- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

PINE GROVE, Pa. (AP) — They rumble in on treads called Super Swampers, wearing their hearts on their license plates. “PLAYDRTY,” one behemoth declares. “HUM THIS,” dares another.

The digital board fronting the Shell station at Exit 100 winks back: “Welcome Hummers!” In the fading light, though, it’s impossible to ignore the sign at the Sunoco across the road: Diesel, $4.97.9.

People have to be tough to love a Hummer. Soaring fuel is only part of it. Environmentalists, who’ve always had it in for them, are winning converts. General Motors, which presided over Hummer’s transition from a badge of military bravado into a symbol of driveway excess, is looking to sell.

But tonight there’s no apologizing or self-pity from Hummer die-hards. They’re here to goad machines that can top five tons over boulders the size of Smart cars, through stewpots of mud obscuring who-knows-what and across obstacle courses of stumps, logs and stones - “like riding a slow-motion roller coaster,” one says.

Maybe mega-SUVs are going the way of dinosaurs. Hummer sales have dropped 40 percent this year. But these beasts and the men and women who love them certainly don’t behave like endangered species.

“I told my wife when we bought this, ‘Honey, we’re investing in steel and rubber,’” says H1.

“If it was $10 a gallon,” he says, “we’d still be out there.”

Cars are much more than transportation to Americans. In a country where life revolves around the car, you are what you drive.

“We eat 20 percent of our meals in cars. We spend hours and hours every week [in cars],” says University of Hawaii professor and specialist in the psychology of driving. “We see other cars as extensions of the people who drive them, and we identify the character of the car with the character of the driver.”

But even in American car culture, the Hummer is an outlier, provoking love and hatred so intense it’s easy to forget the basic scrappiness that gave birth to the vehicle in the first place.

The Hummer’s DNA traces to the Jeep, produced for the Army in large numbers during World War II.

“It was something that could go to places other vehicles could not go, yet it was reasonably priced,” says Patrick Foster, author of books on Jeep and the company that built the Hummer.

Americans were captivated by Jeeps, boxy because they were stamped by equipment previously used to make washing machines. But by the late 1970s, the Army wanted a new kind of vehicle. The winning proposal from engineers at AM General, a Jeep spinoff, was one strange automotive creature.

Its hulking body sat way off the ground while simultaneously hunkered in a crouch, like an overgrown teenager trying to slip into a movie at a kid’s admission price. Its wheels were pushed out past its corners and its drivetrain was yanked up into the interior, putting a huge hump between driver and passenger.

“It has no aesthetics,” AM General spokesman Craig Mac Nab says. “It screams at you from across the street: I look this way because I need to.”

AM General called it the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. Soldiers dubbed it the Persian Gulf War it bulled its way into the public consciousness.

Kindergarten Cop.” Headed in the other direction, an Army convoy packed with Humvees growled past.

“I put the brakes on,” Mr. Schwarzenegger told reporters in 1992 when AM General started producing civilian Hummers. “Someone smashed into the back of me, but I just stared. ‘Oh, my God, there is the vehicle,’ I said. And from then on, I was possessed.”

The Hummer pilots flocking to the parking lot of a Hampton Inn tonight are well aware of others who use their vehicles for little more than dropping the kids at baseball.

“Street queens,” the serious crowd calls them. “Pavement princesses.”

When GM bought the brand and introduced the Maine, a 600-mile haul that would’ve been cheaper to fly than to drive in her polished new H2.

She’s joined by Howard and Maryland in a nearly 11,000 pound H1 that bears the scratches and scars of off-road battles. The steel roofrack is carved with letters spelling out “D-Man,” the nickname of a fiercely trained German shepherd, now lost to cancer, whose spirit the couple says lives on in the rig.

Nearly all come with a story about how they were smitten.

Watching TV in 1991, U.S. Marines pinned down in the Saudi Arabian town of Khafji. With tanks providing cover, the soldiers packed into Humvees and barreled through Iraqi lines.

“I saw that. I thought, ‘forget the Range Rover,’” says Mr. Andres, whose sand-colored Hummer jokingly sports silhouettes of the compact sedans he’s knocked off, a la the Red Baron. “These things are just bad.”

Dan LaForgia has never taken his off-road. He cringes noticeably as others trade stories of broken axles, smashed windows and the deep scratches and gashes their vehicles have endured in previous adventures. But at 8:45 a.m., he joins the others under a tent, ready to embark in groups dispatched by levels of skills and experience.

They head to a former strip mine turned off-road haven. Inside the rig the Schultheisses have dedicated to their dog, the mood is reverential.

“Cue it up,” Mrs. Schultheiss says to her husband.

“All right. Here we go.”

Timpani drums stir from the Hummer’s speakers. French horns rise above the engine’s growl. The solemn notes are unmistakable: Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Mrs. Schultheiss reaches for D-Man’s collar, hanging from the rearview mirror. She tugs the chains twice, rubs the gray links between her fingers.

“It’s his truck,” she says softly.

Threading through branches and over stumps, they reach a river of boulders. They’re going to try and drive its full third-of-a-mile length. A Prius would’ve been long gone by now.

This takes nerve - and a durable wallet. Before the day’s over, the Schultheisses’ truck will break in three places and have to be yanked off the rocks by winch. Other drivers will plunge through a mud pool with the color of cement and the odor of a pigsty.

By evening, there are new stories to trade over barbecue.

“I’m going to get out while I’m ahead,” says Mr. LaForgia, whose street-pretty Hummer bears its first scar.

“I always say ‘another scratch means another story,’” counsels a fellow owner, Mike Schoch.

The first Hummers “raised people’s eyebrows,” says J.D. Power & Associates. Their in-your-face image appealed to buyers seeking pure utility.

Others aren’t fans. GM’s 2002 introduction of the H2 - more polished and sold in considerably larger numbers - netted enemies. The stepped-up culture war found its way to a leafy D.C. neighborhood last July, when two masked men attacked a parked Hummer with a machete and a baseball bat.

Hummer owners from around the country called Gareth Groves, the owner of the vandalized vehicle, to offer help, even garage space. But they were outnumbered by people who sent hate mail.

Mr. Groves wasn’t too surprised that people loathed his Hummer. It was how much they seemed to hate him, lambasting everything from his bleached hair to the fact that he lived with his mother.

“It definitely sparks some intense reaction from people on both sides,” he says.

A few hard-core Hummer owners are rethinking.

“It’s not a very practical truck,” says Mr. LaForgia, who plans to sell his H1 to save for a house.

Others are adjusting to new realities. There’s a small crowd of Hummer enthusiasts out there running on biodiesel. But Hummer owners see such decisions as personal choices, not bows to external pressure.

“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness then permission,” Mr. Andres says. “I’ve always found that to be true.”

He’s describing only the fess-up-later approach he takes in explaining money lavished on the Hummer to his wife. For all those folks waiting for Hummer owners to cry uncle, well, don’t hold your breath.

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