My 14-year-old son, Anton, is as enamored of cars – especially new and flashy ones – as any boy. Whenever we're out driving, he rubbernecks continuously as he spots Camaros, Corvettes, Lexuses (Lexi?) and the car of his dreams – the Ford Mustang. These sightings are accompanied by the most impassioned commentaries ("Did you see that, Dad? The new Audi A6 – zero to 60 in 5.9!").
"Yes, yes," I nod. "I see it." This is as much enthusiasm as I can muster, because I am as interested in new cars as I am in the various grades of sand. The tragedy for my son, however, is that we are meandering along in my 1987 Dodge Raider, a big red box of a car that is as aerodynamic as a cinder block. My Raider can also go from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds, but it has to be an exceptionally steep downhill grade.
My son is at an age when he is embarrassed by many things: our house, my attempt to engage his friends in conversation, the food I cook, my taste for the thrift shop. But topping the list is our car. Perhaps this is why he prefers to walk the mile to school, even in the most challenging weather. On one occasion I insisted on driving him in during a deluge. He allowed this, but asked that I let him out about a block from the school so he could keep his dignity intact.
One day, in a quiet moment, Anton mustered the courage to ask, "Dad, why do you drive such an old car?"
I didn't have to search very far and wide for an answer, because I knew my own heart in the matter. I explained my philosophy of what a car is. "Anton," I said, "a car is something that gets us from Point A to Point B. What more do I need?" And then it occurred to me that I could better explicate my answer in terms of what I don't need.
"Anton," I began, "I don't need a car that talks to me or entertains me.
"I don't need a car with a key that costs $250 to replace. (The very idea is an abomination.)
"I don't need a car with remote access, or that beeps at me to assure me that it's locked. (This is Maine, where I leave my keys in the ignition so that I always know where they are.)
"I don't need a video system that turns my car into a movie theater or tries to sell me things I don't need and can't afford to buy.
"I don't need a car that is so complicated that I can't change my own oil.
"I don't need heated seats. (As a warm-blooded human being, my seat is naturally heated by my circulatory system.)
"I don't need a car with windshield wipers on the headlights."
In conclusion, I added, "With the Raider, I can see and get my hands on every part under the hood. In fact, there's so much room under there that I could rent living space out to a needy student. Do you understand?"
Anton had listened patiently to my sermon, which was clearly more than he had bargained for, and he sat there, perplexed. Sullen even. "Well," he said, in a bid to recoup lost ground, "I don't see why you have crank windows."
"That's easy," I replied. "If I ever drive off a bridge into the river I can roll the window down and escape. Wouldn't that be nice?"
My son stared at me, looking absolutely vanquished. In an attempt to be magnanimous, I suggested we go out for pizza. We climbed into the Raider, started the old girl up, and putt-putted down the street. It was a bluebird day and the big red box ambled amiably along like an old, faithful dog. Driving such a singular vehicle, and living in a small town, friends and acquaintances waved to us along the way, and I waved back.
"See, Anton?" I remarked, "if this were a Lexus, nobody would notice us. Nobody would care."
My son didn't miss a beat. "If this were a Lexus," he said, "we'd be going out for lobster."
Clever boy, that one.