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First Automobile, Part One

2015-04-17

First Automobile

When I was a freshman in medical school, I had no visible means of support to pay my tuition, fees, and living expenses (the dorm and its cafeteria.) The day before I left Cambridge to fly to Chicago, to start my freshman year, I opened a letter from the medical school (University of Illinois at the Medical Center Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine) informing me that they had no financial support to offer me.
I called my father, and separately my stepmother Vicki, and after much remonstration received promises of enough money to get me to Chicago and pay the first month’s tuition. I was on good terms with Vicki, but I had hoped never to talk to my father again.  Nonetheless, I felt that he was responsible in a way, because he had insisted that I go to medical school.  Never mind that I couldn’t think of any better profession.  My reasoning was that, as a doctor, I could actually help people instead of exploiting them; and, I could make a good living at the same time (or so I thought.)

After I got to Chicago, the school offered me a loan of $1800, which I accepted as it was federally guaranteed. I then applied to the United States Public Health people, who were offering a full scholarship for four year’s work in an “underserved area.”

It took a couple of interviews with my freshman dean and six or more months of waiting before I received, separately, $700 and $5,400 for my first year’s expenses, money to repay that which I had already scraped up between my separate parents and government loans.
I also, at about the same time, in April, went through our final examinations for our first year of medical school, which took three days. I finished early every day, even the day on which I overslept and arrived an hour late. I was confident of having high scores, and I was not disappointed.  When the exam results came back, I was in the top ten percent of my class and was invited to join the intellectual medical school fraternity.

The money seemed to be a sort of reward for doing well in school, and I was going to spend it. First, I bought a new stereo sysem, with a gigantic open reel tape deck for high fidelity sound.
I bought a turntable, speakers, and a “receiver” (amplifier and AM/FM receiver combination.) The whole cost about $600.
Second, I went out to buy a vehicle. I was attracted to the VW minivan, in which I had slept as a teenager when my mother took us camping. I had fond memories of riding around in this big on the inside van that you could sleep in while camping. I took my girlfriend with me, and we went to a VW dealer to look at used minivans.
I fixated on the cheapest van they had, a six year old, 98,000 mile relic which had been used as a transporter for a church. It was red with a white top, and it still had all the seats installed (it could seat eight.) The tires were not so good, and the engine didn’t run too well, but I was sure I could fix any minor problems. I also noticed, as my girlfriend drove, a faint thumping noise coming from the right rear wheel area.  Nonetheless, I bought it for cash: $1500.

The first thing that happened after I bought it was it ran out of oil; when the low oil light came on, I didn’t know what to do. I was driving in traffic, and I pulled over, but I didn’t turn the engine off right away. I added oil and continued driving. Soon the engine developed a miss, which got worse and worse until, in DesMoine, Iowa, the burned valve fell into the cylinder, the engine made a loud clanking noise, and then it stopped. It wouldn’t even turn over. I pushed the van over to the side of the road and made it fast, locked it up, and hitched a ride to a motel. Over the next four days, I took a taxi back and forth to the VW dealer, who replaced the engine and notified me of certain other defects plaguing the vehicle.
In addition to a dead engine, there was a stripped wheel nut held on to the axle with a large nail through the cotter pin hole. The brakes front and back were close to the metal. Of course, the tires needed replacing. Finally, the shocks were worn out.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    2015-04-21 19:15

    My own experience with vehicles feels somewhat similar to yours.
    Shortly after I went to live in Canada, my adoptive father died from his second long-awaited coronary, and although he had written me out of his will, my adoptive mother told me that there was money left over from what had been set aside for my college education. I didn’t write her often, maybe only once or twice a year, because of her abusive and unpleasant writing style, but she was nice in this letter and explained that I had $6,000 coming to me and she would send a check. I think she maybe felt a little guilty that she had gotten the big payload when he died, whereas his children got nothing. In any event, even though he had formally disowned me, she came through and sent me the six grand.
    I was only nineteen, and I wanted and needed a car. But I knew nothing about cars because my adoptive parents had raised me very strictly to be an academic with no practical skills for the life ahead of me. So sure, I could already speak French and German rather well, and I was pretty good at reading Latin also. But I wouldn’t have known a transmission if I had fallen over one.
    So when I searched my mind for what I knew about cars, I found only bits of teenage dialogue from my high school and college days (I had already finished three years in college), nothing useful, and nothing to help me decide what to do with the money.
    Then I remembered something from the Army. One of my compatriots had a brand new MGB-GT, and it was hot and sexy. He called people out every day to come look at his sexy car. It was a British racing green and was definitely something a person could be proud of.
    Knowing nothing else about cars, little else about life, and having no practical way to evaluate any of my memories, I rushed down to a foreign car dealer and told him I wanted a British racing green MGB-GT. I told him with kind of an arrogant wink that the money was not a problem for me.
    He fawned over me and complemented me in whatever ways he could think of, quietly counting up commissions in his secret mind, and presented me with the car and the cost: $3200. This was 1969. I did not even know enough to haggle him down for paying cash. I paid the full amount, drove away happily, and he went laughing to the bank and is probably laughing still.
    I was unemployed, but I loved driving, so I drove all over my new town of Toronto, night and day, day and night. I lived off the remainder of my six grand, and after the winter passed I had more or less nothing left. My adoptive parents had never taught me anything about money and I knew nothing about money; I had never even thought about money my whole life.
    So spring came and with financial bankruptcy came also a new idea in my mind. No, it was not the idea that “This is 1970! Imagine how much money that was!” No, the mundane thought was that I would become a taxi driver, because I could smoke incessantly and drive all the time, and in the interim get paid for it. Instead of taking care of the MG, I sold it for some ready cash — $2,000 is all I got after owning it only six months – and got a job driving taxi in metropolitan Toronto. I held the job for almost two years.
    Looking back, I cringe at how I mishandled the money. But it wasn’t the last time I would spend all my resources, confident there would always be more. These days I clip coupons and I know what poverty is. Back then, I thought I would never waste my time worrying about money until later in life, when perhaps I might have to. Ha, wisdom! If wisdom were only forward-looking and not backward.
    My second vehicle, after I quit driving taxi, was an old Volkswagen van. Not a red bus, which I believe is what you describe in your blog, but a blue van. How I failed to take care of that vehicle and ended up leaving it out on the 401 somewhere is another story.
    Can I ask you a question: Why had you “hoped never to talk to your father again?” At the time of my experience, I was glad my (adoptive) father was dead.

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    • 2015-04-21 21:46

      As to why I had hoped never to speak to him again: a very long story. In short, I was angry at him for the way he had treated me when I saved money that fateful summer that I was exposed to toxoplasmosis. I had not spent any money all summer, and had a significant amount of his money left over. He didn’t appreciate my thriftiness, but insisted I should spend his money to buy a new suit for my medical school interviews. I didn’t want a new suit. I wanted something to play music with in my dorm room while I was studying.
      As it turned out, a new suit would have been a waste of money because the medical school I went to didn’t require an interview. The interview (at a medical school in Chicago) turned out fine without a new suit, but I decided not to go there.
      You’re lucky you bought a new MGB-GT; after a few miles, they develop electrical problems and other problems and don’t repair well.
      Are you Eric Woro??

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      • Eric permalink
        2015-04-22 00:26

        I like long stories, and I like details. I’m sure your other readers do, too. And so ironically, I won’t say much in reply at this juncture — I have to go somewhere. Yes, I am probably Eric from a past that you remember dimly, or perhaps I am not — and I am not being coy when I say that. I spent a year in Russia teaching English, followed by four years in the Middle East, and it all made me into a different person. This is recent history. Perhaps more on that in the future? I’m not the same person.

        But meanwhile I wanted to amend one of my earlier comments. I was not actually GLAD that my adoptive father died. That’s just not true. I was sort of vapidly satisfied, not satisfied as in contented, the way you feel after you eat a candy bar or a steak dinner or a nice dish of fries and gravy; but rather satisfied, contented, as though something that was due to happen at last happened, so that life could go forward, either in a fantastic or merely quotidian way. In that sense I was satisfied that he was dead. It was right; yes; it was over.

        He was not a father to me in any way except as a provider. Over the years I have been able to be grateful that I had that and not just the orphanages and foster homes of the first year of my life. He did a lot for me in that way. And I mean, I am grateful for that. I had ricketts when I was adopted and they put me in leg braces for I think two years to straighten my legs. Of course I am fortunate to have gotten that treatment from a doctor and his hospital dietician wife.

        But he wanted his own flesh and blood, in a very traditional sense, and I can’t say that I blame him. I have always held a fascination with blood relationships. Also, the last seven years of his life, as I went from 12 to 19 years of age, were very depressing for him, as he had encountered mortality in his first heart attack, and after that it seemed that all joy went out of his life. He never spoke to me. He never touched me. And he never helped me in school either, as he had done some when I was studying Latin in junior high school. I was a tennis star but when I lost in a critical round in a critical tournament, he did not give me any encouragement or wisdom or even criticism. He didn’t mention it at all. And by the way, I never played again, even though at the time I was 3rd in California in my age group (under 16).

        So he was dead to me already, being neither father nor friend; and when I say I was satisfied at the final announcement of his demise, I only mean that I understood cause and effect in the most basic of terms, and could proceed on without ever thinking about him much ever again. Except in much later years, wondering why they even adopted. But he was sterile.

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