It’s often said that America has a love affair with the automobile, and I have to tell you that I have no argument with that, none at all. How could I? I just did a count. I’ve owned 14 of the little puppies.
You know what? Thinking it over, I believe that the car you and I own at any given moment is an accurate reflection of how life is treating us. Was for me anyway.
Here’s a crazy statement: The first car I ever owned I didn’t own. Really! Not only that, there are some aspects of that fact that I didn’t understood back then, and still don’t understand now.
It was a black, 1935 Chevy four-door sedan with an overhead valve straight-6 and mechanical brakes. I didn’t buy it. It was sitting out front of the house in 1953 when I came home from Iceland.
My next oldest brother, Charlie, owned it. It was the third car in our family. I have no idea what the first one was; I only saw it once when I was 3. But the second one, a 1934 Packard that Pop bought from Uncle Wallace in 1943, was still running in 1953.
The old Chevy needed a lot of work. It was built like a tank, but had not a speck of rust on it, a big plus in a coast town. The interior was in good shape too, but the engine? It got 20 miles to the quart of oil.
However, Charlie and I loved working with our hands and I had gone back to my old job in Benny’s Auto Stores, so we had the time, the determination and discounted parts. A year later the old Chevy looked, drove, sounded, ran, and smelled like it had just come off an assembly line. Its new paint gleamed; its engine — which you could now eat off — hummed the way only a long-stroke six can; and the interior had been lovingly restored by two young men who liked doing things right. The only thing left to do were the bumpers. They were at Christie Plating, where $48 cash was going to transform them into gleaming perfections sanded down to bare steel and plated with brass, nickel and heavy chrome.
I had to move and the Chevy ended up at my place instead of at home with Charlie. Why I do not know. For the life of me I can’t remember how, when or why it became “mine.” I hadn’t paid Charlie a nickel and we had never so much as spoken a word about whose it was. I had the Chevy, and that was that.
Big brother taking care of kid brother maybe? Depression families were like that. Daddy’s death when I was 5, which forced my two oldest brothers to drop out of school and go to work, had a lot to do with the closeness of our family. In all our years there was never an argument.
Anyway, for reasons unknown, the Chevy was mine.
So one night in January 1954 I totaled it.
I had help though — from a drunk in a 1951 Chevy who came out of a side road at night, sped through a stop sign and a flashing red light onto the four-lane highway at 65 mph, and appeared five feet from my headlights.
We had no seat belts back then, and having nothing else to do as I watched two cars crush together I used my head to break off two 3/8 inch thick metal rods that held the metal visor. I woke up 30 minutes later in a car chugging around in circles on the highway. Wondering why I was seeing all those pretty lights flashing out there in the snow, I switched off the engine, and woke up a second time in the hospital.
I never saw the old ’35 Chevy again. A broken neck they didn’t discover made it a little hard to go to work for a few weeks, and I guess I hitched a ride to town, but I don’t know for certain. We got $125 for the old Chevy in court, the drunk got a warning, and we hung the bumpers up in the cellar. They were beautiful.
I spent a week’s pay on an ugly, four-door lump of a 1948 Dodge, which thankfully died a natural death just before I re-enlisted in the Air Force in 1955, and I didn’t need to worry about cars for the next few years. Who can afford a car when he has two stripes on his arm? But as soon as I was promoted ... ?
You know how it is, Johnny.
Tell you about it next week.