It might be said of Americans in general that we are what we eat, but more precisely, we would be what we drive. While the former is hugely so, the latter is far more varied and just as complex in the pleasures of consumerism as any commercial fulfillment might hope to be.
My earliest memories of auto-mania comprise cozy dreams of riding in the soft, felt-lined back-window well of my Dad’s ‘42’ Buick, wrapped in a blanket and staring at furious rain drops dashing against the glass as we sped across country to visit our family in New York. Also is the recollection of that fine, delicate French perfume my mother then wore, and which lingered mysteriously in the atmosphere of that ultra quiet automobile.
All our cars were called ’Betsy’ for some reason. As they aged and the seasons wore them down they became ‘Old Betsy.’ “Come on now, Old Betsy,” was a familiar prayer invoked near the end of a Betsy’s useful career.
Early Dad bonding was definitely centered on car duties, tasks which he always made adventures, while extolling the virtues of work and a job well done: 1.) preparation, which included clean tools properly laid out; 2.) washing, drying and polishing; 3.) clean-up and 4.) taking a ride. That particular old Betsy was a ponderous, curvaceous, black beauty which turned heads where ever she went.
She didn’t deserve her final fate. All I remember of it was my Dad suddenly grabbing me with one powerful swoop and throwing me in the back seat as a drunk swerved across the median strip and sideswiped Betsy the entire length of her noble flank, nearly killing my mother with fright. We all survived except Betsy and the drunk, who went careening down an embankment, rolled over and broke his fool neck. —-Amen.
—–Don’t remember many others from those times, except the collection of Betsy’s that littered my Grandparent’s farm. Those included an ancient Model-T truck, a younger cousin built in the ‘20’s’; several venerable dinosaur tractors, that I once recognized in a museum fifty years later; and one early model Chrysler that Grandpa Hurk drove well into his eighties. Most likely that old Betsy is rusting away in Cousin Shirley’s corn field somewhere, now that she’s inherited the mantle of matriarch of ‘that there.’
In her day, the Chrysler Betsy was a beauty, deco curves from end to end and as dark blue to an evening sky as it gets in the Plains. When I first saw her as a boy, she had already done, done, but still moved along at Hurk’s poky pace doing chores here and there. Back then she smelled like Hurk’s manure boots and bags of grain. He’d drive down the middle of the two-lane on his way from the farm, across the border into Wyoming on his way to the ranch, telling tall tales about General Custer up near Fort Laramie, the price of corn or beef, and jokes only kids thought funny.
Just for fun, to gross us out, he’d do a farmer snot-shot with one finger aside his nose and wait for us to fall out. Funniest thing he ever saw—-every time. And, that was often, except in the company of womenfolk. Slim, standing over six feet tall, gray haired and dressed in fine wool pants, suspenders and vest with a pocket watch he was a farmer dandy, every bit a complement to the Betsy.
Grandma had different ideas altogether about suitable transportation. In that, over the years, I could see where her daughter, my mother, obtained her certainties about vehicles and their sensible worth, both in practical matters and social position. And while, such position was rigorously maintained, it would be the utmost in ostentation to ever speak of it, or acknowledge obeisance to the superior icon being manifested—-such as Grandma’s Cadillac.
Grandma refused to be seen in the rundown Betsy, when about ‘business’ concerns or those rare social events she attended by virtue of Church work. She was a busy woman and had her own ‘doings’ on the side—- lucrative ones at that! So, in time she saved up and bought herself a cream colored Cadillac. Hurk, never said a word, except possibly to admit a small embarrassment at its glory. After all, he mostly owned the whole damned town—why not?
The Cadi was a proper Republican mode of transportation back then. And grandma, was not at all a showoff, being at the top of the heap, she didn’t have to be—-it was just assumed. In fact, when going out she always turned her diamonds palm side in to avoid giving ‘airs as she put it. She did love that Cadi, though. I don’t know if she called it Betsy, most likely—-‘Hurk.’
Both Hurks had their shining moment when the one Hurk ran for the Nebraska State Senate and the Betsy Hurk went on tour with yours truly and his cousin Shirley dressed up as cow-persons, sitting on the back of Grandma’s Cadi convertible throwing out handfuls of candy and fliers during a campaign parade. They both lost. Granddad was too honest for politics, and Grandma’s Cadi soon disappeared. Last I remember, Grandma finally used the old Chrysler to get from here to there, even though its interior was shot and its new smell was dusty and warm from the chicks she hauled around for her poultry business.
A lot of years went by and some major moves involved migrations from country to city, city to suburbs, before the monsters arrived. The first was a Chevy, turquoise and white, with fine swooping fins, white-walls, and loaded with shiny chrome. That Betsy could fly, but because we got our first TV and got hooked on ‘The Cicso Kid’ she just became a car once the ‘new’ wore off. My mother didn’t like the Chevy Betsy for some unknown reason. It wasn’t the first time she would put the kybosh on Dad’s mechanical enthusiasms.
In one of our more upscale neighborhoods, I fell in love—-with a sleek Studebaker that lived a few blocks over and belonged to a man, whose pretty daughter, named Sally Chugwater, went to Parochial School like me. Then it was a Karmingia, and after that a ’30’s’ white Dusenberg, once owned by an actress named Marlene and then by old man Garrison, whose equally old fart daddy founded our neighborhood. It was a convertible that he drove around on clear Summer afternoons surveying his lands.
That Dusi Betsy was huge, gorgeous and the size of our entire cottage. I still love the vision of her. There is one just like it in the Henry Ford Museum, outside Mo Town. The only other thrill during formative years was my high school buddy’s Morgan. I remember seeing the road through a worn spot in the floor as it rattled along hitting every bump like a log jolt. Couldn’t have been stoned. Nosiree!
There were a few others: the giant Bonneville, in a new color called ‘teal.’ It had electric everything, drove as a detached cloud and silently powered down the highway at tremendous speed, or so it seemed. I sure related to the Morgan, but secretly enjoyed the pure riding luxury of the Bonne.
Poor Bonne Betsy! She disappeared one day during the peak of Dad’s midlife crises. He pulled into the driveway one Friday afternoon with a new Betsy, younger, sleeker, just as fast and oh so beautiful if you like racing orange and white interiors. Dad went and got himself a supped-up, stick shift, sports Camero fastback. She hated it at first sight—Mom, that is, and was not amused for the longest time, refusing to even drive (her) it. That went on for a spell, until Dad finally realized her grief over the younger woman and Fast Betsy was sent off to college with my brother, who no doubt scored big with her on campus.
Mom took over the car buying business after that Betsy, which was one of those ‘things’ one never again talked about until Bro came home at the holidays and by then she had regained her sense of humor.
As the years went by, and the ‘parento’s’ found themselves living in L.A., my Dad became more and more introspective and my mother more freaked out with his driving habits, which reminded her of Grandpa Hurk’s. I swear you could see the marks of her long red fingernails embedded in the dashboard of the passenger-side of what ever large, boring GM she had bought for the family.—-Wouldn’t be surprised if her toenail marks were there too. You could see the worn spot her brake foot made on the floor where she customarily sat. Even on the L.A. freeways Dad always got plenty of room fore and aft from other drivers, who held precious, their lives at commute time.
Just before she finally took over the driving duties, Mom bought Dad a Lincoln, a ‘gigantor,’ football-field-sized rectangle, that looked like an aircraft carrier. White and grand, it had elegant addorsed door handles and a plush black leather interior, remindful of those ladies’ lunch places to which she would go for business conferences in the flats.
The behemoth Betsy fit in well with the Hollywood Hills tours Dad gave visiting relatives, or driving down the middle of Mulhullen Drive, pointing out dim features of America’s ugliest city on one of its brown smog inversions. His enthusiasms seemed oblivious to frightened, paled passengers as he swerved to the edge to get a better view at 60 miles an hour. He always told—always, the story of Uncle Peter finding a drunk Judy Garland wandering down a stretch of Mulhullen one night and taking her home. Everybody knew where she lived, poor thing. That was as close to a real story as it gets in L.A. L.A.
My Mom loved ‘her’ Lincoln Betsy and in that, the sweet memory of Grandma’s Cadi lived on, at least for a while. Although she never said as much, Mom probably figured that it would take at least a Semi to wipe that sucker out if we were hit. She had never forgotten the first doomed Betsy. Can’t say as I blame her.
Dad and the Lincoln Betsy finally wore out. They ditched her in Santa Barbara for a series of tiresome, lumpy cars that Detroit made for several decades. Once he stopped driving, Dad didn’t particularly care what he rode in and finally took up jogging on the beach for the freedom of his heart and imagination. Mom drove to her last days, if only around the corner from her posh ‘assisted care’ condo to the 7-Eleven where she would buy precisely one Lotto ticket a month on her birthday number—-13.
During college days, being the only liberal in my rather conservative family, (except for Dad), I took up cheap, used Toyotas, which were annoyingly foreign to the ‘Buy America’ crowd, particularly the Lincoln Betsy types. It was the only time in life when ‘Betsy’ was replaced with ‘Kiku-chan.’ Best friend Mary, always insisted that Toyotas were really American Valliant’s in disguise, Hers outlasted my last Kiku-chan by several years.
Then there came the Jeep years, several of them. I finally managed to merge psyche and type in that which made me happiest—-the Jeep Cherokee. Most Jeep lovers will admit that they are not perfect, the early rugged ones though were not as awful as those Chrysler churned out when they took over. But, they could go anywhere and I did. Still love Um! –even with their dysfunctional electrical systems and tendency to roll over when cut-off at Wal*Marts. Chrysler did to the Jeep what Ford did to the Thunderbird: maxed it out with transfat and family values.
Being the ‘precocious’ one in my family I managed to have a mid-life crises in my thirties and so bought two of the most ridiculous cars ever made: the Fiat X10 and the Camero (hello Dad) Berlinetta. Well, maybe not the Berlinetta, but that first one had problems and leaked like a sieve in weather. Plus, it was so low to the ground that a squirrel road-kill would skin its nose. Every Camero Berlinetta has that ‘touched-up’ quality, no matter the rest of its almost perfection.
The Fiat was a beautifully designed shell on the worst piece of automotive crap ever produced. It looked a bit like an electric razor, complete with clip-on roof. Driving it in Michigan winters on the sixty-mile commute, roundtrip to Detroit and back was hazardous duty.
That stretch between Chicago and Detroit on I-94 is probably one of the most hair raising ‘moto’ roads in America. My little razor barely hit the mid tires of the big rigs racing by me, creating both a rattling vacuum and white-out equal to the worst blizzard days. That was about the time my hair turned gray and presented to my students a gravitas not earned by wisdom, but by road survival.
The Fiat and I finally parted ways, our limerence short and tempestuous. The thing was, the Fiat X10 had a penchant for dropping its front axel at any given moment, without much warning. Considering I averaged about 75 mph on the commute route, it was a blessing that my particular moment came at a stop sign in the middle of a rural town called Pinckney. As for the Camero, can’t badmouth that Betsy, no matter the problems. She was a hot look and in those days a great substitute for vanity, given that her cool moon roof reflected my bald spot seen only by the sky..
Many men and some women know what it is to ‘love,’ truly love a ‘thing,’ —-a car. It’s a language of mechanical poetry known only to those entranced by cohesive interlocking of design and perfectly tooled parts; parts that create motion and power; parts that lift the spirit and raise the soul to beauty.
The aforementioned Cousin Shirley loves Mustangs, powerful, fast ones and travels far and wide with husband Chip to every major moto show in the mid and far West. We have recently reunited after nearly fifty years separated, even though our only-days-apart births forever bind us in affection. Shirley, a hot and successful Grandma, like her antecedents, mentioned her Mustang. Little does she know about ‘Sally.’ I’ll tell her here.
Besides ‘Betsy’ and ‘Kiku-Chan’ ‘Sally is the only other name I’ve ever given to a car, she being my last auto love. Sally didn’t even belong to me, that’s why her name was a secret. Mustang Sally was partner Tras’ lifelong project, as dear as a hunting dog, a family pet, and as expensive as sending a kid to college. Sally was a 1965 ½ Mustang.
Now, everyone has got their own ideas of perfection, of ‘classic.’ It would be hard to come up with any design so beloved and classy as a 1965 Mustang, Wimbledon white, red interior and burgundy top convertible. It’s hard to even imagine a car nowadays, where every part could be clearly known and managed; where you could open the hood and see everything perfectly arranged for convenience and maintenance; where the battery was accessible and you could see pavement beneath the motor.
Yes, that Sally was one of the most beautiful autos ever designed and her classic simplicity still makes her the Zen expression of Detroit’s finest hour. Driving down the highway with the top down was like a goodwill tour which united her with the sweetest memories of all who passed by: cops, truckers, oldsters, youngsters, everyone gave her a wave, a honk, and a smile.
Selling her to afford the long haul back to New England, was a funeral, a wake, a sad giving over to the passing of youth and the memories of imagined better days. Since then its been back to a Chevy Betsy, an old used Lumina 92 that gave us some of her best years, before she just gave out.
In the manner of stories turned-out-right, this one does; come full circle as it were. Your story teller and Tras now drive a perfectly preserved ‘95’ Cadi, like Grandma’s, in teal like the Bonne Betsy; powerful as the Lincoln Betsy; and suitable for going in disguise as Republicans in murky red states. It is a situation of perfect equilibrium, where what we eat finds expression in what we drive.
Just like Dad, I ride now. Just like Mom, I slam on the invisible brakes on the passenger-side floor and grab the dash board setting off automated responses that make the seat go forward and back; the windows roll up and down or the warmed seats overheat. Things will settle down in time as I ride along day dreaming just as Dad once did. Why, its just like driving Mr. Daisy!