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Miles of Memories--and Advice That Transcends Cars

June 07, 1998|MARNELLE JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My Dad's a car man. If it's got a motor and moves, stand back.

As a girl, I remember him mostly in the garage tinkering with the timing, changing the plugs. I'd sidle up next to him. Sometimes he'd spew advice; sometimes he'd just spew. But as a result, I'd wager that more than half of the advice he's given me has been about cars--granted often with broader applications: Turn your radio off once in a while and listen. Always keep an eye on your pressures and your treads. Watch the car two cars ahead. Drive in the center lane so you have two ways out. Steer clear of cars with dents or out-of-state plates. Don't run the air when you can put the windows down. And above all: Buy American, sweetheart, and buy miles.

Though I didn't always follow his advice, I always admired his auto acumen, which he earned. Built his own car, a sort of Model T, when he was 14. Joined the Marines at 19 and became a fighter pilot during World War II; then flew a helicopter in Korea.

Your father could drive a stick and a board, Mom used to say. After the service, he took to mechanical engineering like a cop to a red Ferrari. Designed patented systems that delivered fuel to ships at sea. This man has petrol in his veins. And until I was about 13, when it got too complicated, he could tell the year, make and model of any car on the road.

Even today, his idea of a fun night out is to go "tire kicking," his phrase for walking used-car lots, evaluating cars for their blue-book value, life left in the tires, mileage and upgrades. He loves to find a gem, even if he doesn't buy it, just so he can talk about it.

Even when we couldn't talk about anything else, Dad and I could talk always talk about cars. In fact the only advice he gave me about sex was in the garage one night.

"Axle grease is great stuff," I remember him saying. "Like sex, it's terrific in the right place, say in a marriage or on a differential, but in the wrong place it's just dirt and smut."

Axle grease. Sex. Got it.

So it was Dad I called, not Mom, when I took my brother's Camaro without permission--never mind a license--and literally drove it through a McDonald's. Somehow I knew my dad would understand my eagerness to drive. He did. It was the ineptness he couldn't grasp.

*

When I was in high school and wanted to swap my American Chevy Vega, which burned more oil than gas, for a cute (at the time made in Germany) Capri, Dad resisted. I persisted. Finally he surprised me and relented on his condition that I could no longer come to him for repairs. He was not going to invest in those foreign metric tools. I'd have to find another mechanic and pay for service. I bought and I paid.

Still, even when we differed, car talk was our shorthand for bigger stuff. When I was 17, I came home from school to find Dad home from work early and looking gray and clammy. Knowing that he would never seek medical help on his own and that Mom wouldn't be home from work for several hours, I lured him to my car, now a Mustang, by saying it was making a funny noise. I drove him to the nearest emergency room, where they treated him for a heart attack.

He doesn't surrender easily. Which is why for the longest time he had this thing against Japanese and German cars. He remembered too vividly the war.

"But, Dad," I would plead, "who cares, if they make a better car?"

"Their countries will never do for you what America has done." To my Dad, that's not a non sequitur. And though I've bought my share of foreign and American cars, I still like to run a prospect by Dad sometimes for his opinion and sometimes, as he would say, just to get his goat.

So the other day when I brought my kids over to play in Grandpa's yard, his Buick and Thunderbird out front, I said, "So, I'm thinking of buying a new car."

"Oh?" His eyebrows lift in interest.

"A 1980 450 SL Mercedes, 154,000 miles."

Pause.

"I know it's old," I continue, "and that's a lot of miles, but it's so beautiful and you won't believe the price." Then his blue eyes squint, in that watery sparkly way they do when he's remembering something good.

"What color?" He asks.

"Gunmetal gray."

"I almost bought one once," he said, surprising me again. "Light blue. Mint. Got to be the prettiest car on the road. A '78, I think, a lot fewer miles. I still think about that car."

He loses himself in a reverie all his own, then says, "You know the cars I remember? That red Dodge Charger, remember that? That was fun. And that 454 Olds. That looked like a sleeper, but I'd pull alongside some kid in a Cougar, and he wouldn't believe how fast I left the light."

"But it's an awful lot of miles, don't you think?" I ask, back to the Mercedes.

"Forget the miles, sweetheart. Buy memories."

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