The Observer sold a car this week: the 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan we bought off our friend Leslie Peacock an age ago, maybe an age and a half by now. It was a good set of wheels for us, eventually filled from front to back with The Observer's flotsam and jetsam, never failing to start other than when the battery died of old age, one corner of the bumper smushed in a week after we got it, the body fairly jacked already with everything from smudges to scrapes to what I suspect were several very vigorous keyings, likely owing to Leslie's penchant for running anti-Bush bumper stickers when The Decider was in office and those dumb enough to have voted for him were still feeling fairly froggy about their choices. White as a refrigerator, interior fair, body OK, radiator leaky. The van served The Observer well, though, so we were sad to see it go, as we are all our jalopies.
Buying a used car is not like buying a new car, which Yours Truly never has. Dear ol' Pa told us young of the horrors of depreciation; how the moment you drive your spankin' new barge off the lot, you're as upside down as Australia, a big price to pay for new car smell and a zeroed odometer. So we buy used.
There's something nice about buying a car from someone else. Long after you've moved in, stained the seats, spilled gunk on the carpets and dinged the paint, you'll keep finding little hints of them all over: toy soldiers in the air vents, grocery lists under the seats, family photos tucked into the owner's manual. We spend a lot of these American lives in cars, for good or ill, and it's inevitable that something gets left behind. That can be good or bad.
When we were looking for the car that eventually turned out to be the blue Honda CRV named Abilene, we looked at an SUV down in Benton on a lot that seemed like a price too good to be true until we test-drove it. It was only then that we found that whoever had owned it had not only put 60,000 miles on it in two years, but had apparently smoked cigars like Fidel Castro the whole time, stinking the rig up so thoroughly that The Observer — notoriously weeniefied in the lung department — coughed and wheezed for hours afterward. It was a hell of a deal, but we're fairly sure we'd either be dead by now if we'd taken it. Either that, or we would have had to learn to pilot an automobile with our head out the window, like the world's smartest Golden Retriever.
The Observer loves cars, and has loved our own cars in particular since the first one, a 1963 Chevrolet we barrel rolled into a stand of pin oaks way back in the Year of Our Lord 1991. It is always bittersweet for us to part with one, whether the car is heading off to live in a new driveway or being hauled away to be crushed and melted. Our cars really become members of our families. One ferried yours truly to two proms and a high school graduation. Another hauled our terrified tail to a wedding to a lovely young woman long ago in El Dorado. Another plowed through Iowa blizzards that looked like the apocalypse to an Arkansas boy. Another, a Crown Victoria putting along at 20 miles an hour, carried the itty-bittiest version of Junior home from the hospital. That same Crown Vick managed to save the life of Junior's father a little over a year later through sheer robustness, when it was T-boned by a yahoo who missed the brake pedal while rushing a stop sign, the blow so hard that it knocked the centers out of the car's aluminum wheels and pushed it careening into oncoming traffic, where it was hit again in the same side by a Mitsubishi Eclipse buzzing along at 55 miles an hour. Bunged up and groaning, The Observer emerged from the smoldering wreckage with only a bum neck we'll carry to the grave, even though the car was so thoroughly demolished that when we went to collect Junior's Christmas presents from the trunk at the impound yard the next day, the attendant who pried open the lid with a crowbar for us said: "Did you know the folks drivin' this car? I heard they died."
Cars, folks. Cars. They're not just hunks of metal or means of conveyance to The Observer, and we bet they're not that way for a lot of you. So we may have gotten a little misty as we pulled our plates off Leslie's van, accepted folding cash, and watched as another retiree of our 25-year-deep fleet of Mobile Observatories motored away into the dark. Such attachment to a good and faithful horse, we believe, is not a sin.