Monday, February 18, 2008

Not Without My Car

I wrote this blog article back in February after being socked by inspiration like a deer mesmerized by headlights. Happily, I find that the 45th Carnival of Genealogy topic fits the topic just like a whitewall tire on a shiny Chevy rim.

My Family History and the Automobile

"There's a Ford in your future," 1945 ad.

When I was very young, my mother recorded diligently in my baby book that among my first words, second to the ever-important Mama, came car, or ca, as I pronounced it.

My fascination with automobiles continued when, as a young girl, I found toy vehicles much more interesting to play with than dolls or games. A favorite activity was building cities with blocks and empty containers out on the lawn, using baby powder and baking powder cans, spools--whatever had been saved and recycled. I would then park and drive my little cars through the grass-filled streets and alleys. Among the toys that stand out in my memory were: a large green and yellow dump truck, and a turquoise and cream Edsel wagon--both given to me by my grandfather, Ernest Johnson, and a little red T-Bird convertible that came free from the Ford dealership when Dad bought a station wagon in 1957.

Even before peace was declared in 1945, politicians and industrialists had been laying plans for the postwar reconstruction of the economy; one cornerstone of those plans had been the assumption that there would be a seller's market for automobiles for quite some time. [1]

Then came the piece-de-resistance: when I was 11, there was no doubt that my favorite car in the whole world was the Jaguar XKE. What a surprise it was that Christmas when I found that Dad had spent many nights secretly piecing together a large, intricate model just for me. That XKE held center stage on my dresser for quite some time.

For those of use who drive, many of our personal and family memories are tied to car ownership, good or bad. The automobile has been an inextricable component of the Baby Boomer generation's experience; it transformed the world, especially America. Cars gave people freedom to explore their surroundings in ways they never had before, but at the same time, created a reliance that hasn't always been affordable, or even constructive.

The automobile and the mobility it brought to the individual was in large part responsible for the beginning of the breakdown of families. With the ease of travel, families began spreading out all over the map. Close relations who once lived together and depended upon one another began to find themselves increasing isolated, geographically, from other family members. The journey to Grandma's house was no longer just over the river and through the woods; instead, it was 250 miles distant.

. . . In the postwar years, as the American economy became increasingly dependent on the internal combustion engine, the price and the supply of fuel for that engine became increasingly dependent on the vagaries of international and domestic politics. [2]

Like many other women born before World War II, my mother chose not to learn to drive. She would ride in cars, but she was afraid of taking the wheel. Automobiles were not part of her early experience, since there wasn't a car on her grandfather's Minnesota farm until the 1930s. Even after Ole M. Johnson bought a 1932 Chevrolet, he never drove it himself. He got it for his sons so they could make faster trips into town. The family's usual means of transport into the 1930s was horse and buggy.

Ole M. Johnson taking some family members on an outing in his four-seater buggy.  Polk County, Minnesota, 1912.

Dad's '53 Ford sedan parked in front of our family home on Carlson Blvd., Richmond, California, about 1954.

When my parents married, Dad owned a navy blue 1953 Ford sedan. A few years later, he traded it in for a wagon. The '57 Ford Ranch Wagon came in handy for a family man. Almost anything could be tossed into the roomy back: furniture, a dead deer, lumber to build a new shed, the family beagle, trash headed for the dump, and even a kid or two. I remember many exciting trips to the dump in that wagon, watching as seagulls surfed the Bay breeze over a sea of fluttering, multi-colored trash, while my stomach suffered from a continual state of excitement as Dad navigated over and around bump after rolling bump.

During drives from the Bay Area to Oregon for summer vacations with relatives, Dad would throw a mattress in the back of the wagon for my sister and I. There were no seat belts or buckle-up laws back then. We slept as Dad drove all night, and Mom struggled to keep her eyes open to make sure he stayed awake. After arriving at Aunt Phyllis's house, Dad hit the sofa, snoring. The rest of us struggled through the day and looked forward to "hitting the hay" early that evening.

Our family's red and white '57 Ford Ranch wagon parked in front of my aunt's house in Salem, Oregon, 1965. In the yard are my cousin, Cheryl Rice, and my sister, Becky Wheeler.

A restored '57 Ford Ranch wagon, in living color.

Whether big or small, foreign or domestic, automobile ownership had become an economic necessity for most Americans by the 1960s.[3]

I learned how to drive in one of a fleet of nondescript white Dodge sedans, enrolled in El Cerrito High School driver's training class. It was full speed ahead on East Bay freeways: three lanes, side by side, inches to spare, and take no prisoners. My driving partners/classmates and I were all in the 10th grade, and I was the only girl. I was fairly petite in height, but the boys were all shorter than me. One of them could hardly see over the steering wheel, so the instructor made him use a cushion. Though I didn't have to resort to using a cushion, I did feel rather odd about being the only girl. But, I am proud to say there were never any "woman driver" remarks from the guys in the back when I was behind the wheel.

The photo from one of my earliest California driver's licenses. At the time, California took profile shots of anyone under the age of 25.

My early at-home driving practice time was spent in Dad's '57 Ranch Wagon: the red and white tank with a masterful-size steering wheel. When I was in possession of my new learner's permit--barely creased--Dad asked spontaneously one day if I wanted to drive him to the store. I was outside on the lawn and didn't have any shoes on, but thought he might change his mind if I took too long, so I got into the car as I was. Dad commented on my lack of shoes, but as a typical 15-year-old, I shrugged it off and started the car anyway.

My boyfriend in high school owned his own car, or rather, his parents did. They allowed David to drive it as long as he also transported his mother (who like my mother, did not drive), and six wriggling, younger siblings to medical and dental appointments, whenever necessary. It was pretty unusual for a high schooler in the suburbs to have a car then, but, oh how embarrassed he was that he had to drive a Rambler. Here was a tall, slender young man who wore a lettered jacket and fringed cutoff jeans on the basketball court--busily working on various stages of coolness--and he was stuck with a Rambler. Worse than that, it was a mauve Rambler. Well, time has a way of healing all things. We went on our first date in that car, to the Berkeley Theatre, and were later married. I swear I never held his driving a Rambler against him...

In the same years that Americans were starting to worry about whether they could safely drive their cars, they were also starting to worry about whether they could safely breathe their air.[4]

The first car I could call my own wasn't any better than a Rambler. It was inherited from my grandfather when I was 16: a squat, dull beige 1962 Chevy Corvair. Yes, THE car famous for its carbon monoxide scare. I think the only reason it came to me is because no one else in the family would have anything to do with it. One summer, my grandfather, who was nearly 80 at the time, drove my aunt and three cousins from Salem, Oregon to the Bay Area for a visit with my family. But, somewhere in northern California, Grampa Ernest swerved to avoid some road construction he had not seen in time because of his failing eyesight, and he overturned the car in a ditch. Thankfully, everyone came away from that experience in reasonable condition, but it left a lasting impression of the Corvair upon my cousins that was akin to a bad taste in the mouth.

Ernest Johnson's '62 Corvair parked in front of his trailer in Salem, Oregon, 1965.

I welcomed the Corvair into my life and drove along happily in my fake, belted Leopard-fur coat and black Italian leather lace-up boots. The question circulating around high school back then was: "Are you a surfer, a mod, or a rocker?" I may have been driving a Corvair instead of an XKE, but there was no doubt that I was a mod, and one who aspired to be like Jane Asher: long hair, white lipstick, mini-skirt, and all. Before raising an eyebrow, you should be made aware that for the average school girl around 1970, miniskirts were not incredibly short. The mini-minis were left to the super-skinny models in the magazines. We were just acquiring the right to wear jeans to school, let alone super-short hemlines.

I have to admit that I also did my share of escorting my mother on errands. But, I liked the Corvair well enough; it was small, like me, and easy to get in and out of. My first husband and I even took it on our honeymoon, to the Northern California coast. It ran just fine, as long as you pretended not to notice when it struggled up freeway hills at 40 mph, as semi-trucks and loggers honked and swerved menancingly into a passing lane.

Married life became a march of steady and predictable Fords. Dad owned the same Ford successfully for over 15 years, so why go against the grain? It was a virtual festival of Fords; Henry would have been proud:

Maverick--totaled by a drunk driver after 3 months of ownership
Pinto hatchback--something new on the scene
Pinto wagon--not bad after adding multi-colored, tie-dyed curtains
Mustang ('76, 2-dr)--just try and take two kids in and out of car seats in the back
Escort wagon--beige and boxy, but easier on the lumbar region
Tempo--typical, boring sedan that never turned a single head
Tempo, again--a wee bit more noticeable than the first one, with red trim
Probe--great car, but low & gray-matched the pavement and had to be driven with the lights on at all times

Since the 1980s, American policy makers, politicians, manufacturers, and consumers have all been behaving in roughly the same way--with roughly the same lack of success--trying to develop solutions to the problems without giving up the automobile. [5]

Then I met John, who came into my life along with his 1990 red Volvo wagon. I'd never been with anyone who had a European car before. On that first date, the wagon spoke to his commitment as family man and business owner. I must admit, it made a nice secure impression. The red color indicated to me (along with his fast and unpredictable driving habits) that here was a guy who liked to have fun... as long as the work got done first. Red Volvo and all, John captured my heart and we were married shortly after.

John waves goodbye as the two of us depart the scene of our wedding in his '90 Volvo.  Snoqualmie Pass, Washington. 1992.

After marrying John, life then became a succession of German cars: Audis, in particular. One main reason is that we moved to the mountains, and our long commutes demanded cars with all-wheel drive that could take on plenty of mileage with few pitfalls. But, even more importantly, they had comfy seats, and could be found used for less money than Volvos. And, I won't even mention the toy that currently sits in the garage right now. No, I won't mention the _ _ _ _ _ _ _, because we have no real excuse other than we wanted one. But, when I remember that my g-g-grandmother's second husband spent equivalent income to buy a steam launch in which to putter around the 1890s waterways of Duluth, then I don't feel quite so alone.

Technological systems, once they are in place, have enormous staying power. [6]

Please don't get me wrong. For me, car ownership is not about keeping up with the Joneses. If something works, I stick with it until it becomes unreliable, or impractical. But, the freedom and privacy of movement made possible by the automobile is something I would miss if I had to give it up completely, even though, as we speak, I am taking steps to be able to make far better use of public transportation.

My '91 Ford Probe, dwarfed by winter snow build-up.  Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, 1997.

I can't think of anything else to replace the feelings of freedom I had, when as a new and youthful driver, I cruised alone out a county highway for the first time. Though my destination was a public library, I told myself that the drive to a distant branch was okay because of its uniquely large science fiction collection. In reality, that long country drive was my initial flight from the nest. I had stepped off the edge, and I was learning to fly.

I have many fondly remembered driving experiences, including one of joyful, innocent abandon when my then 13-year-old daughter and I were stopped at the I-5 bridge bordering Washington and Oregon. It was a warm summer's evening on one of those long trips to Grandma's house. With the windows rolled all the way down to let in the coolness of the Columbia River, we waited for the draw bridge to come down as "Billie Jean" blared from the CD player in full bass, and smiles darted our way from inside neighboring vehicles.

There were also moments of revelation about human nature, involving automobiles, like the first and only time I remember seeing my grandfather angry. I was just a toddler playing on the lawn with my cousins in Campbell, California. We all watched in alarm as Grampa began running and yelling, brandishing a big stick after some boys who had been snooping and hanging inside the driver's window of his big and toothy early 1950s Buick: a car I always thought of as angry-looking itself.

A 1950 Buick sedan, similar to the one my grandfather owned.

No simple, single set of incantations will make ['automobility' and its problems] go away. [7]

Let's face it, automobile emissions are in large part responsible for the negative human impact on our planet. There are many strikes against our faithful servant, the car. But, it has been an undeniable part of my generation's social and family history. The very word is fixed on the lips of our newborn children. Depending upon the future needs for society and the ecosystem, the automobile, as we know, it may become a thing of the past.

I do not deny that change is in order. But, during the heydey of the automobile, and during my lifetime, it's been quite a ride.

To read further about automobiles and their cultural/social impact:

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. A Social History of American Technology
Flink, James J. The Automobile Age

Flink, James J. The Car Culture
Foster, Mark S. A Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in America Since 1945
Lewis, David L. The Automobile and American Culture
McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path
Mintz, Steven. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life
Scharff, Virginia. Take the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age
Volti, Rudi. Cars and Culture: The Life Story of a Technology
Wollen, Peter. Autopia: Cars and Culture

[1-7]. Ruth Schwartz Cowan. A Social History of American Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 224-248.


Lidian said...

Great post and great photos - I remember when cars were really big! You brought back some sixties memories for me...and I remember no seat belts too, just bouncing around in the back or lying down to nap. Incredible to think of now!

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

This was a fun read. I remember our wagon and going to the drive-in. We'd take sleeping bags and fall asleep during the second feature. I've had a couple of little, sporty cars that were fun to drive on the highway. I now have a big "old lady" car, comfortable on long trips.

I love seeing snowbanks taller than mine!

Colleen said...

ah yes, the drive in with sleeping bags and pillows.

And the kiddie playground up by the screen, and pre-movie cartoons ....

And ...

Okay, 'nuf said.