't see how. And Uncle Otto played a role in all of this joyful time during my tour of duty.
I shipped Uncle Otto to New York when I was flown home for discharge. I watched at the dock as a crane swung it out of the ship's hold and onto the pier. The ship's crew asked a lot of questions about it. I drove it away with great pride.
My mother met me, along with Aunt Juliette (the loving aunt) and Aunt Jean (the bossy aunt), and the four of us drove to Boston.
This was no mean achievement. While Mom and Aunt Juliette were relatively slender, Aunt Jean was De Soto-sized. She filled all the available space in Uncle Otto, but nobody cared. We laughed for the entire drive.
When we told my aunts that Mom and I were planning to drive Uncle Otto to California, Aunt Jean immediately listed a wide range of dangers and injuries she anticipated in such a car, for such a journey. She offered to buy my mother a special pillow in Boston.
We kissed them all goodbye and drove off (without pillows).
It was a glorious trip across America, most of which we had never seen. Most Americans in the Midwest had never seen an Uncle Otto, either, so we attracted much attention. We had a great time.
We did get to a place called Kingsbury Grade in the Sierra Nevada where I noticed my mother kept her eyes closed the entire time. But when Uncle Otto rolled into San Francisco, all was well.
I've had some very fancy cars in the years since then, some of them very fine. Yet Uncle Otto remains special in my memory in part because of the experience I had when its new owner drove it away and I stood at curbside with a giant chunk of new chrome and American know-how, watching Uncle Otto vanish. I sat down on the curb and cried.
I hear they have a new Beetle now. I am sure it's very nice. I'm still looking around for Uncle Otto. Someday I'll find it in a used-car lot. I'll fix it up and wash and wax it, and I'll never let it go, ever again.