RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Riddle

"What has holes and still holds water?" That was Jamie's riddle. She had just come from school to stand on this busy corner and hold a sign saying "Honk if you love peace," with a heart drawn in place of the word "love."

She's been here every Wednesday afternoon for four months. I just stopped by to stand with the protesters in the fifth month of America's New War. On our corner, there were 20 protesters. On other corners in town, there were a several dozen more.

Every time the light changed, Jamie turned so the oncoming traffic could see her sign. It's sort of a dance. And, to pass the time, she sang and tested the other sign-carriers with riddles.

Standing on this corner during rush hour, we could see what America drives. Giant "dually" pick-ups with four wheels in the rear wallowed back and forth on the road, their huge tires too big to stay in the lanes. SUVs and vans spewed clouds of smoke. Remember 0% financing, launched in response to sluggish car sales after Sept. 11? Today, huge, shiny hunks of mortgaged machinery lumber past, each using more fossil fuel than the one before.

Jim Motavelli, writing in E Magazine, says "The average family takes ten car trips per day, mostly for shopping, socializing or recreation." City commuters average 34 miles per day on their commute

Zero percent financing is yesterday's ad campaign. Today's TV ads link drug purchases with terrorism. OK. I can see that. Now, where are the TV ads linking gasoline purchases from the middle east with terrorism? If Iraq and Iran are on our "bad guys" list, shouldn't we stop buying from them?

Jamie dances on the curb. "Holes ... Water ... Give up?" I shake my head no. I've heard this one before. Give me a minute ... Bush's war plan? Full of holes, yes, a quagmire, like Vietnam, but the military charges on. Bush's energy plan? A leaky bucket where we pour money in and long-term pollution pours out, but we keep driving behemoths, ignoring accountability.

The evening after our vigil, the city of New York lit giant lights projecting into the sky from the site of the World Trade Center. There is debate on how to devise a permanent monument -- rebuild the towers? Make them shorter? Make more of them? A letter to the editor in the Chicago Tribune suggested rebuilt towers, but empty from the 50th floor up, each window lighted with an eternal flame.

Remember the first reactions after Sept. 11? Survivors said the way to honor the dead would be to make sure this never happened again. That was before the first American flag sales, America's New War.

If there is a way to honor the dead, it would be to take us off the gluttonous petrochemical diet. We could do this by raising the automobile CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, and revitalize American industry with innovation. Instead, Congress folded under industry assertions that MPG standards from the 1970s were as good as it gets.

The 1970s standards average about 24 miles per gallon, and should have been raised incrementally all along, creeping up to offset our increased driving. In 1970, Americans drove one trillion miles per year. In the 1990s, we made two trillion. The 2002 CAFE proposal, shot down in March, would have raised mileage to an average of 36 MPG.

According to the Wall Street Journal of March 11, only Honda supported raising the CAFE. In doing this, Honda opposed the US "big three" manufacturers and all other foreign car builders. Honda, a Japanese company with factories in the US, makes no campaign contributions, but participated in the debate in an unorthodox way -- sending memos to Congress to explain how the standards could be raised.

Honda has long delivered higher horsepower with lower gas consumption. The Honda "Insight," a gas-and-electric hybrid tricked out with all the latest energy-conservation features from aerodynamic shape to low-resistance tires, is rated 61 city, 68 highway MPG. Mine routinely delivers 58 to 59 MPG in a combination of highway and city driving, carrying one or two people and 300 pounds of cargo. And, perhaps because of its low-rider profile, with just 4-inches of clearance from ground to bumper, the Honda Insight is absolutely sure-footed in snow, plowing its own little path and stopping on the proverbial dime. If I had the choice between an Insight and a 4-wheel-drive SUV in a snowstorm, I'd take the Insight.

Toyota manufactures another hybrid, the "Prius," which is designed to carry four people, with a roomy trunk, but delivers less MPG and pep. The Prius has a legion of fans, though, who have invented interesting ways to make it peppier, or higher-mileage. Interestingly, though, according to the Journal, Toyota joined other car makers and the Big Three, stampeding "Capitol Hill to squash calls for a big increase" in CAFE.

One of the very cool features of both hybrids is a shutdown of the gas engine when the car pauses -- like at traffic lights or the mailbox. Standing on this corner with the traffic stopped, engines roaring at idle, in three directions around us while a fourth line passes by, I can't help but think how much pleasanter and quieter the place would be with the engines on auto-stop.

Another excellent feature is the MPG gauge. Similar to a speedometer, it lights a bar chart that helps you visualize the difference in gas consumption at, say, 55 MPH and 70.

According to President Bush, the major objection to hybrids is safety. The Bush team says that 2200 more highway deaths would happen if we drove lighter-weight cars. It's a no-brainer to imagine that in a crash with one of the giants rolling past this corner, the hybrid would be squashed. But we make special lanes available for car pools, and hybrids might be allowed in those lanes.

And, reducing weight isn't the only ticket to raising MPG. Features like auto-stop could be built into every car regardless of weight, and the addition of a MPG gauge would make drivers think about conservation.

Motavelli says that 80-90% of American commuters drive to work alone, and, indeed most of the cars that pass our corner carry only a driver. They honk their horns and flash peace symbols and wave. Even the city bus driver seems to agree with Jamie's sign. Once in a while -- maybe every five minutes or so -- somebody yells angrily or flips a bird. When that happens, Jamie says, "They're just trying to figure out how to make a peace symbol."

So here's the real riddle: With so many people unhappy with America's New War, why do don't we connect the dots and fix our gasoline addiction?

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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