My mother and her older sister would begin high school in 1931. The family farm, in Hamlet, IL, was about 10 miles from the closest high school, in Aledo, so my grandfather did as any right-thinking father would do: He went to Dearborn, MI, the home of Ford Motor Company, and bought a new, 1931 Model A Coupe for his girls to drive to school. My mother’s car was black with black wheels–rather severe–and my mother said it might have had a red pinstripe. Mother did not have a driver’s license, but at that time none was needed. On the hard road of Route 94, it was pedal-to-the-metal: about 45 to 50 mph.
My father, who was five years younger than my mother, didn’t have a family car to drive. His father had run off with his mother’s best friend in what was known as an “Irish-Catholic Divorce”. Just hit the bricks, ugamug! Since at that time there was no such thing as child support, my father—who at the age of 13 was the oldest of three kids—had to find various ways to support his mother and siblings. He had three jobs (or four, if you include school): early mornings, delivering newspapers for the Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun; selling ice cream on his school grounds at lunchtime; and working evenings in the meat department of Brockoman’s market. He pulled in $35 a week, which in the midst of the depression was good take-home for the average working stiff. Of all these jobs, the Lowell Sun gig was key. It was my dad’s assignment to stand in the box of the truck and toss out bales of newspapers to newsstands. Knowing that the truck’s driver liked Snickers candy bars and was of the bribeable sort, Dad would trade him a candy bar for the privilege of driving the Dodge. That’s how he learned how to drive.
During World War II my Dad, as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, headed up the engine room of an LCM (Landing Craft Medium) in the South Pacific. He was all of 22 years old. LCMs were favorite Kamikaze targets, because they were slow and could carry up to four tanks and a bunch of Marines, but Dad never got hit. After the war had ended, he served as a navigator on a ship that blew up mines sown by B-29s in the inland waterways of Japan (Guinea Pig Squadron; got him a Bronze Star), before leaving the Navy and marrying my mom, a Navy nurse who outranked him. He returned for a year to Lowell Tech, where he earned a degree in textile chemistry, and went on to the Socony Mobil lab, in Brooklyn, NY. He proved to be a better salesman than a chemist, and Mobil soon had him calling on customers throughout New England. That called for a car.
Dad’s first car was a 1947 Plymouth two-door sedan, bought used for $1,100 in 1949. It was black and shiny. Even though I was only one year old, I vividly remember it parked outside of our apartment in Brighton, MA. This disease has haunted me since.
As he started putting on more miles while selling waxes and emulsions for Mobil, he bought his first new car: a 1950 Nash 600 two-door sedan, in pickle green. I was thrilled nonetheless. My aunt recalls one time when I woke from sleep and declared it “my new Nash”. Talk about delusional. As my Dad recalled, it was slow as hell, even in a day when most other cars (excepting the new V8-powered Oldses and Caddys) were about as slow.
The Nash gave way to a new, gray 1951 Dodge Wayfarer. Talk about a snoozefest. Every year, my Dad would put about 30,000 mi. (48,000 km) on his cars, which was considered high mileage back then. He had a new-car purchasing strategy of giving the dealer his trade-in plus $700 for the new car; most times, his plan worked.
His next car was a truly soporific 1953 Dodge Meadowbrook two-door sedan, in grayish-blue, with a flathead six and–except for the bumpers–NO CHROME! Really, how the hell could someone buy a new car that literally screamed “I’m not homeless, but just about?” God, I was so depressed.
Next up, the epiphany of 1954.