I passed my second shot at the written driver’s test, and because my parents had no car I began learning in a friend’s car. Learning to drive is a person’s whole education compressed; it is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship rolled into a few months, without the tedium. The friend’s ‘62 Chevrolet Bel Air had no power steering, no power brakes, and it was heavy. I had started lifting weights by then and it was a good thing.
The weights and the years had changed the boy who had leaned against that car back in the summer of ‘63. Now he had grown to six feet, he had arms and shoulders and a chest, he shaved, and he knew everything. Knowing everything when you are sixteen is definitely a good thing because in all other respects you are an ass. Whoever thought up the idea of putting a volatile keg of hormones, ignorant and feeling invulnerable, behind a 250 horsepower engine in a mobile 3,000-pound machine deserves some kind of population control medal. Anyone who doubts that like Faust, we modern people have made a deal with the devil, should ponder the concept of teen-age driving. Not that adults are much better.
The changes one undergoes while getting to be 16 prompt me to expand on my theory about 13 years being the ideal marrying age. If your wife marries you at 13, she is marrying a boy. If she marries you at age 16 or later she marries a man. Men are always worse than boys. Boys are more honest than men, more idealistic. They are nobler and wiser.
At that age, the person you are infatuated with makes you feel like your best self. The best self is a fiction we should make ourselves into. That is what thirteen-year-old love does for you. Adult love usually turns out like this: you marry someone who proves to be shrewder than you, smarter than you, morally superior to you, thinks of affection as just another one of your problems, and shows you continually and audibly your worst self. It is hard to be noble as a married grown-up with a job, health insurance, a retirement plan, and a mortgage. It is hard to be idealistic. It is hard to buy as many cars as you want.
Some will point out that having children redeems all the dull reality of post-adolescence, and I agree. If we married at thirteen, we would still have children, plenty of them; and we would never become the Faustian adults we almost inevitably become. Why not? Because the girl has married a boy and the boy has married a girl. This business of adults marrying adults leads only to cars.
Proof? The ancient Hebrews married at puberty, and they had absolutely no cars. When Solomon used the phrase “the wife of thy youth,” he meant what he said. She married the youth in you. She sees that youth when she looks at you. She remembers it for you when you forget it, and you can read that youth in her eyes. When you look at her and you see those old days, it keeps you honest. Try lying to someone who has known you since you were 13. Of course, there were unhappy marriages back then too. All I claim is that early nuptials would increase the chances of happy marriage from 3% to 10%. That is a whopping increase.
There are other favorable results. How to end war? Get people taking care of several of their own children by age 16, and who has the hormonal oomph left over to enlist? The Western World, in its bad aspects, not its good, is based on two things: cars and postponement of marriage. Could we have had industry, wars, or theology if everyone married when they were biologically ready? I know what you are thinking: So we would be better off without the Industrial Revolution? Are you a Rousseauian Romantic? Are you a neo-Neanderthal? You wish to undo progress.
Listen, we still would have had progress. Progress is unavoidable. People would always figure out better and better ways to do things. But to do what? Kill? With marriage at 13 and death at about 25, the progress would have been made by boys and girls, not men and women. Consider. Boys and girls think of factories that spume out smoke, that employ people working like machines on assembly lines, and that gradually destroy our air—as a nightmare. Only an adult could think of industrialization as desirable. Only an adult could tell himself that the compensations were worth it: cars, more factories, more people working as drones. In short, children value freedom, and they are afraid of the devil. Angels are sometimes depicted as children, for “of such is the kingdom of God;” but Mephistopheles is an adult. Can you imagine an American adult dreaming up this sublime universe?
Oh, I know that children are not innocent. Anybody who remembers his or her childhood knows that. Children can be cruel. I do not deny human nature. I merely want to ask you when you believe yourself to have been more noble: at 12, or now? Did you own a car at age 12? I rest my case. And one more thing. Where were you just before you went wrong? You were thirteen. When did you still believe? You were thirteen. Believers are better off not because their beliefs are correct. Ninety-nine percent of all beliefs are fiction. Believers are blessed because no innocent believer mistakes themself or their car for God.
However, I really like Chevys. They are an exception to whatever I might have said just now. If you love an old Chevy, you can’t go wrong. No one ever followed their love for an old Chevy to where it misled them.
Praise for Cars
“Readers of this book may ask as I did, What have we here? Poetry or protest? Wisdom or wackiness? Parody or preaching? Automotive analysis or autobiographical admission? The answer: both none and all of the above in a seething admixture of erudition, despair, hopefulness, realism, Romanticism, contempt, and humility. And yet somehow also a foundational affirmation of the redemptive potential of love. ‘You were innocent until you read this’ was a line that sticks with me. Which makes the reader guilty of … what? I had to read the book to find out. I am truly glad I did.”
—Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri
About the Author
Kent Gramm is the author of Gettysburg, November, Somebody’s Darling, Clare, The Prayer of Jesus, Gettysburg: This Hallowed Ground (with Chris Heisey), and the editor of Battle: The Nature and Consequences of Civil War Combat. A winner of the Hart Crane Poetry Prize, he has published two books of poetry: Psalms for Skeptics and Psalms for the Poor. He teaches Civil War Era Studies and Creative Writing at Gettysburg College.