When Size Really Mattered

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, October 2, 2005

A thousand years from now, if anyone is still alive, they'll call this the Gas Age. The Petroleum Period. The Oil Epoch. We'll be known by what we burned.

These humans of the future, gliding to work on solar-powered plasma beams, won't care about our wars, and they'll have trouble keeping the Napoleons and Lincolns straight, the same way that today we struggle to remember the difference between Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. Mainly, they'll recall that we were promiscuous with hydrocarbons as we gallivanted all over the place in machines called cars. They'll shake their genetically modified, watermelon-sized heads in disapproval.

What they'll never grasp is what a blast the Gas Age has been.

The car may be evil, worse even than the belching, flatulent, carefully bred beast we call the cow, but the car is also the most delightful invention since fire. A car is fire converted to speed. The bad news: A planet is gradually ruined. The good news: The 2006 eight-cylinder Chevy Corvette can go zero-to-60 in 3.8 seconds!

We've all had gas on the brain lately, since it now costs more than milk. Some of us remember gas at 21 cents a gallon, 25 cents for premium, all of it leaded, burned in cars as big as rocket ships. We didn't have global warming back then, or "environmentalists." We had conservationists, who were people who did lots of hiking, fishing and hunting in remote places they'd driven to in a Pontiac ocean liner, towing an Airstream.

The car is a singularly American technology. It is a freedom machine in a freedom-crazed society. It promotes individuality. It laughs at communal living. The HOV lanes are under-subscribed for deep cultural reasons. Rugged individualism in America means never joining a car pool.

Whether you're male or female, a car is fundamentally virile. It is sex wrought in metal. Maturity in America comes not at puberty or high school graduation, but with the receipt of a driver's license and the state-sanctioned ability to get in a car, pick up a date, drive somewhere dark, park and make out. Vroom, vroom, baby.

When you get tired of tooling around town in American Graffiti mode, you light out for the territory, hit Route 66, get in a drag race like James Dean, head to Vegas like Hunter S. Thompson, spend weeks on the road like Jack Kerouac. Our cult heroes were brilliant drivers. You have to put out of your mind that Route 66 has been largely obliterated by freeways, that Dean died young in a car crash, that Thompson burned out and took his own life, and that Kerouac became a drunk and died of internal bleeding in St. Petersburg at the age of 47. Just keep driving.

In a car, you can change gears, directions and your destiny. The car is an extension of your body. Here's a Duke University neuroscientist rhapsodizing after an experiment showing how primates manipulate tools: "We're saying that it's not only the brain that is adaptable; it's the whole concept of self. And this concept of self extends to our tools. Everything from cars to clothing that we use in our lives becomes incorporated into our sense of self."

It's not just your car -- it's your wheeled appendage!

This is particularly important if you are a guy and you have appendage issues. As modern society robs us of masculinity, we compensate with bigger, brawnier, more priapic automobiles, those giant SUVs and Hummers and Monster Trucks, some of which we can jack up on hydraulic suspensions so they'll lurch and buck and bounce and make all kinds of whompa-whompa-whompa noises and do everything this side of mating with the nearest hatchback. Some cars are sexy, some just plain slutty.

This connection between the car and American society is so intense it's hard to imagine what we'll do if we run out of stuff to burn. If we can't drive fast, the thing we're driving is not a car anymore. It's a cart. Maybe they'll come up with a new, magic fuel, renewable and clean, somehow allowing us to scream down a highway without causing any environmental damage or violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

But, at the moment, we have to assume that our cars, and our individual sense of self, will have to change. Maybe the laws governing energy are the same as those governing life itself: We grow up, we get old, we slow down.

And we remember what a great ride we had.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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