Driving Backwards

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    Our 1972 Toyota Corona station wagon lived a tough life when I was a kid. From the factory, it came with an AM radio and no AC. How much fun can anyone have with that? While other families had Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers and Ford Galaxie 500s with electric windows, power antennas, and rear-facing, third-row seats, we had one vehicle, and it was a rare, Japanese import.

    For some reason, my folks opted for the car in a deep, dark green. Most who saw it thought it was a mud brown. Whatever the color, my friends named our family truckster Booger. She made an impressive entrance, sounding like a diesel and looking out of place. I’ve never seen a car like it since. Even then, nobody on my block recognized the breed. As far as I know, Toyota produced just one – and it was in our driveway.

    It was a quirky wagon, some of which we created. Dad cut two wires underneath the bucket seat, and the car wouldn’t start after that – unless the shotgun passenger raised her fanny up off the seat. Even a gallon of milk or Mom’s haul of World Book Encylopedias prevented a start. All guests were taught to use the grab handle and pull themselves up. Then off we’d go, always battling the heat. Like the other Corona import that is served with a lime, our car lived in a constant, tropical boil. The real abuse came when I was seven and filled up the gas tank with pebbles and tiny sticks. We had just hit the toll on the Downtown Expressway when I learned cars really do run on unleaded gas and a whole new fuel system once wood gets into the engine.

    But she kept going. By the time my sister Susan got the car in high school, I could watch Patterson Avenue float by under my feet. The signature move was getting the car up to forty-five miles per hour and then extracting the key and laying it in the ashtray. We pretended it was a Marlboro and cruised on down the road. When something broke, Dad examined the wound and performed triage. He amputated unneeded armrests and dome lights. When the starter went, he taught us how to hammer the solenoid with a screwdriver in the school parking lot.

    Then, just six months before I got my license, we said goodbye. Dad gave the eulogy. “She’s done,” he said. Off she went with all her bruises to find a new life as aluminum foil.

    Today, I have an even older car, a 1970 Volkswagen Fastback. I got it for the price of a lawnmower when we lived in San Francisco. Sporty but utilitarian, my sons love it. Like that Toyota, it is an acquired taste. Someone once told me, “If you want your kids to remember a car, put them in an old VW.” It’s true. They all smell and sound the same. That blend of horsehair and leaking gas mixed with some German plastic does the trick. Whenever I go for the two switches (wipers and blinkers), I am afraid something might break. The whole thing feels like a toy. The boys swear it’s our fastest car, but that’s only because they ride next to the engine in the rear seat. They roll around in the back and dig for fossilized suckers and pennies from before I was born. At stoplights, people call out, “Nice Saab.” I yell back, “It’s a VW,” but they’re already three cars in front of me.

    Recently, a friend of ours loaned Atticus a Onewheel. We were supposed to have it for a week, but we are now on month three. This self-balancing skateboard can take you uphill at fifteen miles per hour. With a motor inside the single, go-cart-sized tire, it is every bit the future Marty McFly discovers in his DeLorean. With a few gyroscopes and some Tesla engineering, it scoots Atticus anywhere he wants to go. Watching it work still confuses me. People stop us at the farmer’s market and on the empty football field. What is that thing? How does it move? I used to act like I was a pro on it. But after I crashed in front of a cross-country team at full throttle and spent one day icing my ankle and another day looking for crutches, I was done. Now I just watch Atticus take off on his lithium battery-powered wonder thing, his own mode of transportation. When I was his age,
    I wanted a go-cart, then a mini-bike, then a moped. Kids get tired of pedaling. I wanted to dart around with my Sunday school crush, Mary Price, on the back, just like T-Bird Maxwell Caulfield did with Michelle Pfeiffer in Grease 2. But it never happened.

    Last week, I put the VW on Craigslist. There is some life left in her, but I think another kid should have a shot at enjoying that vinyl smell before she starts to fall apart – despite all the gauze and glue – like Booger. Today, the VW means less than before. When I first got it, I hit the streets of the Golden City with my drums in the back. It seemed like Woodstock was in reach. The past was at my fingertips.

    In my desk, I have a list of all the cars from my father’s youth, starting with a 1948 Plymouth. With each car, he lists a memory. 1959 White Mercury: I busted the power steering and didn’t tell Dad. 1966 Pontiac Catalina: I raced Wade in that car and lost every time. 

    What is it about a guy and his wheels?

    Last week, the skateboard wonder-thing finally went back to its owner. A few days later, the VW left the driveway. Cars can be such headaches, but they connect us to the past. From inside them, we watch the world go by. Then, something tells us it’s time for them to go. But when they’re gone, they still help us travel back in time.

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    John Morgan
    Married for fourteen years, John Morgan is the father of two boys, ages eight and five. He serves as the English department chair at St. Catherine’s School where he teaches creative writing. Other than words, he loves vintage drums, cars, and George Harrison's 12-string solos. Follow him on Twitter @johnlmorganiv.