Thursday, March 11, 2021

Guest writer: WHEELS OF MY LIFE by Al Stumph

 Writer Al Stumph, of Chatham, New York, resigned from the Maryknoll priesthood while he was a student in Hong Kong. In his wonderful new book, "Wheels of My Life," he writes about all the cars, trucks and motorcycles he has known in his life. He counted more than 50! Here is an excerpt from what Al calls his "biomythography," a literary term coined by poet and essayist Audre Lorde. The term combines history, biography, and myth-making. Enjoy this excerpt (in which Al converses with one of his cars) and then go to and order his book today!


“Car, I’m a mess sexually, a 28-year-old virgin.” 
“That’s a mess?” 
“I think so, but I’m completely messed up, socially, mentally, spiritually, you name it.” 
“Um, Let’s see.” 

As recorded earlier, in October 1969, sixteen months after my ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood, I resigned. I was a student in Hong Kong when recent pronouncements from Rome, my disagreements with the local bishop, the wrongness of five hundred years of paternalistic missionary work in China, and certainly my sexual interests, all combined to drive me from the priesthood. I became homeless, unemployed, and with no means of transportation other than my legs. 

Aimless, I hung out at first with friends in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Seattle. Eventually I returned to my parents’ home in Indianapolis. There, I concluded, “More than a place to live or a job, I need a car. Driving helps me clarify my thinking. Without a car of my own, I feel naked and vulnerable.” 

I turned to my trusted, knowledgeable-about-cars friend Bill. He recommended the ’69 Buick Opel Kadett, a subcompact imported from Germany. “Al, it’s compact, reliable, inexpensive to operate, and favorably priced when compared to similar American cars. Best part, only people cheap like you ever consider them. You’ll love it. They’re made for you.” 

As we walked to the far reaches of the dealership lot, the salesman chattered on. “I think you’ll like the Opel. It’s one of my favorites. There it is. Wadda ya think? Let me dust off that seat.” 

I kept silent, studying the car. Blah. Prosaic. Practical. Bill was right. The Opel and I were brothers, soulmates. Misreading my silence, the salesman played his trump card. “It may look tame, but this one has dual carburetors, plenty of power for climbing hills and passing.” He handed me the keys. “Take a drive around and we’ll talk back at the showroom.” 

The Opel, apparently not driven for a few weeks, stumbled to life as I turned the key, a shake here, a sputter there. Then I felt the driver’s seat embracing me. My fingers came to life on the wheel. Before we pulled away from its parking space I knew for certain that I had found my companion. No longer the Opel, or just transportation, she had a name, “Car.” Car would stand by me, reassure me as I shed my identity as “priest.” We’d not simply be hunting for a job and housing. We’d be exploring new vistas together. 

Car and I set out from Indianapolis for New York. Our destination was the Yonkers home of my classmate and rent-a-wreck partner. Jim had offered to house me for a few weeks. 
I floored the gas pedal as we merged on to the Indianapolis beltway. Car reacted with a burst of speed, and an exclamation. 

“Easy on the gas, Al. This is a two-day trip. We’ve got plenty of time.” 

“I know, I know, but I wanted to get us in front of that eighteen-wheeler. Your dual carbs made that easy.” 

“Thanks, Al. Your wish is my command. Sit back, relax. I’ve got everything under control. I70E is just a couple miles ahead.” 

“Car, it’s a beautiful autumn day. My new life’s beginning. I can’t wait to see what’s next.” 
“Yet, Al, your tone seems a little anxious, like you’re not sure of yourself.” 
“Well, maybe. I don’t know where I’m really headed. Right now, I just want to get to Jim’s place. We’ll see what happens then.” 
“So, Al, you’re on this new path, but no idea where it leads, you’re feeling unsure.” 

The highway curves left, and I removed my foot from the accelerator. I’ve always been a cautious driver. 

“Yeah, Car, I’m feeling unsure. I’ve always been taken care of, food on the table, very comfortable housing. Now I’m on my own.” 
“You’re scared you might not be able to take care of yourself.” 
“And, Car, you’re beginning to sound a lot like Carl Rogers doing his client-centered therapy thing.” 
“Well, what do you expect, Al? That’s the psychology/therapy you were trained in. I’m mirroring you. I’m in your head.” 
“Fair ’nuff. Let’s turn on the radio.” 

For the next hour or so, Car and I enjoyed music from the radio and exchanged brief observations about the color of autumn leaves and the aggressive and dangerous driving behaviors of others on the road. We stopped for a break at Stuckey’s, and I picked up some coffee. Before we got back on the road, I’d decided to encourage Car to play Carl Rogers some more. 

“Car, why didn’t I try to strike up a conversation with the good-looking woman in the coffee line with me? I’m a 28-year-old guy with almost no idea of how to approach women. I’m so stupid.” 
“So, what makes you different from other young men?” 
“Twenty-eight years of thinking and living celibacy. Well, that’s not quite true.” 
“Tell me what you mean, Al.” 
“OK, I’ve known Kathy for more than five years. She’s in Albany, New York and our letters while I was in Hong Kong prove our love. But then we lived on opposite sides of the globe. What happens now?” 
“Al, I see some drives to Albany in our future.” 
“Yeah, Car, but then there’s Bernadette. She’ll be emigrating to Toronto soon. We really fell for each other in Hong Kong. With her, I came within an inch of violating my celibacy. Actually, looking back, I don’t know what made us stop.” 
“You’re thinking drives to Toronto might be in our future, as well?” 
“Sure, Car. That’s what I’m thinking, but I don’t know how to relate to either of them now that I don’t have to keep a celibacy promise. They’re both much more sexually mature than I.” 
“OK, you’re afraid of failure.” 
“Well, yeah, Car. For your information, they also know about each other. I’ll be caught in the middle if I’m not careful. And what do I do about Nora, Lucilla, Julia, or women I’ve not even met yet, like that one who just pulled her Mustang in front of us? Kick in your dual carbs. Get us into the left lane so I can get a better look.” 
“Al, you are acting like an adolescent.” 

I paused, measuring Car’s words. “Yup,” I thought. “Yup.” 

When we did get to Jim’s place in Yonkers, by the second evening I was ready to settle in. I got the floor because Bill H., a classmate also leaving the priesthood, had arrived first and claimed the guest bed. Car got the street. 

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season was underway. What a festive time to begin a new lifestyle. What a sad time to be unemployed. 

Weekdays, Car waited patiently on the street. I’d take a bus from Jim’s apartment to the subway in the Bronx and then on to Manhattan. After several weeks exploring jobs with, among others, IBM, Dow Chemical, and the New York Times, I got realistic as the year drew to a close and accepted a job selling office equipment in New Jersey. The branch manager there had heard that ex-clergy made good sales people. I’d start immediately after the beginning of the new year.

During the same period, Car and I traveled the Taconic Parkway to Albany to be with Kathy. She and I had long desired this opportunity to get to know each other in ways that we had not permitted ourselves when I lived at Maryknoll. While I was in Hong Kong we acknowledged, through the mail, how deeply we had come to care for each other. Now we were free to explore our feelings fully, and we did, nearly every weekend. 

Car liked negotiating the hills and curves of the parkway and quickly learned the route to a comfortable parking spot in Washington Park near Kathy’s apartment. I wondered if Car had something going on with a friend in the neighborhood. Car vehemently denied any motivation except to ensure that Kathy and I could be together. “Al, your wish is my command.” 

Also during the weeks before my job search ended, Car and I often spent evenings visiting people I knew in the Bronx and Westchester County. One evening I decided to introduce Car to Nora’s red Camaro convertible. It turned out to be a bad experience for Car. 

“Al, how could you take us to Tuckahoe? We’re plain country folk. And Nora’s not for you. She’s much too serious, too intense.” 
“OK, Car. One down.” 

Near Thanksgiving Bill H and I drove Car to Washington, DC, to take part in a Vietnam War protest. Bill invited two former Maryknoll nuns to join us. The next weekend Car spoke out as we drove the Taconic Parkway toward Albany. 

“Come on, Al, what were you and Bill thinking? You know nuns are a pain, including ex-nuns. One, Susan I think, even wanted to eat raw oysters. Ugh.” 
“I don’t need your comments this morning, Car, but thanks for getting us to DC and back.” 
“Al, you must have noticed that I get very excited when we go to Albany on weekends. Kathy’s the one for you.” 
“You’re assuming an awful lot, Car. I’m fascinated by that blond, tough, witty, and vulgar woman who leads the Committee of Returned Volunteers’ meetings. She’s really, really sexy.” 
“And way out of your league, Al.” 
I chose not to take Car into Manhattan for my date with Julia, who had recently immigrated from Hong Kong. It would not have mattered if I had. After that evening I did not need Car’s insight to assure me that a relationship with Julia would go nowhere. 
In the year 2001, Al began doing lawncare and furniture construction to supplement his retirement income. With more reflection time available, he resurrected his interest in writing memoir, essays, and short fiction. He added poetry to the mix in 2017. 

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