Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Car My Dad Bought

There are a lot of theories going around as to the reason for the rising price of gasoline. You can take your pick from a whole list that includes the ever-increasing price of crude oil, a weak dollar, unrest in the mideast and even good old-fashioned price fixing.
There is, however, a small but vocal group that is laying the blame squarely where it belongs.
On me.
It's a hypothesis based on the indisputable fact that gas prices go up every time I want to go somewhere.
So I wasn't surprised when the price per gallon pushed the four buck mark as we prepared for our latest 1000-mile jaunt back to the North Carolina beach place where we spend part of our time.
It's been enough to make us talk about making a switch from our three-row grandma-mobile to something more fuel-efficient, though the Ford Freestyle we currently drive gets remarkably good mileage for a 7-passenger vehicle, even when it carries our kayaks on the roof. It's probably not all that likely that we'll ever give up on owning a car that can carry grandchildren and other essential cargo, but it's possible--if fuel costs keep climbing--that we might consider a second car that would serve as a cost-effective, she-and-me cruiser for trips when it's just the two of us.
It's not a bad idea.
It's happened before.
Like when my dad, who drove a 1951 Packard with a giant, straight-eight engine and a back seat big enough to raise a family of four and a litter of puppies, supplemented his fleet with the first-ever Volkswagen Beetle ever owned and operated in Galva. His 1959 bug--which cost all of about $1600 brand new--had a rear-mounted 36-horsepower engine that was absolutely miniscule for that day and age. It had no radio, no radiator (it was air cooled), no meaningful heating system and, of course, no air conditioning. It featured a single electric-powered windshield wiper and, in an interesting bit of stripped-down economizing, no gas gauge. That last little detail was dealt with by the addition of a reserve tank that was accessed by kicking over a floor-mounted lever when the main tank ran dry and the engine started sputtering. This ingenious little devise failed once in awhile when it was accidently moved to the down position before the main tank emptied, or if it wasn't levered back to upright when the tank was filled. Dad and I paid for these missteps a few times with long walks down country roads with the gas can he learned to stow in the under-the-hood storage area. But despite all its little quirks, he--and we--loved the little car. It had a large canvas sun roof that slid back on a track and made the VW downright sporty as we chattered down the road. With mom and dad in the front and my older sister and brother occupying the rear, there was just enough room in the luggage space behind the back seat for yours truly, the shrimpy little brother, who sat and waved jubilantly at the kids who were unlucky enough to be riding in more commonplace vehicles, like Fords and Chevys. Volkswagens were rare in those days, so much so that we would gaily exchange horn honks when we met another one along the way. While it hardly ever needed gas, I doubt fuel economy was dad's only motive back in those 30-cent-a-gallon days. Instead, I think it was just a desire to do something a little different and have a little fun.
Eventually, dad gave the car to my sister to drive after she graduated from college and got her first teaching job. Engine problems brought it home again for a rebuild and a fresh paint job, whereupon it was presented to my brother as his first post-college car. An unexpected skid on a gravel road resulted in a rollover accident that left my brother lucky to be uninjured and the car dented and leaking profusely through the sun roof. By this time, dad was done investing any real money in the car, so it sat.
For me.
And I didn't even have to wait to graduate from college.
I landed my first "real" job in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Us baby boomers had schools bursting at the seams all over America, so Jim Murray, who owned the "trailer factory" north of town, was busy manufacturing temporary trailer/classrooms that would be built and shipped to overcrowded schools throughout the country.
The Raymur Corporation was so busy, in fact, that there was even a job for me, whose carpentry skills were pretty much limited to the rickety little bird houses I hammered together in Cub Scouts.
I proudly announced the news of my new career at supper one night. Looking back, I suppose dad was a little sorry to be losing the services of the unpaid (but fully fed, clothed, nurtured and educated) pharmacy clerk, janitor and jack-of-all-trades that I had become, but I think he was also sort of proud that I had gone out and found a job of my own.
After supper, he tossed me the keys to the Volkswagen.
"You'd better take the car," he said.
As a rite of passage and a thrilling entry into adulthood, this was absolute gangbusters.
I had never had, nor ever really needed a car of my own. Everything in Galva was pretty close by. And I had enough buddies with cars for those adventurous girl-watching forays into exotic lands like Kewanee, Toulon and LaFayette.
The old Volkswagen was the perfect self-governing way to let me test my vehicular wings. Its aging engine and all-bald tires made it reasonably likely that an unauthorized out-of-town girl-hunting excursion would result in big trouble and a return to my brother's Schwinn as my personal mode of transportation. And even I, who knew absolutely nothing about those girls and their preferences, was able to figure out that a leaky roof and the mixed aroma of mildew and exhaust fumes would do nothing to attract the cheerleaders and other glamorous creatures who regularly haunted my dreams.
I was, of course, a teenage boy, so I tried anyway. And somehow we all--me, the car and the cheerleaders--survived without incident.
When I went to college, the car stayed behind. There was no question about taking it along, as it still leaked, sputtered and smelled bad. When I'd come home, I'd start it up and drive it around a little, but for the most part, it sat.
Until one weekend when I came home and dad gave me the news.
"I sold the car," he said. "A guy said he could use the parts, and I figured it was time."
It was like hearing that Old Yeller had died.
But I understood.
I knew my dad pretty well, even then. I knew he couldn't really bring himself to say he was sorry about something as unimportant as an old car. But I knew he was.
Life went on.
I've owned a lot of cars since that beat-up old bug. Now we're thinking--kind of--about the possibility of owning something new.
She's thinking about hybrids and other fuel-efficient models, while I'm wondering if a two-seater convertible might combine the right amount of driving economy and flat-out fun. But to be honest, there's no real hurry or need to make a decision. We'll look and talk and look some more.
And maybe, just maybe, we'll see something perfect. Something that's affordable, efficient and a little bit of fun.
Just like the car my dad bought.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Another Kind of Time Machine

It seems just like the other day when I wrote about the four-wheel time machine we drive from place to place, experiencing the changes of season as we go traveling.
Heck, it really was just the other day--last week, in fact.
As often happens though, a certain sense of serendipity occurs that makes me rethink and revisit what I've just said. While I was satisfied enough to describe a car as a method of time travel, another, more interesting thought escaped me entirely:
We are time machines, each and every one of us.
We, with our memories and remembrances, are able to transport others to times and places that might otherwise be lost forever.
It all became clear when I visited with a friend.
She's someone I've known for as long as I can remember, because she was a good friend of my mother. Mom would be 100 years old this September, a fact that remains quite surprising to me despite the fact that both she and my dad died over 30 years ago. There are still plenty of people around Galva who remember my folks well. Dad was the local pharmacist, and touched many lives with his hard work and quiet good humor. And mom was, well, a perfect people person, who especially enjoyed the friendships she made with "the younger gals" through Women's Club, bridge and church work.
My visitor was one of those young friends, now a grandmother and great-grandmother herself. She had some things to show me; some things to tell me, she said. Not just about my mom, but regarding my grandmother Mamie--my dad's mother and a person I never met.
I wanted to see. I wanted to hear.
"I don't really have that much," she said.
But actually, it was a lot.
One of the things she shared with me was a black-and-white photograph of my mom and the young lady who would become her sister-in-law, my Aunt Mary. They were standing in front of what I recognized as the old North School in Galva, which burned down long ago. A little boy stood with them in the photo.
"That's my brother," said my visitor. "They were his teachers."
Now, I own a lot of pictures of mom, and even a few of Aunt Mary, but this particular place and time was something more than just a snapshot, because I knew that life would change quickly for the two smiling schoolteachers in the photo. Soon, Miss Garrigan would become Mrs. Arntson, as Aunt Mary would join my Uncle Paul in Washington DC, where he had gone to work and go to law school at night. My mother, who was already engaged to my dad at the time, had to wait awhile longer, as the income she earned as an elementary school teacher was a main means of support for her parents, who had lost the family business and home due to the depression. Grade school teachers had to be unmarried in those days, so she would remain Miss Arntson until her mother and father were able to find work. But even that happy eventuality would turn tragic, as my grandmother died after being injured at the Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane in Bartonville, where she and my grandfather had found employment.
Looking at her young, pretty face, I was filled with the bittersweet knowledge of the love and marriage and children just around the corner, but also of the tragedy yet to come in her young life.
And while that precious picture would have been enough to make the visit meaningful to me, there was more.
You see, not only did my visitor know my mom well, she knew my other grandmother, my dad's mother, as well.
I always envied my friends who had grandparents growing up. By the time I was born, when dad was 46 and my mom nearly 40, there was only one left. After the unexpected death of my maternal grandmother, my gramps moved back to the city in Wisconsin where he and she had grown up and were first married. We saw him once in awhile, but it was never enough. And I always felt like I was missing something when my friends would talk about the wonderful times they spent with their grandmothers.
My grandmother Sloan lived in the house where I grew up in the southwest part of town, just down the street from where my friend lived as a little girl.
"Mrs. Sloan lived in the third house down from us," she said. "A neighbor girl and I used to visit her often."
I was anxious to hear. "What was she like?" "What did you talk about?"
My friend remembered the things a third grader remembers.
"She made good cookies," she smiled. "And she gave me this."
She showed me a picture of a little purse--made in the shape of a Santa Claus and meant to be hung on a Christmas tree.
"I still hang it on my tree every year," she said.
Cookies and gifts are little things, I know. But knowing about them helped me imagine the simple warmth and generosity of a woman--my grandmother--who was widowed at a young age and struggled to raise two sons alone. A woman who still had time to visit with a couple of little girls from the neighborhood.
We talked awhile longer, trading memories of people and places we both knew, until it seemed we had shared enough.
But there was one more thing.
"Oh, and your grandmother used to let us grind her coffee beans," she said.
Quick as a wink, my wife rushed to the kitchen and came back with an old wooden coffee grinder that I've owned since it was passed down to me long ago.
"Is this it?" she asked.
My friend smiled.
"Yes, I believe it is," she replied.
As I sat and looked at her as she held that long-kept antique on her lap, I couldn't help thinking about why I love living in a small town so much. Because we know each other and we often know the most precious parts of each other's lives. And so, we talk, we share...and we remember.
Because we are, each and every one of us, a time machine.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Adventures of a Short-Hop Time Traveler

I know I've mentioned before that the idea of time travel has some appeal for me. And while it would probably be more exciting to make the kind of quantum leap from century to century that's been celebrated by authors like Jules Vern and Jack Finney, settling for short hops through the time/space continuum can be interesting, too.
Like a few weeks ago, when we traveled from our beach digs in North Carolina to northern Florida, then back up to Illinois. That down-and-up journey offered an on-the-fly look at just about every phase of spring, as we watched the just-blooming Carolina season transform into the full-out balmy breath of Florida springtime, then undid it all by heading straight north. It seemed to us that Illinois spring was about a month behind the Carolina seasonal change, so we watched things get gradually greener and prettier until we turned back the calendar again with a jarring northbound trek to son Colin's home in Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the Red River from Fargo. The season quickly rolled backwards , as springtide colors faded fast, replaced by snow-filled ditches and crunchy-slushy icecaps on what seemed like just about every one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes. In the Fargo-Moorhead region, the first robins of spring are overshadowed by the area's own sign of the season--the raging Red pouring over its banks and threatening the man-made earthen dykes and sandbag piles with its icy torrent. We walked the downtown riverfront, where streets, sidewalks and stairways mysteriously disappeared into the cresting deluge like some kind of a watery sight gag.
"This is how we know it's spring," said Colin as a helicopter whirred overhead. "Sandbags and the National Guard."
We put the season back into fast forward as we headed south on Monday. Again, we saw the first dabs of color start to appear, with forsythia, daffodils and early tulips in evidence along the way until we arrived back home, where a warm weekend had pushed the magnolias into bloom and the grass had begun the shift from the soft hue of the early season to the rich, growing green of full-blown spring.
By my best reckoning, we've now seen spring appear--and re-appear--no less than five times this season, with every viewing a wonderful affirmation of this glorious season of hope and renewal. Soon, we'll be heading back to North Carolina, where I hope our four-door time machine will introduce us to yet another season.
It's called summer.
Speaking of spring things, my spouse was rushing out the door the other morning, a bit late for a meeting. She had only been gone a minute or two when the phone rang.
"Your squirrel is looking for you," she said.
Yes, Salty, the self-tamed squirrel, who was one of the first Galva residents to greet me when we returned, had tried to tackle her on her way out the door and was now waiting impatiently for yours truly.
It must have been a tough winter in Wiley Park, as his intake has been nothing short of spectacular. It took a handful of potato chips, a slice of bread and a bright red apple to satisfy him before he let me go back to my work. The thing is, this whole man-squirrel symbiotic relationship has been all his idea. But now that it's established, I'm a little concerned about what the bushy-tailed little eating machine will do without me when we're in the North Carolina phase of our bi-coastal living scheme. Maybe he'll have to learn to forage and gather like the rest of the squirrels. Or perhaps Shannon, our neighborhood cat whisperer, will agree to toss Salty a snack when she comes by to offer bad-cat Max a bit of food and companionship.
Or maybe I'll just leave him a few bucks so he can go downtown and buy his own.
Speaking of the things I think about when I'm gone, there were, I admit, a few things on my mind the first time we stayed away from home for a couple of months. I fretted about the very infrastructure of our home, wondering if the boiler was still boiling and the hot water heater heating.
I worried about the left-behind cat, despite that fact that he was getting a full measure of company and food every day.
And then there was my beloved 1994 Isuzu Trooper.
I figure it's not that crazy to have an up-close-and-personal relationship with a vehicle that has safely carted you around for nearly a quarter of a million miles. There are friends, co-workers and family members, even, who seem to think I should move up to something a little spiffier. Something a little more fuel-efficient. And something with doors that actually work.
I've written before about the daily encounters I've had with the driver's side door of the rusty, trusty Trooper. I've told you all about the precise slamming techniques and the well-engineered application of bungee cords required to prevent me--the driver--from being hurled out of that unpredictable portal and into the path of oncoming traffic.
Well, it's gotten worst.
It happened during the Christmas holidays while both of our sons and their families were home for a visit. They were on their way downtown for dinner and a spot of holiday revelry with a few friends. Knowing that snow was forecast for later that evening, I made a request.
"Can you guys pull my car into the driveway when you get home?" I asked, wanting to get it out of the way if the plows came through before morning.
"No problem, dad," they said in the same "we-hear-you-but-we're-not-really-listening" tone that used to occasionally make me want to send them to military school or one of those scared straight boot camps in their younger days.
I'm not sure how I really feel about the whole "nature versus nurture" debate, but I do think there are some things that should be understood intuitively by our children, as part of the inherited bloodline.
Not so much.
Instead of applying just the right amount of patient leverage, gentle force and engineering genius needed to open and close the door, they jerked it open and slammed it shut with a total disregard for the delicate balance that my careful ministrations had kept intact over the past couple of years.
The door hasn't been the same since.
I've tried new techniques and even more bungee cords and straps, but nothing seems to make the door want to do even the basics, like stay shut and keep a reasonable amount of wind and water at bay. I've even gone so far as to consider buying a new (old) one, searching out replacements via a series of websites connected to the vast network of junkyards in this great nation of ours.
I was running through a list of candidates, paying the most attention to price and shipping charges.
"Do you think the color of the door matters that much?" I asked my spouse.
Now, I think it's a blessing to be able to make people happy, but I confess that her peals of laughter began to get on my nerves a bit after the first ten minutes or so. I haven't really been able to wash the rusty, trusty, dusty vehicle in several years on account of that pesky leaking door problem, so color--or appearance of any kind--has, I guess, become immaterial.
I never did get around to taking the plunge and buying that new (old) door, and we're heading south soon, so I'll just do my best to clamp it shut with a renewed combination of cords, nylon rope and, perhaps, a little duct tape for good measure.
I know both the car and its interesting engineering challenges will be waiting for me when I return.
In the meantime, if you should happen upon a driver's-side door for a 1994 Isuzu Trooper, feel free to drop it by.
Any color will do.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

From Here to There from Then 'til Now

I was kind of hoping we were done with what my wife calls "home archeology." Put simply, it is the process of rediscovering, sorting, pitching and, in some cases, re-saving the piles and piles of pictures, documents, memorabilia, letters and other timeless flotsam that has attached itself to us as a result of the years and years that my family has lived in Galva. This time, her mission was a full-out frontal attack on a couple of antique catch-alls--A rolltop desk that once belonged to my grandfather and a giant cabinet called "the Bishop Hill desk," that was, according to family legend, built by one of my colony forbearers. Both are loaded with drawers, niches and even secret compartments that are perfect hiding places for a mixed-and-fancy plethora of items like the 1895 lease on my grandfather's optometry office, my dad's 1948 fishing license, and even our own 1974 tax returns.
I've gotta admit that if it was left up to me, I'd probably leave well enough alone and let the next poor suckers along the family tree worry about the whole sort-and-pitch process someday. But she is a kinder soul, plus she knows that if sons Colin and Patrick were given the job, they'd probably react in an understandable way.
Colin: "I always knew they were crazy."
Paddy: "I'm pretty sure this whole place would burn if we just used enough gasoline."
So we started digging.
Over the years, I've become a little more cold-blooded when it comes to keep-or-throw decisions, as I have finally come to the realization that it's not practical to keep every unidentifiable photo, every indecipherable scrap of paper and every aged-out document that ever came into my possession. I'm not quite desperate enough to want to sell my family's effects on Ebay, so I've been destroying the discards a pile at a time.
Of course, that still leaves the other mountain of stuff I want to hang onto.
Like the 1927 "Right Road Service" sheet her digging uncovered.
"Right Road Sheets" were a giveaway item that provided some info about local businesses on one side and driving directions on the other. The sheet in my possession was courtesy of the Hotel Best in Galva, a lodging and dining hotspot that existed from the late 1800s until it was finally torn down in 1997. Located at the south end of Exchange Street, it existed under various names, but probably enjoyed its heyday during the "Best" era starting in 1914. Among the patrons it served were the many salesmen who came here via the CB&Q and Rock Island trains that once made passenger stops in Galva. But by 1927, the automobile had also become a key means of travel.
But it wasn't always easy--or clear--just how to get from here to there.
The advertising on the back of the sheet indicated that the Parkside Hotel in Kewanee was a good place to stay, with rooms (strictly modern) starting at a buck and a half. The Route Number 7 Cafe in Sheffield claimed to be "a darn good place to eat," while Humprhey's Garage in Wyoming was an agent for Buick, Reo and Star cars that offered "first class mechanics" and a "towing outfit."
A few years earlier, both Galva and Kewanee were served by "The Cannonball Route," a Chicago-to-Hannibal, Missouri road that was marked with black cannonballs on poles, according to a Kansas City mapmaker that also proudly proclaimed, "We log and map roads that go somewhere."
By 1927, the state of Illinois had gotten involved in naming highways, with the federal government just behind. An online look at a 1927 Illinois roadmap showed road numbers like 28, 7, 2 and 30 in our area, along with a myriad of unmarked secondary paths, which could make the process of getting from point A to point B a little dicey.
That's where the "Right Road Service" sheets came in. Instead of a map, they provided written step-by-step directions from, in this case, the Hotel Best in Galva, to a variety of other towns, including Kewanee, Chicago and St, Louis, and many of the smaller burgs in between.
""Ask no questions," exclaimed the sheet, which would seem to indicate that, even then, drivers of the male persuasion preferred bumbling on to stopping and asking directions.
It also said, "We wish you good luck on your way," which kind of hinted that no amount of careful directions would fully guarantee an absolute trouble-free trip.
Some of the instructions are pretty simple, like the Galva to Kewanee route, which merely required hopping on Route 28. But going a little further afield could get a little more complex, especially after a hard rain. For instance the route from Galva to Bradford required the driver to leave the Route 28 "hard road" at about the spot where route 93 cuts that way now.
"Continue straight ahead east on dirt road to end of road. Turn right and go until you come to a church, then turn left and follow main traveled angling road through Elmira and on to Bradford."
Now, those of us who drive the backroads can probably guess just about where that route still goes, but the combination of dirt roads and terms like "main traveled road," which probably refers to the cowpath with the deepest set of wheel tracks, would have made the 26-mile jaunt from Galva to Bradford a bit of adventure in the wrong conditions. Ditto a journey like the one from Galva to Moline, which included a "short-cut when roads are good" that would save 20 miles for a daring driver, but add nothing but trouble for an unlucky one. As I read the description of each route, it was easy to figure that some of the lengthier passages described--like the 246-mile trip to St. Louis--would have been long, lonely and potentially harrowing.
But maybe not.
Long, yes, because none of those routes--even the "hard roads"--were built for speed. And it was probably easy to stray off those "main traveled roads" from time to time, but that even happens nowadays on the most modern byways, like the last time I challenged the Dan Ryan Expressway after dark.
But keep in mind that many of those 1927 travelers had experienced other, earlier modes of transportation in their lifetimes, as well. Compared to a slow, bumpy ride in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, even the roughest, most challenging auto trip was pretty slick, indeed. I'm betting many of those 1927 travelers were simply inspired by the newfound freedom car travel offered them. They went places. They expected an adventure. And often, that's what they got.
So, here's the plan.
I'm thinking a copy of that sheet might be a nice addition to the stack of maps and gazetteers I keep handy when I hit the road. I'd like to give some of those routes a try. It ought to be fun, though I suspect some of the churches and many of the country schools, corn cribs and barns they used as landmarks have vanished into history.
But hey, if I do get a little turned around and end up in, say, Sheffield some day when I'm really headed for Victoria, I'll just take a break and look up the Route No. 7 Cafe.
Word has it, they've got darn good eats.