I love being in cars. Cars have always been, for me, a symbol of freedom. As a teen, I didn't really have a life away from my family, no friends and no parties. I wasn't allowed to work or get my driver's license until I was 18. I was pretty much a captive in my parent's house. Then, on that magic 18th birthday, my life changed. I got my first job bringing in my own money and started learning to drive. I learned to drive in my dad's 1965 Plymouth Valiant. The transmission was three on the column. I loved that car. It was the same car, from another memoir, that ended up nose down in someone's creek, through no fault of my own. Though, I did manage to do a lot of damage to that poor car in my earlier driving years, it always pulled through.
The day I got my license and was going on my first drive on my own, my dad insisted on guiding me down the curvy driveway. I knew I had better go along with it, if I wanted to take the car out that day. He waved me back, back, back, then … “Whoa, stop! Stop!” as I hit the neighbors’ drywall sending it into their yard like a line of dominos, that same domino effect from the “Traveling On” memoir.
Another time, I was driving around with a friend, partying in the car. There were no places to go hang out when I was a teen other than our cars or the local ice cream parlors. Obviously, we couldn’t party in the ice cream shops, so we drove around. Traveling down Frog Town Road, a particularly windy road, my friend instructed me to hold the wheel straight and lean her way for a minute. My attention was diverted for a few crucial moments as I did as I was told, taking a good strong hit. When I sat back up, I noticed that the car seemed to be kind of bumpy, and I was having a hard time controlling it, so I pulled into a side street and got out. I almost fell over when I saw that the whole driver’s side front fender and hood were destroyed. The reason it was bumpy was because the fender was cutting into the tire. I quickly took the crow bar out of the back and bent the bumper out enough to safely drive it back to the scene of the accident, where I discovered I had taken down a telephone pole. It was lying across the road, blocking both sides. We quickly went on to the Dairy Queen where a few friends worked and where we often hung out in the parking lot. The whole gang was there, and we came up with a plan. We washed the creosote off, pulled the wooden splinters out of the frame and bent the fender more so it looked like a vehicle had hit me. I concocted a story about being at Friendly’s when we heard a crash, ran out and saw a truck racing away. It was a hit and run. It was moving too fast to see the license plate, but my dad took me down to the police station anyway to file a hit and run claim. As we were getting ready to leave for the station, he bent down and picked out a stray piece of wood that we had missed. I explained that the truck had a homemade wooden bumper, and off we went to file the report. That car was eventually turned over to me years later and almost made a cross-country trip. I have so many fond memories of it from two very different times in my life.
The first car I ever owned was a 1960 black VW Bug. I had it during the first big gas crisis in 1973. During that time, you could only buy fuel on odd or even days depending on the last number of your license plate. There were ridiculously long lines at the pumps with tempers flaring occasionally, but many places offered free coffee to make the long wait less painful. This car didn’t have a gas gauge, but it did have a little lever on the floor that gave you access to another 1-gallon tank. Being a girl raised at a time when math didn’t really matter to the female persuasion unless used for domestic chores, I didn’t know then that I should figure out my mileage and usage mathematically and ran out of gas all the time. Sometimes my extra gallon was enough fuel to get me back home, but often I ended up calling my dad, late at night, to come rescue me. He came every time with his gas can, grumpy and put out, but he never did teach me that simple calculation to avoid having it happen again.
I knew absolutely nothing about cars then except that if I put gas in it and turned the key, it would go. And, by that time, I was a pretty good driver. I was driving that Bug to Avon, CT on the Merritt Parkway with my future husband Paul in 1974 for a concert when my car slowed to a stop. Eventually, some State Troopers came by. One of them was an older German who had collected VWs for years, having worked on them in Germany. He looked it over then drove us to his house where he grabbed some tools, a fan belt and some other items, then back to our car where he fixed it right there on the shoulder of the road. After checking the engine and asking me a few questions, obviously very irritated at the condition of the car, he finally asked if I ever checked the water in the battery. I looked at him blankly. “This car runs on gas, not batteries,” was my honest reply. I thought he was going to arrest us or have a heart attack on the spot. Finally, after sputtering half in German and half in English, he told me that my car wasn’t even fit to drive on the sidewalk and instructed us to move along, warning me that if he ever saw me or my car again, he was taking us both in.
We got back in the car and waited for them to pull off. They waited for us. Then the same cop came up to the window wondering why we weren’t leaving. I had to explain that in order to go, we would have to jump start the car and asked if he and his partner would give us a push. This time he ranted and raged only in German but did help push the car. We decided to change our plans and just head for home. We got off the next exit and reentered the parkway going back the way we came when the car broke down again, directly across the road from the first breakdown site. At that point, we didn’t wait around for certain arrest and who knew what else. We took our things and hitchhiked home, leaving the car, hoping it would find a home with the State Trooper. A year later, when my parents got a bill from the towing company for towing a storage, we found out that it did indeed go home with him after spending a few months at that garage.
So, back to the Plymouth Valiant. I now owned the car, and Paul and I were preparing to make another cross-country trip. It was 1978 and, after living back in my hometown of Stamford, Connecticut for a year and a half, we were ready to go back out west. Our friend Debbie wanted to go with us, and we were heading out in two days with three adults and our 2 1/2-year old daughter. I decided to drive out to North Stamford to visit my best friend’s mother one last time and say goodbye to her. On the way home, my beloved car broke down. It made a hellacious noise, then a big clunk and stopped dead. I was able to roll onto the shoulder then hitched a ride home for me and my daughter. Ugh! What would we do now? After calling a garage, who agreed to go get my car right away, I called my mother, who had fingers in every pie and was well-loved by many. She found us a car that afternoon, another newer Plymouth Valiant. It looked like we were all set to go.
However, the next morning, as we were packing the last of our belongings, we got a call from our friend and traveling companion. She was getting back together with her ex-boyfriend and wanted him to come along. Now the car would carry 4 adults and a child plus all of the belongings we could manage to cram in. We finally agreed to take him along, knowing it would be tense but also welcoming the extra financial help. I hung up the phone when the doorbell rang. At the door were two local policemen. They wanted to arrest me for leaving the scene of an accident. It takes a lot to make me break down, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I collapsed into a puddle of tears, leaving Paul to step outside and talk to the cops.
Apparently, the tow truck never came and overnight the car was pushed into the ravine probably by some mischievous teenagers. It crashed through the residents’ stone wall and came to a stop nose down in their river. Now the police were here to take me away. We managed to get the garage to admit their failure and, probably in no small part sue to my dad’s notoriety in town and my mom’s persuasive ways, they let me go. We successfully made the, not uneventful, trip to Washington State with the truck full and the floor of the back seat packed level with the seats. But that’s a story for another time. As we were packing the last few items, I removed the spare tire to make more room. This horrified my mother, who was already horrified at the prospect of us embarking on this latest adventure, taking her only grandchild with us. I assured her that it would be fine. “Don’t worry, Mom. We won’t need it.” And, we didn’t.
I’ve owned many cars since then and have learned how to maintain them. I know where the batteries are, though I no longer have to check the water level. I check my tire pressure and my oil and other fluid levels. I understand how they run and have even done minor repairs such as changing various lights, windshield wipers and even the fuel filter. I’m so glad that girls are no longer expected to be dumb and can now learn about these things in school. Having more knowledge would have saved me a lot of hassles, but then I wouldn’t have had some of these stories to tell.
Here’s a video of one of my songs about driving preceded by a story. This was recorded live at The Eden Cafe in Loudonville, NY.