The Everlasting Orphan

A POET some day may create for posterity the tale of a martial steel vehicle worthy to be remembered along with Bucephalus. In the meantime this garland is braided for a stumpy four-wheeler of exceptional endurance in the works of peace.

In the dull year 1922, at the tag end of Depression I originating in World War I, an honest little automobile company in Michigan quietly surrendered. We bought one of its last cars cheap as an orphaned child of industry. A classy runabout in gray-green, with the latest straight-edge tires, real leather upholstery, and a weight of 4125 pounds, it was the heaviest passenger car of its size then manufactured and a forerunner of the midget tank of today.

After two or three years of rapid improvement in motor design, driving this little heavyweight came to be no fun at all. It was a rough rider, expensive to fuel, hard to steer, and required half a block for turning around; neither strength nor science could park the stubborn vehicle in less than three times its own length, curbside. It squealed and grumbled continuously, no matter how often it was greased. Wherefore we called it the Flying Dutchman, not so much because of its speed as because we lived in a Dutch backwater of the Hudson Valley. Since it had little trade-in value, although undamaged, we put it to work as a depot wagon.

Depot wagons weren’t stylish then; strictly service vehicles, they were expected to look the part and did. We bought a mail-order body, which looked like a boxcar when the celluloid windows were drawn, bolted it on that densest of frames, and packed the children in it when they were ready for school. Four little girls they were then, the youngest with her hair in curls and the oldest with her hair in pigtails. Now all four of them have families, and their children beg for rides on the old bus — but I get ahead of my story.

When a depot wagon begins to slip, it sinks rapidly from department-store parcels to groceries, potatoes, lime for the tennis court, feed for the chickens, wood, coal, ashes, fertilizer, and, on our puny kind of farm, eventually the grosser livestock. You begin, innocently, with a pet lamb, practically housebroken, and then presently you are harboring for transport all sorts of animals in all manner of emotional states. Our sequence ran, as I recall, sheep, goat, pig, calf. After that experience the veteran was retired from passenger service and consigned to freight, mostly earth crops cased in mud. During this phase the Dutchman grew continually noisier, so we called him Rip Van Dam after a most explosive lieutenant governor of colonial New York who, except for a couple of centuries, might have been a close neighbor.

A good many veterans retired from active service in 1929, and Rip Van Dam was one of them. Come spring of ‘30, there didn’t seem much sense in taking him out of the open shed that had served as winter quarters. Farm prices had sunk to the point where the less one raised the better, and there were no surplus funds to defray licensing the veteran. So we just left the old bus as it was, where it was, and forgot all about it. Didn’t even jack up the frame to take the weight off the tires.

Winter and summer, spring and fall, Rip stood there unmoved and almost untouched for ten long years. Once a junk man discovered the derelict while nosing around the place and offered five dollars for it. Only sentiment kept me from selling.

A little later Mr. Morris signed on with us as hired man. In his varied career Mr. Morris had been a farmer and likewise a taxi driver. His ideal of agriculture was a judicious combination of both pursuits. In typical American fashion he resented handwork and enjoyed harnessing motive powder and machine tools; so operating, he considers himself as a mechanic rather than a laborer. This trait I discovered when I saw that he went gayly to hedge cutting as soon as we bought an electric shear, after being downright laggard in getting at it with hand shears.

One day Mr. Morris came in all excited to report that he had found an old car behind a pile of boards. I told him Rip’s long, sad history, but he would not be dismayed. ‘Just what we need,’ he declared, ‘for moving stuff around the place. I turned her over sweet and easy as you please. If I can have some new spark plugs and a battery —’

Within a week and for less than ten dollars, Rip Van Dam rolled out of his ten-year lair under his own power and on his old tires. We refuse to bet a license on this miracle, but hardly a day passes that this resurrected vehicle does not charge explosively along our lanes. In addition to carrying everything from tin cans to pianos, it has pulled on occasion plough, harrow, and stoneboat.

A few of Rip’s appurtenances failed to respond. The speedometer is out of whack forever, having stopped at 60,000 miles long, long before this deathless motorcar entered upon its long sleep. It has no lights or horn and needs neither because honest farmers work only by daylight and Rip stays on the place. If a tire ever gives out, we may never be able to shoe him again. So on January 1, 1942, we hoisted Rip up on jacks for a rest until spring; but in 1942 he was stabled with more honors and attention than in 1929. This spring he will be twenty years old. During half of his life he merely rusted, which as every mechanic knows is worse for a machine than work. Notwithstanding all this action and inaction, Mr. Morris says that Rip is good for another twenty years if well and truly handled on our simple plan of home-lot travel. In 1962, accordingly, another bulletin will be issued on the life and works of this indestructible mechanism.