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More Than Just Sheet Metal and Paint

In the recent Clint Eastwood film, ‘Gran Torino’, a car plays center stage in the story of a retired auto worker who is disillusioned with his life and with the changes in America and his Detroit neighborhood. The Gran Torino, produced by Ford from 1968 to 1976, was a muscle car, and symbolic of a time in history when US auto production reined supreme and America was the acknowledged muscle of the manufacturing world. The Gran Torino in the film also becomes symbolic of a more systemic change in life in America that Eastwood’s character, Walt, cannot understand or appreciate. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth a look.

Cars are a big part of our lives in the US. The car your parents had, the first car you drove, the first you purchased, and for some of us, the family car.

In 1994 I bought a Ford Explorer. It was the first new car I had ever purchased. Till then I had either owned used cars or had a company car. I bought it just after Christmas when we were visiting my in laws in Kalispell, Mt. My father in law was sales manager for the local Ford dealer. I remember well the new car smell, how it was the nicest family car we had ever had. How I babied that car! Hand washing it weekly, keeping the inside in mint condition, I drove it for 8 years before deciding that I was ready for something different. It served our family well. Lots of vacations, fishing trips, skiing at Alpental (until I ripped the ski rack off trying to drive under a parking garage gate), and all the motoring about you do when you are raising active kids.

Rather than trade it in, I decided my daughter could benefit from solid, reliable transportation, so I gave it to her to drive her senior year in high school. She was headed for college at Montana State University and I thought with its four wheel drive it would be perfect for her. When she was ready to leave for college, we loaded all her stuff into the Explorer and drove her over. I remember vividly Libby standing on the sidewalk in front of her dorm, by the Explorer, as we drove away. Everyone was in tears.

At then end of each school year I would fly to Bozeman and help her load up the Explorer to come home for the summer. Those 12 hour drives back to Sammamish were some of the best days of my life. Just the two of us, laughing and talking, as we drove back home. On one occasion we had to nurse a failing transmission those 600 miles, but the Explorer never let us down. Libby took great care of it, making sure it stayed just as clean as when I drove it.

When she graduated and got her first job she was ready to buy a car of her own. Again, I wasn’t ready emotionally to let the Explorer go, so I offered it to my son, Matt. His car was in terrible shape and was failing him repeatedly. I made him promise that if he took good care of it, he could drive it. That was a big reach, because Matt wasn’t known for being particularly kind to cars or feeling any attachment to inanimate objects.

Soon after, Matt decided to move to LA and pursue a career in film and video, but most importantly, a young lady. Once again, I helped load the Explorer with his worldly possessions and strike off for a new adventure. He’s been in LA for almost three years and the young lady is now his fiancée. When we visit we’re chauffeured to all their favorite LA spots in the same car. And true to his word, he’s kept it immaculate.

That Explorer has survived a lot. Totaled once while parked on the street in LA in front of Matt’s apartment, we bought it out of salvage and got it running again. But it couldn’t go forever. Finally, after 18 years, 187,000 miles and following two kids (three if you count me) on their dreams and adventures, it was done. No longer reliable, it had more issues than Matt could really fix, so we made the decision to donate it. Matt found the Make A Wish organization and on April 17 arranged to have it towed away. To me, if felt like having the family dog put to sleep. It was the right thing to do, but parting with such a loyal friend, that had played a role in so much of our lives, was hard.

There will never be another Explorer, a car that meant so much in the lives of our family. Unlike Walt in Grand Torino, the Explorer doesn’t symbolize what was once good that is now seemingly lost. It’s more of a Viewmaster that held all the memories of those eighteen amazing years in the life of our family. My only regret was that I couldn’t be there to say goodbye and thanks when it left. It was more than just sheet metal and paint.

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