Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Little Red Wagon

Station: place where thing or person stands; position; condition of life

Wagon: four-wheeled vehicle or truck, for carrying heavy freight

Burt was shiny, black as oil, sharp and sleek despite many years and miles, a regular trusty bandwagon with a hydraulic hatch and the old patterned vinyl ceiling cloth I love in older cars, because when I put my head back and cross my eyes, the dots slide, overlap, and combine to become curiously 3-D. Makes for hours of entertainment.

Burt was from the Burt Englewood dealership in Colorado. He had a manual transmission and a generous cargo area that held the entire saxophone section. When I was seventeen I learned to drive in Burt on the casual, coastal streets of Imperial Beach, leaping and grinding along beside yards filled with coral-hued hedges of bougainvillea, pepper trees, kumquat trees and rubbery, bulbous jade plant. Once I stopped and got out, slamming the door and insisting that I could never learn. Mom made me get back in and drive home. The first day I had my license, I got pulled over in Burt while playing cat-and-mouse (obeying all traffic laws, I might add) with Mary in her white Ford Escort wagon. Tonetta seethed at the cop from the passenger seat; he claimed to have pulled me over because of the long crack in Burt’s windshield. He told me to get it fixed and let us go.

On excursions throughout San Diego County and beyond, I watched out the window of the bus for the agile little Subaru with Mom at the wheel, obligingly toting all the band booster gear, including a green and gold wagon that marched along beside us at summer parades, filled with ice water and the miraculous sewing kit that kept our ancient, musty polyester uniforms intact.

When Mom and Dad moved back to Wyoming, Grandma, Cat and I followed their yellow Ryder truck in Burt. I took a wrong turn through construction in Bakersfield and wound up going east for an hour before I realized I wasn’t on I-15.

During a winter break from college, Monte and I towed Burt- with Dad at the wheel- from LaBarge to Diamondville over Round Mountain during a blizzard. Dad was a great brakeman but I kept slowing and dropping the cord. After slipping and sliding in terror up the mountain, over asphalt galvanized by ice eight inches thick, I stopped in the middle of the vanished highway. I got out and screamed into the howling, blinding wind, cursing, tears turning to beads of ice on my cheeks. Dad was utterly bewildered. He waited until I was done and we struggled on. We dropped Burt off in Diamondville and I went home to California when my vacation was over. I never saw Burt again.


The silver automatic diesel Chevette didn’t have a given name, but it was part of our family longer than any other car. When I was small I would press my nose to the living room window of our two-story house on Sorensen Drive and wait. A little after 5:00 p.m. I would hear the little diesel chugging from blocks away, and I knew Mom was coming home.

The man Morgan would eventually marry delivered pizza for Mom’s restaurant in the Chevette, a good-hearted teenager swapping classic rock cassettes in a sturdy four-door hatchback that forever after smelled like green pepper and dough. We drove the Chevette to California one Christmas to visit Dad and sang carols all the way through Utah and Nevada (we couldn’t pick up a radio station between Cedar City and Bakersfield), bundled in mittens and Aunt Nora’s handmade quilts because the heater no longer worked and the tape deck brutally gutted tapes when it was cold.

Later in California, the Chevette evolved into a motorized toolbox, the roomy hatch filled to the brim with the instruments of a mobile mechanic. The pizza smell turned sour and yeasty in the damp ocean air (Mom said it smelled like “horse sweat”) and if a window was left open at night, neighborhood cats would curl up on the grease-blackened floorboards. Morgan and I got picked up in the Chevette for not wearing our seatbelts during the first week we officially lived in San Diego, on a Friday night Blockbuster run, and months later in the same car she rear-ended a parked truck on our street, distractedly swatting at a bee that flew in the window.

Shortly before the move back to Wyoming, in a final effort to downsize our pack of automobiles, Mom and I took the Chevette- still bearing Wyoming plates- to a salvage yard in Chula Vista. I cried.


Nellie was a golden-brown Toyota Carolla wagon with a friendly face and plush velour seats. She fearlessly followed hefty four-by-fours off road on Historical Society treks and safely conveyed us several times up and down I-15 to San Diego, although once she stranded us in St. George for three days in the middle of August when her alternator went out, and Toyota parts weren’t yet easy to come by.

Nellie was our tent while camping at Bear Lake. Mom would lay the back seat down and pad the cargo area for Morgan and I; she slept in an inflatable raft outside on the sand. Nellie cheerfully traversed the dirt road to Fort William every summer when we went to stay with Grandpa and Rose. Nellie was also the car we drove to Pinedale and back from Kemmerer every two weeks so Dr. Platts could adjust my braces and headgear. The seatbelt on the front passenger seat cradled my aching jaw just so, and Nellie remains to this day the most comfortable- and comforting- car I have ever slept in.

When our white West Highland Terrier, Stanley, had to be put to sleep, Mom and Nellie brought his body home, swaddled in Grandma Onita’s denim car quilt. The carpeted cargo space permanently retained a strange antiseptic smell; so did the quilt. When Mom was diagnosed with cancer, Nellie carried her back and forth to Salt Lake City for radiation treatments. Sometimes Mom was too sick, so Morgan drove Nellie, the car she learned to drive in. When Morgan once slipped while skipping down a gravel-covered alley ramp and tore a ligament in her knee, I stayed with her (trying to distract her with stories about the jack o’lanterns in the Nelsons’ yard) while Mom went to get Nellie, the same ambulance trusted when Mom went to the E.R. because a slipped disc pinched her sciatic nerve.

In autumn of ’92, when we left for California, Morgan’s future in-laws bought Nellie from us, since Dad already had plenty of cars (including the Chevette, a pair of tiny, ugly Porsches he had to fold himself to get into, and a long metallic teal Cadillac we all hated to drive because it floated like a hovercraft and yawed like a yacht and provided no rear visibility whatsoever). That winter Glen hit a patch of ice and slammed into a solid snow bank, and Nellie’s driving days were over.


I hardly remember the Buick wagon itself, but I remember faux wood paneling and a subdued khaki-and-olive interior the size of a gaping airplane hangar. When I was five I got my tonsils out at the hospital in Rock Springs; Mom put a mattress in the back of the Buick and I reclined in state the whole way home, thin arms draped over the back of the foremost bench seat, sipping 7-Up.

Mom’s pizza restaurant was on the triangle in Kemmerer- their useful, quirky version of a traditional town square- and during community events and sometimes on boring summer days Morgan and I would camp out on the expansive roof of the Buick in front of Paisan’s while Mom worked, beach towels spread between the rails of the roof rack, or on the cargo door, which folded down like a tailgate.

I remember the Buick passing countless times through the tunnel in the stone cliffs above Green River. No matter what game Morgan and I were playing on the Buick’s back seat (it was so wide and broad we could have done gymnastics on it), suddenly it was “night.” We would quickly ready our toys- bears and horses, rarely dolls- for slumber and observe several seconds of expectant silence, even though the tunnel was lit brighter than day.

The Buick eventually had what might have been transmission trouble, and went to rest in the yard behind Dad’s body shop, A-1 Auto. I thought it was simply waiting for parts; Dad could fix anything. I don’t know when the revelation came that the Buick was never coming home, but I remember being devastated. I wanted all our cars to live forever.


The moral of this long wagon-oriented memoir- secondary only to a demonstration of the excessive level of sentimentality I can achieve where vehicles are concerned, much greater than anything I manage to work up for most people- is this: station wagons deserve our praise, not our scorn. They’re not lame; they’re not boring (Dodge Caliber, anyone? Mazdaspeed3?). They are reliable, economical road warriors, safe and sensible, unwaveringly as lovable as the family pet. And beginning with the feisty, horsepower-packed Toyota Matrix in 2001, auto manufacturers injected the classic, blasé wagon with a new attitude, decking them out with spoilers and scoops and giving them a sporty, sassy, ready-to-pounce stance. The more I see, the more I like. And if a station wagon wins the internal battle of wills I’m waging right now between the Toyota FJ Cruiser I want and the more cost-effective car I know I need (the AWD Pontiac Vibe GT in metallic Lava- not your grandma’s wagon), I'll drive it with pride in memory of four beloved wagons that gave my family their all.

4 Comments:

Blogger a572mike said...

Oh my god! My sister had a Diesel Chevette! I haven't heard of or seen another one since she got rid of hers. I put a lot of miles on it when I was 16, I think that it had a top speed of about 63 mph or so, and it took several minutes to get there! When she traded it off, it had a negative book value because of the high miles and the fact that it had a diesel in it.

I couldn't agree more about station wagons, there are some pretty cool ones out there. The BMW 3 and 5 series wagons are super sweet, as are the late model MBZ C and E class wagons. (it's too bad that DCX quit bringing the C class wagons to the US, too many stupid "me too" SUV drivers) The Jag X-type wagons are cool too (for being Jags).

November 21, 2006 at 9:31 PM  
Blogger A said...

Yay! Chevette Alliance. It was a fun car. I'll have to see if I can find a photo.

I'm trying to covet only wagons in my price range, but I'll admit to having eyed the BMW 3 series wagons and the Mercedes models. I watch the used market on ebay motors but I'm still hoping to buy brand new. This may be the only opportunity I have.

I just realized I haven't encountered any Jag wagons in Car and Driver in the last couple of years. Seems odd, doesn't it?

November 24, 2006 at 7:04 PM  
Blogger a572mike said...

What's even odder is that someone here in Cody has a new Jag X-type Wagon. The other day I was talking to someone in my office who thought it was terrible that someone here would drive such a thing. I reminded her that a new big diesel pickup costs way more than that little Jag did, and that not everyone needs a big diesel pickup.

Another cool wagon is the previous generation Lexus IS300 wagon... Only problem with those is the fact that they were only available with an automatic unlike the sedan. The sedans were available with a super sweet 5 speed that shifted with the same precision and similar action to a rifle.

November 25, 2006 at 10:12 AM  
Anonymous Larry said...

When my parents had to trade in (due to some serious engine issues)their forest green Ford Taurus that I learned to drive in, Kate & I trespassed after hours at the dealership to take pictures with it and give it a proper good-bye... But, I have my snappy li'l Vibe station wagon these days to bring me comfort and cheer! ...c'mon on, you know you want to get that Vibe...

November 28, 2006 at 9:19 AM  

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