Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Saab Story, Part Three: Recapturing Our Lost Youth

After Eric and I sold our Saab Sonett sports car in the late seventies, Eric tried to compensate for its loss—he took up flying. By the time we moved from Chicago to Boston in the summer of 1979, he had both an MBA and a pilot's license.

Eric's enthusiasm for flying caused me considerably more anxiety than his pursuit of speed on the ground ever had. Nonetheless, once in Boston, I accompanied him on excursions to the Vineyard, Bar Harbor, and other interesting locales. At first, we flew in a rented Cessna two-seater aircraft, but before long Eric teamed up with a friend and together they bought a Piper Cherokee with room for four.

While we were still in Chicago, our Mazda RX2 had died and we'd replaced it with a boaty, used Mercury Montego, which we brought with us to Boston. Eric had been hired as a consultant at Bain & Company and I planned to finish my third year of law school at Harvard. We were both thirty by then and had been married for over seven years, but we hadn't really thought much about having children. Once we decided we were ready for a family, I grew more anxious than ever about Eric's flying hobby. When a mouse got into the Cherokee and chewed up some of its wiring, even Eric acknowledged that flying could be risky.

Our son, Aaron, was born in June of 1982. By then, the plane and the Montego had been sold and we'd moved from Boston to the nearby suburb of Newton. After moving nine times in ten years, we settled down in a 40-year-old Tudor-style house on a quiet, leafy street, a block from the local elementary school. On our driveway sat a Honda Accord and a Honda Civic, which Eric used as a commuting car. I'd decided to forego a career in favor of full-time motherhood, pursuing law and other interests on a part-time basis. Our transition from free spirits to responsible parents became complete when, in 1984, we purchased a Volvo DL 240 station wagon, a tank-like vehicle whose main selling point was its stellar reputation for safety. By 1985, when our younger son, Alex, was born, the Saab Sonett, and the life it represented, seemed a distant memory.

A Mercury Sable station wagon eventually replaced the Volvo and took us through the grade school years. In 1995, it was supplanted by a Toyota Avalon, then in its first year of production. By that time, Aaron was a teenager, and the Avalon's roomy back seat was ideal for big teenage boys. While I ferried the kids around, Eric continued to use a second car for commuting. In 1990, he replaced his Civic with an Acura Legend. It was the first car since the Saab that Eric had really loved—a sleek, metallic-blue luxury sedan, with great handling. Eric drove the Legend for seven years and would probably still have it today had a patch of black ice not caused it to spin out, wrecking its under-carriage. The damage was repaired, but while the car was in the shop I persuaded Eric that an SUV was the way to go for a safer commute in wintry New England, a dubious claim, given the rollover potential of SUVs. Still, Eric agreed that an all-wheel-drive vehicle made sense. He sold the Legend and bought a two-door Ford Explorer.

As Eric's fiftieth birthday approached, I attempted to avert any chance of a mid-life crisis by encouraging him to buy a new car, something really special. Eric had long admired two Jaguars from the sixties—the S-type and the Mark 2. For the 2000 model year, Jaguar came out with a new S-type, whose design borrowed from both those earlier cars. Eric bought the Jaguar sight-unseen and took possession on his birthday, in June of 1999. The S-type fulfilled his expectations—it was a powerful car with great acceleration, but also luxurious and easy to handle. The Jaguar was hardly a sports car, but it reawakened Eric's passion for cars. At about this time, we were emerging from the fog of over-protective child-rearing. Aaron was a senior in high school and driving Eric's Explorer. Alex was a high school freshman. Eric began to fantasize about someday owning a sports car again.

He was encouraged in this line of thought by our friend, Mason, a knowledgeable car buff whom we'd known since college. One summer, Mason invited Eric up to his house in Vermont for a weekend. Little did I realize that the main event of Eric's visit would be the 2005 Saab Owners Convention at Stratton Mountain, featuring vintage Saabs of every description. Among the more behemoth models on display were a few restored Sonetts. On seeing them, Eric immediately regressed to his adolescent state—he wanted one of his own. He even phoned me from Stratton Mountain, claiming he'd purchased a Sonett on the spot. I wasn't amused until I realized he was only joking. I worried that if Eric ever really bought an old Sonett, he would be disappointed, since I believed the actual car could never live up to his mythical memories of it.

I didn't hide my concern from Eric, so he reacted the way any rational man would—he began searching in secret for a 1969 Sonett to restore. His quest continued, without my noticing, for over a year, mostly on the Internet. Since so few Sonetts were built to begin with, there were very few on the market and most of those were in bad repair. Finally, though, Eric thought he'd found the car he wanted. He decided it was time to reveal his intentions to me.

I reacted the way any rational woman would—with dismay.

"You can't recapture the past," I admonished. Eric insisted he simply loved the Sonett and relished the idea of restoring one.

"You'll take over the garage," I complained. Since we have a three-car garage, that argument didn't hold much weight.

Eventually, I was set straight by several of my girlfriends, who pointed out that boys like their toys. One of them put things in perspective—at least Eric didn't want to build an airplane, she reminded me, or ride a motorcycle (her husband had succumbed to the lure of a Harley-Davidson not long before, with near-disastrous results). I was at last convinced and gave my grudging support to Eric's project.

Eric excitedly showed me pictures of the car he'd found through his Internet search. It was located in Arizona, where it had been owned by two generations of the same family. The car looked just like our Sonett, except it was bright red rather than electric blue. The photos showed the car housed in a spotless garage, suggesting it had been well-cared-for. The current owner, Mike, was selling it because his wife was having a baby and wanted the garage space for a sensible car. Here was a woman I could relate to!

When the deal was in its final stages, Mike mentioned that the car had been in a minor rear-end collision at some point before his father purchased it. The damage had been repaired but, in the interest of full disclosure, he wanted Eric to know about it. Eric mentioned off-handedly that he'd had a similar-sounding accident with his Sonett.

"But my car was blue," Eric said.

"Oh, didn't I mention that this car used to be blue?" Mike replied. "My dad painted it red."

Eric asked Mike where his father had purchased the car. The answer—Berkeley, California, not far from where we'd last seen it at Eric's parents' home on the Stanford campus.

Shortly after this intriguing conversation, Eric was helping his mother sort through boxes of old documents as she prepared to move from the Stanford house after 47 years. During the process, he came across a copy of his original title to the Saab Sonett, VIN number included. He immediately contacted Mike, who confirmed that the VIN number of his Saab Sonett was identical. So, Eric was buying back his original car! This amazing coincidence erased even my remaining hesitation about the purchase. A short time later the car was shipped from Arizona to a convenient locale near our home, where Eric picked it up and drove it onto our driveway.

I gazed at our now-red 1969 Saab Sonett. It looked cute, smaller than I remembered, and somehow not quite ours. Perhaps it was the red paint, perhaps the intervening years, but I didn't feel much connection to this little vehicle we once again owned. A while later, back in the house, I saw the car keys sitting on a table in the foyer. I picked them up. They were old, clearly the original keys. I felt a rush of emotion. These were the same keys I had held back in the seventies, when we were young and starting our life together. These were the very same keys I had inserted into the ignition, the keys that had started not only the car, but our journey together. Memories came flooding back, along with the thrill of having somehow recaptured a little piece of our youth.

Our 1969 Saab Sonett, fully restored by Eric and repainted its original blue color.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Saab Story, Part Two: Over the Edge

Eric and I arrived in California in the summer of 1972, during a heat wave. The hills had been baked a golden brown by the unrelenting sun and it seemed impossible that it would ever rain. By the time it did, we had been hired as managers of a garden apartment complex in East Palo Alto, where we could live rent-free. We moved into a pleasant one-bedroom apartment with shag rugs and a tiny fenced-in patio. Our 1969 Saab Sonett had its own cozy carport among a row of carports at the front of the complex.

Our neighbors were an eclectic group, including Leonard, a taciturn engineer who restored antique cars; Melanie, a "masseuse" with a throaty, seductive voice; and Susan and Gowen, recent Princeton grads who became our friends. Our next door neighbor, Rita, was a down-and-out middle-aged woman who depended on her no-good boyfriend for support and listened incessantly to a record of Fats Domino singing "Blueberry Hill." Above us lived a lively couple who were into wife-swapping, as we discovered when they invited us for drinks one afternoon. We even had a famosity connection—the apartment across the garden path from us was rented by Joan Baez's cousin and personal secretary. Ms. Baez would sometimes visit with her big German shepherd. Among that varied group, our main distinction was of course our snazzy Saab Sonett.

When the rain finally arrived that fall, it came not merely as drizzle or showers, but also as impressive wind-driven downpours, veritable blizzards of rain. During one such deluge, Eric and I were driving north on the 101 Freeway. We had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and were in the fast lane. The rain was coming down in sheets and, even with the windshield wipers going, our visibility was poor. Nevertheless, being 23 and fearless, Eric was careening along at high speed. Since the Sonett had no radio, the monotonous motion of the windshield wipers provided our sole accompaniment—left, right, left, right. We had just passed the exit for Ross, Eric's home during his third- and fourth-grade years, when the driver's-side wiper swung left and kept going over the edge of the windshield, where it dangled uselessly.

Within a nanosecond, Eric had no visibility whatsoever. The windshield wiper on the passenger side still worked, but it didn't help Eric see directly in front of the car. Frantically, he opened his window and leaned his head out. I stuck my head out the right window so I could look back at cars coming up beside us from behind and guide Eric into the slower lanes. It was a near-death experience, but not one characterized by white light and bliss. More like screaming intensity, not to mention that we almost drowned. Eventually, Eric edged the car across several lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder. There, we waited for the rain to let up, which it mercifully did after about fifteen minutes.

Back home in East Palo Alto, we made a disconcerting discovery—the part we needed to repair the wiper wasn't available. This was our first stroke of bad luck concerning Saab parts. We'd had quite a different experience during our drive west, when our alternator failed just outside Boise, Idaho. Thinking we'd be stranded for days, we had coasted downhill into town, where we learned that the only Saab dealer between Chicago and San Francisco was located right there in Boise. And he had the part we needed!

This time we weren't so lucky. The local Saab dealer informed us that not only did he not have the wiper part, but no one else in the U.S. did, either. He suggested we call Saab's U.S. corporate headquarters in Connecticut. Maybe they could order the part for us from Sweden. Coincidentally, I'd recently applied to a Master's program in anthropology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Eric convinced me that we should wait until I heard from Wesleyan. If I were accepted, he reasoned, we could delay contacting Saab headquarters until we actually arrived in Connecticut. Meanwhile, ever resourceful, Eric came up with a temporary fix using duct tape. By then, the worst of the rainy season was over and the tape held until the coming of spring and dry weather.

During that winter and spring, while Eric worked at home maintaining the apartment complex and writing a book about blues roots piano, I commuted in the Sonett to the Stanford Music Library, where I'd been hired to create a catalog for Stanford's Archive of Recorded Sound. I spent my days in the musty basement of the Knoll, a lovely old building that housed the Music Library. Surrounded by ancient Edison gramophones, I listened to and cataloged spoken-word recordings made at Stanford during the prior decades. They ran the gamut from lectures about Shakespeare, astrophysics, and architecture to speeches by Henry Kissinger and anti-war radical David Harris.

In mid-summer, after I was indeed accepted as one of two graduate students in Wesleyan's anthropology department, we began driving east toward Middletown, Connecticut, where Wesleyan is located. Somewhere in Wyoming's big sky country Eric's duct-tape wiper fix failed. We could see a storm coming from miles away. When it hit, the faulty wiper made a couple of left-right swipes, then headed once again over the edge. This time, fortunately, we were on an empty two-lane highway and the storm was brief. We pulled over and waited for it to stop, then continued on our way. We spent the rest of the trip praying for dry weather and pulling over when necessary. After we arrived in Middletown, we managed to persuade someone at Saab's corporate headquarters to order the correct part for us. Once it arrived and was installed, we felt ready for whatever Connecticut weather might deliver—rain, snow, or ice. What we weren't prepared for, though, was the coming oil crisis.

Following the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, during my first semester at Wesleyan, OPEC declared an oil embargo against the U.S. and other countries that supported Israel. By this time, Eric had found a job in West Hartford, as assistant managing editor of Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, a weaving magazine. The commute was about 45 minutes each way, not a big deal until the gas crisis hit. When it did, the Sonett proved its worth. With its extremely light-weight fiberglass body, it got about 40 miles per gallon. Even with that amazing mileage, Eric would still have found it hard to buy sufficient gas for his daily commute were it not for the ethnic factor—with his dark hair and Mediterranean complexion, Eric could pass for any one of a number of ethnic groups. The local gas station happened to be run by an Italian who naturally assumed that Eric was a paesano. He told Eric not to worry—there would always be enough gas for him to get to work. Happily, this proved to be true.

After our year in Connecticut, we drove back to Northern California. Although I had planned to follow up my classwork with fieldwork in San Francisco, my anthropological fervor decreased the further away I got from Wesleyan. So, instead of studying the ethnography of language among Portuguese immigrants, I opted for a job as an assistant editor at Guitar Player Magazine. Eric's music background, coupled with his publishing experience at the weaving magazine, led to his hiring by Guitar Player's publisher to develop a book and record division, Guitar Player Productions. We settled in Los Gatos, about 25 miles south of Palo Alto.

Although I felt comfortable driving the Sonett around town, I had managed to avoid driving it on the highway ever since my traumatic downhill experience with the freewheeling clutch two years earlier (see Part One). I still thought the Saab was a cool car and I enjoyed being seen in it, but the fact that I was afraid to take it on the highway served as a constant reminder of my driving inadequacy, so it hadn't exactly enhanced my self-image. All that changed, however, when I heard about the San Andreas Health Center in Palo Alto. The San Andreas center was a holistic health mecca which offered biofeedback, Rolfing, encounter groups, the Feldenkreis Method, and numerous other non-traditional medical approaches. In my quest for self-realization, I was dying to try them all. But I had to get there first. Eric was less than enthusiastic about alternative medicine, so I knew I was on my own.

One evening, there was a lecture on full-spectrum light, which I really wanted to attend. Calming myself with my Transcendental Meditation mantra, I got into the Sonett, made my way to the freeway, and hit the accelerator. The freedom was glorious! It turned out I loved driving fast in the Sonett. And the Health Center was fantastic. I soon started attending biofeedback sessions and, in early 1976, I persuaded Eric to move to Palo Alto. By this time, I had left Guitar Player and, while working as a freelance editor, I began volunteering at the health center. Eric eventually left Guitar Player, too, and joined Inner City Records, a small independent record company.

It was a wonderful existence, but we felt we hadn't quite grown up. In the fall of 1976, Eric decided to apply to business school and, not to be outdone, I applied to law school. We were both accepted at the University of Chicago and decided to return to a colder clime. We agreed that the Sonett wouldn't be the right car for the frigid and gritty south side of Chicago. Eric's dad had long admired the car, so we gave it to him, thinking we might reclaim it later. In the meantime, we bought a more practical but still offbeat vehicle, a used, orange Mazda RX2, with a rotary engine. Soon after we arrived in Chicago, my father-in-law realized he simply didn't have room in his driveway to keep the Sonett. After some soul-searching, we told him to sell it. Thus, a powerful symbol of our carefree youth vanished from our lives. Or so we thought.