No.59, 2008 When Movement was of the Essence by Bruno Penner (ON)
We once owned a Model T Ford while we lived in Saskatchewan. My father liked the car for its mobility, but when the car lost its potential for that quality it vanished without a trace, at first.
Father purchased the Model T Ford in the late twenties, just about the time when Saskatchewan and the rest of the country was sliding into a deep depression, and I was born. Father somehow managed to buy the car, and pay for the gasoline when few people could, because of his great need for a wider access to the world. This overwhelming want of his overcame all obstacles.
We lived in a tiny house on top of a hill at Heidelberg school where father taught, and which my parents needed to get out of. They had to get out from among the wheat fields, barley, rye, and tall foxtails, and away from screaming babies, of which eventually there were three. The Model T Ford was to serve this purpose.
The Model T wasn’t new, like the neighbour’s car that I saw in their garage when I was three or four years old mounted on blocks. That car wasn’t going anywhere. The wheels of my father’s car were on the ground and could move, but didn’t always move when movement was of the essence. There were apparently many reasons why it wouldn’t always move, and my father guessed at them. One time when we were on the road to Waldheim the car stopped moving and father said in a most serious voice, which he used in situations like this: “The battery is dead,” which was incorrect.
I burst into copious tears because the car had died, and father went to get help, leaving my mother, little brother, my sister and me in a dead car, listening to the wind. When I looked out the window I saw three black crows flying in the direction my father was walking, leaving us to our fate among sage bushes, small poplar trees, and curious gophers. The man who eventually came to help us fixed the buzzer on the car. While the time had not yet come for the replacement of the Model T, it was sowing the seeds for its own demise.
Running out of gas however wasn’t the fault of the Model T. Father loved to tell the unflattering story of how he and our neighbour, who lived further up the hill, spent the entire Saturday morning pushing the car up the long rise at Heidelberg school yard and then letting it coast down again in gear hoping to start the engine. Finally our kind neighbour had asked a most cogent question. “Jake, did you look into the gas tank?”
Freezing up wasn’t the fault of the car either, when the temperature was minus thirty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. I saw the Model T approach our yard at Hamburg School one Saturday afternoon, when I was seven years old, with clouds of steam coming out of the front of the car, burying the entire Model T. It was a distressing sight. Later on it was explained to me that when some of the water began to freeze the rest started to boil. I stood up on the kitchen chair and saw father close the hood and get back in the car. I waited. After I had scratched the frost off the window pane I saw the steam get less and less until it was finally gone. Then the car began to move, slowly, through the front gate, across the yard, on its thin tires with the front wheels wiggling in the snow, and into the garage. I was relieved. The Model T was our only connection to the world that lay outside of the massive dunes of snow that surrounded our house.
But, the seed for the car’s termination had probably been sprouting in my father’s head for years. Each time he had to jack the hind wheels up to keep the car from nudging him against the wall, the shoot in his mind grew a little bit taller. When he had to burn rags to keep the water from freezing, and the suffocating smoke emanated black from the garage so that I could see it from the window, father was probably harbouring plans of unfaithfulness to the car. The time was coming when he was no longer prepared to forgive and forget.
I don’t know exactly when this happened. Perhaps it was one day after the buzzer under the front seat wouldn’t buzz. Perhaps it was the day after we were on the way to pick blueberries at the river and one of the back wheels rolled past us into the ditch, or after he had cranked himself half to death before the car would start, for no good reason that he could think of. The fact was that one day the Model T was gone.
I found out later, when I was eight or nine years old, that father had sold the Model T to a good friend who was an excellent mechanic. I discovered at the same time that his friend had had no intention of using the car for its noble purpose in life, which was to move along slippery roads in spring when the snow was gone and the crows were back, to the place where the second cousins lived, or to move along the dried out roads in summer where the dust devils danced to the place of the long hill where Tante Tina lived.
My father’s friend had looked at the car in a different light altogether when Jacob Penner had offered to sell it to him. The ‘dirty thirties’ had not been any kinder to him than they had been to the other people living around Hamburg school and Tiefengrund. Father’s friend had likely stroked his moustache and thought, “I can make a Bennet Wagon out of this if I take the body off the chassis.”
But my father didn’t come to look in the poplar bush that Sunday afternoon when my brother and I discovered the ruins of the body of the Model T, with the help of father’s friend’s son. Its wheels were gone.
I knew it was our car when I looked in the window and saw the milk stain on the pinstriped cushions of the back seat. I put my nose against the black steering wheel and caught a familiar whiff of ebony. I saw the frantic movements my father made with the handle on the steering column to keep the engine running. The hood of the car, with wings like a big black bird, was gone and so was its engine, the heart of the car. The steering column protruded out of the firewall like a bone. The radiator with its spiked cap was missing. The lamps that had lit up the road going home from Waldheim to Hamburg had no glass in them and appeared like eye sockets in a skull. We had discovered the corpse of our Model T in the middle of a bush. This car would no longer make the chickens raise their wings in a vain attempt to fly out of its way, like it used to do when we drove onto second cousin’s farm, with father firmly at the wheel.
When we sat around the table for Vesper (afternoon tea) father’s friend told us that the chassis with the wheels were now on his brother’s farm, and that the missing engine had been given to his older brother to operate a grain elevator. In fact I saw it some time later when my family was visiting there, resting at the bottom of the elevator pit. There was the missing radiator, attached with a hose to the familiar slanting ridge of the engine head. I heard the rhythm of the motor, a bit uneven, perhaps like that of a galloping horse, carrying us safely home through the desolate landscape of Saskatchewan.
Father never came to the elevator to see the sight of the end of our Model T. He had simply replaced it with a 1926 Chevrolet.