We were a Ford family. My mother's father was a mechanic at the dealership in El Reno, Oklahoma, a rusty prison town that my grandfather always described as a good place to be a workingman. He smelled of grease and cherry pipe tobacco, and he would let me sip from his Schlitz, which he drank with salt around the rim. He stored a Model A and a Model T in a garage behind their old wood-frame house.
At Christmas and during summer vacations, my parents loaded me and my sister and brother into the brown Country Squire station wagon with the fake-wood panels and drove south from Lincoln, Nebraska, down an eccentric route of two-lane Kansas highways — U.S. Highway 77 to Marysville, state Highway 15 through Clay Center and Abilene (the Eisenhower home, the Greyhound Hall of Fame and an A&W drive-in where we always stopped for root-beer floats) and through Newton to Wichita, where we hit the toll road that put us onto Interstate 35 to Oklahoma City.
We drove in summer heat that made the asphalt shimmer and through one blizzard that seemed to carve permanent lines in my mother's face. I'm certain she imagined us as frozen corpses by the side of the road. After that blinding snowstorm, the car trips to Oklahoma ended.
Built into the itinerary was the time my dad spent worrying about car trouble. I figured these worries gave him something to talk about with his father-in-law, though now I understand that Ford owners might have had legitimate worries about breakdowns. Still, we always bought Fords. My first car was a two-door Comet (Mercury is close enough to Ford), a beater that my dad handed down when I proved to him that I knew how to change a tire.
It was the '70s, so when the oil embargo hit and the gas lines started, my mom downsized to the classic orange-and-white Pinto. Then we learned that Pinto gas tanks sometimes exploded when the cars were rear-ended. These days, my mom drives a Sable. Every few years, she gets a new one — always white.
I've moved on, but I'll always be from a Ford family because of my grandfather.
Every American family has its own car story. The American automobile is the most romanticized machine in history.
And I wonder what my grandfather would say, watching the national agony over whether taxpayers should bail out Detroit. I wonder what he would say about execs from the Big Three flying private jets to Washington to beg for a loan. About pork-producing Sen. Kit Bond twisting into socialist knots as he joins Democrats in calling for the feds to help the automakers, so he can save Ford workers' jobs in Claycomo.
My grandfather died a long time ago, so I can't ask him. Instead, I called Jeff Manning, president of the United Auto Workers Local 31 at GM's Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kansas.
"We're definitely concerned that the general public does not see the real effects of what happens if there is not a General Motors, Ford and Chrysler in this country," Manning says. Losing the automakers, he says, would leave a vast hole in the middle class. And autoworkers wouldn't be the only ones who would lose their jobs.
Any company that does business with GM stands to lose, too. The railroads that ship its parts, the office-supply companies that sell it paper and printers — if GM isn't running, those companies take a big hit.
And in a heartbreaking coincidence, as GM employees wait for Congress to decide their fates, Fairfax workers have just pledged $450,000 to the United Way of Wyandotte County. That's almost $9,000 a week from the plant's 2,700 full-time workers — money the charity doesn't get if there's no GM.