What follows is an excerpt from a book I wrote on my childhood community. Something I’ve just gotten bacck to re-editing and by hook or by crook I damn well want to sell. So, I hope you enjoy.
I take a stroll through my current neighborhood and watch the classy and costly vehicles screaming by on the street – despite the fact it’s a school zone.
Then I look at cars in the driveways; cars that would have, in some cases, cost their owners up to a thousand times what I paid for my first car. In fact, the aging car I currently drive cost about five-hundred times the fifty bucks I paid for my premier venture into that wide world of ongoing automotive expenditure that punctuates most of our lives as we spew our hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. A very bad thing that we’re doing, we’re told, but I’m not getting into that debate.
Anyway, the cars I mention are expensive ones. Expensive automobiles attached to expensive middle-class homes. There’s not a beater or clunker to be seen up and down my street. This same tale is repeated in virtually every neighborhood, not just in my town, but also throughout North America and much of the Western world. But, being of the generation that was nourished at the teat (as it were) of Hot Rod Magazine and never successfully weaned from the vehicular glories of American Graffiti, I persist in balking at any consideration of eschewing my twelve-year-old sport car. It’s only in vehicular middle age, and I still love it to bits.
As I love my car, I think I’m environmentally responsible, and if I can walk to a destination I will do so. I love to walk. Walking is healthy, it’s grand for the soul, and if the weather is benevolent walking is my first choice. A few years ago, when I lived part time in the James Bay district of Victoria, virtually everything was accessible by foot, so the car normally just sat except when we were making the trek to our primary home in Comox. But, if the weather here or there is coastal BC weather, I’ll drive. I won’t take the bus. I’ve had enough experience with buses, so if they can be avoided, they will be avoided. And, I won’t ride a bicycle. I had one for a few years, but bikes aren’t really a part of the generation that grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Bikes are either for dweebs, vegan fruit and nut munchers with horrible sartorial taste, or drug addicts and those convicted of DUI. I’m of the George Carlin school, and I too tend to see a bicycle as being a “toy.” A bike is a mode of transport that I outgrew by the time I was sixteen.
I, and my contemporaries grew up with the belief that the private vehicle represented, more than anything else, freedom! Every boy in the 1950s and ‘60s longed for that driver’s license and the first of many, many cars in his lifetime. That passion for rubber-to-the-road, especially by Boomers is going to be a hard-nut for the enviro-fanatics to crack, climate change not withstanding. Yes, freedom remains what a private car represents, and freedom is assuredly what my first car symbolized, and freedom has been what every subsequent car has stood for – the ability to get out and get some distance in.
Driving today is far-removed from what it was when I was first licensed. In some respects it’s better, in most it’s worse, but primarily it is different. Today, as I drive the highways and byways, I rarely espy a vehicle that is spewing out billows of blue-grey smoke indicating that the valves and or piston rings are shot to hell and the tired old beater is burning oil by at least a quart per diem. I equally rarely see a car off to the side of the road with some poor soul hunkered down perilously close to the traffic, changing a tire. Flat tires just don’t seem to happen very often nowadays.
Vehicle ownership was a different matter a half century ago. While my parents weren’t as unprivileged as the Joads travelling across the hinterland of America to ‘Californee’ in a clapped-out Essex, they weren’t that far removed. Most people weren’t. Until the mid-1960s my old man continued to drive his ’53 Chev ‘Delray’ even though it was past its prime and demanded a lot of maintenance work. Fortunately cars of the 1950s were rudimentary enough that the average guy armed with a wrench and a grease-gun could always maintain them in running order. Today, even qualified mechanics balk at the under-the-hood mass of confusion that prevails. I wouldn’t dare turn a hand to my own car’s innards, yet at one time I was confident enough to pull an engine, or do my own valve or ring jobs.
Yet, even though they were ‘fixable’ by the layperson, North American cars of that time didn’t last like they do now. A 1953 Chevy by 1963 was in its automotive dotage. It wasn’t until the Nipponese vehicular onslaught of the 1970s that North American drivers began to demand more longevity, economy, performance and reliability from the assembly-line products of Detroit and Oshawa. The ‘Big Three’ manufacturers had to buck up or lose the market entirely. The jury remains out as to whether they succeeded in that quest. Mainly they haven’t as the devastation of the so-called Big Three in recent years will attest to.
In any case, with his ’53 Chev, my old man was better off than our next-door neighbor who drove a ’40 Dodge. That wartime vintage Dodge would never start on a chilly morning without a lot of encouragement. Encouragement that came from being rolled down the Price Street hill and popping the clutch until the venerable beast ‘caught’. Then, it was a matter of the neighbor sitting at the bottom of the cul-de-sac and revving the engine until such time as it might proceed without stalling. In fact, rolling a car down the hill to bump start it was common, and nobody looked at such an event with curiosity.
When was the last time you saw anybody bump-start a car? In our pampered and debt-ridden, utterly spoiled, living on the never-never and awaiting doomsday society in which we must never be inconvenienced, regardless of the cost, it just doesn’t happen. The shame would be too great.