A few weeks back I mentioned a drive to Payson and back that I genuinely enjoyed. I got thinking about that afterward and could not help but be amazed at how much our attitude toward driving has changed since I was a boy.
Back then, going for a drive was something special. We might be sitting around on someone’s front steps when one of the gang would come strolling up with a big grin on his face and say, “Hey! Guess where I’m going tomorrow!”
“For a drive with Dad!”
“Wow!” we would think. “What a lucky guy!”
I can remember the very first time I ever went for a drive. I know I was five because a month later I began kindergarten at PS 16. I don’t have the slightest memory of when I went for my first bus ride, my first train ride, or even my first seven-mile trip across New York Bay on the ferry. But that first car ride…!
I can see it as if it were yesterday. I was sitting on our front steps on a chilly winter (that year, I started school in January) morning with two friends. We were waiting for Buddy McKinley, who had gone home to get his wagon so we could roam the neighborhood asking people if they had any old newspapers. We could take a wagonload of papers to the dump, get 15 or 20 cents for it, split the money, and spend it on penny candy — a great way to spend a Saturday.
Mom leaned out the front door. “Oh, good! I’m glad you’re not gone. I forgot to tell you to stay home today.”
“Aw, Ma! We were gonna go collect papers.”
“Sorry, this is more important.”
She started to shut the door, but paused, leaned out, smiled, and said, “Your Uncle Joe is taking us for a ride all the way out to Tottenville. You’re going to ride in the rumble seat — all by yourself!”
You should have seen the kids looking at me. Going for a ride? In a rumble seat? All the way out to Tottenville? Not one of us had ever been more than a mile or two from the spot where we were sitting, and Tottenville was 32 miles away at the other end of Staten Island.
An hour later, wearing a wool hat and so many sweaters that you could have dropped me off a house roof and I would have bounced, I climbed into the rumble seat of a blue roadster. A rumble seat, in case you’ve never seen one, is a fold-out seat that takes the place of the trunk. You grab the handle and pull, but instead of opening like a regular trunk, the rumble seat is hinged at the bottom and opens to reveal a very comfortable seat.
“Hop in!” Mom’s brother told us. Mom helped me clamber into the rumble seat, told me to stay warm, and slid into the passenger’s seat. Off we sped, every kid on the block watching enviously. In a minute we were speeding along Victory Boulevard at 35 miles an hour as a chilly wind whipped around my face and the smooth purr of a long-stroke six-cylinder engine filled my ears.
I couldn’t see much through the back window and windshield, but I had a magnificent view of everything to either side as we sped up Victory Boulevard to Silver Lake, which marked the absolute limit of my range at that moment. Deep blue Silver Lake, sparkling in the morning sun sailed by. We entered unknown territory. Signs zoomed by with names I’d never seen before.
Before I knew it we were on Richmond Avenue not far from Grandma’s house. I was worried we’d stop there, but we sped on, and minutes later I saw a sign for Arthur Kill Road and could smell salt air as plain as day.
When we got to Tottenville I thought I was dreaming when Uncle Joe and Mom got out, went over to a roadside stand, and came back with a loaded paper plate and two opened bottles of root beer.
“Don’t get sauerkraut or mustard on your jacket,” Mom told me. “And stay warm. We’ll be gone for about an hour.”
They headed for some public building and left me staring at a paper plate and two hot dogs heaped with steaming sauerkraut, the first time I’d ever seen them made that way. I put the plate on my lap, leaned the root beers against the seat, and dug in.
When Mom woke me up later the sun was lower down, but still warm. I don’t remember much of the drive home except for lying on my back in that rumble seat with a belly full of hot dogs and root beer and watching clouds, tree limbs, telephone poles, and mazes of criss-cross wires whizzing by overhead.
It don’t get no better than that, Johnny.
Not at five years old anyway. It was so...
Uh-oh! Out of space. See you next week.