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Car Crazy

by Kim Krenz

If you ever had doubts about the automobile’s being the icon of our civilization, you can throw them out. For decades now, Western culture has been based on the car. And, world-wide, the car has become a symbol of Western civilization. As the West has permeated the world, personal ownership of a car has been the goal of almost every “advanced” country. The westernization of Russia, followed by that of India and China, can be measured by the number of personally owned automobiles in both countries. Among men in these countries, the question is often asked “Do you want to talk about women or about cars?”

I became a car-owner relatively late in life. I bought my first car from Gerald Tooley, one of the drivers for the organization for which we both worked. It was a used, Ford V-8 four-door sedan, one of the first eight cylinder engines. I bought it on Valentine’s Day, and we named the car “Valentine.” The name caught on among the children of the Village where we lived, and they used to beg for a ride in Valentine. I would treat them to tours of the Village. It was in the care-free fifties, when safety measures were in their infancy. I shudder, now, to think of the responsibility I took on in driving those children around.

No one used a seat belt and when seat belts began to be used, one looked down upon the user as a bit of a coward. I can remember my Aunt Dorothy exclaiming in disgust “They now want us to buckle ourselves down in the car!” In those days, we were living in Peking, and, though we did not have a car, we often rented a car and driver for trips to the Western Hills and the surrounding temples. It was a canvas covered Dodge touring car exposed more or less to the elements, and to inquisitive Chinese children, who were as interested in the interior of the car as they were in us. Traffic in the Peking of those days was an eclectic mixture of pedestrians, rickshaws, farm carts (often pulled by “coolies”) cattle being driven to market, camel caravans bringing in goods from faraway, and the occasional automobile.

The only way our chauffeur could make any progress was to lean on the horn. I think he rather liked the sound of it, for he would use it when we were out of the City where traffic was light, just to hear it. He once gave a blast on it when we were passing a camel caravan, and excited the poor beasts to a frenzy of mewling and stamping to the extent that we were afraid of being capsized.

I have had, like everyone else, a number of cars over the years. For me, they have been nothing more than work horses to carry me to work, to visit my friends, and to take me and Kate on vacation. But recently, as I have become disabled, I have begun to appreciate how the mobility made possible by the car can be a support and aid to an otherwise circumscribed life. The car, in my case a Toyota “Yaris”, has been a boon. I am sure that it gets far more credit and attention than it really deserves.

Is that the key to “car-worship’? I think it may be. Like worship in general, the veneration given to cars has little basis other than the personal experiences the driver has had with the car. But then, there are the racing drivers and racing cars, a whole world of its own. These cars and drivers represent the ultimate that can be achieved on land with the internal combustion engine, and that achievement can only be reached by a certain kind of worship.

For me, though, touring the countryside on a fine day in a comfortable and nimble car is reason enough to give thanks to the industry. There is a dark cloud on the horizon, to be sure. The supply of oil cannot go on forever. But, let us enjoy cars while we can. They have become part of us.

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