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GM spells car trouble

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I was conceived in a turquoise 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, the same car whose tail fins and chrome framed my parents in a wedding photograph and that, nine months later, rushed my laboring mother to the hospital.

I was born in Anderson, Ind., about a mile away from one of the town's General Motors plants. My father—and his father, his mother, his brother, my great-aunt, my maternal grandmother and my sister—worked there for more than 30 years. We were a General Motors family who drove General Motors cars and whose lives centered on a General Motors town.

At first, my dad worked the night shift on GM's assembly line. He wore brown, steel-toed shoes and carried a black steel lunch box. Each evening, my mother stuffed it with four sandwiches—two meat, two peanut butter—and tucked a love note between them. He would come home at 1 in the morning. Occasionally I would get out of bed to crawl into his lap while he relaxed in his rocking chair. He smelled of oil, sweat and metal, like when change gets hot in your pocket. He was eventually promoted to a white-collar job as a mechanical engineer. He smelled like aftershave, but not as good as when he worked on the line.

As a GM family, we marked time by our cars, humanized by the names we gave them or the way we'd pat their dashboard in cold weather. My mom learned to drive a stick shift in the red 1964 Impala, my brother and me strapped in flimsy car seats in back, our necks flopping like we were stuffed animals. She became a good driver: One night, she was behind the wheel of the red 1968 Chevelle, a powerful car whose engine roared like Middle Earth, when suddenly she hit the brakes. Out of the darkness, a train. The crossing had no lights, no crossbar—only a deafening blackness that missed us by inches.

We kids often rode in the bed of the black 1972 El Camino to Kilbuck Park, a place reserved for GM employees and their families. Many summers, we lay on a hill and watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July. There were thousands of us, GM families in GM cars in a GM town. Like the factories and employees, the park's gone now. GM abandoned Anderson, gutting the town of its bars and hamburger stands. The sprawling factories were razed, leaving the land so polluted that weeds refuse to grow.

My dad gave everything to GM. Years passed without his taking a sick day. In return, we got a middle-class life. Now, GM is bankrupt, but he's not. He's a planner who socked away extra money from his paychecks for additional life insurance and health insurance. But now he's getting a pension, but little else.

Although GM abandoned my dad, he still buys their cars, including a 1995 Geo Metro he purchased for my 30th birthday. I named it the Bug. After its odometer turned 100,000, I sold the Bug to a friend for a dollar. When I drove away in my Honda, I wondered if it felt betrayed, too.

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