Sunday, January 23, 2011

Learning to Drive

Growing up in the 50's and 60's, driving a car seemed so glamorous, so grown up.  My great grandfather, W.H. Cullen and my grandfather, Papa Seth, operated a car dealership in Paulding for a number of years in the 1920's, so perhaps it was part of my genetic makeup.

bill of lading form saved from the garage
behind Aunt Bebe's house in Paulding

When I was small, my mother would take us on drives to the Independence Dam park outside  Defiance in our green 1949 or 1950 Chevrolet , a rounded, large scarab-shaped car with bouncy seats.  This is not the car, but it comports with what I remember ours looked like:

Independence Park (or what we called "the Dam")  ran between the Maumee River and a remnant of the Erie Canal, in a direct line for many miles.  My mother would put me on her lap and let me pretend to drive down this long straight road.  It was thrilling.

The green Chevy was replaced by a duo toned station wagon in 1959, as the size of our family increased.  Defiance had rapidly become a General Motors town following construction of the GM foundry there in 1948.  That's where I first heard that Ford stood for "fix or repair daily."  But my father bucked the pressure and purchased a Plymouth.  Perhaps in deference to his father's and grandfather's Dodge dealership in Paulding all those years ago.  I can remember sitting in the dining room on Clinton Street waiting for Dad to return from the dealership, guessing about the color of the car to help pass the time (white and tan).  It was a big day for the family.  Other station wagons followed, usually with a third seat in the back to accommodate our new additions, but they were never greeted with the same fanfare. By the time we moved into the house on Elliott Lane, my parents purchased a second car.  This was a convertible, a car Dad had always wanted growing up, and now he could fulfill his adolescent fantasy.  The car was his alone, and he drove it to and from work.  It, too was a Plymouth and it was navy blue.  When our house burned on Palm Sunday, 1967, the car perished in the garage--my father had run in and tried to start it but the steering wheel was too hot and he was forced to retreat and we watched it burn.  The tires made large clouds of black smoke that brought in lots of gawkers who drove around our circle driveway, which I found most embarrassing and my parents were thoroughly pissed off by the invasion of their privacy in this terrible event.

Dad replaced the Plymouth convertible with a light blue Chevrolet with a white convertible top, but he did not have the attachment to this car that he did to his Plymouth.  I loved it.  I remember taking the Chevy out for a long run in the country by myself for as fast as I dared, in the spring of '69 (I didn't have the nerve to go past 70).  However, this was not the first car that I ever really drove.  And it involved my mother again.

When I was 14,  Mom decided it was time to teach me to drive one sunny summer morning.  Her father had taught her at that age back in Little Falls, MN, so she reasoned that I was ready to learn as well.  We drove out to the country in the family station wagon, stopped the car and I slid over to the driver's seat.  She got into the passenger side, closed the door, and I nervously put the car in drive and proceeded down a straight country road (they all are straight in that part of the country) bounded on both sides by drainage ditches and corn fields.  Though giddy with fear at first, I relaxed a bit after a few minutes of going down the straightaway.  "Turn to the right, up ahead," Mom ordered.  When the car reached the intersection, I began to turn right.  "You're not turning far enough," my mother noted.  She reached over and grabbed the wheel and tried to place her foot on the car's brake pedal.  Instead she hit the gas and the station wagon took off.  Luckily, the drainage ditch that the car careened down was not very steep and we stopped once we hit bottom.  I recall there was rather a lot of yelling,  and then my mother took command of the wheel and tried  to drive the car out of the ditch.  It would not budge.  We were stuck.

not the exact site, but this is the general appearance,
 if you add deeper drainage on both sides

Now this was back in the days of no cell phones.  Luckily there was a farm house not too far in the distance, so we got out of the car and hiked in the sunshine to the house.  Mom knocked on the door and asked the woman if she could use her phone to call a tow truck.  I don't remember what the woman looked like or what she said, because after she invited us in, the sight just took my breath away.  It was my first introduction to serious hoarding.  The hallway which led straight back from the front door was piled almost to the ceiling with empty boxes of cereal, tin cans and other boxes and crap.  These piles were so deep that we had to go single file and watch our step so as not to hit anything.  When we emerged from that rabbit warren, we discovered the kitchen was not only overflowing with stacked rubbish but that  the sink and surrounding counters were also heaped high, but with unwashed china, silverware, and pots and pans.  It was interesting, to watch how my mother,  a meticulous house cleaner who was far more fond of cleaning than cooking,  held her tongue and charmed the residents of the house to use their phone.  But once the call had been placed she declined their offers to stay and take refreshments, and we beat a retreat to the station wagon to await the tow truck.  While we were there a police car drove by, and asked if we had been responsible for knocking down a mail box a ways behind us on the side of the ditch.  I went over and pointed out to him that there was a clean cut on the pole holding the box up and had our car hit it, it would have been more jagged, so he let us go.  Good thing that, because my dad was mad enough for an entire police force when he heard the story that night.

I eventually took driver's education with someone who was not my mother, and in due time passed the tests and received my driver's license in the fall of 1968.  I wish I could say that I only drove a car into the ditch once during my  high school years, but, alas.  Luckily my parents only knew about one of the two other incidents.  The one they knew about was my senior year in high school when we lived in Rochester, MN.  I missed the turn downhill coming into out street after a big snow and plowed into the ditch.  Luckily I had some friends who were in a car following me, who helped pull the car out, but it took over an hour to wrench it free, so by the time I got home I was really, really late (even though I was only three houses down it did not count) and I was grounded for a week or two.

I'm sure I would have been more than grounded if they had ever found out about the other 'ditch running' incident.  The spring of junior year in high school back in Defiance, the senior class sponsored a road rally.  To participate, you were given a set of cryptic directions which were supposed to lead you to the finish.  The directions also gave you the speed you were supposed to drive the car on each road.  Your departure was timed as was your arrival, so the car closest to the ideal time won.  I was driving the new Chevrolet convertible and at least two of my girlfriends, Candi and Sue, were with me to serve as navigators (Carmel and/or Kathy may have been in the car as well, but this was more than 40 years ago and memories are terribly fragile things).  I forget who was navigating, but we got horribly lost because my navigators couldn't decipher the directions correctly.  I figured we were way behind, so I was speeding down, yet again, another country road, exasperatedly trying to read the directions myself and I veered  into one of those ubiquitous  farm drainage ditches by the side.  Again, there was a farm house nearby, so with hope springing eternal, the three or four of us went there.  My heart was in the pit of my stomach as I anticipated my father's reaction to my newest accident.  However, luck was with us that day, because not only was the farm very neat and tidy, the owner, seeing distressed female teenagers, volunteered to pull us out himself with his tractor and a chain.  It was an incredibly nice gesture and actually quite common for that time and place.  So, we lost the road rally (we actually turned in a time that was too fast), but I was saved from major parental wrath because there was no damage to the car, and Candi and Sue and whoever else was in the car swore a lifetime vow of silence. 

Which, of course, I am now breaking.  Luckily my mother, who is still with us, does not have a computer, or access to the internet. 


Anonymous said...

I loved this entry! It took me back down nostalgia lane. My aunt used to let my sister and I sit in her lap and steer the car.

And the first car I remember well in our family looked like the first one you remember.

What memories.

Speaking of memory, I am very impressed by how sharp yours is. Mine is nowhere near.


odp said...

Here's a whole page of 1949 Chevys: We had a 1952 three-on-the column on which I learned to drive a stick. (Took my driver's test in a 1953 Pontiac with "powerglide" transmission; but no power steering, back in the days when part of the test was parallel parking...). I never had any adventures like yours! Only ran the car out of gas on the way to school one time. My parents sold the 1952 Chevy after I left for college, and sent me a "letter edged in black" to inform me of the sale.