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