It has been more than 20 years since the day after which Americans got used to being handled like felonious cattle at airports. Stand here, don’t go there. Off with your shoes. Open your purse. Spread your legs. Those born after that day have no memory of what it was like to just get on a plane – sometimes, at the last minute – and fly to your destination without having to do more than show a boarding pass to the stewardess – as opposed to the “flight attendant” – at the gate.
A car was a machine, first of all. It had a thing called an engine – and these were often radically different, car to car. But all of them were the same in that they burned liquid energy stored in a tank.
One of the really neat things about this liquid energy was its portability and stability. You transferred about 15-20 gallons of this liquid – they called it “gasoline” and “diesel” – into the car’s tank, which only took a few minutes to do and the car was ready to drive for hundreds of miles.
Unlike the way things are now, you didn’t have to wait all the time in order to get going. So you could just go – pretty much anywhere and whenever you felt like it. Almost like flying was, a long time ago – when it was possible to catch a flight, the saying went, on the spur of the moment and without having to show up at the airport an hour or two before the scheduled departure time and wait for the flight.
Because you could just go – by car, in those days – you never had to plan. Life had a spontaneity you may never fully appreciate. If you just felt like driving somewhere, you could – no matter how much gas or diesel you didn’t have in the tank. Even if there was almost none. We were able to do this because there were gas stations – where diesel was also usually available – all over and almost always within range. It was only a small hassle if you ran out of gas on the way t the station because it was possible to carry a small can or plastic jug of liquid fuel from the station to wherever you left the car and pour it into the tank and then drive to the station, where the tank could be filled in about five minutes or even less.
We were never reluctant to run the heater or defroster in our cars at full blast on cold days because it didn’t have any effect on how far we could go before we had to stop. These engines cars used to have produced heat without cost, in terms of range. Also, the distance your car could go in winter, when it was very cold outside, was just the same as it was when it wasn’t cold outside.
The engine might be harder to start on a cold day (it was necessary to “turn it over,” using a small electric motor that was powered by a battery, which – like the ones that power our devices – wasn’t as powerful in the cold). But once started, the engine would run as long as you gave it gas or diesel and while it ran it was also making its own electricity, which was fed back into the small battery that provided the engine’s start-up power.
One could literally drive all the way across the country without stopping – except once every several hundred miles or so for gas or diesel – and to pee and maybe grab some coffee and a snack. It was kind of like air travel was when there was an airplane called Concorde that could fly across the ocean in about half the time it took other airplanes to make the same journey.
Another thing about these cars people used to have was that you could just park them anywhere and not think about it at all. Whenever you returned, they’d be ready to go as far as they were ready to go when you parked them, even if that was a month ago. The liquid fuel you had put in earlier – or last month – did not lose energy while the vehicle was parked. It was not necessary to keep it plugged in so as to make sure it could still go whenever you got back to it.
They also lasted a really long time – sometimes more than 30 years. It was pretty common for people to keep the same car for twelve years and then they would sell it to someone else, who would drive it for many more years. This was part of the reason why, in those days, most people – even people without much money, like teenagers and college kids – usually had their own car and were able to just go places, whenever they pleased. Just as it was, once, when people could just fly – whenever they pleased.
Of course all of that is history now. “Terrorism” and “climate change” changed the past into our present. We’re “safer” now, of course. But it feels as though we’ve lost something along the way.
At least, if you are old enough to remember how it used to feel.
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