March 31, 2014
COMPUTERS ON WHEELS
MONTPELIER, VT – I’m sitting here in front of a computer that’s made a tremendous difference in my life. It keeps my checkbook, monitors my bank accounts and credit card charges, composes stories and columns (with a little help from its operator), communicates with folks all over the world, stores photographs and music, and collects a constant stream of information, opinion, and entertainment. Yet I’m aware that it’s capable of probably dozens more functions that I’m either not aware of or have no use for. In any case, I haven’t any inkling how to use them.
Out in the barn are two other computers. One of them, I kind of understand. It’s in my truck, and it monitors the systems that start it, keep it running safely and efficiently (or warn me with lights and bells that it’s not), and operate the automatic braking system if it’s skiddy underfoot. The other one, Mother’s Prius, is – practically speaking – a computer on wheels. In the truck, the computer controls the machinery; in the car, the computer controls everything, including the driver. The owner’s manual’s a tome of 640 pages, written as much by liability lawyers as engineers; the separate guide for operating the audio system has 228 pages; and the “Quick Reference Guide” (translation: “Prius Operation for Impatient Dummies”) has a mere 27. If I were to take a written quiz on the quickie guide, I’d probably get a C-minus.
Science, engineering, technology, and medicine are rushing toward an unknown future at ever-increasing rates. Many people are trying to keep up with at least one category. I’ve met some young folks with as many as one hundred apps on what used to be cell phones. You see them everywhere, oblivious to their surroundings, their faces illuminated by artificial white light, keeping up with the passing high-speed parade. Others of us – mostly much older – are swept up by it, as dry leaves by a speeding car. Some are pulled along in the draft for a bit, while the rest of us settle back down pretty much where we were, vaguely regretting being left behind and yearning for what are called, with very little justification or hard evidence, the good old days.
On Colburn Park in the center of Lebanon, there was for years – and may be yet – a fountain for thirsty horses. The first person in the Upper Valley to get a Stanley Steamer, a doctor in Hanover, filled his water tank there whenever he drove to Lebanon. It was the first intimation of the passing forever of horse-drawn civilization. A little later came the Model T Ford, which featured a crank for starting it – and triggering numerous heart attacks – in those good old days before the invention of the electric starter. And the battery! Don’t get me started
One December night at Heart Lake in the Adirondacks in the mid-50s, six of us wanted very much to attend a square dance in Saranac Lake. Barbara Babcock had a middle-aged Plymouth, I think it was, and we piled into that. It was way below zero, so she turned everything off – radio, heater, dome light – before pressing the starter, a little button on the floor above and to the right of the gas pedal. This elicited a brief groaning and a series of clicks. Undeterred, five of us bailed out and pushed the car along the level to the top of a big hill about half a mile down the road. We got the car rolling in good shape, leaped in, and began hollering instructions to Barb. At the bottom of the hill, we pushed the poor old car into a snow bank and began the snow-crunching walk home.
If a cold night was in the offing in the good old days, we went to the local garage and checked the strength of our antifreeze. If it wasn’t strong enough and we couldn’t afford more, we shoved a dishpan under the radiator petcock and drained the radiator. The fluid went into the warm house for the night, along with the battery. A battery’s pretty heavy, and carrying it was difficult without letting it touch your clothes. After a few trips back and forth with it from the car to the house, my jeans and the skirt of my frock began to deteriorate from the battery acid. The obvious need for improvement led eventually to the now-ubiquitous 12-volt car battery.
Except for the ineffable pleasure of having been young then, it’s hard otherwise to lament the passing of all that inconvenience. But there were people who even then could look at the bright side. I went west in 1956 with my friend Sam. He decided to stay out west, so I bought a 1946 Plymouth sedan in Denver with 125 silver dollars. Sam had been a shop and auto mechanics teacher. He walked around the car and mused, “Look at all the thousands of inventions and generations of innovations you’ve just bought for only $125.” We had to drop the pan and pull the head and install new rings and inserts in central Texas, but that nowadays-primitive vehicle carried me thousands of miles over the next two years before violently giving up the ghost.
I reckon I was under the hood of that Plymouth two or three times a week: plugs, valves, distributor, coil, timing. There was rarely anything going wrong that I wasn’t able to fix. The local garage owner let me use a bay in the back of his shop if I needed to, and lent me any tools I needed.
Now I almost have to get out the owner’s manual to find the hood release of my truck. The reason is I so rarely have to; maybe now and then to replenish the window washer fluid. If warning lights appear on the dash, I can tell what they mean, but have no idea how to correct the problems myself, except to do what the manual says: Contact the nearest dealer. By cell phone, presumably.
Mother’s car is a whole new universe for me, though other folks seem accustomed to keyless entry, Bluetooth, controls on the steering wheel, and running readouts of fuel consumption. I can’t say I miss scraping the inside of the windshield anymore; but like many old folks facing modern life, I’d like to be at least partly in control now and then of whatever the hell is going on.