Smithology: The trees look endless
You probably won’t remember. You are seven, and seven is a hell of an age to do anything, or maybe just the best time to do everything. Seven-year-old kids are just sort of perpetually smack in the middle of whatever is happening at a given moment. Life is still very full of new, and no one has yet jaded you or taught you the meaning of sarcasm, or even effectively made the case that there are times to not be the authentic, undiluted you.
You are seven, though, so that sentence probably makes no sense. Let’s move on. You like the car, right?
I like that you like the car.
You won’t remember the noise. Intake honk from those throttles, clatter from the diff clutches, driveline lash from … well, a lot of things. The car is English, and England is basically an entire country of lash. Cars, food, music, colonialism, all of it. The place clashes against things while pretending such clashing is normal, and that is part of why everyone loves England, and also why people hate it.
Great Britain, the joke goes: great if you want some Britain, but what if you don’t?
The gearbox tunnel and outer sill of a Caterham Seven are less than two feet apart. I folded a beach towel for you to sit on, to put the seatbelt in the right place on your shoulders. Thirty minutes at the wheel with the top down can make me half-deaf for a bit, so we got you earmuffs.
You are mostly safe like that, I told your mother. She knew full well that you are not but pretended to be okay with it. Blame how modern intersections are a breeding ground for 7000-pound SUVs, and how a 1200-pound, tube-frame sports car is basically always going to seem like a bucket of death, I guess?
You say “basically” a lot. One of those words that a seven-year-old latches onto and repeats for weeks. Basically, this is a tiny car. Basically, this is how the seat belt works. Basically, you are bringing that hoodie with the unicorn print in case you get cold, even though it is 95 degrees with 85 percent humidity and the middle of a heat wave. Kids know things about temperature that adults cannot fathom.
One hundred and thirty-five horsepower from a Ford four-cylinder occasionally cranky on cold starts. “I cannot believe Pop built this,” you said. “A whole car!”
“Well,” I said, “your grandfather knows how to do a lot of things. This car was a kit. I helped, you know.”
“You saw me working on it once. You don’t remember?”
Parenting is just this long and emotion-dipped reminder that everything is on its way to somewhere. You are forever being made aware of the swirling stew of feelings born of your genes, feelings had by millions before for thousands of years. Except your version of that feeling set seems Fresh and New and maybe just a little more important, because it is yours. I suspect this is merely the bare-bones definition of being a person. At least if you are paying attention.
This car is only a few years old. It is modeled, however, after a much older car, a Lotus Seven, a 1960s design. Cars are like anything else we make: You are either using the object or you are wasting it. Entropy comes for us all, and if you try to postpone that stuff—park the thing in the garage and worship its paint with a diaper—you miss the point. Moreover, lack of use brings atrophy, the object falling apart anyway. Exercise is painful but keeps us alive. How wonderful and silly and strange that all is!
I drive and write for my job. Car writing is too often maudlin and corny. The truth of it, I think, the real bit we rarely talk about, lives in how you can occasionally drive down a road and just plain forget about the machine. You get lost in the doing of the thing, forget the moment and the past while paradoxically living a little deeper in both. Maybe you climb out after and wish you had paid a little more attention.
Listen to me! I sound like a greeting card. Your old dad can occasionally get sappy. The great and terrible part of being a person on this earth is how we are each only able to keep so much in check in a given moment.
We’ve gotten a lot of rain lately. Sun and blue sky, then a thunderstorm, then blue sky again. After weeks of this, the hills are just saturated green. Our house is maybe 20 minutes from the mountains. I borrowed Pop’s car and taped a GoPro onto the roll bar because I wanted footage of you and me for later. Don’t ask when later is; I don’t know. I don’t even know why I wanted it? (Yes, a question mark. Maybe that’s not even a statement?)
I edited the whole thing on my phone last night, in the dark cabin of an Airbus, flying home from a business trip to L.A. With the silly little GoPro phone app, its cheesy wipes and stock music. In turbulence over the Rockies, I thought of you. Years ago, while working for another magazine, I borrowed an old Citroën from a friend and put your sister in the passenger seat. She was four. I told her we were going for ice cream. What I didn’t tell her was that it would take two days and require both a road trip and an ice-cream joint in another state.
I wondered which of you would be into cars. Maybe it’s neither. I still can’t tell.
You will probably watch that video one day. You might read these words. Possibly in a book, of all things! Readers write in, ask when that’s going to happen. It is entirely possible that your father will get his behind in gear and chase down the repub rights for the hundreds of columns and feature stories he has written over the years. They could all then live between covers.
Always so much to do. Haven’t found the time, if I’m honest. I could rob it from hanging out with you guys, I guess?
We drove to the top of the ridge and parked. I jumped out and lifted my arms to the trees like a dork, then said something random. Your voice is on the video, almost too quiet to hear. Near the end.
“The trees look endless!” you said.
“They are endless,” I said.
“I believe they have an end,” you offered.
Then I wanted to hug you, so I did.
Of course there’s an end. Also to being seven. Not that I don’t occasionally pretend otherwise. The road goes on forever, the party never gets old enough to leave for college and worry about exercising too little and finding a job and love and an apartment, or whatever else passes for being a grown-up these days.
Robert Earl Keen wrote a few of those words. Good song. Has some fun bits.
The live version is the one you want. Don’t listen to it until you’re older. If you remember that mountain at all, I hope you remember how it felt when we reached the top.
If you remember.
I love you, kiddo.
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