The Feeling You Get

Author’s Note: In the late 1990’s, I submitted a “Mercedes-Benz” fantasy story to a marketing contest, which I won. The story’s realism caused family friends to inquire about an accident described in the story. What followed was an all-expense paid trip to Germany, including use of a new Mercedes coupe. Full accounting, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine here.

It began when the Peterbilt tractor-trailer loaded with tomatoes decided to switch lanes on Route 283 eastbound out of the Eisenhower Interchange in Harrisburg without signaling. The morning sun shone directly in my eyes and, merging onto 283, I could not discern the changing relationship between my 16-year old Mercedes station wagon and the base for tomorrow night’s Bolognese sauce for one hundred restaurants on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

My wagon had 150,000 miles on it and my two kids had beaten the hell out of the interior, but it had never shed its nobility. I loved that car. There was a sense of infinity about it – I knew I could drive that car a million miles and keep on going.

No one under the age of forty should possess such a car, but it had been handed to us like a family heirloom just after the birth of our first child. College classmates expressed astonishment that I possessed such a car at such a tender age. It was not something that I had earned, I told them, it was something you could only luck into.

And then a guy named Gordon from Altoona forgot to signal a lane change. The collision sent me over a guard rail onto adjoining Route 441 while Gordon jack-knifed those tomatoes all over both eastbound and westbound lanes. By my count, Gordon and I were on news programs of 14 different television stations and were bumped from Dan Rather’s show only by a last-minute ambush interview with Monica Lewinsky.

Gordon suffered a broken arm and was cited for a moving violation. I walked away unscratched, but rather angry at having to pull out of a tennis doubles tournament. My partner, a college player half my age, and I were to play in the finals of the city championships against a couple of club pros. It was only later in the day that our Mercedes mechanic gave me the really bad news. If I wanted to be a collector, he told me, I could spend the money to restore the car. Driving it like I wanted would be, in his words, “a challenge.” My insurance agent had another word for it: “totaled.”

“You were lucky,” he told me. “Lucky to be driving that kind of car. Just about anything else on the road and you would have been hauled out of there in a helicopter.”

With the kind of money the trucking company was floating in front of my lawyer to keep this incident out of court, I could easily have restored the car. But do you ever get that certain feeling when you drive by a Mercedes dealership? I mean, here I am already driving a Merc and I’m still getting the same feeling of the guy behind me in the Tercel.

My wife and I talked about it. The kids were old enough that we didn’t really need a wagon anymore to transport them and their paraphernalia around. We agreed that this opportunity would not come our way again. We instructed our attorney that we would accept three times the amount offered by the trucking firm plus an assurance that they would not fire Gordon, who had been genuinely apologetic and whose wife was about to sue him for divorce.

Within a week, we walked into the local Mercedes dealership with a blank check, a dream, and an attitude. That salesman, we had determined, was going to work very hard for his money. Only it turned out to be a saleswoman named Ana who, it also turned out, had been a high school classmate of my wife’s older sister. And it was her first week selling cars.

We spent half the day there, not holding every advantage over some slick pinky-ring and Aramis-wearing shark, but chatting rather amiably with an intelligent, knowledgeable person who would become our friend and eventually my wife’s doubles partner.

Within minutes, she understood what we wanted.

She didn’t have one, but she told us that she would work on getting one.

We waited a week and called her. No luck.

Two weeks later we played tennis. She reported a lead.

Two days later, the lead evaporated.

Ten days later, we got the call.

“I have one of those ‘interesting’ propositions,” she started. “Do you have a week or so you can clear from your calendars?”

Ana had sold a 500S to an older gentleman, an education lobbyist who had been given a lottery ticket by the governor as a present at his retirement party, and won. His winnings went to the car. He was moving from Pennsylvania to Washington state to be closer to his son and his family. He needed someone to drive the car to his son’s office at Microsoft – and it needed to be there in three days.

Ana could hire a driver, she told us, but the car we wanted was sitting only a few miles away from Redmond on Mercer Island, waiting for us if we just gave her the OK to close the deal. It seems that a movie producer had just eaten himself to death and the family was selling everything, including his cars.

Three days. Cross country. Through Montana. Montana, with the daytime speed limit of “reasonable.” What could possibly be reasonable when you’re driving a large-caliber bullet?

And our car waiting on the other side of the country.

With kids packed off to the in-laws, we began the journey at high speed with the CD changer stocked with everything from Kathleen Battle to the Rolling Stones.

If you know the story of space travel in Carl Sagan’s “Contact,” you will understand how the next 65 hours processed in front of our eyes. Neither of us remembers the scenery, nor the music, nor the transition from day to night and back. There was no such thing as time. The only thing we remembered was the way the engine sounded at a speed about which we had only dreamed.

We expected something along the lines of the launching of a Saturn V rocket: tremendous vibration mixed with a cacophony of violent movements, along the lines of a roller coaster. Instead, it was more like a symphony: the Berlin Philharmonic playing “Ode to Joy” while the Berlin Wall came crumbling down outside. We heard only the music, not the crash.

Sixty-five hours after we began the trip, the car’s owner was so pleased that we washed the car before delivering it that he offered to drive us to Mercer Island.

Of course the car was under a tarp in a barn. The guy drove it rarely, only to show it off a couple of times a year. No wonder he died at 52.

When our “chauffeur” saw this 1954 200S coupe, the famous “Ponton” car, a familiar expression crossed his face. He shared the same countenance we had driving by our Mercedes dealership.

We also shared the secret of the Mercedes: driving a Merc is like riding a wave into infinity.

Our trip back to Harrisburg took 17 days. This time, my wife and I remembered everything along the way.

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