Amerika und ich, Teil 2

Amazed in America
Driving a Hummer: I, too, want to conquer

By Christian Thiele
Special to the Tribune
Published September 29, 2005

I know from German history that invading other countries is not a nice thing to do. But when I see a Hummer I can't help but think that's the kind of thing this car is for. These and other gas-guzzling monsters Americans tend to drive aren't there for driving -- they serve as a substitute.

The nation has settled -- there's not much West left to conquer -- so instead of the covered wagon, you use the Hummer; instead of the frontier, you conquer the way to the supermarket.

To me, a passionate to-work biker and to-work bus rider from Berlin, the Hummer says a lot about American car culture. I, too, want to be a conqueror, so I drove out to Chicago's western suburbs -- where the land is flat, the lawns are neat and the clouds hang high -- to test-drive a Hummer.

"So, you want to buy one?" sales agent Darrell asked, with a big question mark in his voice.

"Well, for now, I just want to drive one."

It was Friday after-noon, the highway was much busier than the Hummer sales agents were, so Darrell just photo-copied my German driver's license with a skeptical look on his face, took me outside and flipped me the keys to an H3 2006.

He explained a lot to me in a very short time about the car, with the same technicality-mixed-with-sympathy a horse trader would employ to talk about a nag. But I've forgotten most of what he said -- except that the car's color was called "Boulder gray," and that sales had dropped by 50 percent because of the spike in gas prices.

"Let's drive around the block," Darrell said and jumped into the passenger seat. So I started the car, made my assistant choose an adequate radio station -- he went for something very bassy, 96.3 I believe -- and off we went.

The engine roared like a bleeding bull, the view as if from a hunter's stand. But the model we were driving came in the "Luxury package," so I guess I wouldn't really want to go to Taco Bell with it and get salsa all over the black leather seats. Because that's what you hurried Americans do with your cars: You drive right into the restaurant, the wedding chapel, the bank counter -- things we Europeans take the time to get out of the car for. I wonder whether one day you will have drive-through crematoriums -- "ashes to go," so to speak.

As most U.S. automobiles do, the Hummer had cruise control -- unlike German cars. We tend to drive five-gear-shift, because -- as my father usually puts it, it's just so much more sporty than driving automatic. (Working the clutch is pretty much all that's sporty about my dad.)

I, however, adore cruise control. To me it embodies what it means to drive in the U.S.: to conquer the American road. You have to concentrate on what National Public Radio tells you about the complicated world out there, you're absorbed by the amazing Rockies, Mojave desert or whatever amazing landscape is beyond the windshield, so why bother about keeping the pedal in sync with the speed limit? Just leave that job to the cruise control!

On a recent Sunday, I drove from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, on an Interstate 15 crowded by thousands of gamblers heading home to California. This would have been a horror trip on a German Autobahn, with drivers to the right, to the left and behind of me always overtaking me, flashing headlights at me to move over to another lane, giving me the finger if I didn't react fast enough. Here, it was just a pleasant ride, a Sunday promenade on four wheels. For sure, American monster cars waste more gas than the German ones do -- but I guess they save on their drivers' adrenaline. Big-time, in fact! All thanks to the autopilot.

In the Hummer, though, I didn't make much use of the cruise control, for I quickly found out that when Darrell says, "Let's go around the block," he really means it: right turn, right turn, right turn -- stop.

I'm a lousy parker, and the Hummer is quite a lot of car to park. But the good thing about a Hummer is that when you don't find a parking space, you just create one.

I was lucky, however, and found a decent spot. Actually, it was two of them. But, then again, your country is big enough.


Friday: A White Sox game vs. a European soccer match.

Christian Thiele, who lives in Berlin, has spent the last two months working at the Chicago Tribune as the newspaper's Arthur F. Burns fellow. You can reach him at: cthiele@tribune.com.