The Automobile & American Life
Dr. John Heitmann
February 1, 2011
Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve cars. When I was around five or six years old, I would anxiously wait for every evening when my Dad would let me “drive” the car into the garage. He would park his car in the driveway when he got home from work, and then come upstairs to get me so that I could drive the car into the garage. He would sit me on his lap as he sat in the driver's seat, and I would help steer the car and “drive” it into the garage. This became such an exciting nightly activity that my brother and I began to fight over who would get to “drive” the car into the garage every night. Sometimes my Dad would have to drive the car into the garage twice just so that my brother and I would both get a turn.
Another prominent memory I have involving a car is not so positive. I was about eight or nine years old and my Mom was driving my brother and I to ride the carousel at the mall, one of our favorite weekend activities. We were taking the scenic route to the mall, driving up Highway 1, or PCH as we call it. As we were driving through Laguna Beach in my Mom's mini-van, we hit the usual Saturday traffic. As my Mom was driving around a curve, the traffic suddenly stopped. She was able to stop without hitting the car in front of us, but the car behind us was not so lucky. I will never forget the sound of the mini-van being rear-ended. My younger brother, being only five or six years old at the time, was so startled by this noise that he began to cry. I had never been in any kind of car accident before, so I still had no idea what was going on.
“Mommy, what happened?” I asked.
“Oh my God, I can't believe this. Doesn't he know I have kids in the car?!?” My mom was angrily saying to herself.
“Mommy, what's going on?” I repeated. My Mom continued to angrily mutter to herself and did not respond. It was at this moment that it finally hit me that we had gotten into a car accident. I remember this moment very clearly because it was then that I got really scared and began to cry. The only thing I knew about car accidents was the few I had seen on T.V. when my parents were watching the news, and that they were scary. I also still remember the poor sixteen year old boy who hit us that day. He was a blonde surfer dude and I still remember how nervous he looked when he walked up to my Mom's window to apologize. My Mom was very upset that he had scared my brother and I so badly, so she really let him have it. I remember her yelling at him so loudly that it only made my brother and I cry harder. By the time they exchanged insurance information and filed a police report, my brother and I no longer felt like riding the carousel. Looking back on this memory now makes me laugh, but at the time it was very traumatizing. I was afraid to ride in a car for months after this incident, and it wasn't even a very bad accident.
Thankfully, my relationship with cars drastically changed when it came time for me to get my driver's license. When I was fifteen, I got my learner's permit. I was so excited to learn to drive, but a little concerned that it was going to have to be in my Mom's mini-van. My parents had been looking into getting a new car for the family, so I was able to talk them into letting me help pick it out so I could use it to learn to drive. I decided I wanted an SUV. My parents took me to test drive a Nissan Xterra, a Toyota Highlander, and a Honda C-RV, but none of them felt like the one. Finally we went to the Ford dealership and test drove an Explorer. I immediately fell in love with the car. I loved how high up I was and how smooth the ride was for an SUV. I really wanted a white one with tan interior, but my parents ended up choosing the more practical silver with dark grey interior. It has definitely grown on me. I was able to take my driving test in the Explorer, and I passed only missing three points. From there my real appreciation for my Explorer began. Having my own car gave me such a sense of freedom, and I loved it. The time alone listening to music in my car driving to and from school each day was an amazing new experience. I loved the freedom my car gave me to go places with my friends. However I did not experience true freedom with my Explorer until I took it to college with me. When I was still living at home, my parents would borrow my car whenever they wanted. Although I called the Explorer “my” car, it did not feel like mine with my parents using it whenever they wanted. When I got to drive my car from Dana Point to USD, the one hour trip was the longest I had ever driven alone. It was so liberating. It was from that point on that I truly felt that my Explorer was my own personal space that could take me wherever I wanted to go. I love my Explorer and I hope it stays with me for many more years.