Before I go, I have something to say

The Soul of the Machine

There we were, flying down Interstate 94, listening to “Car Talk” on satellite radio. If you’ve never heard Tom and Ray Magliozzi talk about cars and car repairs, you’re missing out. Not only are they funny, they know a lot about cars, and genuinely seem to care about cars and the people who drive them.

Jeff called in to ask the guys a question about his Isuzu Trooper, a car that obviously means the world to Jeff. He’s had it forever, and over the years has replaced one part after another. New spark plugs, new wipers. New CV boot, new brakes, new alternator, new tranny. If only people could be as easily fixed up, good as new.

But now something major was wrong (as if replacing a transmission isn’t major – just ask me; I’ve done it more than once. More than twice. Never mind.). He was going to have to replace the engine. And Jeff had a deep, unexpected worry: Where does the soul of a car reside? Would replacing the engine give it a different soul from the one it came with?

Even though they laughed, Tom and Ray clearly understood. So did most of the audience, I’ll bet. And it got me thinking, where IS the soul of a car? Or, you know, a person?

When we speak of love, we instinctively place a hand over our hearts. Even – especially – in sign language, the universal symbol for “I love you” (or “I love this pizza”) involves pressing a hand protectively over the heart. But a soul? Whether the soul of a machine or a soul of a human being – where exactly do we think it is? The head? The eyes? Some magical place between the lungs and the liver?

Forget about humans. I think back to Cars I Have Owned, and get a warm feeling about each one, except for that Chevy Citation (no longer made, you’ll notice) that drove me – literally – to the poorhouse. I put more than one new transmission into that vehicle, or rather, paid through the nose for someone else to do so. By the time I’d taken that car to Tandem (formerly known as Rainbo) Tire for, oh, eight years or so, the nice guys there were practically begging me to buy a new car. They stopped charging me for labor. They uttered broad hints like, “If you find another car you might want to trade this one in for, bring it down and we’ll check it out for free!”

I’m not sure if that car had a soul. But I know my daughter, for one, would beg to differ, because she posted a photo of it on Facebook just last week, with the caption “Best. Car. Ever.” Of course she loved it; her father and I bought it new when she was still using a baby seat.

Eventually, I was able to trade it for a Ford Taurus (which was also discontinued, only to be resurrected in 2008, presumably with its soul intact). The soul of my Taurus lived in its power locks. I’d had a better radio installed in the Citation, but because each door had to be manually locked, there came the day we forgot one, and some idiot ripped the radio out. He even left a half-full can of beer on the front seat mat. So being able to lock all the doors with a click of the remote was like balm for my soul, as we had to park on the street, and a busy street at that.

Of course, this was also the reason why, when my son accidentally slammed a door on his sister’s thumb, it took a painfully long moment before I could get the door open, because I had already hit the remote lock. Eventually, the nerve grew back, and she could feel her thumb again. I guess a soul isn’t necessarily all good. It’s your essence, both benevolent and mean.

It seems easier to place the soul of a car from one’s early years. When I was little, it surely resided in the back seat, where I would fall asleep as Dad drove the family home through the snow from Grandma’s house in east Davenport, or way north to our annual vacation on the lake. When he bought his “little red monster” (as Mom ruefully named it), otherwise known as a Mercedes Benz 190 SL, its soul definitely purred beneath the hood. Or maybe in the black leather bucket seats. Or the polished wood five-speed stick. Let’s face it – that car had soul to spare.

Once I got my own first car, a white hand-me-down Buick Invicta station wagon/tank with red seats and curtains in the back windows, I felt it had not only a soul but also a heart and a brain. And courage, too. Why, that car comprised the whole “Wizard of Oz” cast and crew, and I loved it. If you could hug a car, I would have held that one tight. It had a power driver’s seat, which, considering you could hardly see me in it, was helpful in moving me close enough to both see out the windshield and press the pedals. Who cared if the AC no longer worked, and it shook if I took it on the highway? That car was my first ride to freedom.

I’ll never forget the day I was on my way home from school when a new Beatles song came on the radio. Even though I was almost home, I just kept on driving, windows open, listening to Paul croon, “The Long and Winding Road.” Does a car have a soul? You bet it does. And I miss every one I’ve ever driven. Even, okay, the Citation.

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