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Beaten By a Beater
Finally, there's no need to drive my point home

The other day, Mrs. Johnston made me get out of my favorite position (lying in bed with the remote control in one hand and the newspaper in the other) and go out to the driveway to see something. While we were going through the house, Mrs. Johnston told me that our 18-year-old son purchased a car and he wanted to show it to us. "I don't want you to say anything negative about it," the Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnston hissed at me.

(I must digress a bit here. Mrs. Johnston is a mother, and therefore she loves her children unconditionally. They can do stupid things and she will still love them. She will just shake her head in wonderment at their stupidity and get on with raising them. On the other hand, I am a father, and while loving my children comes with the title to them, I think it is my duty to occasionally point out that the kids are nitwits. Mrs. Johnston feels that we don't have to point out anything. We just need to have total acceptance of every idiotic thing they do. These are our roles in life. With these points established, we can get on with the story.)

By the time we got to the driveway, Mrs. Johnston had gotten me to agree to be positive. No matter what, she warned. When I went around the corner of the garage and saw what was parked in our driveway, I let out a little groan. Have you ever seen that movie "Grapes of Wrath" with Henry Fonda? It's about the Depression and how Henry's whole family loads everything they own into an old jalopy and heads out for California and better times. If the Hollywood people were ever thinking about making an updated version of this movie, they should look up my 18-year-old son. He'd just purchased the car they would need to exude an authentic feel of desperation and poverty.

The first thing I noticed about the car was that it wasn't a car at all but one of those huge, truck-station wagon things that are about 6 feet off the ground. It was one of those vehicles you see in advertisements splashing through rivers, climbing cliffs and generally making pests out of themselves. This vehicle had gone through all that, and definitely looked worse for the wear. For one thing, the doors were a different color than the rest of the body, and even in the fading light, I could see spots of body rust.

And even through my sweatshirt, I could feel Mrs. Johnston pinching my arm. I didn't dare speak. Mrs. Johnston can pinch hard when she wants to make her point. Then the young lad popped the hood and let me get a look at the engine. The engine didn't seem like it was in any better shape than the rest of the truck, but I knew I had to say something or Mrs. Johnston was going to pinch my arm off.

"What kind of gas mileage does it get?" I asked innocently while looking at the greasy V-8 engine with a carburetor the size of a rain barrel.

"The guy said it gets about 17 miles to the gallon," the proud new owner said.

This beast would get 17 miles to the gallon coasting down Stevens Pass Highway in neutral, I thought to myself. Once you put your foot on the gas, the mileage would drop to 5 or 6 miles.

I continued to show amazing restraint when he started up the truck. Not only did the windows in our house shake from the noise, but the neighbors' windows were rattling, too. I couldn't wait to hear this rig pull into the driveway at 1 in the morning.

But an amazing thing happened. Our son drove it to work a couple of times — about 30 miles round trip — and apparently the noise made him deaf. And filling it with gas made him broke. Within a week, it was sitting in front of the house with a "For Sale" sign in it.

I didn't have to say a word. It's a sign the boy is growing up.

Steve Johnston is a retired Seattle Times reporter. His e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Times news artist.

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