A faithful four-wheeled friend

If you've owned a car for 20 years - the same car, mind you - chances are you feel about it as I do about my small green Datsun, a hatchback model purchased spanking new in 1979. Two decades later it still runs, cruising on the fluid wheels of a personal history that it alone knows in full. If dashboards could talk, this one could tell the traveling tales of almost half my life.

My sister dubbed it "Kermit" when she and her husband borrowed it the year I lived in Switzerland; it brought their first daughter home from the hospital. It has ferried me between my home in Indiana and my parents' home in New York, and elsewhere on vacations countless times. I first buckled my just-adopted infant son into its back seat in 1986. Tim wailed as the engine whispered down the road toward home, the sounds still blending in my memory as the prelude to a soothing nap for the brand-new passenger.

The car has accommodated a host of dogs as well, all joyous travelers, and all dedicated to riding shotgun in the passenger seat. This has usually been fine with me, but human passengers take precedence. At those times, the canines have had to occupy the hatchback space, hanging their heads over the seats for short hops or stretching out on old blankets atop luggage for real journeys.

By 1990, the car was showing a few signs of wear. Rust had appeared around the bottom of the doors, and had spread winter by winter, under renewed assaults of road salt. The shock absorbers began to deteriorate, making for a less-than-lulling ride. But the engine still purred, and I was not even considering another vehicle as the 1980s came to a close.

I became a dairy farmer in 1990, investing in livestock and equipment instead of a new car. I discovered that with its back seat down and bedded with hay, the Datsun could accommodate a young calf for short hauls. For larger animals, sacks of grain, hay bales, and other heavy loads, we procured a small gated trailer, which we hitched onto the back bumper.

This new life was not easy on my car, but it responded to regular maintenance with a will to adapt, rarely letting me down. The only major expense for upkeep was not the car's fault at all. Backing down the drive with the door ajar one day, Charlie caught its edge on the low concrete wall of the mulch-hay storage area. We'd learned to drive without shocks, but we couldn't sensibly travel without a door. The immediately available replacement was blue, but a professional paint job to match the rest of the body seemed an extravagance. So our vehicle became three-toned: green, blue, and rust.

It was the rust, as well as the knowledge that for long trips we shouldn't, perhaps, rely on a car with 180,000 miles on the odometer that finally brought us to a local car lot. The Datsun would not run forever, even if its stalwart engine seemed to hum that promise. In a financially flush time a few years back, we bought a used, but relatively youthful pickup truck, and retired the Datsun for occasional use on errands and for emergencies. Charlie also runs it like a mobile toolbox, driving it with what he needs - rolled barbed wire and locust posts - to points on the farm where fencing repairs are needed. Born to the open road, the Datsun has become a car conversant with cow paths.

It still takes to the road when we ask it to. At the sound of the starter, two dogs come running, and vie for the coveted shotgun position. My now-teenage son runs the other way. The ancient automobile with its ragged skirts of rust, cracked dashboard, doorless glove compartment, and (major problem!) defunct radio, mortifies him. He acknowledges, when he occasionally must accept the Datsun's transport, that it is better than walking long distances. But he pulls his baseball cap low over his face if we are anywhere near where he might be seen by a pal. To be caught downtown, or out at the mall, in such a vehicle would be the ignominious end to all ends.

At busy intersections my son slouches all the way down below the passenger seat's nose-printed window, muttering insults at the car. Irrationally, but irresistibly, I pat the dashboard as if to soothe its wounded feelings. I remind Tim that he'd come home to Indiana as an infant on the now-cracked vinyl of the back seat. I think of all the times the car has carried us safely down too many roads to count. This is a part of my history I'm driving, and yes, a part of my future, too, at least for a while. Maybe, Tim's knit brows notwithstanding, quite a little while.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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