Monday, March 28, 2016
J Is For Jalopy
For most of my life, we had two cars in the driveway: The Good Car and Dad's Work Car. Neither one was ever a new car. My dad used his vast network of friends and family, former teammates and Army buddies, work and neighborhood relationships, as well as hometown politics to tap into a huge supply of used automobiles. Now and then, I would be roused from my Standard Oblivion of library books, Barbies, and schoolwork to hear Dad mention to Mom after work that he was in need of/getting/bringing home a car. Next thing I knew, there in the driveway or parked in front of the house would be the latest car. I rarely got excited or interested. After all, what difference in my life did it really make?
Only one of Dad's work cars ever became interesting to me, and it soon captured the the interest of many of our neighbors as well. We had never had a car like it before, and trust me; after it, we never had another one like it again.
Dad had already seen the car, a stubby little Rambler American (like the one pictured above) in the possession of some guy he knew named Eddie. Eddie was an aged Car Guy, and he already had our old 1952 Chevy sitting in his huge back field, silently rusting into Oblivion. Dad had pointed out some big rust spots on the Rambler's hood and fenders, among other things, and Eddie said he'd take care of them. I think Dad and he agreed on a price of maybe two hundred bucks.
When the Rambler came home, we couldn't help but smile. It was such a funny-looking car, so boxy and small. And Eddie had simply placed sheet metal over the rust spots, screwed it down with dozens of screws, and painted the patches with some blue paint that was as close a colour match as he could find. It was like a FrankenCar. But it was only Dad's Work Car, and it didn't have to be pretty to sit at US Steel or at the curb on E. 38th Street.
Pretty soon, however, the Rambler started having problems. Or, at least, Dad started having problems with the Rambler. On some mornings, it was difficult to start. He'd go out, try and try, but it would not turn over. He'd come in, fling down his stuff, and swear. My mother would say, "Let me try, honey." She'd go out, clad in housecoat and slippers, and it would start right up for her. Once in a while, a neighbor would be out getting the newspaper or letting his dog out, and offer up some pithy remark. Let's just say that those were not the Best Days.
Finally, the Rambler became too temperamental, and Dad began taking The Good Car to work. We were stuck at home with the Rambler, which had begun refusing to start even for my mother. Dad probably began working his Network at this point, but that didn't help me one evening when I needed supplies for a school project and Dad was on a 3-11 shift. Walking was out of the question: it would be dark by the time I got everything and started back. Mom would have to coax the Rambler into service.
With high hopes Susan and I piled into the car, and Mom ordered us to cross our fingers. My younger sister and I were bouncing on the seat, urging the Rambler to life. And it worked! The car sputtered and caught, and we drove on to Kmart, about two miles away. On our way, Mom explained the seriousness of our situation. "Okay, now, girls. Here's what we have to do. I'm afraid that if I park the car, I may not get it started again. So, what I have to do is this: I'll drive as slow as possible once we get there. When I drive past the entrance, you open the door and jump out. Hurry up and get what you need because I have to keep driving around and around the parking lot, waiting for you. When you're done, come out and stand right where I dropped you off. I'll drive as slow as I can, open the door, and you run alongside and jump back in. Got it?"
We Got It.
One of the things that comes to my Memory immediately about this Incident is not that it was stupid or inconvenient or even dangerous. It was all of those things, of course. It was. It absolutely was. But the thing that comes to my mind immediately is that Susan and my Mom and I all laughed and laughed and laughed together like maniacs the entire time. We were having so much fun. We were having the best time.
And Susan and I flew through that store. We were a team, and we knew our mother, the other part of our team, was out there, putt-putting around the entire stupid parking lot in that stupid stupid car, which might give out at any time, so we had better hurry up. I remember looking out through the enormous store windows as I stood in the checkout line and watching my mother in that ridiculous blue car drive past. And we waved.
We grabbed our bag and ran out to the edge of the parking lot, waiting for her to drive by. She slowed down, threw the passenger door open, and almost stopped the car. Susan and I flung ourselves into the front seat. Mom hit the gas, and we struggled to shut the door. We were laughing so hard that we couldn't even speak. We made it home, and Mom parked the Rambler in front of the house as if it had never left. Knowing her, I'm sure that as soon as she turned off that car, she tried to turn it over again, but I can't really remember.
No, we never had another car like the Rambler. The rest of the cars were much more reliable and much less adventurous. Times with my mother and my sisters, however, continued to be pretty much the same. Thank goodness.