Buckwheat Kasha and Gasoline Dreams

Story posted on July 10, 2009 at 3:49 PM

My stepfather, Eric, was probably the only immigrant of our so-called Third Wave generation who stepped off the plane at Kennedy Airport in 1980 and got right behind the wheel of a big gas-guzzling American highway cruiser fifteen minutes later. Uncle Sasha met us at the airport in a huge '72 Plymouth Fury. As soon as we loaded up the suitcases, he gave Eric the keys and said, "you drive". Never mind the sheer jet-lagged stupor, the impossible exhilaration of having finally made it, the petty questions and worries, the wonder of it all, the incomprehensible new world all around, the happy reunion, Grandma's hysterical protests or any immediate practical considerations. You're here, so live the American Dream. Drive.

Of course, Eric was a pro, having handled big Ikarus buses on the far more challenging roads of Russia. He took to the wheel like an alcoholic to a bottle of vodka. The only problem he had was staying under the speed limit. Never having seen a speedometer marked in miles instead of kilometers, he gunned the car to a hundred on the Belt Parkway. What with a relative lack of traffic and the Plymouth's magnificent soft ride, it was a while before Uncle Sasha caught on that the roadside scenery is whizzing by a bit faster than usual.

I was grinning from ear to ear as the Manhattan skyline came into view on my left. Wow. America. Look at all those skyscrapers! And the cars, all those wonderful cars! It must really be true, then. Everybody's got a car in America. I ask Uncle Sasha. He tells me that I can get my driver license when I'm sixteen. That's five more years! Groan. That's okay, Mom tells me. You just eat lots of buckwheat kasha and grow big and strong. You'll be driving soon enough.

I can't wait that long! And besides, do they even have buckwheat kasha in America?

We had been on the waiting list for several years in Moscow for a lousy Moskvitch sedan, and left just as our turn finally came. My father had been furious. He had expected to get the car, just like he got the co-op apartment and everything in it when Mom divorced him. He had refused to sign the necessary papers giving Mom custody of us children unless she left him everything. Threatened to go to the authorities and prevent us from leaving the USSR. It had been a year between the time Mom re-married and the time we actually got our exit visas, and he had never once even called to ask about Gene and me. Oh, you want the car too, Mom had said. Sure, you can have it. Here's all the papers, just go and take delivery, pick out the color you want. And pay for it yourself!

Well, screw him. He chose to stay in Russia. He'll never have a car now, without Grandma's money. He got enough out of us as it is.

I call Eric "Dad" to his face, though I always think of him as "Eric". I don't really remember my father, he was never there, anyway. He would play with me for five minutes at a time when I was small. When I went to school, he lost interest. I have more memories of some of our neighbors than I do of my father. Gene, five years old, probably doesn't even consciously remember him at all. I try not to think about it.

In Rome, an Italian couple we befriended had a rusty fifteen-year-old Fiat which seemed like unbelievable luxury to us, considering that Maria was a simple school teacher and Remo was unemployed. You mean even an unemployed man can afford a car? We were taught that under capitalism the unemployed starved to death! In Russia, the Moskvitch would have placed us squarely into the upper-middle class. Never mind that the system was supposedly classless. As in any other civilized society, you were judged by what you owned. If you could afford a luxury status symbol like a private automobile, you were pretty well off. That a car can be had by practically anyone was surely just imperialist propaganda. More than one, sheer decadence. Until now. Now we're in America, and we'll have a car too. A car is not a luxury, but a means of transportation. Remember that old slogan?

The first thing I do once we settle in is run outside to look at all the different cars. Some of the names are familiar to me from all the car magazines I devoured in Moscow. Ford. Chrysler. I greet them like old friends. But what the hell is a "Pontiac"? Or a "Dodge"? Everything is new and exotic, even the old dented Chevy Impala. I examine them like rare and precious specimens. They are so large, so colorful, so distinctively different from anything built in Russia. I would love to talk to the owners, ask lots of questions. But I speak almost no English. Eleven years old, and cars are all I think about. I'm going to be a car designer when I grow up. I've already decided that when I was nine.

While we were in Italy, Uncle Sasha wrote about a car that was already waiting for us. A Cadillac. An incredible spaceship on wheels, a sleek black limousine with a plush leather interior and all the luxury you could ever imagine. It just so happened that a rich American friend had given Uncle Sasha his unwanted old car, and we could have it! All it needed was a few little repairs. I was ecstatic when I heard about it. Imagine, giving a car as a gift. Free! The "rich American friend" must have truly been a millionaire! As soon as I saw Uncle Sasha, I asked him about it. Oh, it's at home in Washington, he said. It's not running, of course. In fact, the darn thing is more hassle than it's worth.

Uncle Sasha is Grandma's brother. They're both Granny Rebecca's children. He's been in America since 1976, so he is talking to us greenhorns with a pompous air, flaunting his four years of experience. He will be returning to Washington, where he drives a taxi. All the Russians in America drive taxis, he says. That's what Americans expect us to do. Chinamen open up a Laundromat, Italians run a pizzeria, and Russians drive a taxi. Never mind that I was a famous radio announcer, comedian, show host, master of ceremonies, celebrity. Here I'm just another Russian taxi driver. And notice that I said "Russian". We're all Russians here, us Jews. A joke, isn't it? Nobody ever called us Russians in Russia. It was always "you zhid!". Well, you're Russian now, get used to it. You're lucky you got me to help you. I had no one to turn to. I barely managed to scrape up $500 to buy my darn cab. No one would lend me a cent. If only I had another $500, I could have bought a halfway decent car. As it is, I had to borrow my neighbor's Plymouth now because I wasn't sure my rustbucket would even make it to New York. But you, Eric, you've got it made. I got you a goddamned Cadillac. A top-of-the-line Fleedwood. A rocket ship, that car is. You can all come to stay with me in Washington for a while, fix up the Caddy, drive it back to New York and set yourself up as a limousine driver. That's a step up from a taxi, eh? Progress!

Eric had eventually gone to see the car and came back with the report that the Caddy is twelve years old, has more rust holes than miles on the odometer, is missing the left front fender and has a crack in the engine block. It also needs a new water pump, radiator, battery, brakes, tires, windshield, alternator and muffler. And even if he can get it running, the gas bills alone will ruin us. A free car is nice, but we cannot afford it. I wanted to cry. I counted the days until we too could have a car.

My brothers Herman and Leon were born in December. Twins. The first of our family to be born American. We'll have to get a car now, won't we, Dad? Do we have enough money?

When the twins were two months old, we had arranged to have them circumcised, according to Jewish law. The rabbi and the mohel came to our Brooklyn apartment. We invited everyone we knew. Friends, neighbors, fellow students from the NYANA English courses. Grandma cooked and baked for three days. Herman and Leon were laid out on the kitchen table, Leon wiggling his toes, Herman frowning with concentration. The rabbi dipped a corner of a cloth into kosher grape wine and wet their lips with it to give them both a taste, in celebration. For months afterwards, Herman would suck on all the sheets and blankets, seeking the one with the wine. All the guests gave us presents, money. That's where most of the funds for the car came from. Together with a few hundred dollars we had managed to save up, we finally had enough. Mom would later joke that our first car was bought for the price of two little foreskins.

And then the day finally came. An event of great historic significance. Today, we're buying a car! Less than a year in America and we will already have a car of our own!

I'm up at dawn. Soon. Mom and Eric are still asleep, but I know we're going after breakfast. Impatience, excitement. I'm 11 and a self-proclaimed auto enthusiast and connoisseur. The whole family is coming. Not only is picking out a car a major decision that involves everyone, but also perhaps our collective English skills will add up to something adequate. Eric still doesn't speak a word, so Mom and I will be translating. Assuming we ourselves understand anything. Is good car? No rusty? How many cylinder motor? No, no, Mom, in England it's "motor". In America, "engine".

The criteria are simple. It has to be a station wagon, so that all of us will fit and so that Eric can use it to carry tools and supplies, perhaps do some light moving. Very practical. Even if there's no other jobs for an immigrant who speaks no English, at least with a car he won't starve. Eric has already been offered part-time work at a car service, as soon as he gets a car. Something small and economical, not a huge land yacht like the Plymouth or that unfortunate Cadillac. Most of all, it has to be cheap. We only have $1200 or so, and once bought, the car still needs to be insured, too. So much money!

This is how it happened. A friend of a friend recommended some building superintendent named Yusuf who knew a used car dealer somewhere in Queens. And this Yusuf even volunteered to drive us there. Such a nice man! So we all piled into Yusuf's Dodge Monaco and went off to Queens.

Grandma was engaged in a long conversation with Yusuf. Turns out that Yusuf's father was from Uzbekistan, and Grandma had had some friends in Uzbekistan during the War. Oh, you were in Uzbekistan! It's a beautiful country, but then the goddamned Bolsheviks came and they shot my grandfather and his whole family and my father was the only survivor and he went to America. What part of Uzbekistan? Yes, of course I know where that is! Why, it's only 80 kilometers from my father's village! Maybe you have heard of my father? No? He was the best shoemaker in the village, everyone knew him. Why, we're almost relatives! We'll have to drink to that! Oww, that stupid bastard cut me off! Your mama! What? Oh, yes, I'm glad to help out you new Americans. Oh yes, my friend is very honest. Sure, he had once lost his dealer license for turning back odometers on repainted taxis, but all the dealers do that. It's a good thing you came to me because there are some dealers who will put together one car out of two wrecks and stuff bananas in the transmission so that you can't hear the stripped gears grinding. They'll sell you a Cadillac with a lawnmower engine in it and you'll never know the difference. What's a lawnmower? Never mind, relax. You're in good hands with Yusuf. Nobody can pull such tricks on me. Don't you worry, we'll get you a good car...

Was I the only one that was suspicious? If Yusuf's friend was a car dealer, why was the guy driving around in a dented car that had a cracked windshield and vinyl covering peeling off the roof? Can you say kickback fees? For steering customers, anyone? Dad, can I talk to you for a second? Mind my own business? All right, all right…

There were only two station wagons on the lot, a Mazda Rx-4 and a Volkswagen Dasher. The Dasher had no brakes and a tailgate that wouldn't stay closed. Price: $800. The engine eventually started on the fourth attempt, but then there was a loud bang and a cloud of noxious blue smoke came out of the rusty tailpipe. Even I knew what that meant. Eleven years old, and I was an expert. The verdict: thanks, but no thanks. You trying to pull a fast one on us, offering us this oil-burning rattle-trap? You think we immigrants are stupid? Next candidate!

And so we were steered towards the Mazda. A little blue-gray station wagon, very unpretentious and inconspicuous. Why, forget that other car, I should have known better than to even show it to you. Never mind, for only $700 more you can have this Mazda here! Look at this beauty! Nineteen Seventy-Four. Just six years old and drives like new!

Dad, we can't afford it, we only have $1200! Let's go somewhere else. Mind my own business? Aww…

Look at those seats, genuine vinyl! Low miles, one owner. Easy on the gas. I can tell that fuel economy is important to you folks. Am I right? Great! See, the front tires are new. Go ahead, kick them. Not those, the front ones! This here's one nice car. Start 'er up! Listen to that engine purr! You're not going to find another one like this!

He was right, you know. In the next 20 years I have only ever spotted about half a dozen Mazda Rx-4's on the road. Four of them were sedans and the two wagons were both different colors and different model years than ours. So technically, I never did see another one like it. Who says used car dealers ever lie?

Okay, sir, open motor please. Yes, how you say…khoodo? Yes, yes, "hood". In Russian "khoodo" means "bad", ha ha! How many cylinder motor, sir? What? An unintelligible grunt. Maybe my English very bad, no understand. My father ask when change butter. Sorry, sir. No butter, oil. No change oil is bad! Yusuf, can you please ask him when the oil was last changed in the car? What do you mean he doesn't know? What? Dad, I can't ask him all that! I don't know the words! Okay, okay, I'll try. Is car change…how you say… is change candles? You don't know candles? How you say in English? I show… oh, this call "spark plug"! In Russian, "candle" and "spark plug" is same word, ha ha! How you say… tune up? Is change new tune-up? New spark plug, yes? Is change radiator water? Yusuf, please ask him if the antifreeze has ever been changed in the car. It's not supposed to be gray, even I know that! Again he doesn't know? Is brakes good? Is accident? No accident? Good…

I'm looking at the engine. What the hell is this thing? A tiny block that would be almost lost in all the space under the hood, if it wasn't for all the wires and accessories. Dad, the distributor cap has six wires! Usually, that's one per cylinder plus one more goes to the ignition coil. If I know nothing else about cars, I know that much. That means…five cylinders? Whaaat? Dad, a four-cylinder engine should only have five wires, right? Yusuf, did he say it was a four-cylinder engine? Dad, why aren't you listening? Okay, okay, I won't bother you with stupid questions. Mom, it doesn't matter that the floor carpet is a little torn! Women, the only thing they know about a car is the upholstery! My father drive now, okay, sir? If he like, we buy, yes? Gene, you dummy, get out of the trunk! Grandma, talk to Mr. Dealer. Maybe price little cheaper, no? Eleven years old, and I'm in charge.

He says he'll take $1400? Grandma? We're gonna buy it? Really? Why are Yusuf and Mr. Dealer whispering and laughing in the office? What's a "white elephant"?

Tell your father to sign right here, kid. You've just bought a car!

Those in the know are smiling by now. That R in "Rx-4" stands for rotary. As in, the Wankel Rotary Engine. As in, no cylinders at all, silly. As in, you may as well give up trying to find any parts for this rare sucker. As in, you mean no one told you?

The very first road trip we took was to visit Uncle Leo in North Carolina. We all piled into the wagon and took off. Brooklyn – Raleigh, non-stop. The car was built as a four-passenger vehicle, but it was forced to carry the whole family, all nine of us. Eric added an extra leaf to each rear spring to carry the extra weight. When empty, the Mazda stuck out her rear end upwards obscenely.

Driver's seat: Eric, smoking Marlboro Kings 100's and grinning proudly. Shotgun: Granny Rebecca, ninety-two years old, docile and absolutely indifferent. Rear seat left: Grandma, fussing and worrying. Did you take the thermos? Did you lock the door? Rear seat right: Mom, exhausted and tense. Rear seat, center: Grandpa, wedged in tight between the two heavy women, quiet, resigned to his fate and almost invisible. Herman and Leon in Mom's and Grandma's laps, respectively. Herman contentedly sucking on a bottle of formula, Leon probably already wet, crying his head off. The trunk: yours truly, facing the rear window with my knees pressed up against the hatchback glass, excited but apprehensive. Gene is next to me, slightly dazed as usual, his fingers nervously twisting a lock of hair on the back of his head. Tightly packed bags wedged in all around us. The roof rack holds Herman and Leon's crib and two large suitcases. Gentlemen, start your engines.

It was in North Carolina that we first got a taste of what we were in for. Uncle Leo persuaded Eric to take the car in for an oil change. While changing the oil, the mechanics dropped some small part and lost it. As a result, we stayed with Uncle Leo an additional two weeks while the replacement was shipped from Japan. No local supplier had the part. Aunt Nadia tried to remain a charming hostess, but pretty soon her hospitality wore thin, finally disintegrating into a tight-lipped, forced smile. Nothing was said to us, of course, but the chill was rather hard to miss. When we finally left, I'm sure she saw to it that Uncle Leo would regret his decision to change that oil for the rest of his life! On the way back home, the engine started making funny noises. Back to Raleigh. One more week while the mechanics apologized, promising to make it right. The repair: twice the price of an equivalent one on an American car. Seeing Aunt Nadia's expression upon our return: priceless...

A few months later the engine dies. One day the car runs, the next it simply doesn't. We have it pushed to the nearest repair shop. The mechanics shake their heads and shrug their shoulders. Pedro, tu madre, get over here! D'ju ever seen one of these? No seas que es? What kind of engine is that, anyway, señor? Good luck, whatever it is. You'll need it.

Next shop. Oh, you got one of them rotaries. Where'd you even find one, son? Never mind, let's have a look. Hmm… I got news for you. You'd better sit down. You'll need a new engine, son. No, we don't rebuild them. No, we don't know anyone who does. Right, Lou? Your best bet is to take it to the dealer. He won't take it back? Ha ha! No, not that dealer. I mean the Mazda dealer. If you order a new engine from the Mazda dealer, we'll install it for you.

Next shop. Yeah, we can order you a brand spanking new Rx-7 engine straight from Toyo Kogyo in Japan, man. Drop it right in, man. A brand new sports engine, man. More power headers carburetor high output better compression improved double rotor seal design, man. Mazda team racing NASCAR Daytona NHRA Holley Edelbrock Moroso Cragar alloy rims, shave, flame, chop and channel dual exhaust nitrous oxide intake manifold jet turbine three speed overdrive eighteen coats of orange gold-flake lacquer… What? Oh, you don't have a racing club sponsorship? You're not looking to build a hot rod, just want to keep the family car running? Hey Frankie, check this out. This Russian guy says he wants to rebuild a rotary engine on a budget, man! Buddy, even if I knew how, do you have any idea how much it would cost you?

Rotary engine. The words are a curse. A new engine will cost more than $1600 and we have no more money. And replacing the engine seems to be the only option. Not a single mechanic will touch a rebuild job on a rotary. Unexpected expenses like this are a calamity in our desperate economic situation. We had stretched ourselves really thin to buy a car in the first place, even borrowed to pay for the insurance. An utter catastrophe.

Eric is sullen, irritable. He remembers reading about Felix Wankel and his wonder engine in Russian popular science press years ago, as a curiosity, a fairy tale about a talented inventor dodging Nazi spies. It was remote, completely unrelated to anything in his own life. Now it was suddenly real, actual, acute, utterly relevant. Who ever knew he would ever see a Wankel, much less own one? Until now we had believed the car to be a typical Japanese four-banger. It was supposed to be simple, practical, and economical! And of all the cars out there, this was the one we had to buy? What a cruel joke!

Twice a week, we push the car from one side of the street to another, to avoid getting parking tickets. Eric's yelling at Grandma over the phone, Grandma's yelling at Eric. This little scene is becoming more and more frequent. They don't get along, to put it mildly. They never really did, but it keeps getting worse. Finally, Eric announces that he'll rebuild the darn engine himself. Where? How? Doesn't matter. I'll do it, he said. 

Two manuals are ordered. The price of the books seems obscene to us, but we have no choice. One is a general Mazda volume in English. It covers every Mazda model including basic maintenance and repairs on the Rx-4 but is otherwise totally inadequate on rotary specifics. The nice, detailed one is in Japanese, translation unavailable. But it has lots of pictures and all the parts numbers. My job is to read both manuals, match the English generalities to the specific pictures in the Japanese volume and write out the translation in Russian. My basic spoken English is almost serviceable by now, but nowhere nearly good enough for the task. My reading skills are even worse. Compared to the very phonetic Russian, English spelling is impossible. Every other word has to be looked up in Grandpa's dog-eared copy of Romanov's English-Russian dictionary. And since all the vocabulary is technical, the dictionary doesn't really help. Looking up the word "seal", for example, produces 1. Aquatic mammal. 2. Mark of authenticity. What does either of these have to do with "rotor bearing seal"? Translated into Russian, the phrase evokes images of a rotor covered with sealing wax. Or a circus seal bouncing a rotor on his nose. Which certainly doesn't help.

Eric goes to Sears and gets lost in the tool department, like a kid in a toy store. Such wonderful precision, purposeful lines, the right tool available for any job. Not like in Russia where everything gets fixed with a dull axe and lots of cursing. He had even designed some tools at one point, he tells me, had to machine his own tools because there weren't any available that were suitable. And here they all are, already invented and developed to their logical conclusion. He could have been an engineer, he says, but amidst post-war destruction and poverty, he had to quit school to support his family. At fifteen, he became an assistant to the dispatcher at one of Moscow's city bus depots. Soon he was driving his own Liaz city bus, eventually graduating to the much more prestigious and lucrative Ikarus buses on charters and tourist routes, earning more than any engineer did. Grandma was then the director of an Intourist travel agency that chartered these buses. That's how Eric and Mom met.

But new tools cost way too much! Reluctantly, he puts everything back and goes home, shaking his head. Gene brings home little rusty nuts and bolts he finds in the street. Look, Daddy, I found this for you. All our tools have been bought piece-meal by chance, mostly at garage sales. One neighbor kindly lends us a set of socket wrenches. Another, a pair of ramps. This will have to do. Eric fashions a contraption out of some pipes, cut to size, drilled and bolted together. A pulley with a hook is installed and several sturdy towing chains are suspended from the makeshift crane. With the two of us pulling on the chain, we should be able to handle the weight of the engine, hoisting it out of the car and lowering it onto a carpeted dolly.

I had already translated enough to learn how to disconnect the engine from the transmission. That part, at least, is no different on the Mazda than on any other car. Eric is a fairly good amateur auto mechanic. He has always done his own repairs on his bus in Moscow, not trusting the incompetent depot grease monkeys who would most likely bungle the job or sell off parts for a bottle of vodka. This rotary business, however, is all new to him. Everything is accomplished by trial and error, common sense, ceaseless effort and a little beginner’s luck. It is February and our fingers freeze to the metal. Motor oil and antifreeze leave ugly puddles in the dirty snow. Our utter necessity is both mother and father, as well as two sets of grandparents, niece, grand-nephew, four second cousins twice removed and an eccentric maiden aunt of invention.

Soon, parts of the engine are strewn all over the apartment. The block itself is in the bathtub, getting cleaned. Mom has long since given up complaining. A set of seals and gaskets is ordered from the Mazda dealer. The guy at the service counter had looked at us with awe. You're going to rebuild a rotary engine? In the street? In the middle of winter? Crazy Russians! The neighbors crowd around us, watching, offering tools, sympathy and useless advice. Some of them are placing bets. Five bucks says the crazy Russian will never put his car back together again!

The rotors are on the kitchen table, getting fitted with new seals. Now you too can learn to rebuild rotary engines in your own home! Send no money now, just bring it to the Mazda service and parts department. Every last penny you got. Act now and you'll also receive a free course in dealing with frustration and stress. Lots of it.

Each edge has a spring-loaded little clip that seals the spaces between the edge of the rotor and the wall of the combustion chamber. They're a real pain to install. The modern Mazda engine has two rotors, unlike some earlier Wankel designs, which only had one. That's twice the parts, twice the hassle and twice the cost. By now I'm an expert on the history and development of the Wankel engine. The design itself is simple and brilliant, in theory. In practice, it means Eric losing his car-service job, Mom having no money to buy me a pair of winter shoes and engine grease smeared all over the bathroom.

The final assembly is done right in the living room. We roll up the carpet and cover the floor with newspapers. Finally, the completed engine is brought outside, hoisted into the car, attached to the transmission and all the motor mounts. The carburetor is adjusted, the spark plugs fitted with new wires, every last hose and belt is connected, new motor oil and antifreeze poured in. When there's nothing left to meddle with, the moment of truth arrives. Eric produces the key and inserts it into the ignition. The spectators hold their breath. The key is turned.The dead silence is unbearable. Eric slams his fist against the steering wheel in frustration. I feel tears welling up. Then Mr. Katz, the neighbor who lent us the wrenches, looks under the hood and laughs. The battery. You forgot to connect the battery!


And the neighbors cheer!

The little Mazda wagon has served us well for many years, until it got quite old. The odometer was on its third turnaround. The rear sagged despite the reworked leaf springs. The floors were all re-done, having rotted all the way through. We improvised our own aluminum moldings to cover the huge rust holes behind the rear wheels. Smaller rust spots were sanded and filled, but we never did get around to painting it. One of the doors was a different color, replaced after a fender bender, the aftermath of which entailed driving around for months with the door glazed with transparent Lucite and locked with a padlock on a chain. You try finding body parts for an Rx-4! No amount of settlement from the other driver was enough, because the replacement door wasn't available at any price. Eventually the problem was solved when we somehow managed to locate a complete parts car, a '76 that was the victim of a serious fire. The interior was one charred black hole, but the outside was mostly unharmed. We stripped it of everything serviceable. Our '74 was soon running with a rebuilt '76 transmission, carburetor and driver's side door. Eventually, a '76 engine.

One of the benefits of rotary engines is quick acceleration. Once in a while Eric would pull up alongside a Corvette or a Porsche and rev the engine. The guy would look out the window and laugh. Until the light changed and the Mazda was ahead by two traffic lights before the dazed owner of the expensive sports car knew what happened. I loved it.

The little wagon had served us as a car-service hack, a carpenter's truck, a 9-passenger bus and a delivery van. It was a tow truck to pull much larger cars out of snow banks in winter, an instruction vehicle for driving lessons in spring, and a motor home stuffed with camping gear in summer. In the line of Eric's attempts to make a dollar, it cheerfully hauled everything from scrap metal to wedding cakes. Fine paintings to a posh uptown Manhattan gallery, broken toilet bowls to somewhere in New Jersey, old furniture from a flea market in Maryland… It took us along countless roads of at least fifteen states. Off road as well, on numerous occasions. It was dug out from axle-deep mud on some farm near Ellenville and pulled out of the sand on a Florida beach. And sometimes, it even carried groceries.

The car was on its second engine rebuild (this one done in a garage with professional tools and the benefit of experience) when we finally sold it to an enthusiast whose club collected, restored, hot-rodded and raced rotary Mazdas. The guy already owned an Rx-4 coupe as well as a pair of older Rx-2's. He was in love with the car, laughing at our stories and caressing the fenders. He offered us more for it than we had originally paid. And he drove it away, very pleased with himself, with a trunkful of priceless spare parts rattling in the back.

Eric put the money towards a ’79 Chevy Suburban, something that was actually built to handle the kind of abuse and punishment we heaped on the poor little Mazda. And there were many other cars after that. We were well on our way to becoming an all-American, car-owning family.