Car Love Affair
I remember a few early trips my family made back in the day. You see, we rarely owned an automobile and it was a big deal when we went for a ride. I remember, as a kid, going out to places like Carter’s bridge, Beech Grove, Walbridge, Fallsburg, Catlettsburg, and Huntington. When I got older I also traveled to places our Bulldogs played, such as Grayson, Russell, Paintsville, Raceland, etc., but I also made it to Ironton, Chillicothe, Salt Lick, Oil Springs, Prestonsburg, Webbville, Dreamland or Camden Park and other regional spots. We usually went to Huntington by way of Fallsburg and Catlettsburg, but we made several trips to Huntington through Ft. Gay and Wayne County. Both ways in those early days required negotiating big horseshoe curves and threatening mountain drop offs. The big mountains on the other side of Fort Gay were especially very long and slow.
My schoolteacher aunt, Shirley Chapman, only drove about twenty-five miles an hour in spite of the higher speed limit. We often had traffic backed up behind us for quite a way. Her knuckles were white from squeezing the steering wheel. I remember her shallow breathing as she peered over the steering wheel hoping to see the highway. The pitch of the road had the headlights aimed at the sky, making it hard to see over the hood. It was a relief when the road leveled and became visible again. I was a little embarrassed at holding the people behind us up so I just slid down in the seat and prayed that somehow we’d survive.
The oldest car I remember riding in was in a model ‘A’ coup. I was maybe only five years old at the time. A friend of mom’s dropped by and took mom and me fishing at Carter’s bridge. This area is under water today as part of Yatesville Lake. When traveling out to the fishing hole, I rode in the rumble seat of the neat little car, which during the late forties was already an antique. It was great fun. Of course, its age and appearance made the novelty of riding it all the more fun. After a mile or two I figured out that I was missing the ‘up front’ conversations inside the coupe. I always wanted to be part, or at least listen in when the adults talked, but this car design worked against me. The old car made a magical ‘chitty chitty’ sound as it went up the road. I caught my first bluegill that day beneath Carter’s bridge. I was told it was a ‘sunfish,’ because of the pretty orange and yellow colors on its belly.
In the early fifties, my family had a used Pontiac Sky Chief for a little while but sold it when we couldn’t afford to maintain it. I remember with warmth that a family friend from Fort Gay, (Harm was his first name), had an Oldsmobile I occasionally got to ride. I loved the Art Nuevo, or Art Deco, trim on the inside of the door. It was a picture of a rocket. Later when Harm retired the old car he brought me a piece of the rocket trim. I guess it was a Rocket 88 or 89. That was put in my secret box of treasures I kept hidden under my bed. That box was lost years later when I was grown up and had left for the Air Force. It’s likely in the old town dump under the shopping center between town hill and pine hill. It would take a jack-hammer and an excavator to get to it, if you knew where to dig.
Even today I love any old car that has a running board. We kids often rode on those, hanging on for our lives over short distances as the scenery breezed by. For country kids a trip to the mailbox or back on a farm was a good excuse for riding outside. Here’s a picture of my mom with Granny taken way before my time.
I remember that a few widow ladies had old cars their husbands had bought before they died and the ladies kept them safely in their garages. They sometimes drove them around town, but usually kept them out of sight. These cars had low mileage and were in great shape. They would go for big money today. I also loved the old Cadillac kept in the garage at Merrill Rice’s mother’s house. Must have been late forties model, but it was kept in perfect condition. Merrill drove a new Cadillac.
In those days, car brands looked different from each other which is a good reason to give them different names. Nothing looked at all like a Studebaker or a Nash Rambler. Fords did not resemble Chevrolets, and Buicks always had holes on the sides of the hood and Oldsmobile’s didn’t. Cadillac didn’t look like Chrysler, and Plymouth and Dodge looked different. Pontiac always had stripes up the middle of the hood and down the trunk lid. When the brand new idea of an American sports car came, out Ford had a Thunderbird and Chevy had the Corvette. Corvette stayed true to its market but Ford at one point had a Thunderbird marketed as a family sedan. Give me a break! I guess Detroit couldn’t come up with a new name when they accepted defeat in the sports car market.
Those in the building trades or serious farming had big trucks with flat-beds and wooden railing. Storekeepers and drycleaners, often had panel trucks to make their deliveries. Some had station wagons for hauling around big families or tourists staying at hotels. While many have continued to be used they have grown in size and have had style changes that better facilitates the required functionalities. Styles changed slightly every year, usually with new features such as automatic shifting, power steering, air conditioning, etc.
My classmates and I saw many things left over from other eras. We saw the old crank to start cars and trucks, but there were certainly newer ones around. Maybe it had to do with living in the sticks, or may the depression and the wars, but we knew about the evolution of the automobile. We saw starting methods shift from the dangerous crank that broke more than one arm, to newer battery operated starters. For many there was a floor button to step on while touching the gas pedal and holding in the clutch. That moved to the dash board and finally to a keyed ignition. Today, you don’t even have to be in the car to start it up.
I remember when windshield wipers ran from the air flow that was created during travel, but this meant that they didn’t perform when the car was idling. On some the wipers had to be started one at a time; the left one first and then the other. Now they have adjustments to clean in various speeds depending upon the need.
Cars didn’t always have heaters. When they did some operated from the hot water circulated to cool the engine, but some older ones used their own fuel. Winter was tough going for car travel. Roads were muddy and full of ruts. Sliding off a steep embankment was a constant danger, especially on those rural roads over the mountains.
Our generation knew some of the old ways, but we got to see newer models with new features every fall when the new models were unveiled and refreshments were served at the dealerships. The airways hummed with excitement as tarps were gently removed and the world was introduced with all the newest gadgets and the sleek designs. Theme songs encouraged both touring and another Sunday drive. Dinah Shore made the ‘Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A. …’ famous and on everyone’s mind.
The Ford dealership whose rear lot faced my house, stored junk cars out back. Either they were trade-ins or had been wrecked, but I played in those things after working hours. Weeds would grow up in the floor pans and often windows were missing. Still, they had steering wheels so I used my imagination and played. Sometimes, my friends and I would pretend they were airplanes and we’d fly bombing runs over Berlin. We had some sticks we used for machine guns and pretty well shot up Europe. Even after all those missions we survived.
When I bought my first car, a ’47 Pontiac, I was in the Air Force. Seatbelts were just coming out in 1962 as an option on newer cars. Because I used them often on airplanes, I bought some belts at an auto store and installed them on my ’47. The steel in the floor boards was so thick that it took me nearly all day to get them drilled and hooked up. They made cars out of thick steel in those days. I suspect the door or front bumper of my car weighed more than some cars on the road today. It had 16” wheels and the hood was so long that could have been used as a runway for airplanes. It had a straight-eight flat-head engine.
Today, when we hear the term ‘drive-in’ young people look confused. In the fifties it meant one of two things: One, a drive-in movie theater; this is a fenced in lot with a huge screen at one end. It had parking spaces with a pole between them that held a speaker for hooking to the car window. I lost a window by forgetting to unhook the speaker when leaving once. They had a cable tied to the thing so in the battle for survival, my window lost. If you wanted popcorn, you got out and walked to a central concession stand. For those with a poor memory or a lack of imaginations, these movies were dark and fairly private. More than one couple missed the movie altogether, but they were safer there than at a ‘lover’s lane’ somewhere in the country.
Two, a hamburger joint with car-hops was also referred to as a drive-in, or drive-through. To any young person: a car-hop is not something that jumps over or on cars. Neither is it a kind of old-fashioned dance. It’s a cute chick with a tray taking and delivering your food orders to your car. You stayed in the car. I remember movies showing that in California car-hops wore roller-skates, but around the east coast they walked. Some wore little costumes with ‘short-shorts,’ or ‘mini-skirts.’ They sold a lot of hamburgers, milk-shakes and onion rings.
My first drive-in movie was one in Ironton, Ohio, across from Russell and Raceland, some old football rivals. I don’t remember anything about the drive-in including who I was with or what movie was showing but the experience overall was exciting and adventuresome. Consider that all I’d seen were movies at the Garden Theater.
A trip through Webbville to Morehead State College took a while, too. I remember that it was less mountainous. It was as if the hills stopped and flatlands took over. Driving became increasingly easier in more level territory. Going west from Morehead was the beautiful rolling, bluegrass country. Horse farms dotted the landscape from here to Churchill Downs.
Later, after Suzie and I began to build on our family here in Virginia, we’d pack our kids in our window van and take off for parts unknown. We called them an ‘explores.’ Our set of rules pertaining to what we called an ‘explore’ was simply that there could be no griping or complaining. We also said that we could never be lost (after all, we were exactly where we were). If anyone saw anything interesting we would stop and enjoy the find. If we saw a road we’d never been down, then we would turn and check it out. We tried to do this every month or so and sometimes left with the idea we might be gone overnight if circumstances dictated and our purse was sufficient.
Our experiences over the years were wonderful. Once, we turned onto a road and almost immediately into a little town we’d never seen or knew existed. As we entered the town, we noticed the sidewalks where full of people standing on each side of the street and waving at us. My, this is a friendly town, I thought as I drove on down the main street. Finally, I decided to pull off into a parking lot and ask what was going on. We were told to ‘look up.’ Upon doing so here came a parade. There were fire trucks, bands, church groups, cheerleaders, military groups and floats, all coming down the same street we’d just traveled! We had led the parade with no clue what was just behind us!
Over the years we stumbled upon countless festivals, flea markets, tourist attractions, and have met many nice people. We found amazing places to eat and quaint lodges to rest our bones. We visited museums, walked nature trails and chased each other over civil war and revolutionary war battlefields. Even today, we stop on occasion, gather whomever we can, and leave to explore. Now, as empty nesters, Suzie and I sometimes still make a day out of driving and discovery. Back in the earliest days of cars, people did the same in form of taking a ‘Sunday’ drive. Cars opened the door for finding America and its local landscapes, traditions, and people.
I was not as involved with cars as many of my classmates. Likely, this was because we didn’t have a car or the funds to spend on them. Some of the guys from my high school class would work on each other’s cars into the night and talk and talk about engines, bubble skirts, curb feelers, continental kits, and things I never cared about. Our generation became known for its hot muscle cars, drag racing, and dates on Saturday night. I only touched the edges of that and never got into cars that much, but I did notice they offered a lot to their lucky owners. It would be a few years before I came to understand the freedom of being able to go wherever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. Once discovered, I became one of them. I stayed on the road as much as I could and I still love driving today.
There were a couple of times, back when I had an Austin Healey sports car, I told Susan that I was going on a drive. Once, I drove eight-ten hours from here to Louisa just to give Bill Elkins a ride around town in my little convertible. Another time I drove on North into Pennsylvania, across half of Ohio and made a right turn at Toledo. I drove on to Detroit and stopped in to my mother. I called Susie and stayed in Michigan a couple of days. It was the last time that I saw mom before she was killed in a car accident two weeks later. I’m so glad I went!
Just as the horse was to the cowboy, a car is to modern man. Maybe that will change as new ways of travel are invented. For now that freedom to just ‘get out and go’ is a cherished and wonderful thing. The old country roads are disappearing as more and more interstates and quick bypasses are built, but a lot of the fun of traveling is seeing and discovery. Interstates offer little of that because history is most often found ‘off the main road,’ so to speak.
Meanwhile, America’s love affair with cars was just another cobblestone in our lives. Some roads were hard, but others brought us pleasure and memories never to be forgotten.