Monday, May 28, 2007


Memories are beautiful things. They are like bits of magnetic tape loaded with the details of our personal history; our miseries, our glories, our best and worse moments preserved in our mental cassette deck waiting and ready for recall. A trip down memory lane is, perhaps, the most pure form of self-absorbed indulgence. All too often people live in their memories, languishing over the fleeting mental recordation of lost love, lost friends and lost opportunities. But memories are more than just fodder for country song writers. They are the footnotes to our very identity and, quite possibly, pointers to how we will conduct ourselves in the future.

Memories are the germ of intelligence. It is from these cognitive stems that we grow the solutions to the emerging tests that face us each day. This is pattern matching, the process of matching current challenges with the stored memory of similar past events. Once the match is made, reason is then engaged to determine if the course used to solve the past problem is the course appropriate to the current situation. Each challenge, success or failure, is added to the sum of our experiences and we are, at least in some small way, redefined.

My earliest memory dates back to the late ‘70s. I remember riding in the back seat of my parent’s Super Beetle. It was winter, I was cold and the only thing I could see was the red glow from the stoplight on the other side of the windshield. I was less than two-years-old. Ah, the reader sighs in relief for here is the Volkswagen connection. Alas, this is not the story of how I came to love wayward German automobiles. That tale is for another day. In fact, more than two decades would pass before I would again place a butt cheek on German vinyl.

Sadly, the Beetle was totaled in a traffic accident and replaced by a used Saab 99, actually, two used Saab 99s-one for driving and one for parts, as it were. I don’t remember much about those two Saabs. I do recall that the roadworthy 99 was my mother’s and, because there wasn’t enough money for a second drivable car, my father rode an old bicycle to and from work. I grew up in the town of Springfield which lies in the South East end of Vermont where the Black River joins the Connecticut River. It is a small, hilly town made up of working-class folk who eek out a living as laborers and machinists. My father was the later. He worked second-shift operating a grinding machine while my mother held down three part-time jobs.

One evening my mother got a call from the hospital. There had been an accident. My father’s foot had been crushed by an eight-foot-long steel cylinder that had gone astray. Dang, I’m glad I work in an office where the only thing that goes astray is the receptionist. As a result, he lost half a toe and got to wear a nifty, blue orthopedic boot for six months. Sadly, he was no longer in a condition to ride his bicycle and now needed a new way to get to work. As fortune would have it, his worker’s comp settlement of $2300 was just enough to put him into a used (pre-owned wasn’t a word in those times)’78 Mercury Cougar with a 351 cu in Cleveland V8. Actually, it wasn’t a true Cleveland. The true Cleveland was a performance orientated family of V8s that featured poly-angle combustion chambers with large, canted valves and heavy duty lower bearings. The Cleveland was manufactured in the city for which it was named and could be found under the hood of such iconic muscle cars as the ’71 Boss Mustang, early ‘70s Mercury Cougars and the ’73 XB GT Falcon Coup-a version of which was the famed ride of Mad Max. Production of the Cleveland ceased in 1974. The Windsor V8 replaced the Cleveland for most applications, however, there were not enough Windsor engines to supply demand. As a result, the 351M was created by de-stroking a taller 400 series engine.

The 400 series V8 engine, displacing 402 cu in, was created to provide motivation for Ford’s full-size, two-ton plus sedans and light trucks. The engine’s design was based on the Cleveland V8 but featured a one-inch-taller block. To derive a 351 cu in powerplant from this hefty, small block, Ford engineers used taller pistons and the smaller Windsor crank to decrease displacement. The result was a heavier motor that provided less power than the outgoing Cleveland. The 351M series was manufactured in Cleveland and, in order to tap into the performance reputation of the original, this inferior replacement was also referred to by Ford marketing as the 351 Cleveland. (Thanks Wikipedia) Still wonder why Ford is in such trouble today?

Ford’s shady marketing tactics and shoddy engineering, however, were not enough to deter my father. He loved that old Mercury like it was a part of him. It was his own personal Cinderella Pumpkin (or toe) transformed into a posh carriage that-in the hierarchy of our family-ranked just above my brother and somewhere below the dog. That car became an integral part of our lives. We took it up windy roads for mountain-top picnics, toured the Mohawk trail and used it to pull our bass boat to the river. I can remember the sideways glances from those Chevy pick-up owners at the boat ramp as my father pulled in with boat in tow, all those men with their down-turned baseball caps, their brims shaking side to side like so many scolding duckbills. And, as if my mortification were not complete, my father would always squawk the tires as he left the boat ramp. To this he would quickly follow up by announcing that he was sorry for peeling-out but that the car just had power to spare and that really it was unavoidable.

Even after its serviceable lifespan had long expired the Cougar sat, rusting, in our backyard. It was only when my mother made him choose between her and the “junk car” that he called the wrecker. Actually, there were a bunch of junk cars in the yard at that point, all with very interesting stories, really. I’ll tell you about them later.

The memory of my father’s fondness for that car became the germ for my own vehicular obsession. His dedication to maintaining and keeping older vehicles provided me with rich memories and a sense(read as cognitive stem) of how to co-exist with machinery that may need an on-the-fly fix or two. On a more global level, these memories sowed seeds in me that would change the way I approached all problems-vehicular or otherwise.

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