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Although there have been some kinks, the government's Cash for Clunkers program, designed to help consumers get up to $4,500 for their old vehicles when they trade them in for new, more fuel efficient ones, has seen a lot of takers. The program guidelines stipulate that the trade-ins, a.k.a "clunkers," cannot be resold but must be crushed or parted out once the engine is destroyed.

Being quite content with my Santa Fe, I have not ventured into a dealership during this sales event to gather any first-hand information. However, while watching the news recently, it occurred to me that some of the "clunkers" being sent off to junk yards could have been recycled to those who drive worse "rattle traps" and would like to trade up. A few others I've talked to lately have noticed the same thing.

This conclusion naturally led to discussions, that in turn produced enough driving-old-clunkers memories to fill a 1978 Ford LTD.

Some may remember that years ago, without the government's involvement, parents had their own plan for worn out vehicles. Itdidn't have a name that I know of but could have been called something like "Let Your Kid Drive Your Clunker."

Although I promised not to name my sources, I wanted to pass along some of the stories I heard from those who have, at some point in their lives, driven indisputable "clunkers."

One man I talked with had a unique appreciation for his past experiences involving old vehicles.

"They taught you how to drive," he told me. When asked to clarify what he meant by that, he stated that some of the clunkers he'd driven had neither power steering nor power brakes. "You just don't ride somebody's bumper when you drive one like that," he said. "You think about what you're doing. And I can tell you, if you're steering a '55 Chevy, nobody has to tell you it's a bad idea to text."

Another man had enough clunker-driving stories to fill a book.

Before the days of cell phones, or even bag phones, he learned self reliance and problem-solving skills.

"When you couldn't call somebody for help, you had to figure out how to fix it yourself," he remembers.

One car he drove was a "three speed on the column" that locked in gear, requiring him to frequently open the hood and "line up the shifting gears" before taking off again. On another vehicle, he used steel wool to plug holes in the exhaust pipe.

This source also recalled once owning an old Plymouth that easily collected moisture under the distributor cap, causing it to stop running. Just a heavy dew would sometimes render it undrivable, he said.

Being a young man at the time and very motivated to get hiswheels up and running, he learned to remove the distributor cap and dry it out thoroughly whenever needed. He even went as far as removing the fan belt before driving through water to try to prevent the car from "drowning out."

Even that didn't always work. On one occasion the clunker died while driving through water flowing across the road after a big rain. Climbing out through the window and over the hood, the driver knew what had to be done. After removing his shoe, he then took off his sock and used it to dry out the distributor. The problem was solved and he and his clunker were soon back on the road again.

I also talked with a woman who remembered her very first vehicle as a teenager to be a real dandy. Among other challenges, the car had two leaky tires and a tendency to burn oil. She knew how to check these things and add whatever was necessary to keep her vehicle running, mostly, she said, so she would have a way to get to Fayetteville on Friday nights.

"My friends didn't know their lip stick from a dipstick," she stated, "but I knew a lot about my car."

Maybe driving these old clunkers caused headaches at the time, but looking back these drivers couldn't tell their stories without laughing. And each mentioned appreciation for things they'd learned - not just about cars, but about the goodness of others who helped them when they ran out of gas due to a broken gauge, or needed a jump start or a push to get going again.

And they also appreciate having a vehicle now that starts, runs, steers and stops safely. And, if it happens to have a sun roof and heated seats, that's just icing on the cake.

Opinion, Pages 5 on 08/26/2009

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