Every night, when I was a child, my brother and sister and I would rush to the front door to see what my father had brought us from the office -- not a pocketful of candy or a comic book, like the other kids got, but a bright, new shiny Ford car fresh off the company lot.
Mustangs, Lincolns, Thunderbirds, Edsels, pick-ups, campers, convertibles and compact -- the sight of them in the driveway drove us into frenzies of anticipation for the moment we could scramble in, ignoring admonitions to keep our feet off the leather upholstery, and ride through the green-lawned suburbs of Detroit.
Gleefully running the power windows, we waved with pity at our earthbound playmates as we zoomed past. Dad was happy for an appreciative audience, and discoursed on the top-secret options he was evaluating: cruise control, or a radio that would tune itself automatically. Ours was the first eight-track tape player in town, and the first CB radio.
We all knew, with the absolute certainty of childhood, that the advertising slogans we heard on television were gospel truth.There would also be a Ford in our future, just as there had been since my grandfather went to work building Model Ts for the fledgling Ford Motor Co. more than half a century ago. While most kids had two parents, we had three: Mom, Dad and the company we called Uncle Henry."
Few things in life were as constant as our omnipresent Uncle Henry. He fed us, clothed us and gave us summer jobs. Through my father's work-related benefits, Uncle Henry sent us to summer camp, and helped straighten our teeth and buy us eyeglasses. Other families gather around department-store Santa Clauses every year for a famly portrait, but we were proud to pose around the four-wheeled, chrome-fendered beauties that had become intextricably twined with Santa in our minds.
All along, between the Mercuries and the Mustangs, my father kept exhorting us to work hard so we could grow up in the footsteps of the legendary Henry Ford -- the first Henry, who began his life on the humble farm where our home later stood, using little more than a shoestring and a prayer to launch his dream of putting America on wheels.
Be like me, my father would say, thumping a chest as sturdy as the Lincoln he drove. That was in the days that my father, an engineering executive whose job I never really understood, still dared to dream that he might cap his career with a stint as a Ford vice president. Be like me: Become an engineer, work hard, give everything to the Company and the Company will give everything to you, just as it has for me and your grandfather before me.
In other parts of Dearborn, in the neighborhoods that hug the smoke-belching auto plants, Ford Motor Co. workers occasionally cursed the model change-overs that left them laid off for a few weeks each year. But that wasn't important, my father would say. The economy was strong. Big, fast cars were going to go on selling as long as the public demanded them, satisfying an American lust for personal mobility that Henry Ford had only dimly imagined. And if the blue-collar workers were occaionally unemployed, that was the price they paid for taking a factory job instead of going on to college.
All around us, row on row, were other families who shared my father's philosophy, each tidy brick house another corporate enclave of the American dream. Only the name plates and the chrome on their cars were different.
That was more than 20 years ago, long before anyone had heard about airbags or gas lines or a Democratic president determined to halt inflation so he could stay in office.
Now my rock-ribbed Republican father, like hundreds of thousands of other auto industry workers, is out of a job and making regular trips to his local unemployment office -- squeezed out by the impact of the gathering recession on the nation's car sales.
So is my sister Katy, who followed Dad's advice and went to work for Uncle Henry as a draftsman right after leaving college. My mother's steady string of temporary clerical jobs in a Ford plant dried up last winter, and one of her cousins is using every last ounce of strength to hang on to the job she has held for 35 years at Chrysler -- even though she knows that almost half of the company's work force will probably be laid off before the company finishes remodeling.
One day not long ago I found them all gathered around my mother's dining room table, gloomily munching on brownies and trying to figure out where their Horatio Alger ideals had taken a wrong turn. It was not that they were bitter about the layoffs that had left them and many of their friends jobless. They say they've known for months that the domestic auto industry's boom years would soon end, strangled by the long-awaited recession and the car makers' inability to adapt quickly to changing energy needs.
The problems of the car companies, they are convinced, have been needlessly exacerbated by a bunch of meddling government regulators -- which in their minds is another way of saying all Democratic presidents beginning with Franklin Roosevelt. Never mind about Japanese auto sales figures: If the American producers hadn't been so loaded down with regulations, they would have been able to compete with the Japanese.
For Jimmy Carter, they reserve a great deal of resentment, tempered by pity. Sure, he had to cut inflation to stay in office, their reasoning goes, but why did his credit-tightening efforts have to cut out our jobs at the same time? America is a nation of team players, they say; why not let everyone share the burden for cutting inflation, rather than singling out auto-dependent cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh and Akron and Mahwah, N.J., for the pain and shame of massive layoffs?
Ironically, my family would be in the first string of any national anti-inflation team. But without any leadership from Washington, they're angry at making sacrifices dictated by government economists who can't agree among themselves on what the impact of those sacrifices will be.
Dad will tell you he didn't mind being maneuvered into a "special early retirement" at age 59 -- two years before he planned -- even though it marked the start of his first period of unemployment since he left high school more than 40 years ago. One day last spring, Ford management painted a rosy picture for him of the benefits he would gain by bowing out early. To decline, he knew, would mean two long years of struggling to keep his post while Ford dismantled the hierarchy around him.
Raking a hard through his salt-and-pepper hair, he'll say the company has been good to him, that he's glad to be young enough to enjoy his retirement, that he can pick up consulting work if he needs additional income.
But my father's defenses have always been rock-solid; he taught us never to complain about things we couldn't change, and he's determined to follow that rule even when his life has been turned upside down. He won't discuss, even with his own daughter, the shock of facing retirement on only a month's notice, or the grief he must have felt when he packed 32 years' worth of possessions into cardboard boxes bound for nowhere.
Nor does he mention -- except in jokes -- his trips to the local unemployment office, where he is entitled to pick up approximately $100 a week in benefit checks. Donning the coat and tie he used to wear to the office, my father piles into his luxury Ford Fairmont station wagon (equipped with AM-FM stereo, air conditioning, wire wheels and all the extras) and roars off to mingle with the ranks of those he had derided as "freeloaders" only a few years earlier.
Unlike many of the hundreds of thousands of auto workers who have been idled in the past few months, my parents aren't suffering economic hardships. The Ford retirement package gives them enough money to maintain their home in Dearborn, a beach house on Michigan's Lake Huron and a condominium in Florida. With any luck, Dad will be able to augment that by setting up a consulting business, using the expertise he gained at Ford.
Still, he has entertained a lengthy parade of worries. Will his pension keep pace with inflation? Already, he says, rising costs have eroded his life savings by almost half over the last five years. Is he too old at 59 to start a new line of work?
My mother's cousin would be gald to have such worries. She's been a secretary at Chrysler for 35 years, and has carved out a nice life for herself in the northern Detroit suburbs, with a little condoninium and a big luxury car and a clutch of other single women who play golf together on weekends. But after all those years of hard and honest work, Sally (who wouldn't let me use her real name for fear of losing her job) said she would be grateful to get a $2,000 pay cut because she can qualify for full pension benefits.
Elegant in her artfully streaked gray hair and designer eyeglasses, Sally twists a teacup nervously in her hands. It's never been this bad before, she says. Whenever people were laid off before, they knew they would come back sooner or later. Now no one knows. If she's laid off, will she be able to keep up the payments on the condominium? Who knows.
It's best not to think about it, to keep smiling and pretend not to notice when all the executives around you are removed quietly, one by one. If you keep a low profile, she says with a rueful smile, maybe they won't get rid of you.
A snapshot in my parents' living room shows my curly-haired sister Katy smiling broadly at the side of the 1979 red Ford Capri that ate up most of her life savings. Looming behind her is the two-bedroom house in Dearborn that she rented with a girlfriend, just blocks from the auto plant where both worked.
Katy still has the car, but the house is gone now -- she gave it up not long ago when Ford eliminated her $18,000-a-year draftsman's job. Now she's staying with friends to save money, and giving her address as Stop-N-Lock, the storage facility near her old office that houses all her furniture while she sorts out her life. In the trunk of her car, she stows a change of clothes, a set of resumes and a teddy bear.
Comfortable in the recession-proof security of Washington, where government economists make far-reaching decisions and never see the personal devastation caused by their handwork, I find myself mourning a vision of the Motor City that has long since faded.
Uncle Henry, like Uncle Sam, doesn't look invincible any longer. He doesn't know all the answers, and he can't guarantee protection for the people who dedicated their lives to carrying on his work. Was my father let go because he and others of his generation were tied too closely to the days when bigger was better, and a snazzy new car radio brought more profit than a fuel-efficient engine? Or maybe government regulators were the problem, or the Japanese car makers whose new car names have replaced the Model T as household words. I don't know.
It's been five years and almost 50,000 miles since I swapped my Ford Falcon for a stripped-down Pinto, and my poor little car is starting to show the signs of advanced age. Its creaks and sputters upon awakening are growing louder, and a nasty rust spot on one of the doors is inching upward at an alarming rate. With my local Ford dealer going out of business, I'm wondering where I can find another mechanic to keep it humming.
Watching all the shiny new Toyotas and Hondas and Datsuns flash by me on the Beltway, the thought occurs to me: Perhaps it's time to put Ford firmly in my past.