Trains and plane and boats and buses characteristically
Evoke a common attitude of blue,
Unless you have a ticket and suitcase and a passport
And the cargo they are carrying is you.
Manhattan Transfer—A Foreign Affair
Sadly, transportation, or lack thereof, can cause all sorts of frustrations and expense. Here are just a few of our adventures with cars.
When our oldest son, Adam, was a baby we drove a Datsun Kingcab truck. We loved the truck because in those early years we moved a lot and all of our possessions fit in the back of the truck. We bolted Adam’s car seat to the floor and strapped him in. We were good to go. Until we had Bethany.
With Bethany’s birth we decided we needed a bigger car, but living under the belief that we couldn’t, shouldn’t go in debt, we bought a used sedan. Which was great, until we moved from California to Connecticut.
In Connecticut, we only needed one car because Larry rode the train. Unfortunately, we didn’t have even one car. When the sedan rolled off the moving van, it refused to shift out of first gear. I discovered this on Adam’s first day of kindergarten when we were trying not to be late and the sedan could not be coaxed to go more than seven miles an hour.
We desperately needed a car, so in typical Tate fashion, we rented a car and went on a car safari. After the hunt, we finally settled upon a used Grand Am sedan that had previously been a rental car. Three times we tried to buy that car. The first time the salesman couldn’t complete the sale because the owner of the dealership was out sick. Because Larry was working a new job, we had to buy the car on a Saturday—his only day off. So, we waited another week and then made the second attempt. Sadly, we lost the keys to our rental car and spent that entire Saturday searching for the lost keys. We found them that night under the covers of Bethany’s bed. Another week passes with the rental car. And on that Saturday—the dealership was closed. We don’t know why. We could see our chosen Grand Am in the lot, but we couldn’t buy it. Another week passes and the car situation is desperate enough that Larry decides to take a day off work. We rethink the Grand Am, buy newspapers, look at car ads and decided to test drive a brand new minivan. Considerably more expensive than the Grand Am, it sat seven and we were a family of four. We didn’t need the van, but we could afford it, we wanted it and we bought it with cash.
Two days later Larry was asked to be the scout master for the boy scouts. Thirteen thirteen year old boys—we needed a bigger car. That van was the first to serve in a long line of years of devoted to church youth groups.
Skip ahead about fifteen years to when I wrote the following letter.
We recently experienced a death in our family. Our ten year old, fifteen passenger Ford van died. Lately, nearly everyone I meet has asked of its health, so I thought it worth mentioning. It enjoyed a long, joyful life of service, but it huffed its last puff of smoke in Vegas. (Turns out it’s true that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.) It died carrying a troop of 16 and 17 year old boys and their gear on their way to hike the Narrows in Zion’s National Park. I can’t think of a more appropriate end.
The night we bought the van Bethany, who now has a husband, baby and college degree, Nathan, currently serving a mission in Argentina, and Jared, 17 years old and taller than his dad, enjoyed a rousing game of hide and go seek inside the van. Very few vehicles could offer has many hiding spots. The van served in many other important capacities. It carried girls in formals and boys in tuxes to many proms. It drove numerous carpools. It hosted sleep overs, pulled boats and trailers. Filled to the rafters, it made trips to the dump. It even served as a ladder to and from my son’s bedroom window. (And you thought we didn’t know.) It was always easy to spot in a crowded parking lot and it had an enormous horn. Other cars always gave us a wide berth.
Some of my favorite van stories include the day I was at lunch with a group of friends and I got a call from Nathan claiming that the van was missing. A friend, over hearing my conversation, exclaimed, “No one would steal it!” Even though it was legally parked, it had been towed because “the neighbors claimed it blocked their vision.” Another time when we were idling at the curb and had just picked up my daughter’s new boyfriend and future husband from the airport a strange man with a suitcase climbed in, sat down and gave us all a funny look when we burst out laughing. He had mistaken us for a hotel shuttle. Once when we were caravanning to a mountain cabin, friends who were supposed to be following us, trailed after the wrong van. After much honking and light flashing, they pulled along beside a van they thought to be ours and found KinderCare written in large block letters on the side.
The van’s passing marks, for us, an end of an era. With three of our children grown, another with college applications in his hand and one foot out the door, and two teenage girls who will soon find other rides with drivers more hip than their parents, Larry and I rattled like two forgotten peas in a giant tin can. Our children have grown and our car has died.
We’re going to buy a convertible. (Or, if work doesn’t pick up, a basket for my bike.)
Skip ahead about three years to not a letter, but a blog post.
Nancy Drives the Carpool
Paulie Marshall wrote: “Sometimes a person has to go back, really back – to have a sense of understanding of all that’s gone to make them – before they can go forward.”
I’d like to point out that we bought our fifteen passenger van because Alex, husband to Nancy and the most geared headed person we know, recommended the Ford 150 vans. When we were younger and had flocks of children, Nancy drove a 150 and I drove a 350 extended van. And it was great. There were many times when I had my six children, Nancy and her five children and a couple of dogs in the van. We were always noisy, but generally happy.
Nancy’s kids are now all adults and she drives a Mercedes convertible which comfortably seats Nancy and her dog, Sandy. Last week I asked Nancy if she could drive my carpool. Since she works at the school where my girls attend and I knew that her family has a collection of cars in a variety of sizes, didn’t think this would be a problem.
On the given day, Nancy forgot to trade cars with her daughter and she found herself in front of the school folding four teenagers into a car built for two. Taylor sat in front. Natalie, Miranda and Alex squished into the back, sitting, pretty much on top of each other. No one cried and no one died, although I’m sure there was a lot of bouncing and groaning as they rolled over speed bumps.
There’s a lot of life lessons to be learned from this experience.
Even though after one look at Taylor Nancy knew her car was inadequate for the job, she still showed up and did the best she could with humor and grace.
Just like the ducking that occurred when Nancy and crew passed a police car so they wouldn't be cited for clearly breaking the seatbelt law, sometimes you have to keep your head low and try to accomplish what needs to get done without drawing unnecessary attention.
As we get older and pass from one stage of life to the next, it’s easy to forget lessons already learned. As a mom of teenagers and young adults, I sometimes forget about bottles, pacifiers, and the need for large vans.
On the days when my semi-grown children are challenging, I’ll feel nostalgic for the days when they brought me flowers and drew me pictures. They were sweet and my memories of their childhoods are tender, but I also have to remember the tantrums, spilt milk and the carpet that often smelled of vomit and urine.
And then be grateful for the convertibles of this stage of life.
So, what does this collection of stories have to do with saving money on transportation? My point is this—buy the car you need, not necessarily the car you want (honestly, who wants to drive a silver fifteen passenger Ford Econoline? And believe me, I’m not suggesting that everyone goes and buys one—that would be silly and bad for the environment.) Look at what you can afford, what purpose needs to be filled and make your purchase carefully and maybe even prayerfully. And when the time comes and should you lose the rental car keys, think again because maybe your needs are more than you had ever imagined.
Exercise: When buying a car, always check the newspaper ads. Often there are cars advertised “only five at this price”—we always buy one of those five cars. They are the loss liters used to draw in potential buyers. Of course, the dealership hopes that once you are on the lot you’ll be charmed and wooed by the fancier bells and whistles on the sleeker models. But, with the newspaper ad in your hand and a checkbook in your pocket, he has no choice but to sell you the car he advertised. Especially if you’re paying cash.
I know this is contradictory to the standard advice to always buy used. But we tried used and found that cars are a lot like puppies. If you buy one carefully and take very good care of it, it will be a very nice animal for a very long time. Misused cars, misused dogs—well you’re never quite sure what problems you’re inheriting.
So, we buy new but we buy cheap. Often the new cars we buy are less than the listed Kelly Blue Book price—which is particularly helpful when the car is totaled by teenage drivers. This has happened to us twice (which could be a topic for another blog post) and both times our insurance paid us more for the destroyed car than we had paid for the car brand new.
If you love cars—ignore this post. Buy the car of your dreams, if you can afford it. But, if you just need a car that can carry you from place to place without headaches and hiccoughs, buy new, buy cheap and hold your breath when your teenager gets behind the wheel.