Cars have lost much of the character they once had. Long gone are the heavy real metal bumpers that could push another automobile out of a ditch and never sustain a scratch or dent. You don’t see moon hubcaps that could reflect your image like your own personal funhouse of mirrors or trunks big enough to stuff a body into, (not that anyone ever did.) How about the steering wheels, many were as big as the wheels they commanded. Cars are no longer described using words such as, “a buoyant restful ride; or, a gentle easy-going boulevard ride.” Those words just inspire the image of a big Packard rolling down Main Street on a Saturday night.
Gone are the little side windows you could pop out to funnel just the right amount of air to keep you cool without blowing you apart or impaling you with passing grasshoppers. And, you will never again find the most convenient feature of all, the headlight dimmer mounted just to the left of the driver’s foot.
What genius took that away?
Today’s automobiles spend more time thinking for us and protecting us than they do transporting us from one place to another. Cars can email us, they can give us updates on their condition and we are getting very close to self-driving cars. Almost every car today can tell you if someone is beside you, behind you and if you are too close to the car in front of you, it will stop you. I am waiting for the day when in the middle of a July downpour it pumps its own gas so the driver stays dry or after hitting a Pennsylvania pothole, it drops a new tire to replace the flat that is whopping along like a deflated basketball.
Cars of the present have short lives and are often replaced with ones bigger, better and faster after a few years of ownership. They rarely stick around long enough to become part of a family history.
None of this was the case with our first family car a 1948’ish Desoto, “Black Beauty.” Yes she had a name just like everyone else in the family. Dad never said I need to take the car in for service, it was “I need to take Black Beauty to Rich’s tomorrow.” Rich Hall, who owned and operated Hall Motor’s in town was Black Beauty’s doctor. Dad never brought “the car” around for us on Sunday mornings. Instead, once he was in shirt and tie he would announce that he was going down to get Black Beauty. We would finish dressing and then we met the two of them at the corner and loaded up for church. Once all the doors were closed, dad would proclaim, “Okay Mrs. S, we are all in.” Mrs. S was the neighbor directly across the street from our loading point. She must have mentioned to mom somewhere along the line that we disturb her sleep on Sunday mornings and that, “you Catholics go to church way too early in the morning.”
I can’t tell you the exact date when Black Beauty came into the family but I can tell you about the day. I was uptown, probably at the movies or library with either Tom or Mary and walking down 18th street I could see a strange car parked in front of the garage. We didn’t call that area a driveway because there was never a car parked in it until this day. But on this day, in the driveway sat a black, long nosed beauty. She had moon hubcaps which were framed by two inch wide white walls and a glass, naked lady that flew in the face of the wind as a hood ornament befitting the figureheads of the finest sailing ships of old.
If you are a follower of these stories you have already met Black Beauty several times. It was Black Beauty that drove me to the hospital the snowy morning after a birthday to have my tonsils removed. It was Black Beauty that dad would park in a prime spot uptown and then we would join her later in the evening to “people watch” and eat popcorn from the Rivoli Theater.
It was Black Beauty that made an attempt at a career as a tree trimmer.
After one rough Nebraska windstorm, the Dutch elm tree on the front terrace shed a limb that was hanging precariously over the street just waiting to drop on an unfortunate driver. Dad thought it was his civic duty to remove the impending danger.
Where Dad found the rope to start this operation is still a mystery to me. The rope was as thick as my young arm and long enough for him to somehow get it up in the tree, over the dangling limb and back down to earth. The next step was to tie the rope to Black Beauty’s rear bumper. A bumper that was definitely strong enough to tackle a little ole limb.
Dad climbed into the saddle of Black Beauty and Tom, who at that time was probably thinner than the rope being used stood to the rear to give guidance. Tom slapped the back of Black Beauty like he was sending a race horse down the track. Dad gunned her engine and she pulled with all of her might until,
She ran out of rope.
The limb, which we now know was not totally broken off, pulled back like a deep sea fisherman hooking the fish of a lifetime. Black Beauty lifted her rear wheels off the ground and dangled on her front two for a split second. And then, with a few more like bounces the battle was over. The limb held its position with a taught line waiting for the fish to be cut free. Black Beauty if she could talk probably would have the same stunned reaction that dad did stepping out.
Tom and Dad both looked at the situation like guys do thinking that a careful and intent stare will magically yield and answer. Then one of them came up with the solution, simply cut her free. When the rope was cut, which was now under enough tension we could have used it as a Middle Ages catapult to launch stones to the other side of the neighborhood, Black Beauty immediately settled all of her weight back to the street and tree took back what belonged to it.
The rope and limb both stayed up in the tree until years later when the tree finally died of Dutch elm disease. Black Beauty never volunteered for hazardous duty again.
Black Beauty became a mobile command center for Tom’s Ham Radio hobby. Dad fashioned a sign to the license plate with Tom’s call letters WA0DFX. For a while she sported a long white whip antenna mounted to the bumper. Tom served as the emergency coordinator for the Amateur Radio Club. For that job, Black Beauty was ready to spring into action when called on.
Tom learned to drive with Black Beauty. Tom was never a tall man and in his early driving years he sat on multiple cushions to see over the long nose and utilized built up pedals to reach the brake and gas.
Black Beauty was not above playing a few practical jokes and some of them were at Tom’s expense. One night Tom and I were returning from probably a Stanton’s Lake run or maybe to drop something off at one of his radio buddies when she decided to test his loyalty and honesty. As a good law abiding driver Tom signaled for a right turn coming up. I can remember it as a right turn because we were heading east on 21st street just passing the One Stop Café and turning onto Stone Street. When the turn was complete, the turn signal failed to stop blinking. We were approaching the next intersection with a blinking right turn signal. Tom felt obligated to make the turn since that was what Black Beauty was signaling. Now, Tom was not one to get flustered except when it came to potentially breaking the law. Tom was always a “by the book” man. We have now made one planned right turn and one obligated right turn. We are coming up on the next intersection with the blinker still going, we made another right, and again, and again, and again. Finally, breaking all rules, and I am sure after he checked every mirror for the local constables, stuck out his left hand to manually signal a left hand turn to get us home.
I never remember Black Beauty having an owner’s manual. If there was a manual, it would have had no problem finding room in the bucket size glove box next to a coffee thermos, peanut butter sandwich, pliers, first-aid kit, sewing kit, flashlight, extra batteries for the flashlight, gloves worn for putting on the chains in winter, a bottle of Pepto Bismal, and Blackjack chewing gum.
Black Beauty was our family ride until she was replaced with a 1960 something Dodge Dart with push button drive and this new advantage called air-conditioning. The dart never had a name other than the car or the dart. The dart was the car I learned to drive and it was also the car I managed to get royally stuck on a muddy country road, but that will be another story.
When Black Beauty was traded in for the dart, she made her rounds with several people in town but was eventually put out to pasture. I mean she was parked in a pasture just at the edge of town within sight of the fly saucer water tower of Falls City. For a number of years I watched the weeds grow up around her and secretly wanted to rescue her when I was old enough. She sat there staring back into to town, the sticker I placed on the back side window from Mary’s Navy days was slowly faded by the Nebraska sun and her tires all lost pressure like an elderly person finally surrendering to gravity.
One day Black Beauty was no longer there. Sometimes I imagine when I see an old Desoto at car shows that… maybe Black Beauty donated some of her parts so that others could ride on.
Ya never know.
But I do know that not only people, pets and places come in and out of our lives, but also machines that make our lives easier and they share in some of the same family memories that add to…all part of growing up.