It Is Amazing How Our Attitude Toward Driving Has Changed, Part 2

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If you missed last week’s column, it was about my very first drive in a car. At age 5, all by myself, in the rumble seat of Uncle Joe’s roadster, I was whisked away on a 32-mile trip from one end of Staten Island to the other — a trip that ended with two delicious hot dogs and two whole bottles of root beer.

What a day!

There was a time when the words “Let’s go for a drive!” brought smiles from excited faces. It seems a long time ago now, and I suppose it is a long time because I can’t honestly remember anyone saying it for the last ...

Good Lord! Has it really been 50 years?

Ah, well. It was great while it lasted. 

The reason it was so great back in those days is simple: No cars. Not on our block anyway. The Depression was upon us and not one house on our block on Staten Island had a car parked out front. I vaguely remember us having a car when I was very small. I have a faint image of it buried in my memories, a solid old two-door with wooden-spoked wheels. I can just make it out, sitting across the street. But beyond that faint image ... nothing. In the first 10 years of life I went for just one ride — in Uncle Joe’s roadster.

Ah, but you should have seen the car we had when we moved from New York to New London in 1943! The first time I saw it I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on. Out in Uncle Wallace’s garage sat a 1934 Packard that he had put up on blocks because he couldn’t afford to drive it. I watched as Uncle Wallace gripped a tarp, carefully slid it off, and a lime green sedan emerged, its like-new paint gleaming in the sunlight.

I stood there smiling. That magnificent 1934 Packard was more than a car. It was a statement of patrician good taste. From the winged goddess mounted atop its hood to its gleaming rear bumper it was an icon of an age when an expensive motorcar was a handcrafted perfection. Never before or since have I seen chrome like that. Today’s chrome, slapped on directly over steel, is a cold garish blue. But that chrome — oh that chrome! It fairly glowed. Its polish was so deep, so lustrous, so beautifully smooth it was a thrill to run a hand over it. Pop Johnson saw me doing that and said, “They start with polished brass, plate it with nickel, and lay on a thick layer of chromium.”

Good old Pop! The drives I remember best were those with Mom and Pop. When they could save up a month’s ration of gas during World War II we headed for the rolling countryside of Connecticut. I had the whole back seat to myself, a veritable football stadium. The seat was so wide, so well padded, and so soft and comfortable, that in spite of the lure of constantly new sights rolling past my windows I spent part of every drive curled up sound asleep on that seat. The rest of the time I would pull down the center armrest, place one arm on it and my other arm on a side armrest, lean back like a king, and permit myself to be transported through the countryside by the lord and lady of the manor.

Outside my windows the world rolled by, and I do mean “rolled.” Except for a few high-speed highways with 45 mph top speeds, 35 mph was considered as fast as anyone ever need go. And why not? In an era where people often still walked four or five miles to work, and a missed trolley could be caught by running after it and jumping aboard, 35 mph seemed mighty fast.

Drives in those days were not desperate battles to get to work or back home, white knuckle drives that burned a sore spot in your gut and grated on it every weekday. Most people lived where they worked, or if by chance they lived far enough out to have to drive, they drove to work on a quiet uncrowded road. So the chance to hop in the car on Saturday and see a little of the world without wearing your soles thin was seen as a luxury.

And a luxury it was. Rolling through the countryside with someone like Pop driving was an experience. He knew the name of every hill, every lake, and every tree, not to mention the history of everything. “That’s Horse Pond,” he said one day on our way to Hartford. “A man and his four-horse rig went through the ice in ’98. Went right out of sight in a minute. Never came back up. Pond is 900 feet deep. Nothing ever comes back up.”

I eyed a circle of early winter ice rimming jet-black water as we rolled by, making up my mind that I’d never set foot on that pond. I hiked there once one winter night, though, and some crazy people were ice-skating by the light of a burning rubber tire. 

Ah, yes, a drive. A different thing in those days. A coming together of man, machine, and motion, a magical moment when life allowed us to lift the edge of the horizon and peek beyond its heavy curtain, seeing things we normally only heard about. 

No wonder we loved it. We were, for the first time in history, as free as the wind. Those days are gone perhaps, but for those who lived them, the memories linger on, Johnny.

Until we get in the car.

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