There are certain lessons that stick with you from childhood, lessons you never forgot.
My mom taught me to never hitchhike or get a tattoo. And my dad told me that when a car hits 100,000 miles you are living on borrowed time.
Yes, they taught us a lot more than this, but some things are like oatmeal; they stick to your ribs (as my mom used to say, too.) This is more like sticking to my brain, which, to be fair, can sometimes seem like oatmeal the older I get.
But that one message still resonates. I have one car with 150,000 and the other that is just a few ticks away from the big 100K. Every time I get in the car I think about it. That means I am defying my dad’s decree not once, but twice. If he were alive today, he would give me a look of disbelief: How could I let this get so out of control?
My dad and I used to pair up to do car shopping about the time the odometer started thinking of going from five digits to six. There was a certain amount of dread about seeing the car roll from 99,999 to 00000. Odometers only had five figures, not including the wheel for fractional miles, in those days. It was like an alarm was going to go off, or the end of a 007 movie. We were sitting on a time bomb.
That meant a car reset, to a new model, usually to one around 30,000 miles.
As a result, we went through a lot of cars in those days, a Lincoln, a Buick, a Mercury, a couple of Chevys, an Oldsmobile, a Plymouth and a Dodge, mostly station wagons, which were the minivans or SUVs of their day, big enough to tote a family of six. In those days, when my dad was not working on the car himself, he was taking it to the gas station (yes, that is where you took cars for repairs back then) to be fixed. Cars were cheaper, but they were needier, too.
You didn’t want to break down with a family that big, but that is what most of our vacations were about – the adventures we would have when our rides ultimately failed. The most memorable part of many vacations were often the misadventures we got into when the car was in the shop for a couple of days, our plans would be derailed and we’d have to adjust.
We wouldn’t hitchhike, but we would stay in the homes of complete strangers some nights, and on multiple trips. Once in Colorado Springs we stayed for two nights in a converted loft above a barn of the Firestone manager, because our car had so much trouble in the mountains towing a trailer; when we opened the hood on the expressway the manifold was glowing bright orange – you know, like metal gets before it is molten.
On a trip to Washington, D.C., there was one night we ended up in a fleabag motel on Interstate Highway 74 in Cincinnati that was so bad there was a giant katydid, about the size of a cucumber, on the heavily stained carpet. We think it was dead, but nobody wanted to go near it to find out.
Even when I was old enough to have my own kids, the troubles did not cease. Once the air conditioning system went down driving back from the Black Hills of South Dakota in the middle of stultifying summer heat with screaming kids in the back and all the window down, just like my parents used to do in the days when windows were the only ventilation. My shirt was soaked and streaked with the salt stains of my sweat.
I know. I know. These days, they tell me cars are different. Cars are meant to last to well over 100,000 miles — even 200,000. A 300,000 car is rare but not unheard of. They even make cars with seven-digit odometers now as a matter of course. I am not sure what that means. They make speedometers that go up to 160, too, but that doesn’t mean they can go that fast. (Not that I have tried, of course, officer.)
I suppose there are actually some good things that can happen when your car has mileage that high.
My very first car, a 1967 Buick LeSabre, a land yacht if there ever was one, cost me only $400 and it had 133,000 on it, but it was the best $400 I ever spent. Of course, over the next few years I put on my own brakes, an eight-track player, a rear-window defroster and a new starter before it finally bit the dust at 163,000 miles.
But what I most remember about that car is how my wife and I did some spooning there when we first met. My parents told me a lot about that, too, and, thankfully, I was not paying much attention then either.
Come to think of it, maybe I should worry about those lessons my parents told me. Is there a tattoo parlor around here?