RECENTLY I spent a suburbanite's Saturday morning at a flea market -- the usual, beginning with breakfast by Vo-Tech parents topped off with coffee that could have scoured clean all the bronze statues on the battlefield at Gettysburg.
I would have continued my suburban bliss had I not managed to find a parking place at the far end of the Vo-Tech parking lot. A teen-ager directing cars to what turned out to be a vintage automobile exhibition over that way asked if I wanted to enter my Ford.
A '68 Ford LTD hardtop that I drive every day? Bemusement set in when I remembered my college students -- in their BMWs and Porsches and Nissans and Geos -- smiling as I left the faculty parking lot the day before. Surely they had been smiling because Western Maryland College is a friendly place to be.
I bought the '68 in '81 when my sons first began to drive, telling all who would listen that in any collision with a foreign car smaller than a Mercedes Benz my careful youngsters would come out unscathed.
The other reason for buying a Ford already 13 years old was innocently sinister: I wanted to see if any old Ford could outlast the latest crop of Hondas, Nissans and, now, Fahrvergnugen.
Living in the non-mechanical world of college teaching, I have been lectured for 30 years about the superiority of things foreign by those who believe that little in America is worth while except for doing your own thing, baby: oh, the socialism of Scandinavia; the communism of Russia as it should have been; the wines of France; the learning of Keynes; the water of Perrier; the Volvo from northern Europe; the Mercedes from heaven.
I prefer the political wisdom of H.L. Mencken; the wines from New York State; and the Fords from Henry.
Why buy American when German technology is superior, when the Japanese have developed the work ethic that America has lost?
Never mind, of course, that a timorous friend blew a VW engine at 50,000 miles, and that Toyotas and Hondas by the dozens rust in parking lots. Alas, poor America. Detroit monsters don't last.
About the only thing I have never tried to buy is that argument. But I have bought automobiles, some new, some used, all Fords. I paid $195 for my first one in 1959; and $1995 for the '68, rusting rear quarter-panels and all. The first, a '53 Ford, had been wrecked before I bought it, and the motor from a wrecked '59 Ford pickup truck came with it. It was the ideal car for the graduate school in Philadelphia's run-down university section, because even though the hood was occasionally jimmied,nothing was ever stolen. The thieves felt sorry, I suppose. Ruth Ann and I sold that one, with 130,000 miles on it, for $100 four years later.
Not all has been glorious in the land of Ford, however. We did buy a lemon -- a new Ford, a '70 Torino. We knew something was wrong when it arrived with a front window shot out, a radio that turned on with the defroster, and a motor that burned five quarts of oil that first 800 miles. Our VW van-driving acquaintances smiled.
After two new motors and months of fighting with then-Ford president Lee Iacocca's office, the car was ready.
Of course Iacocca showed no remorse; and the Torino felt vindicated when, after 15 years, the neighborhood teen-ager to whom we gave it drove it away -- with 130,000 miles on the odometer and nary a puff of smoke coming from the exhaust. The last we heard, the Torino was still mid-bogging regularly in a local marsh.
Dearest in remembrance is our '81 Escort wagon, which an import-driving friend told us not to buy because the engine would not last 50,000 miles. The import, by the way, rusted out at 45,000.
We got rid of the 118,000 mile wagon after our son took it to college to become a prize-winning Batmobile at the Washington premiere of the movie, and subsequently the unofficial Sigma Nu fraternity car.
One evening our son was driving near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. He swerved to avoid hitting a pedestrian who stepped into the road in front of him. Both the escapade and the Sigma Nu-mobile terminated when the Escort rested upside down in the Potomac River Tidal Basin. The Escort is a legend on George Washington University's fraternity row; and a door, the only part of the Escort to survive the plunge into the Tidal Basin, is part of the fraternity house's decor.
Recently Ruth Ann, who came with the '53 Ford, talked me into a Mercury for our second car. A Mercury is of course a Ford in disguise.
We agreed years ago that as long as we drive Fords we'll stay together. Last week Earl Scheib gave us an estimate for a paint job that should take both the '68 and us well into the 21st century. Separation might force one of us to a Chevrolet or a Plymouth.
There is at least one benefit for owners of old Fords. Recently I ran another stop sign. The sheriff's deputy with whom I almost collided pulled me over.
He looked at the car; he looked at me; he looked at my registration card; he looked back at both the car and me; and wrote a warning ticket.
Ray Stevens teaches English at Western Maryland College.