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.


Anonymous said...

Once again, I am left begging for more! If not wanting the story to end is a good measure, you have a home run! Keep them coming! Judy

Anonymous said...

Yeah, like Judy says. It was a great addition to be able to listen to Fats Domino. You have certainly led a full and interesting life Barbara--and accomplished so much. I'm looking forward to the next installment.


Jane said...

This is such a great series, Barbara. I too am begging for more, and I already know the facts! It's your perspective, great details and wonderful writing that make it such a great read. I've been forwarding them to my Mom too, who loves everything you write.
- Jane

Anonymous said...

Incredible account of life’s experience in a snazzy, offbeat car with pizazz. Only Barbara could write it and give you the hair-raising feeling of being there yourself. For an over-educated underachiever she is at the top of her class. She has a large following and I am one of her biggest fans.


Anonymous said...

Wow... too freaky. My girlfriend (now my wife >20yrs) went everywhere and did everything in my '68 sonett (it's a small car but we could bend like gumby in those days).

Many, many fond memories. BTW, our wipers failed in NYC just past the toll gate for the mid town tunnel.

Nice story!

Anonymous said...

I'm a Sonett lover from the Netherlands and I'm the owner of a Sonett 2V4 from 1969 in Blue.. and it came all the way from California to Germany, where I bought it 3 years ago and brought it to it's final destination in the Netherlands.... So I love this Saabstory very much and hope for more...