JDM OPINIONS ON...

   



As you might expect JDM had opinions about many things.  Scroll down and take a look at a few.


First, this tidbit from a letter to a friend:



MOVIES:  


an excerpt from a somewhat longer essay:




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THIS IS A LONG ESSAY/ DISCUSSION BY JDM ON MOVIES MADE FROM HIS BOOKS:

MORE ON FLASH OF GREEN:



ON CARS:


I have had this article in my files for years and just decided that it was worth putting up on the web site.  I hope you enjoy it.l

This was originally written as a contribution to an anthology about automobiles that never materialized.)

Cal


FAREWELL, MY LOVELY MACHINE

By John D. MacDonald

*   (Editor's Note: This was originally written as a contribution to an anthology about automobiles that never materialized.)



We all have bright morsels of memory, sharp-tasting fragments of an automotive

past. It is the summer of·1925, on a bright cool day of my father's

vacation. He and I are in his 1925 Chandler touring car, on a gentle downslope

of new pavement between Sharon, Pennsylvania and Orangeville, Ohio.

The dusty red-tan of the new cut through a hillside is whizzing by,

beyond my father's window. He leans slightly forward. His hands are strong

on the wheel. That was before I found him fallible. The bench seat is black

leather. There is a wonderful tumult of wind and motor-sound. Without takmiinlgehiasmieyneuste!

frIt om the road, he shouts above the roar, "You're now going a

* * *

Twelve years later, on a night in the early winter of 1937, Dorothy and

I have been four months married, and own a 1937 black Ford two door sedan.

We have been driving along back r~ ds in the gentle hill country of the farm

1ands southeast of Syracuse, New Ycrk . There had been a warm heavy snow turning

quickly to deep slush in the late afternoon. and at nightfall the temperature

fell steeply, turning it to ice. We were going up a long, long slope

where one vehicle had driven while the road was slush, before hardening to

grey iron. I rode his deep ruts, slowly and cautiously because wherever he

had veered, the deep ruts wrenched us back and forth.


.

It was cold as a blade. with a blazing incandescence of moonlight, and

'tIe could see far far ahead up the silent empty road, and across the white

fields on either side.

~


;

I took my hands off the wheel. Automatic pilot, as the wheels followed

the ruts. In low gear, with a little judicious fiddling with the manual

choke, the car qrnund along, entirely on its own. \:Ie clambered over into the

back seat, and reached over and punched the lights out. We kissed and

olfaufgahietdhfaunldnelsosokeads oiutttartundtlheedwianltoenrg,wosrtlede.ringThe\Vhleietltlmeakicnagr hsamadllsucmhoveamefnltasv,or

engine rumbling. How long did it last? Ten minutes, perhaps, and forever.

Then we Had to taRe over again at the intersection of the state road. Lights,

action, decision - a far lesser magic.

* * *

It is 1939, and I am to be employed as an "adjiustor" by the C.I.T ..Corporation,

based in Massena. New York . We have sold our car in anticipation

of having the use of a company car, but then there is a delay. A friend works

for International Harvester in Syracuse. He spots a car in their lot priced

at fifteen dollars. which can be repaired for about five dollars, and licensed

for what remains of tne year for two and a half dollars.

It is a big high square old Oldsmobile, black and roomy, vintage 1926.

Its horn - Aaah 00000 gahl ~ replicates the first three arresting notes of the

Italian Symphony.

It served us well for that month. We were a family of three by then. and it carried us and our possessions 

from Fayetteville, New York up to our apartment over a hardware store in downtown Massena. 

It needed to be steered constantly, and there seemed to be a lag between the turn of the steering wheel

and the response. I did not Dush it hard. It served us. And in the end. when the company' car was available' in \'Jatertown,I 

drove the old Olds down there, put it in a downtown parking lot, took my ticket, and never went back. I have

always had a twinge of guilt whenever I think of that brave horn sound, and

the faithful service.

* * *

It is 1944 and I am at Chabua in Assam, up in north India, trying tc'iitch

a ride in a cargo C-46 or C-47 over the hump to Kunming. A major of engineers

asks me if I can help him. I am a captain in the ordnance department. He explains

his problem and I go with him in his jeep through the stifling heat to

a big field where hundreds .and hundreds of trucks sit rotting and rusting in

the tropic sun and rain.

Madame Chiang had addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate and

steamed them up about sending more help to China. All these new vehicles had

been coming up on the funny railroad from Calcutta as part of the result of

her plea~ The Burma Road was not Hnished. They were too big to be sent into

China by air. So there they sat, a giant khaki-drab, depressing used-truck lot.

We went to the oldest sector of the field, where the staunch and familiar

6 by 6 trucks had been parked for a year.

Jungly green was growing up through them and around them. The rubber was

pulp, the insulation slime, the gears rusted shut,

"You want to what?" asked.

Up near Hell Gap, we got this damn bottomless hole, Been having them

Kachins head-carry tons of rock in them little baskets. Sinks out of sight.

We hook onto a couple dozen of this junk and haul them up and push them into the

hole, tney"ll sink down in that swamp and get wedged and we can build the road

across them. 

Why me?'·

"Is this stuff worthless junk?"

"Certainly. 

"Can't get any of these supply-wallahs to authorize a thing. Had a requisition

in for weeks, Got to get on with the road. You~re up from Delhi. They 'buy any neadquarters signature. 

Just twenty of them, 

What do you say?"

I hung around and watched them yank the first two out of the vines and mud,

onto a big flatbed. Tnere was a disconsolate loo~ about them. We weren't

meant to be under the road, they said.

In the late afternoon I hitched my ride. He went v'/ayabove the operational

ceiling of the C-47 to avoid bad icing conditions, but when we came back through

it for the Kunming landing at 6000 feet, we iced up heavily and I thought I

was about to be punished for favoring logic over protocol, but we landed like

a giant chandelier, and felt I had been forgiven, or at least given a r, tis•..

sion.

* * *

As a people, we anthropomorphize our machines~ There were whip sockets

on the first horseless carriages. It is a rare driver indeed who has not talked

to his car, truck, bike, tractor. "Easy, boy! Good fella." And some of us

have felt uncomfortable talking about the new car on order while driving the

old one.

It is possible to hate a machine, of course. Sometimes you come upon a

truly venomous one. Once upon a time we had a convertible Falcon intent on

killing one or both of us. A friend of mine does not hate his Volvo because

it refuses to run when it is raining. He accepts this eccentricity, much as

if he had a dog that hides under the bed at the first grumble of thunder. 


In 1946 we had a car that was docile and agreeable around town, but would stop

dead after two to three hours of highway driving. After a rest, it would continue

for an hour before stopping again. After buying it eleven coils we 

learned that engine heat was causing a resister to short out, thus sending

the wrong voltage into the coil.


 My father had a Rickenbacker he hated. It

was square, brown and cranky, It ate oil and parts and bulbs, burst its tires,

and shimmied at random speeds impossible to predict. It was best to stay out

of his way after he had driven it home from work.


I believe that some very complex variables have to be cranked into that

formula which has resulted in a large scale depersonalization of the automobile.


Perhaps it all began to fade and change about 1960.

By then we had begun to realize the age of the automobile had begun to

visibly rot the hearts of our cities. The ever-expanding concentric rings of

suburbs created the need for broad highways into the center city, while at the

same time shopping, schooling, recreation and work places were decentralized,

moving out to where the peo~le were..


 As center city transit became congested, the traffic, like water in an obstructed river,

 overflowed the banks anq found shortcuts through old residential areas, stinking and 

roaring them into commercial slums, further erodtng the urban tax base.

This dispersion of our people had turned the automobile into a necessity.


Our western European critics who chide us for gargantuan consumption have no

concept of the vast distances involved, of the almost irreversible diffusion of

people into open spaces. The equation of space, time and necessity is so complex

that public transportation is a partial and inadequate solution..

Minibuses are maxi-labor intensive. So we are irrevocably wed to the automobile

within our structure of society.

Necessity can make for a lumpy marriage. Necessity meant. volume production


 Necessity meant. volume production, so capital intensive that the smaller makers faded and died,

 my father went into some other line of work: LaSalle, Studebaker, Packard, DeSoto, Hudson, Reo, Franklin

- all those cars we could identify as we sat on tne porch steps, and call

out the make and year as they went by under the elms.


Necessity meant a reasonably predictable demand, a predictable percentage

of market, a quasi-monopoly status for the surviving Big Three One. Monopoly

conferred the power to enhance profitability. Mechanically, the machines

had become reasonably reliable. Ford took the lead in making those mechanical

design change$ which made it very difficult to get a car repaired except

in the service department of a Ford dealership. 


Of course, nowadays, that trend has reached full and glorious flower. When our Turbo-Scorpion belches,

gasps and shudders, we take it to bored specialists in white ~ocks who plug

in an electronic diagnosis machine, then use a special tool to retard or advance

the helical spondicky, then look in lithebook" and find the appropriate

charge for this seven minute service is $18.00.


When you can no longer work on your car without doing more damage than

benefit, it is easier to cease anthropomorphizing it, to cease having any

name at all for it.


Eventually your dealer became independent in name only and as a practical

matter he was an employee of the maker, but nevertheless, he had to

take the risk of floorplanning the new models.


The power of monopoly turned one of the credos of the competitive society

to myth. The marketplace no longer determined the ticket price. The cost

of a car was based upon adding up all the manufacturing, overhead, sales and

advertising, and then adding what seemed to be an appropriate percentage for

profit. This can only be possible when selling necessities-- like electric

power or water.


The power of monopoly born of capital ~ intensive manufacture enabled the

makers to erode the independence of the dealersa Franchise te~mi-became

much tougher. The maker could reach into the dealership and require reporting

on specific fonns of specific percentages, so that if, for example, the percentage

of utilization of the service department fell below 80%, the dealer

could be forced to correct this situation or face losing his franchise. And

one way to improve utilization was to promise repairs would be completed by

Tuesday, but deliver the vehicle on Friday, with a few things undone or badly

done.

Overpricing became another one of the lumps in the marriage, and then it

became possible to e~tend the time payments further than ever before, in some

cases well beyond the useful life of the vehicle financed. A dead horse does

not become more attractive through the ritual of continuing to pay for it.


One of the final and most disheartening factors in reducing our affection

for our machines was the look-alike trend. It began way back in the midthirties

when Chrysler introduced the Airflow. Their curved lines foretold

the future, and the introduction of automatic choke and automatic overdrive

transmission were clues to an increasing mechanical complexity which today is

celebrated by a friend who cannot blow his horn without automatically locking

all four doors.


When one must wire a plastic butterfly to one's radio aerial in order

to locate one's car in the supermarket parking lot, some endearing individuality

has been lost. And not only does the GM Snipe look exactly like the

Chrysler Roachmaster and the Ford Vultura, the controls are almost identically

placed. This is courtesy of Hertz and Avis and all their little brethren. The

salesman driving away from the Cincinnatti air~ort in heavy traffic in the dark,

wants familiarity under his hand. And in general he can expect just about

the same performance he gets from his own car at home.


So, with increased purchase price and maintenance cost, with a look-alike

banality of handling and styling and performance, affection had begun to fade.

Other factors hastened the day of active dislike. The power of monopoly

attracted the glacial attention of the powers of regulation~ _

And for a time the thin electronic screeching of the fasten-belts ~t§nal was

heard through the land, more shrill even than the maledictions of Ralph Nader.


I had a friend who carried a cinder block around in his car. When he had no

passenger, he had to seat~5elt in into the seat beside him to still the nervetwanging

squalling~ We were told and told and told that our cars were poisoning

the sky, the grass and the trees. What was worse, they were. How can

you love something you have to own which poisons your world?

Big Daddy posted price sheets on the side windows, thus effectively

ending, for many people, the sweaty game of dicker, one of the few remaining

pleasures.

We were told of murderous steel-belted radials, frangible rear end gas

tanks, endemic brake failure.


States and municipalities, belatedly aware of the necessity of auto ownership,

began bumping the cost of tags, permits and licenses, and began overcharging

for vehicle inspection tags at authorized inspection stations where

mendacious inspectors sell you overpriced wiper blades you do not need.

The excessive costs of body and fender repair, and of replacement parts,

hastened the day when, if ten percent of the car is damaged, it is considered

totaled, not worth fixing. The total cost of all the parts for a $6000 Plymouth

has reached $27,000. The parts from "totaled" cars go back into the

parts market, a thriving industry interconnected by electronic miracles of com~'

munication. Thieves no longer steal cars to be sold as cars. They steal them

to be dismantled and sold as parts.


Insurance comoanies, made ever more jumpy by fat claims and fatter judgements

have bacome quick to cancel, on grounds increasingly slim. Victims of

cancellation , both just and unjust, can buy overprtced coverage with minimal

ceilings from something called the assigned risk pool, a device whereby all

the picky insurance companies operating in a given area share the risk of

covering the people none of them could touch.


So grow the accumulations of frustration and despair. The beloved machine

becomes a monster, impoverishing us, entangling us in bureaucratic idiocies,

belching blue fug from its ever-more-mysterious innards, while the television

ads go on and on, showing the smiling and envious neighbors coming over to

admire the glossy new steed -- a ceremony that Detroit does not seem to comprehend

disappeared about the same time as Norman Rockwell covers and the

Charleston.


Frustration erupts. Before we had the gas line wars, we had the Car Wars.

These were most prevalent in the fastest growing urban areas--Miami, Houston,

Dallas, San Diego. Insanities. A man who has come to hate automobiles, traffic

and himself takes affront at a piece of bad driving in heavy traffic, runs

the offender onto the median, trots back, yanks him out, hurls him out into

the lines of traffic, gets into the stranger's car and sees how many other cars

he can run into before the machine expires. There is a rash of rear end collisions

on purpose, of people in maniacal rage moving up beside a car and, from

~ their own vehicle, shooting the driver in the head. Neighbors complain to police

that a doctor in a quiet residential neighborhood is demolishing his car with

sledge, axe; hacksaw and pry bar. There is no ordinance against it. Hhen he

is quite finished, Breathing heavily, he hires someone to come in a truck and

take away the corpse.


Truck drivers, those erstwhile Knights of the Road, have become scofflaws

in convoy, demanding the right to thunder along at whatever speed they

wish, killing over three thousand of us a year in our smaller lighter Cars as

mtohreeirijnudgigseprennasuitbsle.get bigger and heavier, and, with the decay of the railroads,

In fairness, though, the highways are safer than they used to be. The

worst year insofar as deaths per passenger mile is concerned was 1942. Extrapolate

the data from that year and we'd be killing a quarter million a year.


The revolt is against a banality of uniformity, spiraling expense, increased

congestion and inconvenience. We see a plaintive striving for individuality

in the demand for vans, pickups, odd sports.,..utilityvehicles which defy

description, We see them leaping across wild country in the television ads,

in spite of the knowledge that one good big urban pot-hole can put them down

for three days and $400.


The young reckless freedom they promise is, for the most part, a freedom

to endure all of the other frustrations except the drabness of lookalike-runalike.

;;,

Where are we going then in our less-than-merry Oldsmobiles?


A couple of years ago there was an outdoor exhibition of antique automobiles

under the trees at St. Armands Circle in Sarasota. I wandered around

looking at all that gleaming burnished restored elegance of Hapmobile, Jordon,

Marmon, Stutz, Peerless, Nash, Elcar, Packard, and quite suddenly I came upon

a more recent restoration, a 1941 Ford Convertible, in precisely the same shade

of aqua-green ours had been, the one we had bought used from a draftee, the

one Dorothy had driven while I was overseas two and a half years, the one

we had driven to Texas in 1946, towing a jeep trailer, the one we had finally

traded when the speedometer was almost ready to start over again.


Seeing it was like a sudden blow under the heart~How staunch it had

been! How well it had served! In the modern world it looked oddly higher,

shorter, narrower than I remembered. Its tires looked slender and vulnerable,

its underparts too exposed,


It sat on grass agleaming, ready to go. I did not want to see any more

old cars that day. But looked back from afar for a final glimpse, with an

unabashed sting in the eye,

Farewell, my lovely machine.

* * * * * * * *


ON VISITING FLORIDA










ON CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS:


 



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