I bought my first car right after I graduated from college, a white 1964 VW bug. There was nothing special about it. All of my friends had VWs, so it was natural that I bought one as well. Even then, the idea of a domestic car was a bit too plebian.
I kept the Bug for about four years. Then, I joined (euphamism – I really escaped into) the US Army Reserves, and went off for a 4 1/2 month stay at Ft. Ord, California. I sold my car before I left for the army.
Ft. Ord was a dismal place, in part because of the lack of anything aesthetic to look at, and in part because every day the weather was the same, misty, almost wet, an island in sunny California always under a black cloud. And of course, being 25 years old and in Army Basic Training, I felt deprived, and beset upon. Particularly since there was a meningitis outbreak, and we were all quarantined to our company quarters throughout all of basic training, while my unit-mates who had been sent to Ft. Dix were able to go to New York City every weekend.
I remember a young lieutenant at Ft. Ord. I don’t know his name, and don’t remember his face, and I am not sure what, if any, connection I had with him. All I remember is that he seemed to have all the freedom in the world, and a 1967 Pontiac Firebird to enjoy it with. I made a vow to myself: if I get out of basic training alive (and who knew if I would?), I was going to treat myself and buy myself a Firebird.
When I left active duty and returned to St. Louis (without a car), I began to think about the impracticalities of a Firebird. It wasn’t the cheapest. It was a two-door car. It didn’t fit my personality or self-image. And I thought it would always remind me of my time at Ft. Ord.
Nevertheless, I went forward. I remember wondering how I would get to the Pontiac dealer, who was somewhere in South St. Louis (why I chose that one, I am not sure), while the VW dealership was within walking distance of my parents’ house. And I remember my Aunt Loraine telling me that she would like to come with me, which solved that problem, and off we went.
I bought that day a yellow Firebird with a black top. I kept the car until 1976. When I moved to DC in 1969, I remember packing it up with all my wordly belongings, and driving from St. Louis first, to Breezewood PA, and then on to Washington, arriving on October 13.
So far, so good. But then there was the day, probably six months later, when I was on Constitution Avenue driving east, at the intersection of 17th Street, NW. The light was green, I moved forward, but a young man (turned out unfortunately to be the uninsured son of a Thai diplomat) was driving south on 17th Street, went through a red light, and hit the front of my car on the driver’s side. Significant damage, although the car was driveable, but as he was uninsured, my insurance company bore the brunt of the cost of repair. Not good.
Several weeks later, I got the car back. I was living on 4th Street SW at the time and one Sunday parked the car on the street, rather than in the building’s parking lot (I am not sure why I did this) and left it there while I went out with a friend in my friend’s car. Driving back, we passed my parked car, and I saw a note on the window, under the windshield wiper. I thought to myself that someone I knew must have walked by, seen my car, and left me a message, but when I walked back to the car, I saw it was not so.
In fact, the front of the car was completely smashed in (not driveable this time), and the note (I don’t remember who wrote it, perhaps the police) told me that my car was one of three hit by a drunk driver, who was driving an Avis rented car.
My car was towed, and Avis was about as uncooperative as could be. Recognizing it was the fault of their driver, they delayed and delayed in approving repairs, they made me front the repairs out of my own pocket if I wanted the car back within the century, and it took months and months for Avis to pay me what I was owed. (For a long time, I boycotted Avis; now, the ownership has changed hands several times, so the boycott no longer is in force.)
After that, it turned out that my car became a target. I was never again in an automobile accident in it, but wherever I parked it, something happened. Someone would hit the back, or the front, or scrape the side. The car looked just awful, and I refused to put in the energy to repair it, or the money, and I certainly didn’t want to explain what seemed to happen on almost a monthly basis to the insurance company.
So for the next few years, I drove this battered Firebird around town. But I really didn’t mind it, and didn’t think that it said anything about me, other than I was having bad luck with the car, and I was being financially prudent, which was a good thing.
I rarely had arguments with my father. But I remember once when he was in town, we went out to eat at a then-chic (to me) Chinese restaurant. He began berating me about the condition of my car. (My father was a once a week car-washing type.) He told me that I should be embarrassed, and that he was surprised that I could ever get any girl to go out with me in a car like that. I was flabbergasted. First, that any of this seemed important to me. And second, that any girl would shy away from me because of my car (and if she did, who’d want her anyway?).
There he was, sitting at this Chinese restaurant, eating his standard Chinese meal – beef chop suey. “Beef chop suey”, I said, “look at you. You’re eating beef chop suey. You are embarrassing me. If any girl saw me sitting here with my father and he was eating beef chop suey, she would never go out with me! My car isn’t the problem. It’s your beef chop suey.”
He kept eating his chop suey. I kept driving my car. The topic did not come up again.