BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
LIVING A CAR CRUISE
I don’t know when it happened—it was just a long time ago. I think I know why it happened, though.
My dad’s first car, a brand new 1952 “dusk gray” four-door Chevrolet, my impressionable eight-year-old age, and my being his first-born child could explain how my infatuation with all things automotive evolved.
My father’s childhood was tough—after his father died his mother became too ill to care for their children. Dad was very young at the time he and two of his sisters moved into their paternal uncle’s house. It was an instant family for the uncle and his wife, barely out of her teens. A few years later they had twin boys.
As the oldest, my father accepted responsibilities well beyond his years: changing diapers, doing laundry, and grocery shopping stole his childhood. My aunt told stories about her dependence on his help with the “kids,” about how she counted on him.
I think my financially challenged father determined I should have all the things he missed as a child—I have fond memories of those times my father and I played together with the best of toys he found.
Dad met Mother while he attended high school at Saint Vincent and worked at Isaly’s in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. They married, he got drafted, and, after basic training, he was stationed in Washington D. C. Mom stayed in Latrobe until I was born, then wrapped me in swaddling blankets and followed him to Washington.
After the war they returned to Latrobe. Dad worked for the National Cash Register Company in Pittsburgh. In the wee hours each morning, he walked to the Latrobe train station, caught the 5:18 to Pittsburgh, not returning home until around seven each evening. In spite of those long days and short nights, we managed to develop a close relationship.
He sought a promotion from his clerical position to a sales job, which promised more money and more family time. This promotion made his first car a necessity.
I’m sure Mom and Dad discussed getting that first car so much that the event somehow imprinted itself deep inside my brain, somewhere. I imagine it was a difficult decision, surely involving finances they didn’t have. It was a big investment, to what end? A car would offer new freedom, hope, and a way toward a better life.
Dad couldn’t drive. His father-in-law went with him to get the car, and within the week taught him to drive it.
To this day I recall the color of the interior—grayish—it looked and felt like mouse fur. I can remember how excited I was seeing it the first time. I must have felt the freedom it offered family. Mother, Dad, and I would go for rides with no purpose except to be in the moving car.
Something happened to me during those rides, something that had a profound effect on me. It developed into a driving force that even these many years later defines who and what I was and am. That little kid staring out the Chevy window somehow established my destiny. Those car rides probably began my “Car Cruise.”
It grew into an obsession.
Obsessions are oppressive, blocking out other scenes as you travel the highway of life. With no GPS for guidance, obsessions can make it difficult to reach your destination.
Although my trip on the road marked “cars” had no real destination, it was a road I had to be on. Sometimes I’d detour onto a two-lane side road, and even slow down to enjoy the byway’s scenery. However, detours were short—before long I returned to the “interstate,” speeding obsessively through life.
Being a passenger drove me to become the driver. At first I read, studied, searched for everything I could find about cars. Later I “hung out” where cars were being worked on, eventually working on them myself. Later, as an employee at the biggest car producer in the world (General Motors), I played a role in building them.
It was an exciting ride, marked by events that are now my history.
The fall of 1957.
My time to turn fourteen set me apart from my peers and caused great hardship for my parents. You might say my first “Car Cruise” didn’t end happily.
I packed a few things before walking to the “Blue Ridge” diner/gas station where milk trucks parked while their drivers ate. Knowing some of them would go north, I hung around outside, asking the guys if anyone was going toward Watkins Glen, New York. Finally, a little short, fat, guy, who smelled like a towel left in a gym locker too long, said he was going somewhere close. He pointed me toward his big trucks’ passenger’s door. I launched myself up into the seat.
He didn’t talk much at first. Soon he started singing loudly with the radio, to a type of music I’d never heard before. His singing didn’t make me anxious to ever find that station.
During the songs he didn’t know the words to, he asked me where was I was going, and why. I made up some big long story he apparently didn’t believe, because when we stopped for supper the State Police showed up.
Three different cars shuttled me back to my unforgiving parents, who didn’t understand that I needed to see Moss, Bonnier, Gurney, and Hill. They couldn’t see how important it was for me to find the Cunningham’s, Jaguars, Masserati’, and of course, Ferrari—the men and the cars that were making the history I’d been learning for years.
Sometime during my high school years I befriended an old man whose sons raced stock cars on the local dirt tracks. Since he couldn’t work anymore (something about his heart), he spent his time either making the race cars go faster or fixing and selling strange, wonderful, old “foreign” cars.
Ours was a relationship of connivance. He was just across the alley from our house. He seemed to like having me around, and would even let me help, taking me with him to get parts, finding the next project, and attending races.
One night, after a really long race, while walking back to the car, he asked: Why don’t you drive home? I was thirteen, and glorified beyond description.
By the time I reached driving age, kids with cars gathered in my parent’s garage. I’d work on their cars while they did what all kids did in those days past. Sometimes girls showed up.
This was a special group. We all had very special cars, not ones like our parents had, and certainly not like those the rest of the town kids had.
Saturdays the garage party moved to a participant’s home to watch the late spook movies. At least, that’s what our parents thought we were doing. Actually, when the host’s parents went to bed, and we were sure they weren’t coming back downstairs, we’d be off in our “Furans” cars.
We called it “Cruising.”
The game was a kind of follow-the-leader held on the twisty two-lane roads in and around the outskirts of town. The idea was to keep up, avoid going off “big time,” and to scare ourselves—but always, at any cost, to avoid injury. It was the unwritten rule that vehicle damage was to be kept at a minimum. After all, how would we explain a hospital stay or a rolled car, just from watching TV creep movies? After about two hours we headed home, feeling like those drivers that did the same kind of thing on the streets in and around Watkins Glen. By the time we were out of high school a year or two, we did this every week.
I wasn’t the leader, I didn’t form the group—it just sort of evolved around me. Somehow, my interest in cars that were outside the mainstream, that were far removed from the ones our parents drove, was the cement binding us together.
Our cars were really important to us.
My first vehicle, when I was in my later years of high school, was a very old and tired Citroen Pallas, from across the alley. Its finish was oxidized into a rust-red body color. It was known as the “turd—” something to do with its shape and a popular joke of the time, something that was all about physics and a lack of cheek slapping noises.
Just after graduation my Peugeot 403 came to life, the result of two 403s combined into one. One was a very old barely running 403—think the TV show Colombo—a late model 403 that two people died in. I spent the better part of a summer living in our garage while building that car. Before Mother’s dementia she told stories about me sleeping in the garage, and how she carried my supper to me while I worked on the car that immediately became nicknamed the Pug-nut, or, as Denny called it, the puke-ho. The seats in both these cars folded down into a very large bed making it the car of choice Monday nights at the drive-in. The Peugeot’s doors were kept locked—entry and exit was done by climbing up on the fender, rolling over the windshield, and falling down through the “sun roof.”
When Denny become tired riding in Enzo’s TR-3 A, he added a Hillman Minx to our group. This latest arrival wasn’t very fast.
We never drove each other’s cars—it just wasn’t right to even suggest it. I knew the Triumph was a handful, though, having knock off wire wheels, but it had those low cut doors that you could lean out and butt you cigs on the pavement as you zipped along at 80 m.p.h.
Donnie’s first car was a Studebaker we dragged out of a Greensburg junkyard. We all had a hand in building it into a most beautiful midnight blue car with chrome moon caps. It was just disgustingly slow, so he replaced it with a Jaguar XK 140 something (maybe an R or S) that was our fastest car . It had such terrible brakes that I used to say I could make it stop better if he let me chain a cement block in the car, so when he needed to stop he could throw the block out the door.
Jeff had a hand-me-down, huge, old Chrysler two-door that went fast but didn’t like to stay on the road. We watched our mirrors, and when his headlights pointed in the wrong direction, we turned around and went back to make sure he was all right. That happened at least once every run down the Beatty Road, which had our favorite set of twisties and either started or ended our outings.
Bickler was never really accepted as part of the group—his brand new late model Morgan didn’t fit in, and neither did he. Yet, somehow he’d manage to find us at the start of the “fast drive,” and just joined the parade. He never came to the movie house, though.
There was a Jaguar 3.8 in the mix, too. Its owner, Sylvester, was older and didn’t always come with us. If he did show he would be the leader—no questions, no discussions—that was just the way it was. We all rode places with him, sometimes all together. I don’t remember if it was him or his car we thought was so cool.
After about three years reality took over—Uncle Sam found us.
We built a shed, just big enough for the Triumph, behind Enzo’s parent’s house. It just rotted away. He never came back from Nam.
I don’t know what happened to Denny or the Minx. The Jaguar got sold to a Ligonier guy for his son’s graduation from something. A couple of days later, along Route 30, he destroyed the car and died in the river.
Jeff was an MIA. I never believed that. He’s probably still there selling “stuff” and living like a king. He was just the kind of guy that would do something like that.
Cil is still around. He started a flying business. I think he’s a wine broker. I didn’t think you could do that in Pennsylvania. I don’t know what happened to the three eight.
My robin’s-egg blue Peugeot sat in the garage while I did my service. Dad drove it for a while when he was between cars. Years later, married with two kids, I returned home—my parents wanted me remove it from the garage. I got it running and sold it on a Latrobe radio station to a guy who drove it for about five years. Sometime later I found it in a junkyard along the Beatty Road. It’s engine fire was a fitting demise.
I never returned to Latrobe after my service, except to visit, or to clean out my left behind stuff. I spent thirty-two years working for General Motors, living twenty-some years in Detroit, almost a year in Canada, four in Wisconsin, and, finally, five years as a Yankee in Texas—all GM jobs. During those years I expensed two daughters and had two marriages.
Now, here I am again, living in Latrobe.
Time passes. Cars come and go. But the obsession never released me. When I closed the door of “Automobile Obsession” and turned the key my “Car Cruise” began. It lasted a lifetime—fifty-seven years, if you’ve been keeping track.
I hope the many good people I’ve known on my trip are all the better for knowing me. I picked up some passengers along the way, waved to friends, raced past others cars, and even got passed by some that were faster.
I’ve also known some great cars and some not so great ones. All are memories I’m glad to have.
For me, cars are living things. Their memories are a joy to have, especially when life seems dark and foreboding—a breath of fresh air when the room gets stifling. You know what I mean—like those air fresheners you see on TV ads that poof out when you walk by, making the world smell like a field of daisies.
I guess an obsession can be a good thing. For me, it was like a very good car that always started, never stalled, and responded to every input—like it was a body part. A car called “Obsession,” the Automobile model, just cruising down the road of life with me behind the wheel.
The automobile gave me my future then, and my past now.
I think the cruise is over now. At least I’m trying to make it be over. The vehicle is still sitting out there, somewhere, but it hasn’t run for a long time. I’m not even sure it will start.