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Family vacations and car trouble. Does that bring up anything for ya? When I was a kid, sometimes the trouble was mechanical. Sometimes it was intestinal. We’d take off for places with names like Fort Ticonderoga or Blue Sky Lodge. Sometimes we got there. Sometimes the vacation ended thirty minutes later on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn – the car wheezing with a flooded carburetor.
My sister and I would be in the back seat, wedged in with comic books, brownie cameras, crayons, Scotch coolers, calamine lotion and plastic fishing rods. Eventually a tow truck would come along and hook onto our 1955 Plymouth Savoy.
The whole family would still be sitting in the car as the tow truck raised it. All four of us slowly tilting back as the front-end rose, our faces looking toward heaven. My parents, no doubt, praying for deliverance from yet another vacation disaster.
And then we’d be towed, wobbling along the parkway, suspended from a single cable and hook. After hours of this (probably 15 minutes), we’d be deposited at a Sunoco gas station where my father would confer with the resident mechanic.
I would usually whine or cry, this being my right as the youngest. My mother would figure out a way to entertain us and find ice cream to stuff into our faces. And that was a typical day on our family vacation. Not bad.
Before the above-mentioned ’55 Plymouth, the family cruised New York’s congested parkways in a 1950 DeSoto. Does anyone even remember the Desoto? It was named for the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, who led the first European expedition through Florida and Georgia. This was all done on foot and horseback because I-95 wasn’t built for several more years.
Our DeSoto was maroon and immense. I think we got it used from my great aunt Bea. There was enough room between the rear and front seats for a five-year-old to walk around and explore. Seatbelts were exclusive to airplanes in those days. I could roam around back there, grab onto all the built-in straps and hang upside down. It was a traveling monkey bar nursery.
But the big car had a tendency to break down. We were upwardly mobile, so with the addition of the new Plymouth Savoy, we became a two-car family. I remember when my father first drove the Plymouth onto the driveway – I thought it was beautiful. Looking back it was sort of a sickly salmon color – Ponderosa Peach it was called. My father had gotten some sort of deal in the Bronx. Probably no one else wanted it.
In the suburbs, many of our earliest memories are family car memories - traveling with our parents, curled up and sleeping on the front seat. Mid-century cars offered all kinds of fascinations for small children.
Car dashboards back then were Detroit’s idea of a rocket ship’s control panel – a salute to our nation’s budding space program. Jutting out just inches from our little faces were any number of pointed widgets.
What today would be a soft flat radio dial, back then was a lethal steel protuberance designed to cut you up. This gauntlet of sharpened buttons and knobs would serve as the child’s first and final point of impact should we suddenly de-accelerate.
As is often the case, designers and marketers had the final say over human lives. Engineers, doctors, parents… not so much. But really, who was paying attention or even cared? If it looked like you were about to plow into that big Pontiac, your mom would throw her free arm across your six-year-old chest to save you.
Then boring Ralph Nader had to come along and ruin everything. Something about safety.
A few years later, when we got a brand-new Rambler station wagon, my other great aunt, Ceil, remarked when asked to use her seat belt, “Why should I put on a seat belt? I’m not in an airplane.” Which pretty much summed up most people’s attitude about seat belts and safety at the time.
Traveling Broadens One’s Horizons
In those early episodes of family travel, frustration and angst, I remember first hearing words that I would later bandy about in my teens. No, not those words – although I suppose I did receive a linguistic primer in that department.
I’m talking about words like, ‘butterfly valve’ and ‘vapor lock’ and terms like, ‘crank it up’ and ‘jump start’. These were mid-century high-tech words I would later use to impress dates… as if they even cared what ‘vapor lock’ was. Or perhaps they thought it was a new way to kiss.
But there were many mysteries under those maroon and later Ponderosa Peach hoods. It was a fascinating place only my father seemed to understand. This was his territory but he’d let me stick my nose into that mechanical dungeon filled with thick black wires and hoses. I would help, handing him a wrench or screwdriver before losing interest and skipping off to do something more fun.
I was about six or seven and we were on our way to Lake Champlain - or was it Lake George – in upstate New York. After what seemed like days of packing and a few false starts (“Did you turn off the nuclear reactor?” – “No, I thought you did.”) we were finally motoring along some parkway or other.
My head was buried in a Classics Illustrated comic book (Mom approved) when I faintly heard some commotion coming from up front. Uh-oh. There were words, a frantic shifting of gears and now we were on the side of the road… again.
I didn’t want to jump to conclusions but it seemed to my young mind that the Plymouth had failed us. Yep. It was down. Stalled. Creepily quiet.
“Is our vacation ruined?”
“No”, came the oddly affirmative chorus from the cockpit. We had a backup vehicle. The DeSoto!
And so, the next day, we set out again in the big, maroon DeSoto. I stretched out in the back as we rolled along the Long Island Expressway, the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway and the Cross Bronx Expressway until we came to the crown jewel of the New York/New Jersey Port Authority – the George Washington Bridge.
The GW is a magnificent structure connecting the Bronx to the palisades of New Jersey. You may remember it from “The Godfather” when Michael Corleone took a ride to meet crime boss Sollozzo and a crooked police chief. The Cadillac suddenly executed an impossible U-turn across four lanes of bridge traffic.
If you recall, Michael Corleone had a date with destiny that day. So did we.
The funny thing was our DeSoto was almost as old as the Sollozzo Family Cadillac. So it wasn’t about to do any thrill maneuvers on this bridge. No… today, it would just go suddenly silent. Rolling along to a sad, slow stop.
There was no shoulder to pull onto. So, we sat there in lane number 2. The traffic backed up and flowed around us like a mechanical river. And we were the rock in that river, slowing everyone’s progress. I stood on the seat and looked around at all the cars. There was my father outside, raising the engine hood.
The traffic was getting thick - people were honking and yelling… as if that would fix anything. Years later, this would be the site of another infamous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. Before there was Bridgegate, there was Vacationgate.
And now I knew in my little heart, our vacation was indeed, irretrievably ruined.
August: Nassau County
Later that hot summer the Plymouth Savoy was again running. The problem had been the carburetor... or was it the distributor? There was still a drop of vacation time left - school would start in a week. My parents decided to take one last stab at a getaway. We backed down the driveway, took Hillside Avenue to the parkway and amazingly… we reached ‘orbital velocity’.
That was the term our new space agency used to describe the speed needed to escape earth's gravitational pull. It was only after reaching orbital velocity that the Mercury space capsules could successfully circle the planet. In this same manner, we had finally escaped the gravitational pull of the greater New York area.
We transited Westchester, Putnam and Duchess Counties. We had achieved interstellar velocity in the '55 Savoy. We were doing a flyby past the Catskills!
After having had a hearty breakfast of Frosted Flakes and blueberries that morning, our trajectory was taking us toward Blue Sky Lodge. This place was a family camp with cabins, a communal dining room and activities for mom, dad and the kids. I remember lots of knotty pine everywhere.
At last, we were enjoying our family vacation. The Plymouth was humming along. My parents were in a good mood, my sister and I weren't fighting - all was well in America.
But... but I was getting a funny feeling in my stomach. I wasn't sure what was going on so I told my mom.
"Do you have to throw up? Should we stop the car?"
No! I just remember so many times we were stuck on the side of the road. Something always went wrong. No, not again. I would be ok.
So I breathed. I focused... as much as a six-year-old can focus. But my stomach was taken over by aliens.
"Look at the horses."
My mother pointed to the animals along the roadside in a vain attempt to distract me.
"See the pretty horses?"
ARRGGGHHH! I let loose a fury of the bluest, blueberry breakfast vomit, spraying the orangey car seats.
"Oooh! He threw up!", my sister helpfully offered.
Now we did pull off to the inevitable side of the road. My poor mom.
This was vacation for her. I don’t think she ever got the ripe blueberry stains out of those salmon colored, excuse me, Ponderosa Peach car seats.
But she did her best (as moms always do) to wipe me down. And cheer me up. She put a beach towel on the damp seat and sat with me.
We did eventually arrive at Blue Sky Lodge - the car performed flawlessly. We had our family vacation. I went to “arts and crabs” and made an ashtray for my parents’ Parliaments. Then the Plymouth Savoy took us home to Earth.
It was a perfect reentry, clear back to Nassau County, right on time and target.
It was all, as our space agency used to say, "A-OK."
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