If you're a Saab cuckoo and you feel vaguely alone, shunned, disdained by your peers, I would suggest that, for the benefit of your troubled soul, you knock off a couple of weeks and travel up to America's Great Unknown State-Maine. If ever an alien car had a natural home in the New World it is the Saab, putting and buzzing through the black forests of the Pine Tree State. Once you get inland from the tourist belt you get the vague impression that every third car is a Saab, and if it isn't, it's trying to be.
I've often thought that cars, particularly the European breeds, have specific geographical homelands that are clearly defined and in which they are at their best. England, for example, turns out cars that seem to be designed specifically to be worked on in garages on bland milky Sunday afternoons. I've owned several English marques in my time and have come to the conclusion that they're not really built to drive, they're more to have and to worry over. The English are by nature putterers. Their houses tend to be fussy, doily-laden, with an aspidistra in every window, and their cars reflect this facet of English character. An Englishman is never happier than when he is spending dreamy endless hours under his Austin A90, a family heirloom, surrounded by spanners and parts manuals.
On the other hand, Italian machines are designed mainly for running down peasantry, scattering chickens, paisanos and Mafiosi to the winds like confetti, which is also an Italian word, significantly enough-tiny gears screaming, overhead cam motors wailing in defiance. Italian cars, like Italian movie stars, live short, flamboyant, dangerous lives, ruled by the stringent demands of maintaining a public image of machismo. No wonder their predominant color is blood red.
The Germans, who appreciate well-oiled efficiency, are at their best creating equipment that has a certain silver gray chrome-steel functionality. When they attempt racy, gay frivolity they invariably produce laborious curiosities. A case in point is the Porsche Speedsters which always reminded me of an overweight Deutsch hausfrau wearing a miniskirt, trying to pass as Sophia Loren. Then of course, there's the Targa. "Targa" is no German word that I know of, so perhaps unconsciously they're hip to the masquerade. Fritz figures if he changes his name to "Luigi" he might make it in the Pasta league.
There has been enough written about American cars reflecting American mores that I won't bore you with a repetition . And like American mores, which today are in a state of 'total confusion, so is Detroit. But back to the Saab-the toad-like ugliness of this little beast clearly reflects the outlook of a people who spend most of their lives in Winter darkness, up to their behinds in six-month-old snowdrifts, and are somewhat suicidal in nature. A well-to-do middle class Swede thinks nothing of indulging in maniacal head-on games of Chicken on the frozen lakes of his homeland. The Swedes are not a smiling, merry lot. Naturally, the Saab fits the Maine mystique like a glove. The Maine Yankee has never been noted for his spontaneous joy, his elan, his animation. I illustrate:
I do a lot of flying in my spare time, and one of my old friends is a superb flight instructor, an ex-crop duster from up in Fort Kent, Maine, about as Maine as you can get. He fits the pattern: silent, tough, sardonic. One day a student was flailing around out in the pattern when Jesse, who was toying with a paper cup of Rat coffee, the kind they always have in airport pilots' rooms, suddenly and without a word got up and ambled out the door. I hollered "Where are you going, Jesse?" As the door swung shut I caught his twanged answer: "Just thought I'd go out and watch the flames."
Here is a classical example of New England "wit" at its finest, based on somebody else's imminent disaster, laced with a distinct relish for Doom. Jesse Baker, in one sentence, said everything that Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film-maker, has been trying to say in endless murky breast beating epics of futility. Jesse once confided to me as we droned along at four thousand feet, practicing Lazy Eights. "It don't pay to take Muskie too serious. He's like all of my Maine relatives. He's got the rest of the country thinking he's smart 'cause he don't say nothing. Maine's been getting away with that for years. They call it Yankee wisdom." He snorted evilly and went back to banging on the Cherokee 180's panel to get the omni working again.
Yankee wisdom is no less a myth than Swedish sexuality. If you believe the Swedes are sexy you also probably believe that blacks have rhythm, that Frenchmen are unbelievable lovers and that all Italians continually say "Mama mia, dat's a spicy meat-a-ball-a." Oh well. Anyway, the grim, dogged unsexy little Saab is a far more accurate reflection of the Swedish character than any number of Nordic skin flicks, which after all are admittedly part of the dream world. The Saab is real; the Saab is earnest.
I took to escaping to Maine a few years ago when I discovered that within less than four hundred miles of the Triboro Bridge was a state that was literally progressing backward, flaunting all the cherished liberal traditions of 20th Century statistomania. That's a nice phrase by the way, meaning roughly a total hangup on statistics, chiefly those that agree with your already established biases. (Incidentally, I just made it up; if you want to quote it you'll have to quote me.) But Maine, in the usual tradition of Maine
truculence, is simply not going along withthe rest of us. While we are having a population explosion they are in the midst of a population implosion. You can drive through dozens of inland Maine towns that give you the spooky feeling of being abandoned movie sets which were used in some ancient remake of "Our Town." Hamlets with names like Albion, Freedom, Old Testament, China, Ghost Lake, Old Town. Almost all of them have a dark, rushing river that slices right through the main stem. Maine has some of the greatest rivers this side of the Amazon basin, with rolling sensual Indian names: Kennebec, Allagash, Piscataugua, Penobscot. Next to each one is a tall, gaunt red brick building out of the mid 19th Century crumbling into ruins, usually with a faded gold leaf sign: DOWN EAST WOOLEN MILLS. You can hear the echoes of Thornton Wilder people under the 200-year-old shade trees.
Personally, I find inland Maine a lot more what I'm looking for than the Coast with its countless 'art colonies' and cutiepie shoppes; its hordes of tweedy ladies who make their own Mexican jewelry and swanky rich kids hanging around Bar Harbor for a couple of weeks before getting back to Choate for the winter. Drive along state Route 23 through the Belgrade Lake chain past some of the most beautiful bodies of water in the country: Great Pond, Salmon Lake, Snow Pond, past weather beaten mobile homes squatting amid the dark pines. One thing that gets me every time is that almost every Maine farmhouse or shack is surrounded by the hulks of the last six generations of family cars. Apparently the true Yankee never throws anything away; he doesn't even trade it in. He just keeps it in the .back yard, in the weeds, slowly sinking deeper and deeper into the subsoil, '63 Galaxies, '56 BelAirs, '46 Plymouths, '39 Dodge trucks, all gradually getting to look like the surrounding rocks; timeless, indestructible, inorganic.
Ralph Nader, obviously a City type who has never needed an automobile in order to sustain a semblance of Life, should spend a typical Thursday night on Main Street in Waterville. Huddled next to the Maine Turnpike, about the .only action in town is a guy's car. I drove into Rummel's one night to see what was happening. Rummel's is a place worth driving 200 miles for. Let's face it, if New York is the natural home of majestic pastrami, and it is, then Maine is where ice cream really happens. If you're an ice cream cuckoo and haven't dealt with Rummel's licorice, topped off with a ball of Rummel's peanut butter swirl, then you haven't really traveled the ultimate road of ecstasy. I got to talking with this taciturn native who drove an orange flake GTO, about Life and all the rest of it as we waited in line for our Rummel's double dippers.
"Well, what I do is drive down to Gino's for a while, knock down a cheeseburger, and if nothing's happening I stop off at Mr. Do-Nut. They got this waitress named Barbie who I kid around with for a while. Then I make it over here - Rummel's. I'll probably finish off tonight by making it to Tony's for a Syrian Dagwood. That is, in between draggin' up Main Street four or five times with Ernie in his 427 '69 'Vette hardtop. A real pig."
"Yeah." I answered, trying to sound excited over the full life lived by the swinging youth of inland Maine.
If you get on the Turnpike at Waterville and drive South maybe 20 miles there is a great round sign, the only place in the country I've ever. seen one like it: MOOSE AREA NEXT 18 MILES. In the Moose Area on either side of the 'Pike as you drive along you can spot flashes of water through the Norwegian pine and birches and you just know you aren't far from a bull moose that stands seven feet at the shoulders and carries a spread of antlers six feet or so across. I stopped at the Citgo station one night, at the Gardner exit right in the middle of the moose area I asked the pump jockey "What about those moose?"
"Yeah," he said,. "we see em every winter in the cold weather mostly. One day one come out, stood next to that pump over there, shakin' the snow off his back. I like to have wet my pants. He looked mean as hell. One time one of them busts out of the woods back of Gardner and slammed into this VW with a lady in it. Just kept hammerin' at it 'til he flipped it over; That damn moose musta thought that old VW had 'come out to the woods to mate with one of them cow moose, and he wasn't havin' none of it. Lemme. tell you this, every year or so some guy driving along the Turnpike here hits a moose and it's goodbye Charlie. Hardly ever hurts the moose, but it sure as hell wrecks the Detroit iron. No, buddy, as far as I'm concerned you can have them moose." He went back to chewing on his Harris Deluxe squash doughnut; which is another high-calorie Maine specialty that has padded the hips of many a Maine wench.
When I got back out on the Pike under a brilliant white Northern moon that gets so bright sometimes you can actually read a newspaper by it, booming along through the night, tensed for the charge of a bull moose, it was damned hard to believe that a little over four hundred miles straight south, two junkies were probably trying to break into my apartment, deep in the yeasty compost heap of the Village. Ahead of me the inevitable faded maroon Saab with its battered Maine license plate (VACATIONLAND) buzzed like an angry turnip. It was covered with a thick film of cafe-au-lait colored dust, the sort of dust that anybody who has driven in the back roads of Maine lives with and breathes constantly. I hit a patch of mosquitoes suddenly, spotting my windshield like a thin rain of black soot. Occasionally something larger made a juicy 'splat' and squirted up and out into the windstream like yellow icing on a birthday cake. Together the two of us, me in my City car, an effete Fiat 124 Sport coupe, he in his dumpy Maine Saab, bored into the blackness through Moose Country.
I flipped on the radio. Up there your All-Transistor Motorola can be used almost as an aircraft ADF. As you boom through the darkness you can tell where you are by what station is getting louder and which one is fading. Portland fades and Augusta grows stronger. Soon Augusta drops down into the birdies and static and Bangor gets stronger and stronger. In between Bangor and Augusta dozens of French Canadians come rolling in; Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. Through it all the cool voice of somebody named Ken keeps saying: "Yaz is two for three tonight as he steps into the box in the last half of the 8th .. . " Yaz is always two for three and stepping into the box late in the game up there in lonely, rolling, beautiful, water-washed poverty-stricken Maine.
I finally swing off the Pike at the Waterville-Oakland exit, go past Al's Lobster Pound. There isn't much traffic. There never is by modern standards. I run down the window so I can get a lungful of that sharp, fragrant Maine air" You can just sense big deep lakes all around you in the blackness. It hits me again; that feeling that it's always fall in Maine. Their summer seems to go by in a couple of weeks, and even in midsummer it feels like fall in the air. No wonder guys like Jesse have a fatalistic bitter humor. In Maine you can almost hear time rushing by while the rocks remain forever. Ahead of me I see the Saab, running high and springy on his home turf, has ducked into a Shell station, probably the second time he's gotten gas in a month. I drive in behind him to top off my tank. In Maine it isn't a good idea to let that needle get down around E, since running out of gas at midnight four miles out of China Lake can be a real bitch. Two rubbery, open-faced little Maine girls wearing hot-pants swarm over the Saab, squirting Super Shell into it and scraping off the bugs. One of them comes back to me. 'What'll you have?" she squeaked, trying to sound like a hard-bitten pump jockey.
"Fill 'er up." I clipped, trying to sound like Humphrey Bogart on the bridge of a mine sweeper on the Murmansk Run . . .
"You know how the gas cap works?" I asked.
"YEAH"' the little round girl hollered from somewhere behind my car, " 'guy comes in here with a green Fiat just like yours, only it's green."
Across the street in the gloom l could see Sears Roebuck, a low building not far from Cattle's supermarket where everybody locally stocks up with squash doughnuts and B&M baked beans and diet Moxie. Two more elderly Saabs driven by gimlet-eyed Maine farmers buzz past on their way home from the Baked Bean Supper at the Grange hall in Winslow. Somehow those gutsy little Saabs seem as at home in that country as a beagle rolling in sheep manure. Inland Maine, where the. Thermometer stands at 30. below most of the winter, with the snow five feet deep and the ice so thick on the lakes that it doesn't break up until late April and then goes out with a roar. It's the way Jesse put it:
"You see, farmin' in Maine ain't really farm in', it 's re-arranging rocks." He laughed his short mirthless Maine laugh as he said it, and I knew he wasn't kidding.