Cleaning Up Our Act

Gassing Up: There was a time in this great land of ours when most of us didn’t give a hoot about such things as how many miles per gallon the family bus got. Or, for that matter, how much air pollution we were spewing. Ignorance was bliss. We just bought what Detroit rolled off the assembly lines. At 25 cents a gallon, vroom was cheap and we didn’t care where the darned oil was coming from. If an eight-cylinder engine was absolutely necessary, 12 were even better. Young America loved getting behind the wheel of so-called muscle cars. Smog was just an unavoidable, incidental byproduct, noticed mostly in benighted cities like Los Angeles.

On the Beat

This was also the heyday of the family summer vacation to national parks, packing kids into the good old station wagon. And, living in a Goleta tract house, I gloried in our station wagon treks with the children to Yosemite and beyond. When you are cramming four kids into a 1962 Chevrolet wagon, along with camping gear, diapers, food, toys, a stroller, and a dog, the last thing you worry about is the Chevy’s miles per gallon and what is coming out of the tailpipe.

We went on the cheap. News-Press owner T.M. Storke was not exactly tossing big money around the newsroom. I was satisfied if I had enough cash to get us back home to Goleta. But now, in the gas-guzzling SUV-to-the-market era, station wagons seem almost passe. Just as it also seems that family camping pilgrimages to national parks are largely a thing of the past. (Not when Disneyland and Orange County motels are just down the freeway.) These days, young mothers do not seem to relish cooking over an open fire, as my wife willingly did. And while my children loved romping in the outdoors, the new generation might rebel against being away from the TV and computer games for a whole week with “nothing to do.”

Finally, we are getting tougher about our infernal combustion engines. With California’s pump prices the highest in the nation-and Santa Barbara usually tops in the state with gas well over $3 a gallon-SUVs are becoming an expensive drug on the market, and so buyers are sniffing around gas-electric hybrids. Like writer-teacher Brock Brower, a visitor to Santa Barbara, who is delighted that his hybrid gets great mileage and is a low polluter. Recently, his car glided up to my house as silently as a spring morning. “I can fill up our 2003 Prius for $25 and get between 42 and 43 miles per gallon,” Brock told me. “It’s a great economy for us.”

Bye-Bye, Gas Guzzler: So, do Sue and I sport around in a shiny new hybrid? Well, no. But we’ve gone from three cars to one. And whether or not that cleans up the world a little, it sure helps our bank account.

We haven’t had car payments for decades. We love our little 1990 Geo Prizm and never mind that a neighbor with a big Town Car sneers at it. Our car gets great mileage.

I loved my 1963 Valiant convertible, “Prints Valiant,” but the time came a few years ago that it needed major work. It had made treks to the Sierra with the kids, but when the time came, none of them wanted it. So I sold it to an area couple who vowed to restore it.

When Sue quit as News-Press librarian about six years ago, she sold her wonderful 1986 Nissan truck with a camper shell. Since then, we’ve managed very well as a one-car family. But, I must admit that Sue went through a serious crush on a MINI Cooper without harming our marriage; that scare ended with only a harmless infatuation. Now she daydreams fondly of a tiny Fiat 500, but I’m sure her wandering eye and this flirtation too will pass.

To Hell with Gas Prices: I have friends for whom soaring pump prices are little more than minuscule speed bumps. They argue that gas prices, when adjusted for inflation, are about the same level as 30 years ago.

They buy thirsty foreign cars so complex that dealers offer classes for new owners to be able to operate the beasts. Owners tart them up with directional systems that talk to them, nag them about where and when to turn. Readouts that pester them with digital info about exactly how many MPG they’re getting at any given moment. The temperature outside, the altitude, I think. Compasses. Gadgets that warn them of radar guns on the road ahead. A press of a lever lets them dial in and talk no-hands by phone. A shuttle SUV I was riding in last year displayed a movie on the dashboard, within too-easy view of the driver.

Do I sound a bit jealous? I confess I am, but aren’t I allowed my innocent flirtations too?


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