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Let's Go Viking

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Except in some rare instances, I try to never hold anybody's early poetry for or against them. But this undergraduate verse from one Karol Wojtyla -- you probably know him better as John Paul II -- caught my attention. It's titled The Car Factory Worker and starts thusly:

Smart new models from under my fingers

whirring already in distant streets.

I am not with them at the controls

on sleek motorways; the policeman's in charge.

They stole my voice; it';s the cars that speak.

And what, pray tell, do they say? Well, say this sable Infiniti that is taking a long run on the green light and it sure seems like it's all straight ahead. An off-white Avalon is across the neutral ground and has his turning signal on, but he's waiting for the Infiniti to clear. Just enough time for the wobbly pedestrian to shuffle across on line with the dark Infiniti and ahead of the paused Avalon.

Then, the light turns yellow. The Infiniti slams the brake, decides to make a right turn because it can, having great brakes and top steering, and does -- just ahead of the Avalon making a right, because he's waited and the next corner's waiting.

The wobbly pedestrian, the one who doesn't even have the acuity or wallet to have a car of any kind? Feel his heart leap against his chest, his fear and anger at that fear that less than a block from where he eats and sleeps, a couple of cars, one white and one black, have turned his little walk into a thing of urban terror. Hear the cars speak. It's a rumble and a roar, and then a rubbery squeal. You hear it somewhere each day and every day to move from one place to another.

We are coming on a century now of this sort of thing. Way back in the early 1930s, no less an observer of things human as G.K. Chesterton observed this about them and us:

The motorcar has progressed because nobody is happy where he is. The idea of leisure has become the idea of getting away somewhere else in the hope that by some extraordinary chance, it may be better. That principle means death and destruction, and God knows, motors on the roads are death and destruction. Modern civilized life is so miserable for both rich and poor, because of its vulgar and stifling atmosphere, that people are always full of that divine human illusion that if only they rush round the corner they will find something that is a little better, and they make round the corner exactly like what they have left.

I don't know about you, but that sounds suspiciously like a prophecy to me.

Americans have embraced the blacktop culture like no other peoples and made it their own. Would Kerouac have sent Dean Moriarty on the road in an oxcart? Bonnie and Clyde or Thelma and Louise astride matched gray geldings? The Clutter family would probably still be bored and happy on their Kansas farm and Truman Capote as forgotten as James Gould Cozzens if not for cars taking killers as far as their imaginations could. Further, even.

Of course, true auto worshippers wouldn't get most of the literary references, because it's fairly hard to read at 70 mph, although it happens fairly frequently on the Causeway. But reading is fading fast, and it's far better to find your pop culture elsewhere. Little deuce coupes and pink Cadillacs and little GTOs, all brought to us by Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys and Kentucky Headhunters. Probably over our car radios.

Till now, nothing has kept us apart from our internal combustion engines for long, not even death itself. To match the number of insured lambs sacrificed on our 47,000 miles of interstate each and every year would require us to keep troops in Iraq until 2024. No, you can't scare us off the roads.

Certainly, we of south Louisiana know of loyalty to roads. We cling to ours, like along State Street Drive, even if that clinging demands bigger and bigger trucks. Which demand more and more gasoline, which in turn demands more and more scratch, $3.20 a gallon the last time I looked. When I worked at a gas station, there was a little coupon system named S&H Green Stamps. At today's prices, you'd have a book of stamps with every fill-up.

As John Steinbeck asked in his cross-country odyssey novel The Grapes of Wrath: "When we can't buy no more gas -- what then?"

Here's my advice. Save a half-buck to squirt a nozzle's worth into your favorite ragtop or Stinkin' Lincoln. Remember how the Vikings loved their ships and stayed on them except when marrying or pillaging? Loved them so much that when the time came to head for new horizons, the Viking corpse was brought aboard, Bic added until ash met water.

Let's go Viking. Our corpses deposited in our best car. Ignition. A heavy weight placed on the accelerator. Emergency brake released. Old favorite car hurries down a special speedway until it comes to the finish and then tumbles wildly into Lake Pontchartrain. One last ride.

Valhalla.

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