Homage to a Hard-Working, Commonplace Friend

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- It was harder than I'd expected to say goodbye to big brown Bertha, friend of our family for the last five years.

She was only a piece of hardware, really. A four-wheel-drive Chevrolet station wagon, more of a truck than a car, with seats for nine. She wasn't elegant, nor especially economical to run. Like her primary driver she had acquired a number of abrasions, bumps and other unsightly blemishes along the way, and had had a few of the sort of life experiences that don't show on the outside but leave a little ache, or maybe only a twinge, within. Her bones creaked, too.


She did have a certain presence, however. Her bulk could be intimidating to people in subcompacts, and her color was a sort of State Police tan; other drivers tended to defer to her. Sometimes they'd see her looming up in their rear-view mirror and slow down suddenly, as though they'd just noticed the speed limit.

She'd seen a bit of the world. One summer she crossed South Dakota and nosed up into the Bighorn Mountains. Another year she took the car ferry across Lake Michigan. But most of her miles had been put on closer to home, and they'd left their mark.


In summer she pulled wagonloads of hay in from the fields, and in winter she hauled the hay out again to feed cattle. She carried, depending on the season, firewood, chainsaws, fencing tools, bags of feed and blocks of salt.

Most of the time there was a medium-sized dog, colored a matching dusty tan, in there too.

She had pulled assorted trailers carrying boats or livestock, and had on many occasions been filled to the gunwales with children or teen-agers. On one memorable trip she carried eight Boy Scouts, a scoutmaster and a week's worth of camping gear into the Virginia mountains. A lot of the gear, but not as I remember any of the Scouts, had to be tied onto the roof.

Bertha's roof had scratches where the removable rack had been mounted. There were dings from carrying canoes, and in the middle of the roof a good-sized dent where Hurricane Bob had dropped part of a tree. The rear bumper had a crease caused by another tree, a maple near our house. Why the tree suddenly attacked the car from behind has never been explained.

Inside there were stains, smells and clutter. Every so often she'd be vacuumed out for a trip into polite society, but then the 7-Eleven coffee cups, old newspapers, bits of baling twine and ++ broken halters would start accumulating once again. One neighbor's child always seemed unnaturally quiet whenever she rode in Bertha; years went by before it became apparent that she was genuinely allergic to the barnyard atmosphere in the car.

In a famous New Yorker essay published in 1936, E.B. White praised the Model T Ford -- which went out of production in 1927 -- as "hard-working, commonplace, heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to those who rode in it." We never thought of Bertha as heroic, but she certainly was hard-working, and while she was as commonplace as any other truck she had a kind of implacable dignity as well.

She had every reason to be proud of her genealogy, too; Chevrolet has been making her model, the Suburban, longer than Ford made the Model T or the Mustang.

She never broke down, she never failed to start and she had no colorful endearing vices. (The Model T, White recalled, would often advance on its operator after he cranked the engine, and "you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.") Bertha was too big, as well as too dignified, to nuzzle.


On her last day with us, we were both up early. She started with an asthmatic cough, and belched a cloud of blue smoke. Then we pulled a 600-pound bale of hay out to the cows. She did this routine job without complaint. After that we headed down the road together for the final time. She has a lot of life left in her, and I hope in her last years she doesn't have to work as hard as she did in her first five.

I don't want to allow anthropomorphic sappiness to run away with me here. I'm writing about our automobile, not our aunt. I didn't shed a tear when I left big brown Bertha behind, or feel a great lump in my throat. Just as I expect my vehicle to do its job, you presumably expect your columnist to be a realist, not a sentimental fool. But I did feel appreciative for the good service she'd given my family, and for the good times she'd helped make possible.

We've only had her replacement, big blue Bertha, for a few days. We're trying to treat her gently and keep her clean. I'm using the tractor as much as possible when I haul hay to the cows. But just recently I noticed some odd green specks on the ever-so-clean front seat. They looked and smelled like alfalfa leaves.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.