Thursday, January 8, 2015


I was recently going over my finances for the past twelve months, and noticed that my car took a much larger chunk out of my budget than usual in 2014.  The reason is fairly simple: the car, a Hyundai Santa Fe, is a 2007 model year, which means that it has reached the vehicular equivalent of middle age.  Just as has happened with me in my own middle age, lots of things have suddenly come up needing some attention.  Luckily though, for both me and the car, most of it has been preventative maintenance.  I am known as a pretty frugal guy, so one would think that I would be bothered by all the extra cash I laid out on my car last year.  If those expenditures were on anything else, say my wardrobe for example, or my lawn and garden equipment, I probably would indeed be a bit irked.  The thing is, the primary set of wheels in my life at any given time has always held a rather special place in my heart.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say money is no object when it comes to my vehicles, but it is less of an object than it would be for other things.

Big Wheels Rolling

My love affair with things that go started very young.  At Christmas when I was almost three I got a low-slung plastic tricycle popularly known in the early 1970s as a Big Wheel.  These slick little machines were heavily marketed during children’s television shows as being the pinnacle of cool for the preschool set.  In addition to a storage box in which to keep important “stuff”, the big draw for kids like me was a hand brake on one of the rear wheels which effectively allowed the driver to spin out in the most awesome way possible.  And yes, it was well and truly awesome.  The house where I grew up had a long sloping driveway that was just perfect to barrel down at high speed and then yank up on the hand brake, spinning almost all the way around.  The end of the driveway was constantly marked by rings left behind by my spins.  I wore out my first Big Wheel toward the end of its first year by overusing the hand brake to the point where it wore through the rear wheel.  Such was my love for the Big Wheel, and my parents’ appreciation for it as an outlet for my energy, that I got a replacement the next Christmas.  It came with a parental proviso, however: Lay off the hand brake.

This vintage ad sums it all up nicely.

Big Wheel #2 ultimately received even rougher treatment than its predecessor.  Not only was I getting bigger, but since I was using the hand brake less, I needed to find another way to get a vehicular thrill, and found it in jumping the Big Wheel off whatever makeshift ramp I could concoct.  I rode it as fast as I could off curbs, low steps, or any other slight elevation, lifting up on the front end.  It was an attempt to “get air” before “getting air” was even a thing.  Heck, this was even before the Dukes of Hazzard.  Much like the spinouts, these jumps were well and truly awesome in my mind, even if they were usually only an average of four inches off the ground.

I think this was Big Wheel #2.

My second Big Wheel died when it broke in half.  Yes, you read that right.  It broke in half!  While I won’t disagree that I played pretty hard with it, it is also worth noting that in those days before video games, DVDs and the like, kids spent MUCH more time outside, at least several hours a day for me and even more in the summers and on weekends.  The majority of that time for me was spent on wheels.  Big plastic ones.  Therefore, some attrition was to be expected.  Those things got a whole lot of use before they finally gave up their ghosts.  Believe it or not, my parents did actually get me a third Big Wheel, but fortunately for their pocketbook, a market in used ones had emerged locally at yard sales, the toys having been around for a while at that point and kids were outgrowing them.  They were able to get my last one at a steep discount. 

Frankenstein's Bicycle

My third Big Wheel did not meet the same untimely end as my first two, because shortly after I got it, I got my first two-wheeler, which subsequently dominated my attention.  My first bike did not arrive with a lot of fanfare.  It was not a Christmas or birthday gift.  There was no anticipation, and I did not even ask for it.  It just kind of happened.  One Saturday in the summer before I started kindergarten, my father and I were nosing around in my grandmother’s garage and found the remains of several of my uncles’ old bicycles, which had been sitting in there for ten years or so.  It didn’t take my father very long to determine that he had all the parts he would need to assemble one Frankenstein’s monster of a bicycle for me from the remains of the old ones, and later that afternoon I had my first bicycle.  The only expenditure on my parents’ part was a couple of dollars at Western Auto for training wheels.  I only used the training wheels for little more than 48 hours, however.  The bike had a pretty heavy frame compared to most contemporary bikes of that time, and the training wheels were not made for that kind of weight, so they started bending almost immediately.  When it was pointed out to me by my friends that I was riding on two wheels anyway, I took the training wheels off by myself.

I had several bicycles after that first one, but that bike my father cobbled together in my grandmother’s garage was the best.  It was too big for me when I first got it, but that didn’t keep me off it for a second.  A shade of dark metallic green with a white banana seat and huge handlebars, it looked like no other bike on my street.  The tires were of an early 60s vintage, very wide and thick, and the frame was virtually military-grade.  That bike was solid as a tank, and many neighborhood kids recognized its uniqueness.  Sure, it wasn’t as sleek and attractive as some of their newer ones, but it was solid as a rock and remarkably fast.  I distinctly remember an older boy named Kevin admiring it and asking me how much I wanted for it, and I replied that it wasn’t for sale.  Even though I was just a little kid, I could tell that this ten year old was trying to con me when he offered me a hundred dollars, then a thousand, and then a million.  “I’ve really got it at home,” he said, counting on a preschooler’s lack of money sense.  I only had to let him have the bike now he said, and he’d come right back with the money.  Yeah, right.  My final response was that I would only sell it “for the highest number there is”, and then pedaled off, with my suspicion that I had something special on my hands confirmed.  

Bicycles were my primary mode of transportation and the symbol of my personal freedom for the next nearly ten years.  I always felt naked if I didn’t have my bike within easy reach, and it was always a sad day each year when the first snow came and my bike had to be put away for the winter.  It proved to be my parents’ most effective discipline tool in my childhood, as few punishments were worse for me than to have my bike taken away for a day, much less a week or more.  Send me to my room. Take away the TV.  But leave my bike alone.

Beloved Rustbucket

My first car came to me before I even got my driver’s license.  Living in a rural area, my parents had to do a lot of chauffeuring for my brothers and me, so my being able to get myself around would be a real plus for them.  However, they didn’t relish the idea of having to share the family vehicle with another driver, so they encouraged me to start saving for my own car as soon as I laid the subject of driver education classes out on the table.  I started working a part time job in the spring of the year I turned 15, and by that August, I had enough saved up for a very used car my father had found and approved.  I paid $575 for a rusty, 13 year-old Chevrolet Caprice with nearly 100,000 miles on it.  It sat in the driveway taunting me by its presence for the four weeks between when I got it and when I actually passed my driver’s test.  Needless to say, by the time I got behind the wheel to drive it by myself for the first time, I had polished and detailed that car to the point where it probably would have glowed in the dark, in spite of the rust.  I spent nearly as much on Turtle Wax, Windex, Armor All and paper towels as I did for the car itself.

It looked a lot like this, only less sexy and more rusty.

The Caprice was huge, and even in those days of cheaper gasoline it cost me a fortune to keep it filled.  I could fit a lot of my friends in it however, which was a real plus because I was one of the first in my class to get my license and one of the only ones to have his own car.  My services as a taxi driver to and from school were in high demand.  The car wasn’t very reliable.  It was always a roll of the dice as to whether it would start when the temperature dropped below freezing, and it had a habit of stalling in almost any weather.  There was a constant blue cloud coming from the exhaust pipe, and the interior smelled like burning oil, which I tried to cover up by using a half dozen cherry-scented air fresheners.  For a while toward the end of its life, I actually had to keep the passenger side door closed with a piece of rope.  It probably would have never passed inspection again, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Environmental Protection Agency had a warrant out for its arrest.  Nonetheless, it was all mine, my ticket to freedom, and I loved it.  That Caprice had one of the smoothest rides of any car I’ve ever driven, and was so large that if I had been in an accident, it would have kept me relatively safe compared to the ubiquitous compact cars that were on the road at the time.  Plus the radio had great reception and was LOUD!  I only had that Caprice for a year before the cost of upkeep got to be too much, and I downsized to a newer, smaller car which had fewer problems and expenses.  It just didn’t live up to the standard that the first clunker had set for me, though.  I sold the Caprice to a man who wanted to use it for parts.  To this day when I smell cherries, I am reminded of the air fresheners I used in that old car and wonder if it is still around, rusting in the woods or in a junkyard somewhere.

I’ve had quite a few cars in the thirty years since I bought that Caprice, all of which came to be central players in my life.  My latest is no exception.  It’s my chariot, my set of wheels.  I travel a lot, and when I am on the road, my car acts as a mobile comfort zone when I am staying in pleasant but strange places surrounded by welcome but unfamiliar things.  There’s always a slight sense of satisfaction when I catch sight of my car in a parking lot after having been away from it for an extended period.  I don’t think it is so much the car itself that stirs these feelings, as much as what it represents: freedom, opportunity, and the ability to ultimately return to the things that mean the most to me.

A glamour shot of my current chariot, from the manufacturer.

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