Since the day he discovered that his tricycle was faster than walking all but the dullest, most sedentary American boys have felt the urge to have wheels beneath them. From tricycles to Corvettes (if only in their dreams) their desire is always to have faster, sexier ways to go from place to place. And, of course, for some young men their car became an extension of their persona as well as a mobile “nid d’amour.”
Living, as I did, on a backwoods, sandy-soiled Oklahoma Oil Company’s land as the youngest member of a family drowning in poverty I didn't own a tricycle. But the moment my legs were long enough to reach the pedals of a junky old bicycle I began exploring the art of balancing on two wheels. (I mused over that adventure in my Legacy story “It Wasn’t A Schwinn.) Pedal power satisfied me until Cushman motor scooters began putt-putting down the streets right after WWII. When I saw that the American male syndrome kicked in, my pedals became leaden and slow. I had to have a motor beneath me. Cushman’s, though, weren’t sexy enough to suit me. They resembled upside-down bathtubs balanced on two wheels.
After dallying with a do-it-yourself motor-on-a-bicycle marketed as a “Whizzer,” I lost my heart to a sleek, racy English machine called “The Famous James,” a true, albeit shrunken, motorcycle. The “James” was my love until I took her on a 307 mile trip across Kansas in June of 1947. On that trip I proved the words of a then current popular song called “You Always Hurt The one You Love” by destroying her engine in a demonstration of boyish lack of common sense. That left me “wheel-less” for many months, a condition I was sure would severely hinder my amorous possibilities. (My dad having raised four boys ahead of me would under no circumstances entrust the family car to his youngest teen-aged son.)
In September, 1949, after working all summer in West Virginia as a pipeline construction laborer, I returned home with the grand sum of $375.00 in my pocket and a firm commitment to buying my first car. My dad, a mechanical wizard, helped me choose a 1937, two-door Plymouth Sedan which, had such contests existed, would have had a great chance of being named “Ugliest Car of 1937.
Ah, but she was mine, no parental strings attached. I named her “Darling Jill.” The name might resonate with you if you have read Erskine Caldwell’s novel “God’s Little Acre” and she served me during my first “love affair” as a high school senior. But after the inevitable breakup I treated her (D.J., not my “first love”) badly and she was a mechanical basket case when I went off to college.
The next two years were served in pedestrian penury. I had no wheels and Wichita State at the time was an urban university with no dormitories which meant that many students lived in far-flung parts of town. For the one and only date I had throughout those two years; that with a girl who lived two miles north of the university, I borrowed a friends Ford “Model A” coupe’. Since Henry Ford put little thought into keeping passengers warm in his Model A cars that romance cooled as quickly as our feet as I drove her home from a movie. It wasn’t much of a loss though for although the girl was appealing, she had one of the oddest names I’ve ever heard. For the life of me I couldn’t think of a “cutesy” nickname or think of how I could say endearing phrases to a girl named “Barthilda.” Her Mother must have been a Wagnerian opera fan.
During the summer of 1952 I worked, scrimped, and saved. When the time came to go back to school I was able to buy a 1935 Chevrolet 4-door sedan which, decked out as it was with fog lights, fancy hub caps and extra chrome, was actually kind of a cute car.
A 1935 Chevy similar to mine.
Then as fate often dictates, a girl who lived near my home town, 125 miles from Wichita, captivated my heart. I met her in church but God didn’t smile on our relationship. After making that long drive several times I arrived on her doorstep one Saturday evening only to hear her mother say nonchalantly, “Oh . . . Margie is out with Bob Miller tonight.” Having a cute car had availed me nothing.
When school ended in June, 1953 I was about to be drafted into the Army. Rather than take military potluck on assignments I enlisted into the Fifth Army Band stationed near Chicago, leaving my cute little Chevy parked behind my parent’s house. During my Christmas “leave” from the Army I returned home to visit and claim my car. Instead, however, I traded it for a much newer car I found on the Ford dealer’s used car lot. It was a black, 1950, 4-door “Kaiser” sedan. Ah, now I had a fairly new car and a steady, if terribly small, regular paycheck. With that in my favor added to whatever glamour is associated with a man in uniform my prospects for finding suitable company were looking good.
Similar, but not mine
Immediately after returning to my post following Christmas leave I and a fellow band member were selected to spend six months on detached service at the U.S. Navy School of Music in Washington D.C. He agreed to share expenses, the Kaiser was in good shape, and although “clunky looking” it still made the person who owned it look reasonably substantial, so we set out to for Washington D.C. I was looking forward to the enjoyment of having a nice car in a city where it well was known that females considerably outnumbered males. This bright future came crashing down on a rural road in West Virginia when a mountain dweller driving a stand-up type delivery truck attempted to make a left turn onto an obscure country lane just as I was passing him. He slammed into the front fender of my pristine Kaiser. The truck was unscathed. Although it was drivable my car had a broken headlamp, a front fender crushed almost into the tire, and a badly dented bumper. Now it not only looked clunky it looked like a junker.
Shortly after arriving in Washington the Kaiser’s transmission (it was a stick shift) developed a quirky habit of locking in some position between reverse and first gear and refused to move until I crawled underneath with a hammer and pounded the shift levers into compliance. That wasn’t a pleasant thing to have happen in city traffic so I traded it for a 1941 Chrysler Club coupe’ that had a feature called “Fluid Drive.”
1941 Chrysler Club Coupe
Fluid Drive was Chrysler’s first step towards developing an automatic transmission. It was semi-automatic and worked admirably for me until I was driving from D.C. back to Kansas after completing my tour of duty at the Naval School of Music. Somewhere in Tennessee the “drive” part of the term “fluid drive” became meaningless. The car was in perpetual “neutral.” Fortunately a competent “shade tree mechanic” took pity on a traveling soldier. He welded some parts together and I was back on the road although the Chrysler had lost its “semi-automatic” feature. There weren’t any other negative consequences. Actually I think it got slightly more miles per gallon.
I drove the Chrysler back to my post near Chicago and it was the car I had when I met Anne DeNicolo, the young lady to whom I’ve been married the past 56 years. Fortunately she had a sense of values that didn’t ascribe the qualities of a young man’s car to the young man. One night on my way to keep a date with Anne I was driving on an unfamiliar street in Chicago when I “T-Boned” another car in the middle of an intersection. My first question as I emerged from my car was “Why did you pull out in front of me?” He answered with a question of his own, namely; “Why didn’t you stop at that stop sign?” All he had to do was point when I said, “What stop sign?” I now had another car with a bashed-in front fender and grille. I was uninsured – a not too uncommon a situation in the 1950’s – so I had the burden of paying to have the other guy’s car repaired. Restoring my Chrysler to its former condition was out of the question. I kept the wounded Chrysler through my courtship and our engagement. Shortly before our wedding date I traded it for a 1950 Dodge “Wayfarer,” which in the bloom of our youth and romance we dubbed “The Grey Wafer.”
The Grey Wafer
The Grey Wafer was with us less than a year. On a trip home from having spent Thanksgiving with my parents and brother we were driving on the lonely Kansas Turnpike around 10:00 p.m when the “Wafer’s” engine suddenly began making sounds like rocks tumbling in a barrel. We slowly and very noisily nursed it to the next exit which took us into a very small Kansas town called “Lebo.” At this time in our married life I was completing my senior year at Wichita State University and like many newlyweds we had little more than orange crate furniture and an income that corresponded to that lifestyle. We herded the “Wafer” to the Lebo Dodge dealership, parked in his lot and took stock of our situation. I informed Anne that we had enough money to either: a) get a room in the town hotel, or, b) sleep in the car and have breakfast in the local café – her choice. She chose food. It was around midnight when we made that decision. The rest of the night was predictable. We were cold. We were cramped. We slept fitfully.
The cost of repairing the “Grey Wafer’s” engine was more than the cost of a 1949 Plymouth sedan sitting on the dealer’s lot. In a financial transaction that I shudder to remember I wrote a check to pay for the Plymouth knowing I didn’t have enough money in the bank to cover that check. I had faith that my honest looks and potential to repay would persuade a loan officer in our bank to loan a nice newlywed couple enough to cover the check. I didn’t think it wise to tell him the consequences of his NOT making that loan. He was a nice man. He drew up papers. We signed. He deposited the proceeds into our meager checking account and I drew the first deep breath I’d drawn since writing what I knew to be a “rubber check.” (I remind you that this was happened in a kinder, gentler time; a time when trust was freely given and routinely honored.)
We didn’t bother naming the Plymouth. It served us well and worthily until I graduated in August of 1957. Then, with my first teaching contract in hand (it called for me to receive the princely sum of $4,300.00 for 11 months of service – including a summer band concert series), and looking forward to my having to haul band instruments from place to place we bought our first truly new car, a 1957 Plymouth station wagon. As things turned out I Anne and I filled the station wagon in a few years not with band instruments, but with our kids.
Since then we've "gone through" many cars - some very nice, others dogs. My personal favorites of my lifetime were a 1977 nine passenger Buick Estate Wagon with a monstrous V8 engine. It was big. It was comfortable. It was fast. And. . . it sucked a prodiguous amount of gasoline. But it was a lovely family car. My youngest daughter rear-ended another car on Father's Day, 1980. She was unhurt. That huge battlewagon protected her well but died in the process.
The 1978 Buick Nine Passenger Estate Wagon
The only other car I truly loved was a 1996 Chevrolet Caprice Classic that sported a complete "police package," Corvette LT-1 engine, true dual exhaust system, heavy duty suspension, and so on. It would do things that no man of my age should find himself doing. (But of course I did.) But like many of the "finer" things of life I had to give her up when I retired.
The 1996 Chevrolet Caprice Classic
A Police Car In Disguise.
Dick you can't imagine the pleasure it gives an "old toot" to recollect events, things, and people in my fairly long life and be able to write about them in such a way as to have people like you enjoy them. I hope, and like to think, that this is what Legacy Stories is all about . . . HISTORY. . . personal, sometimes quite private history that would never be found in the pages of a history text. Thanks.
Chrysler Motor Co. seems to have had a penchant for trying out "new" versions of their cars. The Wayfarer, the Diplomat, the Cordoba, etc. They were all short-lived and with good reason. As for the "amazing walk through time, Tom, You have to remember I've "walked through" quite a good-sized chunk of time. You'd have to be a hermit to live this long and not have a lot of memories behind you. I just wish more of my peers would either write or dictate what they've experienced. All of us in my age bracket have lived through SO much.