Saturday, November 29, 2008

“Dollar-Menu Motorvator”

c. 2008 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was a busy morning at the reborn McDonald’s on Water Street, in Chardon.

As I considered a breakfast of hash browns, eggs, and sausage, snowflakes blew playfully against the window behind my booth. CNN headlines buzzed from the television. The gas fireplace glowed with hopeful intensity.

I sipped my coffee, while waiting.

Suddenly, a frosty figure appeared in the doorway. He shook ice crystals from his shaggy hair and beard, like a wild beast. Then, he peered around the room through fogged eyeglasses.

It was Ezekiel Byler-Gregg, Editor Emeritus of the Burton Daily Bugle.

A cheer sounded across the restaurant. “Hello, Zeke!”

I raised my cup in a blue-collar toast. “Good morning, old friend!”

Zeke took a seat by the fire. “My truck didn’t want to start this morning. But then, neither did I…”

“Let me get you a coffee,” I said.

He plopped a stack of newspapers on the table. “Before you go - look at these headlines!”

I pretended not to hear. Customer traffic at the counter remained brisk. But in only a moment, my order was filled.

“Rodney!” he exclaimed as I returned. “Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I answered. “Here’s your Java,”

Zeke rubbed his hands together for warmth. “Geauga County depends on the rest of Ohio. And Ohio depends on the ‘Big Three’ in Detroit…”

I raised an eyebrow. “Okay, I agree… is that your headline?”

“It will be, on Thursday,” he promised. “Readers in Burton want to know how their families and neighbors will be affected by this situation!”

I nodded. “That sounds like a sensible deduction…”

He snorted with disbelief. “This story is like something out of a Hollywood drama!”
I couldn’t argue.

“GM, Ford and Chrysler facing extinction - who would’ve thought such a thing could happen?” he fumed.

I cleared my throat. “Well, actually…”

Zeke looked up from his pile of papers. “What? Were you going to say something, Rodney?”

“Just this,” I replied. “We’ve known since the 1970’s that living with an oil-based economy was problematic and unpredictable. Steps were taken over thirty years ago to encourage fuel-efficiency from automobiles and develop alternatives. But elected officials from both major parties abandoned the effort over time. We grew complacent. Now, the nation is paying a dreadful price for our apathy…”

He grinned broadly. And then, laughed out loud.

My puzzlement couldn’t be hidden. “Did I say something funny?”

Zeke narrowed his eyes. “Not something funny, my friend. Something profound!”

“Really?” I said.

He pulled a yellowed page of newsprint from his pile. It was a copy of The Geauga Times-Leader from 1977.

“Read the advertisement for Chevrolet,” he said dramatically.

I scanned the page, then began to read out loud:

“It’ll drive you happy – The Chevette from General Motors. 43 miles per gallon on the highway. 31 miles per gallon in the city…”

“Keep going,” he said.

I strained to see the smaller print:

“Smile. You’ve just read the highest EPA estimates for any car built in America. Ever. Chevy Chevette with available 1.6 litre engine and manual transmission. And keep on smiling, there’s more. Chevette has more headroom than many mid-sized cars. More horsepower this year. A hatchback that opens up over 26 cu. ft. of carrying space. One of the tightest turning circles of any car in the world. A diagnostic connector for quick electronic service checks. A service manual written for do-it-yourselfers. A unitized body that’s corrosion protected. And over 6,000 Chevy dealers everywhere.”

Zeke grunted. “Read it all, Rodney!”

I read the final sentences with sheer amazement:

“If 43 and 31 are your kind of numbers, stop by a Chevy dealer soon. He has some more numbers you’ll like too: Chevette’s price.”

My compatriot bowed his head with satisfaction. “I rest my case!”

I was confused. “What??”

“We are on the same track here!” he exclaimed.

I shrugged my shoulders. “Okay, Zeke. You’re reasoning is often a mystery. But this one has me flustered…”

“I’m agreeing with you,” he laughed. “Completely!”

“Right,” I whispered.

“This story is about more than financial chaos,” he observed. “It speaks to the failure of our leaders and institutions to stay focused on national priorities. We all knew what needed to be done. In a sense, the first steps had already been taken. But we got lost along the way.”

I sighed. “So, what did Americans know in 1977 that we forgot thirty-one years later?”

“We knew that tomorrow was a promise – not a guarantee,” he said. “A civilization has to build their future. With hard work, careful judgement, and persistence.”

My face reddened. “So you mean there’s plenty of guilt to go around?”

He pointed a finger in the air. “Exactly! Three decades ago, our workers made affordable, thrifty products available to customers from Maine to California. It was an equation in which everyone benefited. So why did that change?”

I wandered into a moment of reflection. “My Chevette was a 1981 model. A four-door, four-speed version, painted beige. I got a Sparkomatic in-dash stereo for it, at Fisher’s Big Wheel.”

Zeke snickered. “Mine was a ’78 Chevette ‘Scooter’ model. Very, very cheap. Sort of like a car from the Mickey D’s Dollar Menu!”

My reminiscence continued. “I could run from Chardon to central New York State on three-quarters of a tank of gas. It was small and slow, but cheap to drive.”

He nodded. “It got a generation of Americans where they needed to go!”

“At the time, it seemed like everyone had a Chevette,” I remembered. “My friends Paul and Patrick both had them… so did Tammy at work. And Rachael. And Sandy…in fact, Michelle from Maple Leaf Plaza had the Pontiac T-1000 version…”

He pounded the table. “It was a rite of passage in the 70’s and 80’s. Everybody had some kind of Chevette!”

“It wasn’t a ‘status’ vehicle,” I said. “Owning a Chevette didn’t elevate your social standing, or help your dating life. But it meant you had money left over at the end of the week. They’d run all day on a gallon of fuel…”

“Yes!” Zeke shouted forcefully.

“My friend Paul even wanted us to start a band called ‘The Three Chevettes’ and go on tour with our personal fleet,” I said.

Silence followed my comment. I had wandered too far into yesterday.

“Well anyway, what is your conclusion from all of this?” he said at last.

I pondered for a moment. “That we should take a page from history? And learn from our mistakes?”

He slumped over the table, in a heap of flannel and denim. “Build it, and they will come back!”

“B-build it?” I stuttered. “You mean, build a modern Chevette?”

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes!” He stood upright, and saluted. His voice followed a crescendo into all-out enthusiasm. “Yes, yes, yes!!”

Before I could answer, he bundled his newspapers, and left the table.

“This time, America must get it right,” he insisted. “Goodbye, SUVs, musclecars, and luxury limousines! Hello Chevrolet Chevette!”

I finished my breakfast, alone. Now, it was time to write a letter to Rick Wagoner, the CEO of General Motors:

“Dear Mr. Wagoner…have I got an idea for you!”

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