Bye-Bye, Benji

Last week, we said bye-bye to Benji, the spirited and plucky little Jeep Wrangler that raised my two spirited and plucky little girls. He had chugged to a stop late last fall when Savannah parked him on Winnemac Avenue, in the middle of the block, just south of Winnemac Park in Chicago. He had gurgled and rattled when Savannah cut the engine, just like he always did in the waning years of his life, as he struggled to be the peppy and happy car he had been in his youth. But, sadly, it was there on that sleepy, residential street, where a dead battery, a finicky starter, a worn-out transmission, and one final Windy City winter finished off the poor, old bastard once and for all. Mack would have thought it a fitting final parking place for her beloved “Benj” on a street with her name in it and very near a softball diamond, like so many other softball diamonds, where Benji often collected a pitching mound’s worth of dust waiting for Mack to collect him after a practice or a game.

Savannah probably never should have taken that 1997 Jeep Wrangler to Chicago with her in the first place, but it was just months after losing her sister and she lacked the heart to let go. Sometimes inanimate objects hold the keys to our most cherished memories. Benji had been Savannah’s high school and college car, and then Mack’s high school and college car, and then Savannah’s car once again. The sister connection in that gun-metal blue bucket of rusty bolts was strong and the emotional attachments deep; and even though it made not a lick of sense whatsoever to keep an unreliable car with a long list of ailments in Chicago, it made absolute sense to Savannah’s heart. So for two years, in honor of her sister, Savannah held on tight, patiently weathering the inconveniences of Benji’s senior citizenship.

But when spring came this year, so too came the realities of driving and parking in Chicago, especially in a car that needed hundreds of dollars in repairs. As the daffodils bloomed and street sweeping loomed, Savannah understood that she had to either sell or at least to move Benji from his pastoral parking spot around the corner from her apartment. Savannah made the difficult decision to let Benji go. It was time. It was past time. It is true that the tangible artifacts of our lives—big and small treasures into which we place our memories for safekeeping—possess the spirits of ghosts we wish would linger. But material objects do not possess the permanence we so desperately seek when we entrust them with our memories in the first place. Savannah held on to Benji long enough to learn that her connection to her sister was bigger and deeper and far more permanent than a beat-up, old car, however well-loved the car.

Although Jeeps, even old ones that do not start, will fetch at least some pocket-money, Savannah did not wish to profit from a decision that was breaking her heart. NPR really does take old cars, it turns out, and Savannah chose this graceful exit for our old family friend. We mailed in the Jeep’s title, and last week NPR took the car away. Rephrase: took Benji away. Benji with silly string sun-baked onto the dashboard and the driver-side door, evidence of a “hit” by Mack’s softball teammates. Benji with the duct tape holding his glove compartment in place. Benji with his broken and failing mechanical systems, a flat tire, a bleached out and ripped rag top, and a “Life is Good” spare-tire cover still on the back. Benji went away with a little piece of Savannah’s heart, and a little piece of mine, as well. But Benji did not go away with his gear shift, because Savannah snagged it as a final souvenir. And he did not go away with our memories, either. We will keep those, as well.

Benji was just a base-model, 1997 Jeep Wrangler, but he was the vehicle of some very important McDermott family memories. He took us on summer night drives to watch outdoor, local theater at Lincoln’s New Salem. He delivered us, albeit uncomfortably, to the family cabin in Wisconsin after our big car broke down one summer. He taught both of my girls how to drive a stick-shift, and he suffered all of the terrifying lessons they each gave to their teenage friends. He kept Savannah safe when she rolled the Jeep over and landed upside down in a ditch on a snowy ride home from college. Benji was just a car. But he was the spirited and plucky car of my spirited and plucky girls. And that, in and of itself, is grand.

Mack loved her Jeep, and I love the memory of her loving her Jeep. I have painted this happy picture in my mind that Benji and Mack are together again, reunited like friendly old ghosts, out on the open road somewhere in the beautiful universe. Mack is driving with the top down on a warm summer day; Benji is new and shiny, engine humming. Music is blaring and Mack is singing, big sunglasses covering her sweet, freckled face. She’s grinning, driving way too fast, and breathing in the feeling of freedom that the wind bestows upon the spirit of carefree girl in a Jeep.

Benji the Jeep

When her sister moved to Spain in July 2010, Mack inherited our 1997 Jeep Wrangler. Mack had been driving since March, sharing my boxy blue (and very uncool) Honda Element, so she was very happy that her sissy decided to leave the country. That soft-top, gun-metal blue, noisy, old Jeep and my Macko were a match made in highway heaven. That spunky car befitted Mack’s personality, matching her casual, no-frills style and providing endless material for her unique brand of self-deprecating humor. The Jeep ran pretty well and, for an old guy, was still very reliable, yet it sported a few rusty spots and some tattered upholstery, rattled and roared over bumps, idled raucously at stop lights, and sometimes sputtered between second and third gears. But Mack, as she did with every person and possession in her life, accepted that old Jeep for what it was; and she was grateful to have it all to herself.

When we presented to Mack her own set of keys to the Jeep, she announced her undying devotion to her new four-wheeled friend, and she frequently reminded her sister via Skype that the Jeep was ALL hers now and forever. She named it Benji, talked to it like it was an old friend who needed extra love and encouragement, and made it famous at Springfield High School. When Mack sped into the gravel overflow parking lot at school each morning, Benji announced their arrival in a cloud of dust and a noisy shimmy and shake as Mack cut the engine; but classmates standing around the high school’s south entrance already knew that they were coming before they hit the parking lot, as Mack’s quick and forceful gear shifting and Benji’s creaky old bones could be heard at least a block away. I think Mack got a kick out of her arrival at school each morning. She was proud of Benji’s good effort to deliver her to school before the bell (at least most of the time), and she was glad that her classmates knew that she drove a classic old car with genuine character.

Back Camera license plate

Shortly after adopting the Jeep, Mack got a “Life is Good” tire cover, and we ordered vanity plates to help her make the car her own. The floor of the backseat almost immediately became a large garbage heap, littered with Laffy Taffy wrappers and Gatorade bottles. Usually, there was also a softball glove or bat, a basketball, or golf shoes hanging around back there as well, so there was really no good place for passengers to put their feet. If Mack ever wiped down the dashboard or washed the outside of that car, I certainly never witnessed it. She could not even be bothered to scrub off the silly string caked onto the driver’s side door, the dash, and the steering wheel after she suffered a “hit” by a few softball teammates. I suppose Mack viewed Benji as an extension of her own messy bedroom. That Jeep may have been old and noisy and dirty, but Mack loved that car and driving it was a joy to her. A neighbor of ours remembered: “I recall seeing Mackenzie jump in her Jeep and head off with a smile on her face and a whole bunch of energy.”

Mack also loved sharing Benji with her friends, although she demanded that they, too, accept the old guy for what he was (rattles, backseat litter, and all!). Mack was so happy to chauffeur underclass teammates to practices, games, or the golf course in Benji. She enjoyed teaching a few friends how to drive a stick-shift behind the wheel of her car. And she was always willing to take down the Jeep’s top if her favorite passengers wanted to joyride with the wind in their hair. One time, after riding around Springfield in Benji with the top down, it began to rain. Mack had to quickly pull over to put up the Jeep’s rag top. As the kids all struggled to secure the top in the rain, Mack’s friend Patrick’s cellphone rang. In the rain and in the ruckus, Pat answered the phone and yelled: “I can’t talk now, Dad, I’m helping Mack put on her top!” Oh, how Mack and her friends laughed and laughed, as Pat then attempted to explain to his father what he had really meant by that provocative statement! That story remained one of Mack’s favorite Jeep stories, it always made her chuckle, and she frequently repeated it over the years.

When Mack left for Spain in September of last year, we parked Benji in an open parking lot just a couple of blocks from our loft in downtown St. Louis. Once in a Skype conversation, Mack asked about Benji’s welfare, and once at her request, I sent her a picture of the Jeep resting peacefully awaiting her return. Since losing Mack, seeing Benji parked in that lot all alone without his favorite driver has haunted Mack’s father and me, as it is a bitter reminder of our loss. But keeping the Jeep has been something of a comfort as well, because Benji is also a reminder of the joy Mack experienced behind the silly-stringed-caked wheel, with the wind in her hair, with a crooked grin on her freckled face, and the whole world in front of her. I am also reminded of one particular conversation I had with Mack about Benji’s future. I had suggested at some point that when she went away to college that we might sell the Jeep and give her my Honda. Mack was horrified at that suggestion. “Benji is my bad-ass buddy!” she exclaimed. “Benji CANNOT be sold!

Now Mack would be so happy to know that Benji will become her sister’s car once again. Savannah has returned from Europe and will settle in Chicago with her boyfriend Levi and Benji the Jeep. I think Mack’s spirit will ride shotgun in that Jeep, as her sister tools around Chicago. Savannah will be able to close her eyes and see Mack’s crooked smile every time the engine starts. She will hear Mack coax Benji into third gear and listen to her sweet little chuckle whenever the Jeep rattles over a giant Chicago pothole. Yep, Benji will remain an honored member of the McDermott family now and forever. He was a special friend to our special girl, and he possesses some magical power now to transport us away…at least for a little while…with our happy-go-lucky Mackenzie in the passenger seat right next to us.

In these photos, Mack proudly displays her driver’s license, you can see for yourself the silly string baked into the Jeep’s paint, and Mack is saying goodbye to her parents after a visit to Truman State to see her…

Jeep 4 jeep-silly string Jeep

Mack rarely complained about her car, but on long drives, the noise-level of the Jeep annoyed her. She tweeted her annoyance once, after returning to college after a weekend visit home in December 2012…

tweet--my car

Mack’s dad loved to take videos to annoy Mack, and here are two related to driving Jeeps…