Cars are mysterious contraptions.  I'm not talking about how they operate because at a fairly young age I learned enough about these things to work on them myself.  Of course these modern machines are another matter with all their electronics and other devices which require a wide array of test equipment to repair.  The mystery to which I'm referring is the role they play in our lives.


I used to say that cars were a communist plot.  Especially when mine didn't work.  Or when I looked around and saw people who didn't have a "pot to pee in" buying a new car that they'd make payments on for years to come.  Cars perform a function beyond mobility.  They serve as status symbols, privacy outposts for intimate relations, and even devices of death and destruction.


When I was growing up, cars played a big part in the rite of passage from child to adulthood.  The make of a car was important.  Many of my friends had an unswerving allegiance to Ford, Chevy, or MoPar (as Chrysler products were called).  My first couple of cars were Chevies.  I've previously talked about these.  My third car was the last one I had before going to Vietnam.  It was an Oldsmobile 4-4-2.  Boy that car was neat.  I had a four-speed and when you accelerated it sounded just like an airplane taking it off.  It even looked fast.


Which probably helped me to contribute to the economic well-being of a deputy sheriff in Louisiana in 1967.  I was on my way to my first assignment in the Air Force.  My clothes were hanging in the backseat and I had an Oregon license plate driving across Louisiana toward the Florida Panhandle.  It was a four-lane highway and about quitting time in the evening on a Friday night.  I was in the slow lane and cars were going by me like I was standing still.  All of a sudden there's blinking redlights in the rear-view mirror.  I pulled over and got out.  This was before the funny TV commercial where the fat sheriff says, "Youaw in a heap ah trouble now boy."  But that's not far from what happened to me.  It did no good to protest my innocents.  He told me since I was from out of state I'd have to follow him to the station.  I did.  It was right out of Andy Griffith.  There was an old drunk sleeping in a cell with the door open.  The deputy said I could wait until Monday for the judge or pay my fine right then.  The choice was easy.  I paid.  When he didn't offer a receipt for the cash I'd just given him I asked for one.  He rummaged through a desk drawer and pulled out a receipt book that kids used to use on their paper route.  He wrote a receipt that I kept for many years.  Not one word was legible on it.  After that I learned the importance of maintaining a low profile while traveling in the deep South.


I've been stopped a few other times but never where I had to follow the officer to jail.  When I joined the Divers Posse in Phoenix they gave me a deputy's badge so for 8 years I had a badge that worked wonders whenever I was stopped.  When the officers asked for my license and registration I would just make sure he saw the badge also.  I'd usually get off with a warning.  It's called professional courtesy.  If my first wife was with me when I was stopped she used to be mad as hell when I came back to the car without a ticket.  It's called envy. 


Dad had an experience with a cop in Arizona many years ago.  We used to drive across Arizona at night on our way to New Mexico.  He had a pretty heavy foot out there on those long straight stretches across the desert.  One night he was cruising along about 65 or 70 when this car rolls up behind him.  He was not paying enough attention to the car to realize it was a cop.  Finally after a few miles the cop whistled into his microphone which was connected to a speaker on the front of his car.  It was like someone sitting in the front seat next to him, it was so loud.  Then the cop said, "Hey Oregon.  Why don't you hold it down to 55 and see how it runs?"  I thought Dad was going to mess in his pants right there.  It damn near scared him to death.  He sure slowed down in a hurry and the cop went on around and kept going.


I didn't do my job very good that night.  When we traveled, it was my job to spot cops and let Dad know so he could slow down.  Which led to an embarrassing moment for my folks in a diner one afternoon.  We're sitting at the counter when an ambulance pulls up outside.  Of course I thought anything with lights on it was a cop.  I could see it through the front window so I said in a voice so loud that everyone in the place heard, "Lookout Daddy, there's a cop."  He tried to explain to the people sitting around us but they probably figured we were escaped fugitives running from the law.  He always laughed about that.


Donna and I had an embarrassing moment behind the wheel a few years ago over on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  He'd been fishing for blue fish on a charter boat and when we got back it was pouring rain.  It wouldn't stop raining.  She got in the car, while I got the fish cleaned.  By the time I got in the car I was soaked to the bone.  She drove while I peeled off my clothes to wring them out.  It was a two lane road and a cop watched her pass another car.  It was clear to pass but he decided she had crossed the double line slightly before getting back.  When he stopped her I was sitting in the front seat with nothing on but a smile and a towel across my waist.  She protested and expected me to do the same.  I was tongue-tied.  The cop acted like I was even sitting there.  There's something about attempting to be glib while being as naked as the day you would born that takes your confidence away.  I know they teach people to envision their audience without clothes to gain public speaking confidence.  This was just the opposite.  For many years I've tried to explain my timidness at that moment but she still things I let her down in her moment of need.  Like most tickets one gets away from home, we paid it rather than drive back over there for a court appearance.  She says the cop saw the Virginia license plate and knew we wouldn't fight the ticket.


Part of the mystery of cars is how people alter and customize them for their own enjoyment.  I've seen on TV where people have covered a car with grass seed and turned it into a moving Chia Pet.  In East Los Angles the young Hispanics used to convert their cars into 'low-riders'.  These things barely cleared the ground and would bounce up and down at stop lights.  I don't know if they still do that or not. 


I've been guilty of customizing a car.  The '58 Impala had an automatic transmission in it.  It worked fine but that wasn't good enough for me because all my friend's cars had straight sticks.  So I jacked the car up on blocks and tore out the automatic and put in a four-speed transmission with a "Hurst" shifter on the floor.  It had to be a "Hurst" because those were the best. 


One of the strangest customizing jobs I've ever heard about was a car that my first wife's parents had.  It was a two-headed car.  It came that way from the factory.  It had two hoods, two grilles, two seats (back-to-back), and two steering wheels (only one worked).  When she first got her driver’s license she would take her little sister out for a ride.  The little sister would sit in back holding the steering wheel that didn't work.  They'd be at a stoplight and Linda would shift the car into reverse.  When she did the rear-facing headlights (which were the backup lights) would come on.  She said the people sitting behind them would go crazy when they realized this car was getting ready to come toward them.  I guess they had a lot of fun with that car.


A lot of people never grow old because of the death and destruction a car can cause.  When I was young, a car loads of kids was playing "chicken" out on a long straight stretch of highway 99.  One of them side-swiped a truck loaded with plywood.  It scattered plywood all over the place.  It scattered the kids all over the place too.  The funeral was held in the high school gymnasium.


In college I had two friends from Idaho.  One of them had a childhood sweetheart that had come from Idaho too.  One Sunday afternoon the two guys drove off the side of the road outside of Eugene.  They left several people behind that missed them a lot.  I don't know what ever happened to the girl.


A lot of people kill themselves or others driving drunk.  Of course you don't have to be drunk to do stupid things.  A few years ago two people were killed west of Phoenix when they tried to change drivers--at seventy miles an hour.  There was a child in the back seat that survived and said what happened.


I guess as long as we have cars, people will keep using them for a status symbol, customizing them, or using them as a vehicle into the hereafter.  I've given up on the idea that they are a communist plot -- except when they don't work.