We were only there to pick up a tractor, but the novelty of an American guest inspired him to show off a family heirloom. He grinned slyly and motioned for me to follow. I walked with him through the pass between the barns.
There, poking out of a ramshackle garage, was the back of a ’76 Chevrolet Malibu stationwagon – the last thing you would expect to find here.
An unmistakably American car. Faux-woodie. Low slung. A Naugahyde-lined carriage for the Bicentennial nuclear family (now extinct). A gas guzzler during an oil crisis. And even in its antique state, undeniably ugly – exemplifying a generation of design so poor that it surpasses even the shocking fuel inefficiency as the official reason for the American car industry’s collapse.
If you were a child in the USA in the 1970s, you know this car as a standard mental template: The Family Stationwagon.
How did it get here, I wanted to know. He said his grandfather was a routier and found it abandoned in a vineyard. I didn’t ask more. It had Belgian plates. Maybe it was a US soldier’s car which had been shipped by the military way back when, during the Cold War, and then dumped as worthless when that person went home. There was no way of knowing now.
I took photographs of an interior that brought back childhood memories. I don’t often contemplate how many things have changed inside of an automobile since I was born.
And then we turned to go, and I asked about another car which was up on blocks beside the opposite barn. This one was much older and of French production.
That, he said, was another of his grandfather’s finds, and a fairly common model in its day around here. But what was most interesting about this particular car was that when they worked on it they found a secret compartment which had been added more than a half-century before. And it was filled with ammunition for handguns.
Such a cache was, he said, a hallmark of the Resistance. This car was no doubt outfitted and actually used by the stealth fighters who operated in this region through the occupation. Our area was a hotbed of covert operations and sabotage. As such, this car enters the rank of the holy in these parts, a monument to the underground war for the survival of Free France.
More ominously, the ammunition was never retrieved nor thrown away even after the war ended. That would indicate that the person who hid it there never came back for it, because they had given everything for the cause.
We stood there for a moment in silence, contemplating these two automobiles in turn. Two soldiers, as it were, in two very different wars.
I tried not to think too hard on what each car said about its war, or its driver, because the comparison is, for my country and for my generation, damning and bleak.
But it made an impression nevertheless: One is a metal sepulcher of a martyr’s relics, evidence of the price paid for our freedom, and the other is a vast ill-conceived hulk of waste and hubris, its faux-paneling signifying wealth that never came, but for whose brutal inefficiency we are still paying today.