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First Automobile, Part Two

2015-04-21

The VW dealer in Des Moines fixed the engine and I was back on the road after five days.

The van drove much better after getting a new “short block” (the top of the engine, including the cylinders.) It accelerated much better, and made it up to top speed readily. According to the manual, my top speed, never to be exceeded, was 65 mph.

Over the miles to California, I replaced one worn out item after another. At a gas station in Arizona, I had new shocks put in. At a relative’s house in Denver, I replaced the worn rear brake pads.
After I got to my girlfriend’s apartment in Livermore, I started working on the axle. I put on a new axle and wheel nut, with the proper cotter pin. I had new tires installed– Vredestein steel belted radials with aggressive tread.
My girlfriend had been working a summer job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the place where they study plutonium and other highly toxic things. She was a chemistry major, and she eventually went to graduate school to become a chemist. We stayed in an apartment in Livermore, which was a small town then, out in the desert east of Oakland. We rented bicycles and rode all over town and into the country on weekends.
We only went to the beach a couple of times, it seemed, but we did get to go bicycling in Golden Gate Park, a memory that will last a lifetime. We went with our room-mates, a pair of chemistry graduate students; he had been injured in an auto accident and had no sense of smell.
Which was fine with me because I smoked marijuana in the bathroom with the ventilator fan on and I didn’t want anyone to smell it. In those days, there was no restriction or thought of banishment of cigarette smoking from indoors, and I think I may have smoked cigarettes in the living room too.

At any rate, we packed all four of our rented bicycles into the back of the VW van; two people sat up front, in the seats that remained, and two people sat on the hump in the very back, over the engine. This snug group drove from Livermore, over the Bay Bridge, in to San Francisco, and then to the Golden Gate Park, where we disembarked. We rode all over the park and had a wonderful time. The sun was out, it was warm for San Francisco in the summer, and we stripped down to our t-shirts to ride.
We went down to the the beach at the west end of the park, and back around the twisting lanes to the east end. I had parked along a side street just a block from the park, and I left the keys in the ignition. An hour later, when I remembered the keys and returned, the window was still rolled all the way down and the keys were still in the ignition.

At the end of two months, I packed up everything I and my girlfriend had brought for the summer and my stereo system in to the van, filling it up to the level of the backs of the seats. We came close to the nominal maximum payload of the van: 1500 lb. Above the luggage and boxes, I laid a six inch thick foam mattress I had picked up somewhere. We slept inside the van each night as we drove, back to Chicago first, then on to Boston. My girlfriend drove as much as I did, and she was a good driver, but it still took us a week of driving to get across.

I took my girlfriend to her parents’ house in upstate New York, and visited with them. Her father was a WW II veteran; she said he wouldn’t talk about it, even if pressed, because he said the memories of combat were too painful. We drove on to New Haven, Connecticut, where my stepmother Vicki lived, then to my girlfriend’s college, Wellesley, in a suburb of Boston.

I continued to date her for a couple of years after that; she even came out to Chicago for graduate school. Later on, she dropped out of graduate school to get married and have kids. I don’t know what happened to her after that, but I thought she was one of the most beautiful girls I have ever known, in mind and body, and she wore a mean bikini.

Finally, I drove back to Chicago, and that was difficult. I picked up a hitch-hiker in New York state and drove him back to his college in western New York State.
Leaving there, I drove overnight to Chicago and arrived at the beginning of the morning rush hour. I seemed to be driving eternally on a packed four lane highway with trucks and speeding cars, from western Indiana across southern Chicago, through downtown, and then outwards west on I-80 to Forest Park. There my erstwhile room-mate from medical school had rented a three bedroom student special next to the subway line, across from a factory that made cinnamon-scented candy on Tuesdays.

During my first semester, second year of medical school, among other difficulties which I honestly could not tolerate, the brakes went out on the van. I tried to stop at a stop sign, going fifteen miles an hour, and slid halfway into the intersection. It seems that all the brake fluid had leaked out through a ruptured gasket in the brakes master cylinder, around the rod that pushes hydraulic fluid down the lines when you step on the brake. I filled up the brake fluid reservoir, but it was obviously going down every time I stepped on the brakes. After limping home, I disassembled the brake cylinder and looked for a replacement.
Unfortunately, the specifications for the brake master cylinder had changed over the years since the vehicle had been manufactured. There were two fewer connections on the outside of the master cylinder, because a warning light connection had been discontinued. Apparently, it was no longer thought necessary to enable the brake fluid warning light that sat on the dashboard and had a special “test” button to make sure the light still worked. Some law had been passed making it unnecessary, or that’s what I had heard at the time.

As a result, every replacement master brake cylinder I was offered at the various parts departments I visited failed to match the master brake cylinder that I had in my hand and wanted a replacement for. After a couple of failures like this, I became deeply depressed and began to neglect my schoolwork. For several months, the van couldn’t be driven because of the brakes were out; it sat in the parking lot behind the church down the street, the same parking lot where they had held a fall carnival with some of those portable amusement rides.

I was particularly annoyed because the school, and the government, had reneged on some of their promises and, for example, made the scholarship taxable as if it were a regular job. That seemed inefficient, to tax the funds one had just distributed as a government grant. The Congress passed a temporary exemption to this taxation every year at the very end of the year, so we never knew for sure from one year to the next whether the grant was taxable.

Then I had given the government the address of the Dean’s office to send my monthly checks because I didn’t know what my address in Forest Park was going to be; for months I had to go down to the dean’s office every month and explain why they were getting my check; the secretaries seemed to think that I didn’t deserve the money, since it was addressed to them.

Then there was my room-mate. Actually, I had two room-mates, but only one was a problem. He was a fellow medical student in my class, and we had to study the same things. He had been blessed with an ability to learn quickly, but he preferred drinking and chasing girls to studying.

He was a “serial seducer”, that is, every time he met a potentially date-able girl, he would start to speak to her in a peculiar fashion, as if he had just fallen in love with her, that I couldn’t stand. His intent was, in every case, to get the girl to go to bed with him. His technique, I will admit, was pretty good; where he had the advantage he usually was able to accomplish his goal. Once he had a few sexual encounters with the girl, however, he lost interest and soon began to treat them badly. Usually, the girl would get the hint quickly, but I saw some girls become really hurt by his “wham bam thank you ma’am” approach.

His behavior, at first entertaining, quickly became offensive to me, particularly when he tried to seduce a girl who was, I thought, a good friend of mine. She was the girlfriend of a connection that I knew of, but she went to school with us and I was friendly (in a good friends sort of way) with her. When he met her, he immediately started to approach her, with his, for him, subtle approach.

He played the guitar and had been part of a rock group, so he wrote a song in which he plainly meant to seduce her. He compared her eyes to those of a cow, which I thought was funny; he seemed to think that she was a hick because she came from downstate Illinois. When she realized what he was trying to do, she became offended, which I thought was reasonable. To me, his approach was disingenuous.

The second room-mate was a pharmacy school student, a sophomore like us, who was a native of the South Side of Chicago, prejudiced against blacks but friendly to other white people. He looked up to us since we were medical students. He was a good natured sort, and he liked to party with his fellow pharmacy students.

One evening that fall, we held a dinner party, six of us; the pharmacy student fancied himself a cook, and he did pretty well, so he cooked a turkey. We got all the preparations together and sat down in the living room to chat and drink. We broke out some whiskey and mixed up some drinks. The medical student room-mate drank heavily.

He became thoroughly intoxicated within the hour that we sat in the living room waiting for the turkey to be done. When we got up and started putting the food on the table, I noticed that he went into his room and fell on his bed.
He lay that way without moving while we sat down to eat, and ate a full dinner of turkey, stuffing, corn, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and wine. He didn’t wake up until we had finished the meal and cleared away the dishes.
He got up as if nothing had happened and started to drink again. This time he stayed awake long enough to ask one of us to drive his date home. I was thankful that he didn’t try to drive.

He often did drive drunk, and by our junior year he did have a crash, but got away with not too serious injuries. The oddest part, I thought, was that he was dating a schizophrenic girl (her father was a professor at the medical school) who reacted badly when he dumped her. She seduced me in revenge for his behavior towards her.

By November of my sophomore year, I had visited the doctor four times complaining of pain in my neck and back. I didn’t know that it was a residual effect of the bicycle crash I had suffered when I was a junior in college. In that accident, I had struck my lower back between the first and second lumbar vertebrae on the front edge of the roof of the car that hit me.
It was a small car, and I smashed in the windshield glass with my buttocks. The impact of the edge of the roof with my lumbar spine caused a rupture of the anterior ligaments that held my spine together and pushed out (herniated) the intervertebral disks at two segments. Fortunately, there was no direct nerve injury during that accident, so I had recovered quickly. Or so it seemed.

I complained to the doctor that my neck and back would hurt, especially at night, and early in the morning. Each time, he noticed that I was getting thinner; my normal weight of about 205 pounds had dwindled to 175 by the time he referred me to a psychiatrist. I admitted that I couldn’t sleep and I felt very depressed because of several problems that I ruminated over. I certainly didn’t think taking antidepressant tablets would help, but I was willing to try anything they wanted to try on me.

The tablets, Elavil (amitriptyline) certainly helped me sleep; they also made me drowsy and constipated. I had a terrible dry mouth. Nonetheless, I took them as directed. At the two week point, which happened to be Thanksgiving weekend, I felt a feeling of– something– a good feeling. At that moment, I happened to be driving to a shopping mall to escort my current girlfriend on a shopping trip.
I felt a slightly electric feeling, a buzzing that was inaudible but nonetheless reassuring. I decided that this was a sign of improvement, and further decided to continue taking the tablets as long as they told me to. That turned out to be indefinitely, or at least “six months to a year” according to the psychiatrist.

The buzzing went away and I only felt it intermittently after that. The constipation improved with Metamucil, the dry mouth with chewing gum. I could no longer smoke marijuana because the combination of the amitriptyline and the marijuana together made my mouth so dry that I couldn’t eat or spit, and I got hoarse.

The problem was that I was still depressed, although I denied that to myself. I didn’t want to go to classes, and frequently failed to go. I couldn’t study, although I should have studied two hours every night. I couldn’t look at the slides under the microscope which I hadn’t rented. I had intended to buy a binocular microscope when I got back to school in the fall, but as a result of the many repair bills I didn’t have the cash needed.

I dated several girls who turned out to be complete disasters, including one who was schizophrenic (she was a talented artist).

Finally, I gave up on the van. I went back to visit Vicki over Christmas, and she offered to loan me the money to buy a better car. The cheapest/best alternative was a new VW Rabbit, a small boxy car that had a front engine, front wheel drive combination that gave it excellent cornering ability and traction. It was $4500. After I drove back to Chicago instead of flying, I sold the VW van through an ad in the newspaper. It went to a kid who wanted to buy some pot from me too. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any to sell him, having lost my ability to smoke it.

That was the end of my first automobile and my gay abandon in medical school. I stopped smoking marijuana, stayed depressed, and didn’t study enough. I hated my classes, especially the clinical courses. It seemed as if marijuana had tranquilized me and kept me from realizing how degrading the medical school was.

I continued to take the Elavil until the following year. I gained seventy five pounds during that period and ended up at 250 pounds. After stopping the Elavil, I lost weight and ended up at 225 pounds, a much more reasonable weight for my height (at the time) of six feet seven inches.

The second automobile was faster and handled better than the first. A small, simple front wheel drive car, the Rabbit handled well. It was green, which was an ugly color, but that was what they had on the lot the day I bought it. It seated two in the front seats and three in the rear with a squeeze, and there was a little room for luggage behind them. The engine and transaxle fitted neatly in the front of the car, right over the front wheels, so traction was excellent in forward (although only fair in reverse.) It had a stick shift on the floor and four speeds. According to the driver’s manual, it had a rated top speed of 100 mph (which was precisely how high the speedometer read.) The reason this information was in the driver’s manual, apparently, was that in Germany there are certain roads where there is no maximum speed (unless conditions would compel a prudent driver to slow down.) At that time, of course, the maximum allowed speed (when the police were paying attention) anywhere in the US was fifty-five miles an hour.

I eventually did graduate from medical school and became a doctor. The Public Health Service scholarship kept body and soul together for four years; after that I was an intern making hardly any more money. I joined up with the Indian Health Service in July 1980, doubling the salary I had received as an intern.

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