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Personal finance



Immediately after the Cars Allowance Rebate System, better known as "Cash for Clunkers," went into effect earlier this year, a half dozen friends asked me the same question: "So, when are you going to trade in the Exploder?"

"Clunker?" I'd reply with a hint of sarcasm. "What clunker?" I wasn't going to hand in my venerable gray 1991 Ford Explorer XLT for $4,500. Even if it's 18 years old, it's worth so much more.

Sure, $4,500 would go a long way toward finding a new, more fuel-efficient ride, especially since mine seems to be aging so rapidly. But it's classic. Just look past the front bumper—which sports a snarl after getting the best of a pint-sized Japanese coupe—and forgive the dysfunctional rear doors and windows—a double-pull technique works best on the former, though you'll have to roll the windows up by hand.

Indeed, on good days, it's known as "The Silver Stallion" now. On bad days, it's the "The Ol' Gray Mare." It's the only vehicle I've ever owned. I remember when my grandfather drove home the new truck-based vehicle, one of the first to roll off the production line in the Explorer's inaugural year. I inherited it shortly past its 10th birthday, after my widowed grandmother became too frail to climb into the SUV for a ride to the doctor's office, let alone handle the hunk of steel herself.

When I inherited the car, the odometer read around 50,000 miles; now it sits at 127,394. Aside from weekly trips to a Roses department store, where my grandparents would take advantage of a senior citizens' day promotion to build up a stock of Clorox that's outlived them by years, and occasional drives to Fort Bragg's PX, where my grandpa (a retired Army major) would buy cases of Stroh's Light, they generally stuck close to home. I'm sure I was partially recalling those shopping expeditions when, in elementary school, I overlooked all of my grandpa's virtues to announce to my family that I couldn't wait to grow up to be like him so I could drink beer and swear. Turns out, those vices come easily. It's his work ethic and benevolence that continue to elude me.

After all this time, nearly everything else remains the same. The dowdy carpet that once covered the dash now resides in the cargo area next to a few other bygone relics, but small reminders—like a repurposed pepper shaker holding the toothpicks that Grandpa chewed after every meal—remain. My grandparents' unmistakable scent, long since erased from their ranch-style home of two decades, still lingers, reappearing every so often to flood my mind with fond memories. That clunker is one of the last tangible remnants of my grandparents' remarkable lives, one I cling to as a final holdout. So it might seem that I didn't make the pragmatic choice by not trading it in, despite the opportunity to get three or four times the blue book value. But even a king's ransom wouldn't be enough for sending my sentiments to the scrap heap.

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