Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Impala – Bel-Air – Biscayne game

I approach this post with trepidation. My last post was my 100th on this blog, and this post will break that perfect symmetry.

But I don’t want a blog that ends at 100 posts. Would you? So, on to 200 (and beyond!).

I’m going to discuss one of my special childhood pastimes. At the age of 10, I became obsessed with – ahem, interested in Chevrolet vehicles – specifically, Impalas, Bel-Airs, and Biscaynes.

Now, I was no gearhead then, and am not now – if you asked me right now, I cannot tell you what a carburetor is for. My best guess is I became interested because my maternal grandmother drove a sky-blue Biscayne that was way cool (before I knew what way cool was). Decades later, Flickr helpfully informed me that Biscayne and Bel-Air were "poor man’s" Impalas. I’m not buying that. To me, Impala and Bel-Air and Biscayne were and are triplet brothers, riding boldly side-by-side from 1958 (when Impala and Biscayne joined Bel-Air in the Chevy lineup) to 1972 (when Chevy discontinued Biscayne in America).

In the 1960s and 1970s, the three models looked alike for the most part, except for the taillights: Impala had six (three on each side), while Bel-Air and Biscayne had four (two on each side). This was an important detail for identification.

You see, in the mid-1970s I carried a notebook and pen with me at all times, and I counted all of the Impalas and Bel-Airs and Biscaynes that I saw. From the school bus, from the backseats on cars, and on foot, I dutifully recorded each one with a single straight scratch mark.

(Impalas were always most plentiful, and Biscaynes rarest.)

It was amazing how many I could count in Washington, PA, population approximately 20,000 (in 1975) – even while following the rule of not counting the same car twice. If I passed a Biscayne walking up a hill, I would not count it walking down the hill.

What was the purpose of the Impala – Bel-Air – Biscayne game? It got me to keep my head up and look around. It gave me something to do, something to distract me from my small childish problems. It was there when I needed it, and for that I will be forever grateful.

It is practically impossible to play the Impala – Bel-Air – Biscayne game today. In 1975, it was easy to find cars that were three to seventeen years old (1958-1972). In 2011, Impala is the only one of those three models that Chevy still builds. Bel-Airs and Biscaynes have all but disappeared “in the field”; the last Biscayne I saw was this one rusting in a driveway in Orange:

You can play the game with a different set of cars. I would choose cars that are distinctive, easy to spot from yards away, and not that common – say, the Mini Cooper, the Toyota Prius, and the new Volkswagen Beetle.

If you decide to play this game, I suggest these simple rules:

1. Don’t count the same car twice.

2. Only count cars you see in real life – not on TV, not in the movies, not on the Internet, not in pictures.

3. Don’t play while you’re driving. This is one reason that keeps me from playing. That, and having so much more to think and care about now.

I can’t help but feel a little sad. What kind of person am I now who has no time to play an innocent car-counting game? Has my sense of play deteriorated into digitized versions of Mahjongg and Chuzzle?

I hope not. There is still so much to look at in the wide world of life, even while driving. And beautiful objects do not need to be counted to be remembered. Their “is”-ness is one giant, splendiferous scratch mark in the universe.

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