Welcome to episode 10 of Messin’ with Mark, God’s sitcom!
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series, let me tell you how it started . . .
When I was very young, Jesus was walking around in His heavenly area up there when he saw his Dad looking down through the clouds, laughing His head off. Curious, he walked over and asked, “What’s up, Pop?”
“Oh, just pranking that Mark kid again,” He replied.
“Again?” Jesus asked, “Why are You always picking on him?”
“I don’t know. There’s just something about him,” God said. “I mean, look at his face right now.”
Jesus looked down and started to chuckle, then stopped Himself. “Okay, I admit it’s kind of funny, but this is wrong. I mean, You created him. With all due respect, what kind of an example are you setting for the angels? We’re supposed to love and protect humanity, not single one out from all the rest for humiliation.”
God thought for a moment, then looked at Jesus and said, “You’re right. I should stop.” They looked at each other seriously, then said, “Naaaaaaaahhh” and laughed some more.
Jesus suggested that he make a regular show of his pranks on me. They named it Messin’ with Mark.
Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s bit about getting “no respect” from humans? It’s kind of like that, but on a cosmic level.
So, to today’s episode – The First Car
Harrowing tales of the infamous “first car” are not uncommon. They’re usually hand-me-down’s – Aunt Gertrude’s Dodge Dart or cousin Lenny’s Ford Pinto, and they usually require a ton of work to get them into running condition so there’s inherent danger that the brakes won’t work or the steering will suddenly go out even before the thrilling first solo ride.
I inherited two such cars from my father. The first was a 1978 Chevy Impala, which I promptly wrecked. The second was a 1976 Buick LeSabre, which I also promptly wrecked. Fortunately, these were both low-speed accidents I was able to walk away from. To say I was “not mature enough to drive” would be a gross understatement. Neither accident involved another car. I was sensible enough to be more careful in traffic, but I couldn’t resist doing figure-8’s on rainy nights or tearing down arrow-straight, isolated desert highways. Thus, the Impala got wrapped around a tree in the rain after some out-of-control “fish-tailing” and the LeSabre ended up in a ditch in Death Valley.
In all the years since, I thought it was a testimony to my father’s patience and undying trust in his boy that he actually got me a third car – this time buying one from an independent party rather than giving me one of his old jalopies. Upon further reflection, however, one might suspect he was trying to reduce the size of his family. After those two first performances, I definitely did not deserve a third chance. But there I was, sitting behind the wheel of a 1969 VW Bug.
This was actually the second bug he bought me. He purchased another one through an ad in The Recycler from a neighbor only to discover he had put sawdust in the carburetor to make it run for a few days before seizing. My father, brother and I drove the car back to his house and asked for the money back. He said, “I got screwed. I screwed you. End of story.”
Unfortunately for him, we had other ideas about where and how the story should end. My father started to chew him out but their discussion was interrupted by my older brother who took him right out of the frame with a two-handed choke. He pinned him to the wall of his garage and said, “Cough up the money or cough up blood!” Wide-eyed, the sleaze ball reached into his back pocket, took out his wallet and handed over almost all the money my dad had given him the day before, minus fifty dollars or so. It was a great victory. My brother was my hero that day.
So the ’60 Bug was actually my fourth car. It was stock and in good condition but, in another display of poor judgment, my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to “trick it out.” We lowered it (which ruined the smooth ride and made it a bumpy nightmare), took the stock bumpers off and put T-bars on (which got me a ticket collection because they were not street legal), de-chromed the exterior (which required using Bondo and repainting to hide the holes left.)
Fixing up old VW Bugs was a big thing back then. I had a subscription to Hot VW’s magazine and we all went to the Bug-In’s – outdoor car shows for VW Bug enthusiasts. It’s one of those myriad ways that wayward youths waste their time majoring in minor things. I should have been in a library studying law or something, but driving to the beach or blasting through the desert on our way to Palm Springs with friends in cars with candy apple paint jobs was just so much more fun. Youth must have its day.
Whatever we did to that old car seemed to finish it off because a whole host of problems ensued. They were:
- When the gas tank hit halfway, the needle dropped, leaving me to guess how much gas was left.
- When I made right turns, the driver’s door flew open. Completing the turn with my right hand while holding the door closed with my left was always a challenge.
- The interior smelled like gasoline so I and all my passengers usually ended up high as a kite by the time we got to where we were going. God knows what damage was done to my brain from inhaling all those fumes. It could explain a few things, actually.
- The windshield wipers didn’t work so driving in the rain often required sticking my head out of the window and getting soaked to see the road ahead.
- The headlights and taillights – all lights really – worked whenever they were in the mood.
My friends and I didn’t mind these problems because that Bug – fondly referred to as “the bucket” – almost always managed to get us to that most glorious of all destinations – the BEACH – or more importantly, the OCEAN. We were surf-crazed maniacs.
Suffering waking before dawn only to paddle out into frigid water for the sake of surfing was gladly accepted as the price of fun and friendship.
Another problem – a design flaw really – was that the battery was located under the rear seat. This is fine as long as nobody weighing more than 150 pounds sits directly over it. The problem occurred when I piled four of my friends into the car, three of which were in the back seat. Their combined weight caused the hay-like stuffing to come into contact with the battery and catch fire. We were on the freeway at the time. Smoke filled the car and everyone started yelling “let me out!” I pulled over and they all jumped out. I pulled the seat out just in time and watched it burn on the side of the road. My friends had to walk home. I was not very popular that day. I bought a new seat and put a metal cage over the battery to prevent another backseat fire.
All these problems beg an obvious question – why didn’t I just buy another car? There are two reasons – my father swore this was the last car he would ever buy me (and rightly so), and I was a broke surf bum. In my defense, I was only 17-19 when I owned this car but my level of irresponsibility was extreme even for this age category. My fellow surf bum friends – Bob P., Matt M., John C., and a few others whose names have receded into the murky recesses of my mind and history, would often be so broke, we would dig into the crevices of our parents’ couches and search washing machine traps for change to pay for gas. (Yes, it was that bad.) But again, any problem, any discomfort, any indignity, was a price eagerly paid for another day of adventure and fun.
While traveling through Malibu Canyon one morning with the gas tank dangerously low (of course, because the needle didn’t work, we didn’t know how low – we just knew it was low – the car actually “felt” empty), Matt and I had a great idea to save gas.
“Turn off the engine and coast down the hills!” he said.
Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that? So I did. Sure, we couldn’t go as fast as the cars passing us (and cussing us out) but we were saving precious gas, dang it! A ninety-degree turn and a cliff waited for us at the bottom of one hill. As it approached, I went to turn the steering wheel, only to discover, to my extreme horror, that turning off the key makes the steering wheel lock. I tried to dislodge it with brute force but I wasn’t brutish enough. I tried to turn the key back on but because I was pulling on the steering wheel at the same time, I couldn’t turn the key. In desperation, I slammed on the brakes and Matt pulled up the emergency brake between our seats. We both screamed real, B-horror movie screams as the bug skidded through the rocky gravel, stopping with the front wheels dangling over the cliff’s edge. Matt and I stared straight ahead, afraid to breathe. Actually, we couldn’t breathe because of all the dust filling the car. It was like that scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles when Steve Martin and John Candy almost crash and are so scared, their fingertips are embedded in the dashboard afterward.
“Don’t move,” I said.
“Not planning on it,” Matt replied.
“You get out and sit on the back bumper. I’ll back it up,” I said.
Matt was a bodybuilder so he was the obvious choice for bumper-sitting. I was able to extricate the car and me from the jaws of death and we continued on to the beach, vowing to never, ever turn off the car while driving again. But again – and I hate to belabor the point – even a near-death experience was worth it if, waiting at the end of the road, was the glorious mecca of all happiness – the beach.
And more surfing.
Years passed and I sold the old bug to another teenager, starting the cycle over again. I’m proud to say I was honest about all its deficits. I told him about the gas tank needle, the door that flies open, the gas smell, etc., and he appreciated it. He said he was going to restore it to “super stock”, which is what I should have done to begin with. Live and learn. Actually, “almost die and learn” is more accurate. Horror is a heck of a teacher.
Even with all the trouble that old Bug gave me, I still had a lump in my throat as I watched that kid drive away in it. It was a “passing of the torch” moment.
Cars are a lot like people in that way – the more you go through together, the more connected you feel, and the harder it is to say goodbye. Because along with all the problems, in the midst of them really, there was also getting into the car and catching up on sleep after surfing the “morning glass”, or seeking refuge in the car’s warmth on cold, windy afternoons, and shaking off the onset of hypothermia (the heater was the one thing that worked great), or driving home along the Ventura freeway, my high school girlfriend sleeping next to me and the California sunset burning soft and rich in my rear view mirror.
There was a heck of a lot of laughter with friends, and high adventure.
My friends and I even laughed when we had to dig it out of the sand at Zuma Beach after I accidentally drove off the paved road. Events that would be a hassle and major inconvenience to my adult mind were fun then. We made them fun because we were committed to fun.
And maybe that’s the take-away from all this – fun, happiness, joy – must be committed to, because if they aren’t, happiness will always be a chance, a random possibility as long as nothing gets in the way of it, and something will always get in the way. But if the decision is firmly made that life is and should be fun and happy, even the difficulties of life can be laughed away, like my friends and I laughed away all the problems that troublesome old car gave us.
That car made it possible for me to experience the classic California surfer lifestyle.
A lot of sunsets were savored through that cracked windshield.
So though God, Jesus and all the angels may have had a good laugh watching all my misadventures on that widescreen in heaven, that episode had a happy ending.
But there’s one more metaphor to be mined here. Most of us complain about health problems, especially as we get older, but our bodies take us where we need to go as much as any old car does. The body’s just a vehicle, too, but it houses so much more – the infinite and boundless spirit, heart and mind. So we should forgive and even laugh away the aches and pains and keep moving toward where we need to go. It’s a big world and there’s always so much left to explore.
In parting, here are a couple of car songs I love, both by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, David Wilcox –
This Old Car – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaAF5e6glTM
Rusty Old American Dream – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ytlzw0Fsj5I