COAL: 1965 Valiant, Part II • The Oregon Trail

I rolled into Salem, Oregon at 10:30 at night and dutifully found a payphone to ring mom and dad, who were in the middle of melting down. I’d forgot about the time zone border, and it was 11:30 their time. They had been about to ring the Oregon State Patrol. I’m not sure how much good it would have done to report a tan Valiant an hour late calling in, but we never found out because eventually I did. Oops, though.

Once I arrived in Eugene, there was some adaptation required: no intersection clearance interval; the traffic lights in one direction went green at the same instant as the cross direction went red. Low highway speed limits, aggressively enforced. And no self-service gasoline, which peeved me because I really didn’t like others touching my car (sloshing gas on the paint, dropping/losing the gas cap, having to wait in line because fewer attendants than pumps, etc). I’m sure my whingeing about it was just as tiresome to Oregonians’ ears as their lame excuses were to mine—it’s a fire hazard, eww I don’t want to get icky gasoline smells on my hands, etc—and as often as I could get away with it I just stepped up and operated the pump myself, waving away the indignant attendants with “It’s okeh, I’m from out of state so I know how to do it” types of smartass remarks.

Speaking of gasoline, I was tickled to be able to buy leaded. There wasn’t actually much lead in it; the phasedown begun in 1977 was almost complete, and leaded motor fuel would disappear completely from the American market on 1 January 1996, but for most of 1995 I happily bought the leaded. Not because my car really needed it or ran better on it, nor because it was less expensive—by that time, it wasn’t—nor for any other good reason. No, it was just because I was a nasty little mealymouthed reactionary, and I thought I was pissing off eco-weenies with every gallon of leaded gasoline I burned, hurr hurr hurr (have I mentioned I was 19?). And even after leaded went off the market at the first of the year, I could and did still buy bottlecans of tetraethyl lead, sold “for marine use” at GI Joe’s, a now-defunct Oregon-based sporting goods and auto parts store. Like the aggressive solvents I unwisely fooled around with, I fervently wish I hadn’t sloshed around with hideously neurotoxic, readily-absorbed-through-skin liquid lead like that. Sigh. If youth only knew; if age only could.

I also found Oregon’s roads underlit and poorly signed, and it kept occurring to me that I really ought to be able to see better at night than I could. Dad’s high/low beam demonstration 12 years before had planted the seed, and now here was what pushed my nose into the vehicle lighting field. There’ll be more about that eventually, too.

I bought a campus parking pass, which came with a neat little map showing me all two parking spaces I was eligible to use on odd Tuesdays of even months under full moons when the barometer was at 30.12 and rising with winds out of the northwest at 3 to 3.12 miles per hour, assuming I got to one of them before the other 7,750 undergrads with cars. I exaggerate, of course, and I don’t recall having much difficulty parking the car a couple blocks from my dorm. The lot was convenient in other ways, too. It had these high concrete curbs, which I figured out I could carefully reverse up onto when I needed to change the speedometer cable so there was enough clearance for me to get under and do it, and the nose-down tilt of the car kept the transmission fluid in the transmission, out my eyes, and off the pavement.

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