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Purple State

By Frank Gruber

I drive an old car, a 1986 Peugeot, that at 94,000 miles is starting to have troubles. Peugeot hasn't sold cars in the U.S. for years, and although parts are not hard to get, I have no business driving the old machine beyond AAA towing range of my mechanic at Lincoln and Broadway.

Due to last minute circumstances, however, I ended up using the car to drive my son and me on our recent camping trip to the eastern Sierra.

Arriving at the trailhead for our hike into the Sierra, about half an hour from Bishop, the power steering failed. All the power steering fluid had drained out from a leak. I had no option but to leave the car parked on the mountain.

A week later the expedition returned from the mountains. The car manual said not to drive without power steering fluid, but I drove down the hill to Bishop and nothing terrible happened. The question I had was who would service a Peugeot in Bishop.

I got referred to an outfit called Sierra German Auto, and drove into their parking lot. Inside I told a mechanic that so-and-so had said that they worked on Peugeots.

"He lied," he said.

Nonetheless, I pleaded that maybe he could take a look at the car and perhaps the only problem was a bad hose that he could replace.

The mechanic -- his name was Tim -- obligingly said he would, or, rather that the other mechanic, Kenny, would, because Tim had to run an errand. But he told my son and me that we would have to wait in the waiting area in the office.

So Tim left and Henry and I waited in the waiting area, the walls of which were covered with photos of Tim racing a souped up Volkswagen beetle on dirt tracks in Nevada and California, along with a good collection of trophies.

There was also a bulletin board, on which was posted one document, a long email. I'm one of those people who read whatever is in front of me, so I started reading it.

It turned out to be an anti-Clinton diatribe more or less of the "spawn of Satan" variety, at which point I wondered if Kenny, before he had put my Peugeot on the hoist, had seen my back bumper with the two bumper stickers: "Re-Elect Gore in 2004" (a souvenir from attending in the counter-inauguration in downtown L.A. in 2001) and "Kerry-Edwards."

There I was in Red State California. My son later told me he had seen on Tim's car a bumper sticker reading "Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry," but he hadn't mentioned it.

Well, without overly dramatizing my political paranoia, Kenny turned out to be a resourceful mechanic. A part was cracked, but he said he could use a hose-clamp to make a temporary repair good enough to get us back to Santa Monica.

He told us to return in an hour or so, at 4:30, which we did.

By then, Tim was back and both Tim and Kenny seemed uncommonly interested in my car. They asked how I could keep it running, given that Peugeot no longer sells cars here. I told them that it wasn't a problem in L.A. because Peugeot had kept its parts network up in the hopes that they company would return to the U.S. market. I mentioned that Peugeot was still quite big around the world, and maybe they would.

At this point Tim said, "Oh, yeah, I know they're big in the Third World, cause they sell a lot of cars in Iraq and Iran."

Now, I have to say that this rhetorical arrow whizzed completely by me, and I babbled something about the fabled Peugeot slant-four engine, but my son told me later that he considered blurting out, "Dad, didn't I tell you to take the Chevy!"

* * *

The repair held, and we made it back to Santa Monica in the heart of Blue State California.

I have friends whose son is an Army M.P. who was recently deployed in Iraq, and I wanted to send him a package of goodies. I learned that the soldiers like reading matter and hard candies, so I packed up a few books and several pounds of candy in a Priority Mail box and took it to the Main P.O. on Fifth Street to complete the customs form.

Some weeks ago I read in one of the Santa Monica papers that a postal clerk had said that they saw little military mail here. Wondering if that were the case, I decided to ask the clerk if these days she had been handling a lot of packages going to A.P.O. addresses.

The clerk, by the way, was an Asian immigrant, and she replied, in a thick accent that did not hide her irony, "In Santa Monica?" "No," she continued, "everyone is running from the army here."

But then, before I could say anything, she added, "just like the Bushes. None of their children or nephews joined."

I suppose it's no surprise that there is not a lot of military mail originating in Santa Monica, but I was taken back by the clerk's bitter aside about the First Family. This immigrant didn't identify with Santa Monica's anti-military gestalt, but she saw right through the platitudes of the right wing as well.

I have been obsessed as many are with the presidential election, as the stakes appear higher than in decades. As a Democrat, I have tried to be neither optimistic about Kerry's chances (after all, I'm a Phillies fan, and 75 days is a long time in both politics and baseball), nor pessimistic, since so far Kerry has been able to withstand whatever the Bush campaign has thrown at him.

We'll see if Kerry can fend off the latest ghost-of-Lee-Atwater smears, those involving the "Swift Boat Veterans." If he can, I suspect it will be less because of Kerry and more because Bush and Cheney and company have done what no amount of flag-waving by Democrats could ever have done: by their venality they have broken the hold Republicans have had for years over patriotism and its symbols.

Bush is in trouble if a postal clerk is annoyed that his nephews aren't in the service.

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