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Vol. 15, No. 3, 2016
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Robert J. Lewis
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David Booth, a syndicated columnist and senior writer for the National Post's weekly Driving section, is one of Canada's leading automotive journalists. For more of Dave, click here.

It’s a familiar story, there being absolutely nothing unique about a tale of father/son conflict. Oh, my dad and I might have been especially willful — we could have had our very own National Geographic special, the two of us, like Billy goats, always on our hind legs ready to butt heads at the slightest provocation — but our motivations were as common as dirt. Youthful testosterone was simply meeting aging wisdom in the oldest conflagration in nature. With stubbornness the Booth male’s most dominant trait, the only thing that made our father/son hostility unique was our devotion to the cause.

Even its manifestations were clichéd. After we progressed through the “Don’t you dare talk back to me” and “I’ll smoke if I f#%$ing well want to” phases, we simply didn’t talk. From the age of 12 till I left home to go to university, all our interactions had to go through a third party, even the simplest dinner time request — “Would you ask your son to pass the salt?” — vetted by my long-suffering mother. Newsmakers are always noting the unbearable tension every time Misters Netanyahu and Obama have to interface; imagine the same hostilities repeated thrice daily.

There was but one exception to this internecine estrangement: Cars. More accurately, the repairing of failing automobiles. Mom didn’t know a lug nut from a flywheel puller and, much more importantly, was — and, Lord, let us always give thanks for mothers — sensible enough to know that, were there going to be some thawing in our frostiness, it would probably involve spark plugs and crescent wrenches.

At first, it was a simple matter of pragmatism. There was but one car in the Booth garage, it was often 30 below zero in early morning Sept-Iles, Quebec, and I wanted to get to hockey practice on time. If that meant occasionally handing a spanner to the most despicable man on Earth, I took solace in the fact that he was the guy laying on the icy driveway with no gloves on. Yes, I was that big a dick.

You probably know the rest of the story for it too is clichéd. There was some (slight) easing of tensions — isn’t it amazing that the older a son gets, the smarter his father becomes — as both of us sought even the faintest of common ground. Oh, there was still no interaction round the dinner table, but at least there were more than just grunts as we tinkered around the growing Booth coterie of internal combustion engines (a Vauxhall Viva meant my mom had her own set of wheels, our hand mower was traded in on a used Toro, and a Honda minibike adopted me).

Indeed, automotive repair became a surrogate for a real father-son relationship, our interaction a metaphor for the real conversations we knew we would never have. “Pass the 3/16ths” became his way of saying “I’m glad you’re here.” “Do you think the voltage should be this low?” was my way of saying “I respect your opinion.” I know exactly how pathetic it sounds but when you haven’t spoken a civil word to your father in five years, you’ll take what you can get.

What’s most interesting about all of this automobile-as-bonding surrogacy is that my father had no particular interest in cars. Oh, in his youth, he tinkered with Chevys, Cadillacs and even a Lincoln Zephyr, but in grown-up life he was pragmatism personified. There were some oddball cars — a rare-as-hen’s-teeth ’59 Ford Taunus, not to mention an equally weird and wonderful Epic Envoy — but the common denominator was always that they were reliable and cheap. Car repair was not a passion for my father, only a necessary economy. He didn’t replace the starter motor on our 1966 Plymouth Fury III out of devotion to internal combustion; he just wanted money to buy new golf clubs. He didn’t put fibreglass on the rusted hulk that was our ’64 Biscayne because he loved Chevys; it’s just that the cost of a new car would mean putting off that vacation to South Carolina.

And yet cars became the “currency” through which we were able to exchange at least some semblance of affection. Truth be told, to this day, discussion of my test cars remains a large part of our daily dialogue. He still doesn’t really care that much about automobiles. But, though the need for “safe” conversation is long gone, old habits die hard. (And I, now a good father’s son, bone up on the latest hockey news — Babcock will help the Leafs, we concur, just not right away — before our daily phone calls).

But — and yes, it is pitiful that it has taken me so long to realize this — this car-as-metaphor shtick doesn’t cut it anymore. Dad is 86 years old and every day is a gift. Like anyone who’s lived with — and failed to confront — such a schism in their personal life, I long for closure.

I could probably sneak an “I love you” in as we’re ordering breakfast at Rockin’ Johnny’s next Sunday morning. He could pretend not to hear just as I would then make believe I didn’t say it. Or I could buy a particularly poignant Father’s Day card and hope that he, as always, doesn’t read it. But that would be the same 40-year-old cop out.

On the other hand, if a little tacky schmaltz challenges even one more 57-year-old emotionally-stunted, starting-to-feel-his-own-mortality car nut to step up to the plate, then I suppose all this cheesiness won’t have been a complete waste of newsprint. So, even though he knows it, even though he’ll harrumph and feign embarrassment, here it is as loud as I can shout it: Happy Father’s Day, dad, I love you.

No cars involved.



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