My mother loved to drive fast. Faster than my father, which seemed somehow strange in 1957, when men were men and cars were men-things with roaring engines and huge tail-fins. Our gray Buick Roadmaster was, however, just the right wheels for my mother. Big, wide, powerful, stable, nice red leather seats, lots of style. Fake air intakes on each front fender, really just holes punched in the metal, rimmed with chrome, only about two inches deep where they stopped abruptly at a black metal plate; enough to look real.
And that beast ran fast and strong, eating gasoline as it rolled down the road. Or while in the gas station. The joke was you had to turn off the engine while filling the tank, or it would burn fuel faster than the pump could dispense it.
Our Roadmaster was part of our family’s unspoken dominance of our middle-class block. We always send subtle messages of financial success that I am sure were not perceived as subtle. Biggest round-screen television on the street. First post-war vehicle on the street, a green Dodge coupe fresh from the newly reopened automobile plants. A cabin in the mountains for the entire summer, not the two weeks afforded most families, where we could bring up all our summer clothes and ensconce our family more or less in the manner of a cabin owner; we even had our own hand-pumped DDT sprayer, brought up from the City, to shoot down the invading mosquitos and hornets, unaware that each push of the plunger into that narrow orange tube of poison was supposed to be taking months off our lives as we breathed deeply the sweet aroma.
The Buick, the largest Buick, was another statement; it was not a Cadillac but only the local doctors had Caddys. The lesser nouveaus had big Buicks, or maybe an Oldsmobile. That summer we broke tradition and took an eight-week tour-de-USA rather than go “to the mountains.” A break from gin rummy and mah jong and weekend borscht circuit comics for my parents; no Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and their filthy “fuck-filled” comedy routine; no Henny Youngman and his jokes with Yiddish punch-lines; no bunch of kids running up the hills, harvesting buckets of high-bush blueberries and carrying them back to the cabin where they would be de-stemmed, dumped into a big bowl without need to wash them as they were wild and not sprayed with anything, and then topped with the cream floating on the top of the milk bottles. Our family was redefining our summer genre. We were going “out West.”
We sat for days that Spring laying out the itinerary. We used trip tickets, strip maps from the Triple AAA, to plan our route. We used the AAA guide to select hotels and motels; my mother was not one to sleep just in any old place, and my father was not one to leave our accommodations to chance. He would estimate travel times, telephone ahead, and send a check by mail and request a written room reservation be mailed to our home. He filed the confirmations along with the maps of each area and notes on local attractions in one of his legal folders. Our trip was planned for every single night. It never occurred to us that anything might interfere with our schedule. And with motel rooms at the high end charging an unheard-of $12 per night, you would have been crazy to decide on a side-trip and blow that kind of money on a whim.
We did have one planning advantage, however. We were able to plan ambitiously, including all sorts of semi-minor attractions within our time budget because we had two drivers, my competent father and my daredevil mother. We assumed that, as a woman, she was inherently careful and of good judgment so, when we decided to drive that first day from Brooklyn, New York to Ames Iowa, we dutifully arose at 3 am, left with our pre-packed bags at 3:30, and as we cleared Manhattan at the crack of dawn my father gave the wheel to my mother and rest was history. The Interstate road system was far from complete, but major sections allowed us to roll at seventy miles per hour and, when you finally hit places like Wyoming and Montana and Utah and New Mexico, there were no speed limits in some places and many ignored admonitions not to exceed 80 or 90.
A Roadmaster, properly broken in, can cruise in total comfort at a hundred. You can let it creep above that on the down-slopes, particularly on Western roads that are two-lane but with visibility of five miles ahead. And with easy identification of an oncoming car, a dark moving big on a silver sun-reflecting ribbon of road, there was always time to make sure you put two hands on the wheel and slow way down to ninety.
We had swung South that day, August 14, 1957, and we were fully gassed and the windows are rolled up and I was reading from my pile of comic books and occasionally glancing up as a couple of cars pass by, heading against us into the sun, as I was paid a nickel for every fifty Fords I counted on the trip and you didn’t want to miss any cars at that rate, seeing as how a Hershey bar was a nickel and a double feature at the theater was a quarter. I would argue now and again that Ford trucks should be counted, chaffing against the palpably unfair “private cars only rule.” The windshield was already festooned with viscous white splotches and discrete red circles and any number of waving insect wings, and mother was casually steering at a hundred miles an hour, and I was in the front seat, leaning towards oncoming traffic and looking for the boxy dullness of my Fords, each a tenth of cent but my how those do add up when you are on the road for six weeks, even if you don’t consider those lucky few moments when your AAA strip map happens to guide you alongside a field of new Fords awaiting transshipment to a local dealer.
Then, suddenly, there is a quick distant pop and an instantaneous thumping below us. There was nothing for us to hit, but I catch in the corner of my eye a rolling, bouncing black banana peel in my rear view mirror, and then the constant low screech of metal on the concrete road.
“What the hell was that, Bets?” My father’s back-seat reverie has been invaded.
“Think we blew a tire,” said my mother with the same tone as “do you want your oatmeal with raisins?”
“Front or rear,” my father asks, great concern in his voice even as the car is slowing, we are all the way down to 75 and the car is pitched forward and to the passenger side.
“Front right,” says mother, which at the time impressed me with her grasp of automobiles until I later realized that she was holding the wheel and no doubt had an intimate feel for the moment.
“Fa godzake, slow down and get over,” yelled my normally laconic father.
“Don’t think that’s so smart, Mick,” she said, holding straight down the road, not sharing my total front seat panic as I saw a truck coming towards us on the narrow opposing lane. “We’re all the way down to 60 and I am afraid to turn the wheel with no tire.”
“Saw it strip off in my mirror a mile back, I think.”
“Mom,” I yelled to no advantage.
“Don’t worry,” she replied.
Being an obedient teen, I didn’t. Which was stupid but comforting.
At around 30, mom gave the wheel a slight nudge towards the side of the road, which caused the car to buck deeply and then there were a bunch of sparks in the rear view mirror. We straightened out, but our path now had our right tires off the pavement and my mother was pulling the wheel left to stay straight as we slowed quickly. And finally, it was over, the car half on the roadway and half on the dirt shoulder. Behind us, a long dirt furrow paralleled the highway, ending at our right front wheel. Although there wasn’t any wheel, just a few metal shards bolted to the axle.
“Shit,” I said.
“Move away from the car, please,” said mother. “And while you’re at it, watch your tongue, young man.”
Father tied his handkerchief to the radio aerial, and the very next car pulled over and asked if we had a problem. America was a simpler place then, one car came along and that one car stopped. The driver dried his palms on his denim trousers, bent down and looked at the front non-wheel, and said he would give us a lift to Johansen’s Garage in Dodge. My father went to lock up our car and the farmer smiled. “We’re from the city,” I explained.
“I know,” the farmer said, and smiled some more.
The chief mechanic and, turns out the owner, of Johansen’s garage is an Irishman named McNamara. One of those “call me Mac” McNamara’s. There is no Johansen in sight. But Mac has no charming Irish brogue; he sounds just like someone from Kansas, with a soft nasal twang just creeping out of the thin slit he allowed his mouth to reveal.
“She looks pretty bad.”
Mother: “Oh dear.”
Father: “How much pretty bad?”
Mac: “Well, the wheel is just gone, ya know? Brake shot; can’t tell if there is anything with the axle until I crank her up. Don’t keep wheels that’d fit that car, not here. We got ‘em for Fords and Chevy trucks and for the DeSoto and the Hudson but got no call for parts for Buicks. Take me a few days to get the part from Chicago, maybe Detroit, dunno, never ordered nuthin’ for these big GM cars, ya know?”
Father: “But you don’t understand, sir,” with emphasis on the “sir,” we do not have a few days, indeed we have reservations in Wichita for tonight and then reservations for, uh, Bets, where are we after Wichita?”
Mac: “Well, we got a hotel here in Dodge, actually one of those new motels also. I could run you folks down to there.”
My father put on his low, reasonable lawyer’s voice. “You don’t quite understand what I am saying. It’s not you, I’m sure I have not made myself clear. We have PAID reservations for tonight and for the next, let’s see, 33 nights all across the country. We simply cannot lose our, uh, momentum.”
Mac stepped back and looked at father. Indeed he looked at us all together, in detail, for the very first time. He rested his leg on our front bumper, adjusted his weight to counterbalance the tilt, pulled out a small rag and mopped his forehead and told us the facts of life.
“You folks are not understanding ME,” he allowed pleasantly but firmly. “I do not have a wheel for this car. I do not have an axle or a brake pad for this car. Don’t ask me about other garages because I own the best stocked garage in three counties.” He paused, leaned in as if to tell us a confidential secret: “If there were a garage next door so you could go ask, you still wouldn’t find no parts for that car. This is John Deere and Ford flatbed country, folks. Not even the biggest farmer in greater Dodge has anything with as much chrome as you are toting around. I gotta call somewhere, maybe the factory, they gotta figure out the buses to get it here, and first I gotta figure out just what we actually are going to need at this end.”
Mac paused for effect, then continued. “Greater Dodge City has a lot to offer the vacationer, I hear. I can get Nick at the Chamber of Commerce to take you under his wing while you’re waiting. Mrs. Tucker’s restaurant serves a passable chicken pot pie and though the town is dry, I think I can help you folks get some Seagrams Seven to pass away the two or three nights you will be visiting us.”
I felt like crying but mother beat me to it. Strange, also, as I had never seen her cry, even at her father’s funeral where she stood surrounded by her family and announced that everyone dies and even if grandpa had lived a long life, which he had not, we would have felt the same way so we should just get used to the situation. She was pretty good at it too, not over the top, just a discrete inhalation carefully delivered as if she had attempted to squelch it but, so upset she was, it just sort of leaked out.
“Lady,” said Mac as he turned away, “I can listen to you cry or I can jack up your car and try to help you. I’m going to get my jack and tools from the truck, and that should give yourself enough time to pull yourself together.” Wow, I thought, as he turned towards his vehicle, was that a simple mid-Western taciturn John Wayne style bit of truth telling, or was there a mild tinge of sarcasm woven in there near the end? I ended up voting for sarcasm; if I was only fourteen years old and could still feel it, then it sort of had to be there for the listening….
Dad spent that night recalculating. By increasing miles per day, we did not have to change everything. Most future reservations could be rolled over or another location found. It was Wednesday and Mac finally declared we could be on the road Friday afternoon and so the future was secured with minimal losses. It also occurred to me that the increased driving schedule would give my mother more time at the wheel. I wondered secretly if that positive aspect might have crept into her mind. With mothers, you never know.
“That there is a real colt six shooter, 1880 or so.” I was holding an enormously heavy silver pistol with a black iron handle. I was trying to hold it upright with just one hand and without putting my finger through the trigger guard, even though Cowboy Billy had assured me it was not loaded. We were at “Olde Dodge City,” a family of tourists although we were the only ones who were present by accident as opposed to by choice.
“Hold it steady, there, pard,” allowed Cowboy Billy, who seemed to have an authentic mid-Western accent except when he got annoyed at our group of teens, in which event there was a twinge of Jersey City on offer. I was the most awkward of the five of us, even more out of balance than Valerie, who at sixteen (as she announced) was really misplaced with the children’s group.
“I’m trying,” I whined.
“See over there,” said Cowboy Billy, although not indicating the location of the “where.” That thar is Boot Hill, and that very kind of six-shooter, maybe even that very gun, put the men whose tombstones you’re seein’ into that cold earth maybe 75 years ago.”
I recalled being shown a totally unbelievable fenced plot of about 10,000 square feet, on which were planted, mostly askew, about a dozen fat crosses with epitaphs appropriate to the audience. My favorite: “Here lies Three Fingers Jones, Rotting down to his bones, He caught an Earp bullet, Then died like a pullet, and we held down his coffin with stones.”
Someone running “Olde Dodge City” had a vivid imagination and was also none too bright.
“Let’s go over to the ole saloon, why don’t we,” allowed Cowboy Billy with an exaggerated drawl. “You guys and gals, just put your Colts down over there and follow me.” As I placed my weapon gingerly on the table, I happened to notice the “Made in Japan” legend cut into the bottom of the handle, and was about to ask Cowboy Billy about that until I thought better of it.
The highlight was the Dodge Saloon and Gambling Hall. It was borrowed, I could swear, from a Republic Pictures oater I had seen where someone who looked like Gene Autry was forced to shoot someone who looked like Jack Palance; the decedent fell neatly backwards out of the front doors, framing a perfect Hollywood death with the corpse draped down the steps head on the ground, while those doors swung and creaked a couple of cycles before they finally rested as a still memorial to the unhappy cowboy who messed with the actor who wore the white shirt. We got to play the roulette table for jelly beans, and had our colas poured for us out of recycled bottles labeled “Rotgut” and “Moonshine.”
My father looked amused. My mother wanted to ride one of the small fly-bedecked horses tied up outside the saloon. I needed to pee, although the Olde Dodge City amusement park was unfortunately quite historically accurate, as the bathroom was a malodorous outhouse so odious that even the flies seemed to prefer the horses. We threw darts at Wanted Posters for the Clanton Brothers. We ended at the OK Coral. My father gave Cowboy Billy two bucks as a tip. Day one ended with chicken pot pie; Mrs. Tucker really could cook.
Day two—well, truth be told a visit to Dodge was really a one-day event, as there wasn’t anything to do on day two. Dodge was hot and small and the historical society was open only on weekends and this was Thursday. It was too hot to hike. My parents sat on folding chairs by the motel pool, reading and playing gin rummy. I was given five dollars, and walked up and down the main street and could only manage to spend a dime on a bottle of Yoohoo. In front of the Five and Ten, I tried to talk to a group of local teens but after a couple of minutes I lost their attention and they drifted off in pairs, pretending to talk to each other. That night Mrs. Tucker was given a chance with braised ribs; Mrs. Tucker better stick to chicken pot pies.
After a late breakfast we walked over to find Mac; our car was just coming down off the garage lift. It had a new front right tire and, behind it, we were assured there was a metal wheel and a new brake assembly. No one had thought to get a hub cap, but by then we were all ready to leave Dodge behind us even if the Roadmaster had been stripped of hubcaps, chrome and its silver paint. My father was worried that Mac would not take a check, but Mac was not from New York City, and threw our check into the cigar box he used as a cash drawer without even writing our telephone number on it.
So we left Dodge City 68 hours after we arrived, 72 years after Wyatt Earp arrived, 70 years after Ike Clanton took a bullet in his mouth and ended up under the sod of the real Boot Hill, wherever that might be located in the world of 1957. My mother drove out, but had the courtesy to hit a hundred only after we cleared the city limits. I wrote Mac a post card from the Grand Canyon but then lost his street address.
As if you needed a street address in Dodge City. All you would need, come to think of it, was to say “c/o Johansen’s garage.”
Actually, maybe all you would need was to address it to “Mac.”