The title of this post succinctly points to the issue at hand, which I suppose is what a good title is supposed to do. Killing a car. How do you kill something that isn’t alive? You don’t. You can’t. But it can feel like it.
I’m taking our old minivan and turning it in for a new car under the “cash for clunkers” program. No, I can’t afford a new car. But then again, I can afford even less to watch the old van die a few months from now and have to get replacement transportation on the spur of a moment. See? There I go again: “the old van die.” Why do I do that? A machine can be disabled, it can break or fail or cease to function, but it can’t be killed and it can’t die; it isn’t alive. This is more than just a commentary on how we use words, and I can prove it.
I was listening to NPR the other day and they did a story on how clunkers are disabled once they are traded in. First step? Drain the oil from the engine, replace the drain plug, add two quarts of water mixed with sand, and start the engine. Then let it run until it dies… I mean… until it is permanently disabled. So on the radio, the reporter let the listener hear what this sounds like, and as the car died… I mean, quit running… she said, “Awww, that’s kind of sad.” To this, the representative at the car dealership said, “Yeah, it is kind of, isn’t it?” And, to my surprise, I thought, “Yeah. That is sad.” Then I thought, “No, it’s weird that I think it’s sad.”
But then two nights ago I stood in my own garage and looked at the old white minivan sitting quietly. It’s been a good car. It’s almost as old as my oldest daughter. It’s taken care of us. It’s delivered us. It’s protected us. It’s worked hard with nary a complaint. It hasn’t been much trouble at all. Poor old thing. It’s just tired. This is sad. I’m going to take it to a dealer, and they’re going to kill her… I mean it. It’ll be dead. No more. Grand old gal won’t be bopping about on any highways or byways any longer. This is the end for her.
And this is, pretty much, stupid. It’s a machine. It isn’t alive. It’s not going to die. It’s going to be destroyed. It’s like crushing an empty soda can and tossing it into a blue box. That should be the end of it. Yet I’ve talked to a number of people this past week who, like I, understand this twinge of sadness over having your old car “put to sleep.” It’s weird. So I have to wonder, what is it with us and our machines? I’ve read that in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers are becoming unhealthily attached to little robotic fighting machines (as if, I suppose, a person could get healthily attached to a little robotic fighting machine). I read one story of a soldier whose little mechanical buddy got all shot up, and the soldier didn’t want a replacement for it. Filled with emotion, he demanded that the old one be repaired. I guess the idea of being issued a new buddy just didn’t make sense to him; he wanted the one with whom… with which… he had a relationship. A past. A history.
When the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart and seven exceptionally talented human beings perished, I was sad for them and for their loved ones and there was genuine heartfelt concern in my mind for the remains of the Israeli crewman to be found and returned to his home in time. But I also felt a sadness at the failure of the orbiter. As an engineer in the space program who works with manned space flight maybe I had a right to feel that way, and there’s a rather long explanation (I’ve tried at least four times to put the post together) of the orbiter fantastically representing the hopes and dreams and souls of the thousands of people—like my colleague across the hall who by tradition had once scribbled his initials onto Columbia’s OMS assemblies—who have poured heart and soul into her. I understand this very, very well; believe me. On the day Columbia broke up I felt as though a living thing had tried its best to do its job of protecting the crew and getting them home, and had failed. I felt as though, in a way, a living creature had died. I admit that I cried a little bit. Over a machine. What’s up with that?
I think for me, Columbia answers a big part of that question. Here’s a part of one of the posts I tried to finish but never did:
As to why I cried that day, well there is another layer, which seems at first to be one that only a detached, cold-hearted, inhuman engineer could manage to bring up in a post: in part, I cried for Columbia. Part of the reason I cried that day was because Columbia failed her crew. If today you read the timeline of the reentry and read the technical details, and if you understand something about being an engineer, there’s an almost parental sadness that sweeps over you because, well, Columbia tried, and tried very hard to get her crew safely to earth. She really did. At an altitude of 200,000 feet and moving at Mach 18, in a region of space mankind doesn’t really understand, with a hole in her wing and with hundreds of pounds of her melting and falling away, her computers and control surfaces and thrusters worked to successfully keep her attitude stable for an amazing length of time. She tried. She really did. But she just couldn’t do it. The battle was too big. She bled out fighting, and then she broke.
Before the previous paragraph seems so absurd that you quit reading, you need to understand something else. To speak of Columbia in those terms is to really speak of thousands upon thousands of human beings and their uncountable hours of life invested, working together to create Columbia according to the ever-present and primary rule of the space program at the grunt employee level: human life is always, always, always priority number one. Ships like Columbia aren’t simply built to go places; they are built to take people to those places, and bring them back home safely. So to speak of Columbia in those terms is really to say, we tried. We really did. But the battle was too big. It is to say in our shock and in our sadness that we failed the crew, and because of this, they died. It is to say that we are sorry we didn’t do better. It is to say to you and your loved ones that we are sorry we didn’t get you home. It is to say we are heartbroken—and so we cry.
One of the reasons we love our machines is because they represent us and the people we love. The old white minivan outside in the garage, with its fruit punch stains on the carpets and old dried up French fries under the seats, with its scratches and dings and dents, its door locks that don’t, and its warming bells that tend to chime endlessly for no apparent reason, isn’t worth much as a collection of nuts and bolts. But oh the places it has taken us and the children it has brought home from the hospital. The times we’ve laughed and yelled and the no telling how many times we’ve said, “Oh look over there” and “Mommy look at that” and “Daddy did you see those cows?” The old van is nothing. But what it represents to our family as a family, and to the humanity shared between us, means something; perhaps the most important things of all. So I think we love our machines not for their own sake, but because they are a part of who we are and what we value as most basic and true: life.
In those terms I can lament the destruction of a machine without feeling weird or stupid or overtly materialistic. But I guess the question now becomes, how well do I keep this focus and understanding from day to day? I think this is part of growing older and maturing; to realize that the Man-created things of this world should not be—and in actually cannot be—truly valued for themselves. They have to be seen in terms of what they can or cannot do to further our humanity and that of others. They have to be viewed and used as tools toward deeply human ends, and if they are not then they should be destroyed—at least metaphorically and probably literally. In the realm of things made by Man, there are tools and there are idols—and the two cannot be one.