Thursday, January 30, 2014


FEBRUARY 19 -- Where is the Box these days? For two weeks, it's been stuck in its parking space out front of our house. Since having foot problems at the end of January and being pretty much housebound, I have not driven it, and it's been plowed-in on more than one occasion. Today I tried to move it and got a good rocking motion going, but no deal. I did learn something I had forgotten. The Box has front-wheel drive!

In an earlier post about our Christmas activities, I mentioned that as a kid in the early 50s I had
received as a gift from a favorite aunt and uncle a cool 1952 Cadillac sedan. They probably found out from my mother what kind of gift I might like.

I don't think I was much different from other boys my age. I wasn't athletic, but I did like riding my bike at breakneck speed around my neighborhood. I dressed up those grips at the end of the handlebars with streamers, a crisp blue and white, until I was too old for that sort of thing. I liked using clothes pins to clip playing cards onto my spokes to make the bike sound like a motorcycle.

In those days local playgrounds had "bike rodeos," and kids would dress up their bikes with crêpe paper, flags, and other doo-dads and ride them in parade formation to the spot where they were judged and awarded ribbons. Of course, we did not mess with helmets or riding safety. It was all about the bling! It seems that every kid in the neighborhood participated, and after the awards ceremony we hit the streets for some nice long rides in our uptown neighborhood.

I also had a battery-operated turn signal, and I can recall still the warm summer evening when I rode down the block on Sixth Street, anticipating all the way the thrill of using that turn signal when I got to Radnor Street. There I turned right, past Stoudt's ice cream shop, and then right again onto Lexington Street. Those right turns continued the whole way around the block. Then I turned around and went the other way around so I could turn left at every corner.

At that age, perhaps ten or so, I began to notice cars and soon was able to identify every make and year. I awaited anxiously the new models each fall and would declare, "That's what I am getting when I am old enough to drive," being totally unaware that those models would be in the junk heap by the time I could afford my own car.

Since my dad was a Ford man, I love Fords the most. I recall in sixth grade, when asked by the school psychologist what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded immediately, "President of Ford Motor Company." He laughed and even remembered my answer when we met again in junior high school. (It's not that I was 'unbalanced' -- that would come later -- but everyone, at least those of us in an experimental accelerated curriculum, saw the school psychologist yearly.) As it turns out, my mother -- who knew everyone -- knew him, too, and he mentioned my remark to her, as well.

We neighborhood boys would sit on the front porch and watch as cars approached on busy Sixth Street. We'd vie to call out first the make and year of each car. No car passed without proper identification from us.

1936 Ford
We all knew what each other's dads drove, too. Mine did not have a car during my earliest years. He often drove a company car -- one that had been repossessed by that bank for which he worked. My favorite was a big ol' Chrysler with the coolest push-button radio. Eventually, he bought a 1936 Ford, which would have been about 20 years old then. Car design had changed so dramatically over that time that the '36 Ford looked ancient and was a curiosity in our neighborhood. It was black and had a rumble seat in which we rode at least once to Hagy's swimming pool, near where the Farm Show Complex stands. I think my mother thought it was dangerous, so we never did it again. My dad's car did not have whitewalls, I am pretty sure.

Similar model, different color.
Our older brothers got cars first, of course. I recall that my brother's first car was our parents' friend's old Pontiac. It was very large and very green. Mike named it The Green Hornet. It may have been on the first day he owned it that he took the family on a ride on Front Street toward downtown. Unfortunately for him, they had recently changed the direction of the traffic to flow in the opposite direction, and he was hailed with flashing headlights, horns, and catcalls until he quickly pulled off into a side street.

Great for attracting girls!
Mike later had a coral and white 1955 or '56 Ford ragtop, which he drove in high school and until he was drafted into the Army. After that his kid brother and sister were only too willing to drive it "once in a while" to keep the battery in shape.

Soon enough there were far too many makes than the Detroit "big three" to recognize them all, and that childhood passion passed into history.

Before admiring real cars so much, many of us boys were into models and toy cars and collected them in various ways. Cereal boxes would contain little plastic models of the latest cars, neatly wrapped in little cellophane bags. SIX NEW MODELS! COLLECT THEM ALL! the package cried out. I happen to still have some of those little cars. Most are just one color of plastic, but some I clumsily painted, adding two-tone color schemes.

Wheaties ("Breakfast of Champions") offered auto emblems as seen on the hoods of cars -- not the three dimensional 'statuary' you might see on a Rolls Royce, but flat round discs imprinted with the cars' easily recognizable logo designs. Sets of these emblems were available for 25 cents each (perhaps three in a set?). I had quite a few, but they have long since disappeared. This picture is from a website written by a guy who apparently keeps everything.

With these plastic cars and metal ones, too, we "played car" in several spots in our urban neighborhood. One was the "dirt alley" behind our house. It was a pedestrian path that lay behind a garage belonging to a house around the corner. We dug into the earth and made ramps and roadways, parking lots and gas stations, all out of dirt. (This is why my children, playing with their latest iThing, cringe when I say that as a child, "The only toy I had was dirt."

More upscale was the low cement wall that surrounded the slightly elevated backyard of Ricky Levin, who lived at the end of the block. The top of that low wall became an Interstate highway (we had the idea about the same time as President Eisenhower), and our toys flew back and forth on their way into the future. The picture was taken recently by Google Maps. There was no fence in olden times, just a hedge, and that made for a nice forested background for our super highway.

Some of those toys are still in my collection of Christmas items. They come out (if lucky) once a year to play a part in a Christmas village. Some are those old cereal cars. Others are Matchbox cars that I collected once I had developed an interest in trains and Christmas villages -- probably the start of my interest in representations of structures (mostly houses) that still grab
me today when I see one. But that's another blog post.

Classic 2CV
My interest interest in cars continued, as everyone's does, when it came time for me to buy my first one. I had spent my junior year of college in France, and there were some old Citroëns that caught my attention. Tons of them, in fact. The French had been making them since 1938. I like the economy of them. Just what you needed to get you there and nothing more. They were called deux chevaux or 2CV. Many of them were driven by students. When I came home, graduated from college, and got a job teaching French, I thought it would be cool to have a 2CV.

Renault 16 looking presidential
Unfortunately, I could not find a dealer who sold them, so I settled for a 1968 Renault 16, a hatchback-style car that had lots of interior room and was quite comfortable to drive. I saw those in France, too, and once I even saw a photo of President Charles deGaulle riding in one. I figured it was good enough for me, too.

Mine was a light blue color with a black leather interior. I drove it to Québec City and back one summer. After that, though, things started to go wrong with it, and it was in the garage more often than not. At one point the only people who would work on it were all the way over in Carllisle. One day, when getting an estimate on the latest repair, I asked the garage owner if he's like to buy it. He gave me $300 for it.

Volaré wagon, just like ours
After that we drove Susanne's 1969 Falcon and then fell in love with a new car called "Volaré." We preferred the station wagon model since we now had kids and all their stuff to haul around. I also liked that it had fake contact paper that made it look like old "woody" wagons of the past -- but those had real wood. That car lasted a long, long time. Maybe 15 years or so. When we traded it in, it felt like it was on its last legs. We like squeezing all the juice out of a car.

Next came the Camrys. We started with a burgundy-colored wagon and then added a silvery blue sedan. Both of those cars lasted forever, too, at least 13 or 14 years. One of the women who was in my group at Montpellier in 1966 told me in a letter last year that she had just traded in her Camry after 27 years! And then only because it was rusty, and her husband was embarrassed.

We had a Ford Explorer for a while, along with Susanne's Subaru wagon, and The Box! One day my son Matt borrowed the Ford for a while, and he and his mother cooked up the idea of selling it in Baltimore. I never knew about that until it was gone, gone, gone. If you see it, please let me know.

ADDENDUM, March 23. I found this photo of myself in front of our house on Sixth Street. You can see my brother Mike's Ford convertible to the left. I think that's a Rambler wagon on the right. It belonged to a neighbor.