In memory of our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., Automobile Magazine editors are choosing our ten favorite American Driver columns and will be posting one each day over the next two weeks.
There are no good funerals, although Hitler’s might have been fun to attend, had he had one, and I do think I’d like to go to Ralph Nader’s. However, I did participate in a burial ceremony that had some diverting moments not long ago, starting with a funeral procession that included a 4x4 Suburban, a beat-up red Ford pickup with four-wheel drive, and a Honda three-wheeler.
Last spring my Aunt Harriette died. My Aunt Harriette Simpson Arnow was a famous writer. Among other things, fiction and nonfiction, Aunt Harriette wrote a great novel called The Dollmaker, which over the decades became a sort of cult book in the women’s movement, then gained new fame a couple of years ago when Jane Fonda made it into a TV movie.
The Dollmaker was about the migration of rural southerners to the factories in the north, specifically about a Kentucky woman who tried in vain to keep her family and its values intact when they left home and moved to Detroit and the wartime automobile factories. My mother and father, my Aunt Harriette, my Aunt Lucy and my Aunt Willie all participated in that great migration, and although none of them came to work in the car plants, my dad did spend some time on a Ford assembly line during the Depression, as did I some sixteen or seventeen years later.
Harriette enjoyed a special place in our family’s regard because she was, after all, the only one of us to achieve fame. Her first book was published in the Thirties, and it made her more than an aunt or a sister or a cousin, it made her a literary figure in a family that lived surrounded by books, a family that loved the contents of its books the way other families loved silver plate or ancestral portraits. It was my books, as much as my knock-knees, that kept me from achieving very much as an athlete. (Racing sports cars was the first and only sporting success I enjoyed, until years later when I got serious about shotguns.)
So Harriette died last year. She was a strange old bird, and though I had never been particularly close to her, I did have a great deal of respect for her and I had failed to attend her husband’s funeral the year before, so I was determined to be on hand for her interment. I was also motivated to attend by tales of that earlier burial, which she had decreed—for maximum inconvenience, according to my mother—would take place way back in the Kentucky hills on a farm they’d owned since her first writing success, and which had turned into a pretty colorful adventure, what with icy, rutted trails and a borrowed National Guard six-by-six that lurched and heaved and skidded hauling the deceased and the burial party up the holler to the grace site.
My Uncle Jim Simpson said, “You can’t imagine what a sight it was with all them old women hangin’ on for dear life and tryin’ to keep from being crushed by that coffin slidin’ around in the back of that truck!”
Harriette had asked to be cremated, so there’d be no coffin to slide around, and I figured that I could get my hands on some suitable four-wheel-drive vehicle that would eliminate the need for one of the National Guard’s six-by-sixes. All we had to do was wait for the spring thaw, so that my favorite uncle, Uncle Jim, wouldn’t have to dynamite a grave in the frozen ground.
I managed to recruit a Chevrolet Suburban 4x4 for the occasion. It would hold a bunch of old ladies and the burial urn, and it would go about anywhere. My sister and I drove it from Michigan to Ohio, collected our mother, motored on to the Seven Gable Motel in Burnside, Kentucky—a couple of miles from my birthplace, and as close as we come to having a family seat. (I fell hopelessly in love with a mint, snow white, 1963 Cadillac Sedan de Ville in the motel parking lot.)
All trips in Suburbans—Chevrolet or GMC, two- or four-wheel drive, gas or diesel—are pretty pleasant. This one was powered by GM’s wonderful 6.2–liter diesel, which is a paragon of oil-burner virtue. The vehicle will keep up with Interstate traffic anywhere in North America, and its extra height makes sightseeing even more pleasurable. Driver and passengers can see over the guardrails and bridge railings, which is a considerable advantage. I’ve been the very satisfied owner of two Suburbans, a 454 and a 350, so the trip to Kentucky was like old home week in more ways than one.
My bereaved cousins were there when we arrived.
My New York cousin: a stocky, energetic female of the type who wears navy watch sweaters and rolled-up overall pants and knows more about everything than her relatives. Her attention seemed divided between the logistical details of the burial and profit enhancement opportunities of the deceased’s literary portfolio and correspondence.
My San Antonio cousin: a wooly bear of a computer wizard who has lived the life of the mind for so long that he is often ambushed by cultural breakthroughs, like the discovery of room service in hotels, or blue shirts with white collars and cuffs. He told me that he used to get my former magazine at the public library, but this new one seemed only to be available on newsstands, so he hadn’t read it.
My mother was tartly ironic, my sister was impatient with my mother, my Aunt Lucy was sweetly conciliatory, and my cousins ran my Uncle Jim ragged. I would occasionally go sit in the Suburban.
Saturday morning dawned and we piled into the vehicles and set out for the backwoods burial site. Most of the trail was steeply up or down, and spring’s thaws had knocked the bottom out. Water ran in pretty impressive volumes through every low spot.
The New York cousin wanted to ride in on the back of the three-wheeler, which rocketed off across the muck and mire as though it were pavement. My Uncle Jim and his wife took the old Ford pickup—which was almost as good at the ATV by virtue of its knobby tires and bags of ground clearance—and broke trail for the rest of us in the Chevy Suburban.
In the last deep cut, just before we reached the old graveyard, the Suburban’s rear overhang nearly did us in. While the ladies chatted, I thought grimly about the possibility of being marooned out there in the middle of the Pennyroyal, then rared back and slammed it forward—full throttle, low range, low gear. Nothing. I then rocked it violently. The ladies, innocent of our peril, continued their discourse. Finally, with a little leeway rearward, I hammered it forward again and we slithered into the hallowed ground at an unseemly high rate of knots. The ladies dismounted, and my uncle’s eloquence once again proved up to the challenge. The urn was set into its resting place; Uncle Jim and his friend, the ATV owner, manned the shovels; Aunt Lucy walked off into the dappled shade to be alone with her thoughts; and my mother sniffled discreetly. I mused about how I was going to get them back out to the highway. The New York cousin then announced that she felt it would be best if she and her brother and assorted aged persons in attendance walked back up the mountain. The aged persons demurred, and I did my best to avert the brewing mutiny by darting over to the beckoning Suburban and throwing open its doors, as thought the matter were all settled.
We roared out through the sticky bits, and I found that regaining the high road wasn’t so dicey after all. In keeping with the occasion, I played my Waylon and Willie tape very quietly, front speakers only, and the ladies continued their chat in the soft breeze of the air conditioning. When last seen in the Suburban’s big side mirrors, the New York cousin was leading her perspiring brother and a more distant cousin out of the holler on foot, blissfully at one with the rocks and ruts of her infancy.
In the deathless words of Mel Brooks, “Her in her way, me in mine.”