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Call Me Ishmael

RECENTLY I purchased a used pickup truck, a white half-ton with a short bed, gold striping, and oversized tires. Parked, it sits casually with its bed slightly raked. I imagine it at rest. Not many years ago it might have been a dapple-gray gelding (it has only six cylinders) slouched at a hitching post near a wide veranda. Now, when I escape the gridded parking lot where I work to cruise country byways, the ram's head on the end of the hood glides above the road like a ship's figurehead plowing through smooth water. Colleagues smile. ``When are you going to get a gun rack for the rear window?'' one asks. ``Do you really need a truck?'' queried the wife of one of my co-workers one day in that modulated and accusatory tone reserved for young sons who've discovered motorcycles too early.

Need, of course, is relative. I like my truck primarily for its looks and because it's just shy of acceptable, even a little menacing, among all those look-alike foreign and domestic models that school in the parking lot where I work.

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``How do you like your new car?'' asked a friend one evening as I walked him from our front door to the curb where his gold BMW waited.

``Oh, it's OK,'' he replied, ``but it doesn't have the power for passing I'd like. I'm doing a little market research for something better.''

A week or so later I saw him driving a red car, a Honda I think; I couldn't really tell because so many of those small, high-backed, grill-less and sloped-fronted jobs look alike to me. A few years ago Triumph called it ``the shape of things to come.'' They were right: modern automobile designers follow one another like ducklings in a row, waddling resolutely and urgently toward a murky pond. Maybe that's a function of a throwaway economy; selling has become the main point, and it's easier to hawk an imaginary uniqueness than take the time to develop distinctive character.

That wasn't always so. In the '40s and '50s, even into the '60s, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler products, automotive meat and potatoes where I grew up, were at least distinguishable, even among themselves. Pontiac hoods sported Indian heads; Chevrolets did not. Pontiacs also carried ribbed chrome strips down their hoods and trunks. Buicks were larger with chromed louvers in the sides of their hoods or front fenders. Oldsmobiles looked sad. Mercurys were bigger than Fords, and fancier. Plymouths and Dodges, smaller than Chryslers and DeSotos, were sturdy but nondescript and usually owned by grandparents or old maid aunts. Lincolns and Cadillacs existed in a world of their own.

There were others: Kaisers, Frasers, Hudsons, and Nashes, long and boat-like, were generally shunned, probably because everyday folk associated those shapes with hard-shelled critters ravaging fields and gardens. Studebakers and Henry J's were tolerated like shy relatives with weak chins. Random Packards drifted through the countryside like sharks on the prowl.

I didn't do market research when I bought my truck. I saw it on a lot and horse-traded for it. That used to be the way of the land, and my trading instincts and affections for automobiles are rooted in 1950s southern Virginia where most of the folk bargained for cars and extended their personalities through their vehicles. A man was known by the automobile he kept. ``Oh, you know B.J. Price,'' someone might say. ``He drives a Blue Ford.'' For more emphasis a model and date might be included - ``Yeah, I know ol' Jake Saunders, known him for years. Drives that black, '48 Chevy coupe, don't he?''

Special cars fetched more elaborate descriptions. Lina Lee Naze drove a '56 DeSoto, Fire-Dome V-8. This more precise designation recognized a psychological complexity knitting car and driver, a demure school teacher who had never married and who rarely spoke outside her classroom. Her DeSoto was a dusty green, the color of tropical water. Cream stripes extended like tails of comets from the front fenders to the trailing edges of the wide tail fins. The machine began and ended with massive chrome bumpers and carried a filigree of chrome that glinted in the sun.

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The car's matching interior swaddled Lina Lee in luxury. Its seats were a dark green trimmed in a lighter shade. Plush pile carpet covered the floor. Multiple dials and gauges on the dashboard lay enmeshed in chrome and the instrument panel glowed at night with the pastel hue of continuous fireflies on a summer evening.

With its huge engine, power brakes, power steering, and push-button drive, the car moved by erotic surges and pulses, activated by the slightest suggestion of pressure. It skimmed over the asphalt like a dawn wind caressing meadow flowers. It raised eyebrows and peaked imaginations.

Lina Lee exulted at the center of wide-spread attention and gripped the steering wheel in both hands. Onlookers could only guess at the flight of mid-life fancy impelling her from the '38 Dodge she had driven for 16 years into the DeSoto. She drove her new machine with a wry smile, aware of secrets that awed bystanders could only guess at.

Automobiles also separated classes and revealed different attitudes among them. Mrs. Able Jamison, the wife of a retired Caterpillar executive, drove a long, steel gray, '39 Buick, usually down the middle of the road. A stern, humorless woman, she never laughed openly. On rare occasions when a comment or situation amused her a single large ``Ha'' escaped from her slightly parted lips while her expression remained as fixed as death. Farm workers and day laborers cut for the shoulders to avoid her stony countenance and the grim, slatted grill of her Buick.

I first discovered the semblance between character and vehicle during the years I waited for the school bus at the end of our lane. On warm spring mornings Clyde Turner's black '49 Buick-Eight wallowed through the curve and dynaflow-moaned up the slight grade toward my waiting place. A retired insurance salesman, Clyde drove his car slowly and self-consiously. Its wide, smiling grill suited this easy-going, overweight man whose gentleness seemed always a trifle labored and too smooth, even on those summer mornings when he brought his wife to my mother's beauty parlor and waited outside in his car, chewing tobacco and spitting the excess into a coffee can.

At 7:30 each school day, my fourth grade teacher Miss Harris, burst from the low glare of the morning sun and down the grade on her way to Asbury Elementary in her '52 Chevrolet, an ivory coupe with a gray top and plain black tires. A stately middle-aged woman with dark eyes and long, gray-streaked auburn hair, Miss Harris sat high in the seat. She'd glance in my direction and wave, her expression always quizzical and a little sad. Then she'd turn her eyes back to the road and whisk quietly by in powerglide.

Samuel Horne, a Dunker who custom-farmed in the neighborhood - everything from thrashing to plowing - drove a plain '49 Studebaker pickup. Ordinarily, Dunkers, members of the Old Order of The Brethren Church, only allowed themselves black vehicles to confirm their simple needs. However, Sam's truck was tan, a concession to his flair for business. The truck whined gracefully through the turn and purred up the grade. The horizontal slits in its grill led the way in a determined expression, half-grimace, and Sam operated the truck the way he handled all his machinery, with a resolute steadiness, always business-like and focused as though in pursuit of some special goal.

Dewey Stone chugged steadily through the curve and up the grade every morning at 7:40 in his Model A Ford. Dressed in khaki work clothes and baggy engineer's cap with a long shovel bill, Stone sat so low in the car only his hat showed above the steering wheel, which he gripped firmly near the top with both hands as if he were afraid of losing control.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a college professor, bought a new white Honda Accord, because, he said, his consumer magazine rated it highly. A few weeks later a neighbor who runs a bookstore bought a gray-blue Honda Accord. Not long after that a second neighbor who works with computers also purchased a gray-blue Honda Accord. A month later the lady who runs a Guest House on the college campus nearby passed me in a new Honda Accord, a gray-blue one. At one point, six Honda Accords regularly cruised the neighborhood, five of them the same color. Such repetition makes characterization difficult; you can't say to someone, ``Oh you know Phil, and Ken, and Bob, and Frank, and Sally, and Tom, they drive gray-blue Honda Accords.

If asked, all these folk would explain that blue was the only color available and that the Honda is highly rated by Car and Driver and Consumer Reports. Perhaps the complexity of our lives demands that we do market research and more and more seek the advice of experts to make basic decisions - where to eat, what to eat, what to wear, what films to see, what diets to choose, what vehicles to buy. With the help of experts, maybe our lives, like gray-blue Honda Accords, can be acceptable, safe, comfortable, uniform, and impervious to criticism. But I wonder about the shape of things to come. Mornings, as I head across the slotted parking lot toward my office, I often glance back; among so many muted grills my truck looks like Moby Dick in a school of minnows. A longer version of this piece appeared in The MacGuffin, Spring, 1990.

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