by Beth Bartlett
In today’s world, everything beeps. The microwave oven dings, the computer, television and DVR player all have a chorus of boops, chimes and dongs, and the cell phone blasts out the song you danced to at your junior prom, but nothing beats the average modern car.
Each automobile sold today is packed with safety features that can not only motor you from place to place, it can also drive you around the bend. There’s a Vienna Boys’ Choir worth of strange ringing sounds designed to get your attention, from the ‘bong’ you hear when your door is ajar to the maddening, volume-increasing ‘bing’ if you haven’t firmly clicked your seat belt. Our 2006 model even chimes in when the windshield washer fluid is low or the gas cap might be loose, and one staccato chirp pipes up for absolutely no reason at all. If I drive past with windows down on a warm day, people think I’m grooving to trendy electronic dance music; I’m only missing the spinning disco ball inside the cab for effect.
That’s why I love our 1978 Datsun pickup. It does not beep. It does not care if you left your lights on like an idiot then walked away; hey, you’ll know better next time. There’s no ring when you decide to risk danger and drive the quarter-mile to the neighbor’s house along a quiet dirt road without your seat belt firmly strapping you in. When you get out, don’t bother pressing the key for a ‘boop boop’ to tell you that it’s locked; you’ll only have the imprint of the word ‘Datsun’ backward on your hand. Besides, the thing doesn’t lock anyway. Want to activate the security system? Roll the windows up. Want air conditioning? Roll the windows down. The only way you’ll get interior airbags in this baby is if you squeeze in a couple of long-winded relatives. The solitary thing that occasionally beeps is the horn, and only if you push it on the left side, with gusto.
Our Datsun is a relic from a simpler time; it speeds along like a greased skateboard, and sips fuel like a moped. During the mile-high gas prices in 2008, it could rumble along for a month on just twenty-five bucks in petrol. Although we paid only $150 for it at a salvage auction, we were receiving offers for up to $2,500 last summer by envious SUV owners. We laughed and rejected them all, because fuel economy is just one happy by-product of this bygone machine.
The other is freedom; glorious, politically incorrect, beep-free, borderline-safe, take-your-risks-without-a-giant-warning-sign adventure. After 30 years of dedicated
service, this truck has earned the right to retire to a peaceful farm life, hauling wood and hay. But it has a crotchety cowboy’s heart, something we recognized when we first laid
eyes on it three years ago; in spite of the rust holes in the floor, the cracked windshield, five layers of antifreeze-soaked carpet tacked to the floorboard and bookmarked with a Dukakis campaign sticker, it only took $100 bucks and some elbow grease to get it running. This battered little beater held up our expectation of adventure, too. We discovered that racing home in a gutter-busting thunderstorm with the windshield wipers, defroster, radio and heater going at the same time may cause spontaneous combustion. Instead of squealing like a teenager in a horror movie, I held up the cool factor by saying, “Hey, go a little faster, because we’re on fire.”
Add in the episode with the snoozing black snake under the driver’s seat (gotta patch those floorboard holes), and this vehicle has achieved legendary status with our friends and neighbors, an icon of individuality and personal freedom, enjoyed best when it is imperfect, colorful and full of stories. After several years, old autos become characters in life, comfortable yet unpredictable. Having just a touch of personal responsibility instead of driving in a vehicle festooned with DVD players, iPod docks, tiny refrigerators and the ability to parallel-park itself takes all the fun out of driving, and definitely kills the adventure. Why stare at a tiny screen filled with the latest moronic reality show when we can look out the window and see a field bursting with wildflowers, or watch a 500-lb. man try to squeeze into a Volkswagen beetle with twenty pounds of cat food as we pass by the grocery store parking lot? Now that’s entertainment. We can even wave at a friend or neighbor, or, if we’re feeling completely nutty, pull over and chat with them for a while and enjoy direct face-to-face communication without the need to scrawl on their Facebook wall. Granted, most conversations start with the phrase “Did
something just fall off your truck or did you find another snake?” But hey, it’s still good to connect with others.
Driving along on a summer’s day with the windows rolled down, we feel our troubles drift away in quiet contemplation, mainly because the engine is too loud to talk over. But that’s okay. For a short, blissful time, there’s nothing beeping or ringing, just the sound of getting away.
Until we realize we’ve driven off without the gas cap.