Small foreign car doubles as a confessional for Fr. John Campion, pastor of St. Catherine of Sienna, Quarryville, Pa. on Saturday evenings during the summer when he hears confessions at the Muddy Run campgrounds near his parish.
Bleary-eyed from being up too early after a night too late, I read the caption a couple of times to let the thought really sink in. The accompanying photo showed the good Father in full regalia, seated solemnly in his "foreign car"-fittingly, a Fiat. A drive-in confessional, I thought. Well, it had to happen.
I skimmed through the Sport page on my way back to the crossword puzzle when way down near the back of the paper, amid the ads for trusses and $2.00 tax accountants, was this small item:
MAN BURIED IN CAR, Ipswich, England. John Aldershot, 82, was buried today seated bolt upright at the wheel of his vintage Austin Seven. In his will Mr. Aldershot stated, 'She's been more faithful to me than any woman. In fact, I never found any faithful women in my whole life. No one will ever own her. She's been my only friend.' It was stipulated in Mr. Aldershot's will that he be buried at the wheel.
Then, on the back page of the paper, I scanned a lush ad out of Detroit that hinted that a buyer could achieve immortality, quite possibly live forever, in a "totally controlled interior atmosphere" if he traded in his old, totally inadequate last year's model - which had only promised Everlasting Youth - for this year's dream machine. I took another pull at the lukewarm black coffee, trying gamely to pull my wits together. Drive-in confessionals. Austin Seven crypts. Detroit immortality. My mind quivered nervously, as it so often does these days, contemplating, indeed savoring, the blossoming role that the automobile has assumed. By God, (or maybe not), there are beginning to appear distinct religious overtones to the good old family sedan.
Later, on my way to midtown, cradled deep in the bosom of Mother IRT, and after I had read all the subway ads for Clairol, Ronzoni Spaghetti Sauce, L&M cigarettes and several thousand scrawled fragments of graffiti, my mind began to wander. I could picture the scene at the drivein confessional:
Hangdog driver nattily attired in red, white and blue bells, Boone's Farm Apple Wine T-shirt and Stirling Moss driving gloves, tools up to tastefully-designed stainless steel arch set by the roadside, arcing over the curving drive. It is surmounted by a stainless steel cross. Embossed on it is the legend "Saint Humble (of New Jersey). The Little Church By The Highway." An electric eye clangs loudly as he drives under the arch. The sign reads "Take ticket from machine before proceeding." He reaches out of the cockpit of his Lotus Elan, grabs the ticket with a shaking hand, arid drives on. He pulls into line behind an old Jaguar Mark 7 sedan. Several other cars are ahead of the Jag. A sombre black Fiat is parked amid the greenery. The driver of the car at the head of the line is talking frantically to the sole occupant of the Fiat. He appears to be crying. Time inches by as car after car takes its turn next to the consecrated 124. Finally, our driver wheels his Elan into position.
DRIVER (gunning his motor several times for reassurance): Bless me Father, for I have sinned.
FATHER (bending over his steering wheel, adjusting the knobs on his stereo tape deck which is quietly playing Perry Como's version of 'Ave Maria'): Yes, my son. And how have you sinned?
DRIVER: (his voice shaky with contrition): I have committed adultery, Father. With my buddy Howie's wife.
FATHER: We are all too human. In these times, such things cannot be avoided.
DRIVER: Thank you, Father. I will try not to do it again. But she is sure some dish!
FATHER: The will is stronger than the body, my son. One can only try.
(The line of cars behind the Lotus has lengthened mightily and a few impatient sinners have begun to toot their horns, calling for faster service.)
FATHER: Is that all, my son?
DRIVER: No, Father, I wish it were, but there's more. I . .. well, I . . . thought several evil thoughts about a young lady in the steno pool, and . . . ( he trails off into an embarrassed silence).
FATHER: The Devil takes many forms, and he is always present. Try to think these thoughts no more, my son. Peace of mind will ensue.
DRIVER: Thank you, Father. They fired her last week anyway, so I guess I'm safe. Father, I don't know how to say this, but there is more, a lot more.
FATHER: One moment, son. (He removes the cassette from the tape deck and replaces it with another. The solemn tones of a Gregorian chant recorded in some vast cathedral fill the Fiat.) You have had a busy week, if I may say so.
DRIVER: I am sorry to admit that I have committed several other sins.
DRIVER: Yes. (Involuntarily he nervously guns the Lotus, sending up a billow of blue exhaust into the cockpit of the MGB behind him. Its occupant, a thin bleached blonde, protests coughingly amid the fumes. Several angry horns are heard again. Overhead, a 747 jet whistles by, carrying a crowd of merrymakers to Las Vegas. A Good Humor man, his bell ringing merrily, can be seen doing a brisk business with the waiting confessees in the line of cars.) Father, I failed to change the oil in the Lotus again.
FATHER: What? Again? I thought we were going to turn over a new leaf.
DRIVER: I tried. I really did. But it slipped my mind.
FATHER (Sternly): That is no excuse. That will be five Hail Marys and three Our Fathers.
DRIVER: I'm no good.
FATHER: Every man can be saved. There is still hope.
DRIVER: No, Father, there isn't. All is lost! (He begins to sob, his head dropping to the steering wheel, causing his horn to blow. He sobs on unheeding.)
FATHER: There, there, my son. I have heard worse through this very window. You are but one among many. (He adjusts the Gregorian chants, which have become somewhat insistent.)
DRIVER: No, Father, I am not one among many. I haven't told you the worst.
FATHER: More? You have indeed strayed.
DRIVER (gasping, sweating profusely): I . .. BURNT THE BEARINGS!
FATHER (after hurriedly crossing himself, his face drawn and pale at what he has just heard): Pray with me. Father forgive your son who hath sinned, for he knoweth not what he does. Amen. (The driver mutters the prayer incoherently.) There is no absolution for a sin such as you have committed. We can only pray for God's forgiveness. However, we must try to make amends. That will be 50 Hail Marys and 25 Our Fathers . . . and I would suggest a donation to our Driveway Renewal Fund. Your time is up. May I have your ticket, please.
(The driver hands him his ticket, which is punched by the priest and filed in his glove compartment. The driver puts the Lotus into gear and drives off, trailing a cloud of blue smoke. The MGB, its occupant now sobbing, wheels into place.)
BLONDE: Bless me Father.
(END OF SCENE)
I clung to the hanging strap of the swaying subway car, enjoying my little drama. The next step, I thought, of course would be drive-in baptisms, drive-in marriages, and who knows where it could lead; maybe deacons on Hondas, and the collection plate would be a toll house with an Exact Change lane. Once this kind of thinking gets hold of you, you can hardly stop.
It is during my straphanging sessions that I get some of my most destructive, often cataclysmic visions, so I'm hanging there thinking about drive-in confessionals, the sinner in my fantasy Lotus, wondering what the blonde in the MGB pulled off that made her so nervous and whether or not the Father in the Fiat would eventually make Bishop and be awarded, maybe, an Alfa. Then I catch sight of Miss Subways staring fixedly although somewhat blankly out of a subway ad directly in front of me. MISS SUBWAYS for this month is Marcia Bugleblast. Marcia is a clerk-typist at the Continental Burial Urn Corporation in Long Island City. Her hobbies are playing the piano, collecting ceramic giraffes and motoring with friends. She hopes to go into TV and is studying Acting at the Mme. Esther Klooberman Dramatic Studios.
Marcia appeared to be wearing a rubber wig in the photograph, which had been suitably mutilated by the roving bands of folk artists who infest the 7th Avenue line. "Motoring with her friends." Golly Ned, I thought, I haven't heard that expression since I gave up reading the White Castle News, which as any good hamburger hound knows is distributed along with sliced pickles and fried onions at all the" White Castles of the Midwest. Briefly, I pictured Marcia Bugleblast and her friends "motoring" through the Jersey junkyards in a grape-colored '53 Ford Galaxie, the very picture of elegance and 20th century leisure living.
And there, in my Yoga-like trance, swaying in a stinking metal tube, it all had come to me. The car, condemned by the intellectuals (who are out of touch with reality), is everyone else's symbol of the highest goodness. Let some future century anthropologist dig up old Aldershot, or find an ad with the exquisite Miss Bugleblast, or a clipping about the Good Father in his Fiat and that conclusion will be inevitable.