A Living Thing
Listen to “A Living Thing” by Fred Smith
My grandfather was a Baptist pastor with the temperament of an Irishman. Named Matthew Bunyan after John Bunyan, he was always addressed as Brother Smith by my grandmother. Mercurial and unpredictable are likely the right words for his relationships with both the deacons and the congregations he served. Today, we would call him a church planter but the truth is he moved around in his career more than most. I remember my father telling me that Brother Smith had an uncomfortable habit of telling the whole truth about the departed at funerals. Maybe his ill-timed honesty kept them itinerant and poor. Feeding and caring for a family of five boys fell to my grandmother and she resented being poor in the depressed parts of Nashville. She wanted stability, respectability, and something better for herself and her boys. While she had resigned herself to what was her lot, she was determined that my father would escape the deadness of that place. He would make something of himself and at the same time make something of her life as well.
She could not go but she could send him. He would be her success and find a secure life denied to her.
As many of you know, men who rise from humble beginnings often discover the allure of expensive cars. Over time, Dad worked his way up to Jaguars. For him, like so many others who had come from hard circumstances, Jaguar represented more than financial success. A friend who had made that same journey told me if you grew up poor you can never completely feel rich. You can have money and all that goes with it but you can never completely put away the feeling of being poor. Maybe that is what a Jaguar meant – belonging, stability, and respectability. The founder of the company, Sir William Lyons, once said, “The car is the closest thing we will ever create to something that is alive.” He was right. But it brought something more to life.
Jaguar, while a magnificent symbol of success was not always a quality product. At a time when 200 faults per 1,000 cars were considered unacceptable in North America, the Jaguar had 1,200 faults per 1,000 cars. Jaguar owners loved sitting in the repair shop waiting rooms telling stories about their latest disappointment. They were a source of pride. Dad even laughed about needing two Jaguars…one for the shop and another for the road. One of the guys said, “You allow four hours for a trip. One for driving and three for repairs.” Everyone had their own stories of Jaguar’s performance not living up to their expectations but they put up with it knowing they would have their beloved and perpetually in the shop Jag for one or two weeks before bringing it back. No one, or very few, ever gave up. In fact, when Jaguar sold to Ford and the dependability drastically improved there were numerous complaints from the longtime owners. Where would they go to tell their stories? The waiting room was empty. There were no more complaints. It was if the fraternity had been disbanded and something irreplaceable had been lost. It was a different kind of impoverishment for men who had found fellowship in commiseration. Their “living thing” with all its quirks, foibles and peculiarities had become a predictable commodity. I think it was then that Dad and the others lost their love for Jaguars. They wanted something special. Success was not enough.
But it was for my grandmother. Dad took me with him when he drove his Jaguar to visit his mother in Nashville. She had been a widow for several years and when he opened the door for her and she settled into that leather seat I knew what she was thinking. I would guess you know as well. Now, I cannot see Jaguars without thinking of that moment. They are not just cars. They are, with all their flaws, living things.