It was a lot of money in the early 60’s. $2.06 an hour!
I had experienced unemployment. I had delivered newspapers and magazines door to door. I had been a hockey program assembler at a printing firm where I earned a few pennies an hour. And I had worked as a auto parts clerk at a small accessories store, where my weekly net pay was $24.17.
The big dollar excitement came when I landed a job in the steel plant general labour pool. Times were good and they were hiring. Steady work and a future. Why, I’d be starting with at least $70 a week. This was more than enough to start my life of independence.
In very short order, I moved on from the yard and found myself working the midnight shift loading steel rails on ships bound for God knows where. And at some point, I had gotten myself elected shop steward of the United Steel Workers of America. Suddenly, I had prestige and was making the good money that comes with flat rate plus tonnage. Who could ask for anything more? Well, I wanted a car.
A car is, as every teenager knows, the first measure of adulthood, whatever your class or station in life. This “rite de passage” is more significant that shooting one’s first elephant. It is way beyond one’s first real date and subsequent first on-target kiss. It represents, as Henry Ford well knew, the moment of truth – the separation of the sheep from the shakers and movers.
This big step must be handled personally. It is not a time to seek advice from one’s father or mother, even though you would not have to beg for that advice. You go into this knowing that you can (and likely will) make mistakes. You accept that. What you would never accept is admitting it.
My first payday at the docks found me at the local used car dealership. And there it was. It was clearly waiting for me. Long, black, shiny, four tires, front and back seats, a steering wheel, and most important of all, a beautiful full-throated AM radio guaranteed to blast the fog from the windows and anyone over 25 from the car itself.
Under the hood? I don’t actually recall looking there, though I must have asked if there was an engine. Rust? Why would there be rust on a good as new car?? I ran to the salesman’s office to sign whatever he put in front of me. One of those documents was a financing contract, and today I really do wish I had read the large print.
My mind was fixed on only one thing: getting my citizen’s band (CB) radio and antenna installed and heading out on the highway. I had already picked out the CB that would be installed on day two. I fantasized speeding down the highway calling, “Breaker, breaker, Mad Dog to Whiz Kid Four, do you copy?”
In the 60’s, cars were an immense high, girls were women and the music, only fully enjoyed at high highway speeds. Dances were good plain fun and drugs were something your mom sent you to the pharmacy for when somebody got sick. Tempting fate had something to do with sharing one pint of beer with a half dozen friends. Such a risky venture as this was always followed by a swoosh of Listerine that near eradicated your breath altogether.
As critical to growing up and having fun as they were, cars did cost a lot, even then. Those concerns were, however, mainly for those slackers who weren’t going to be making close to a hundred dollars a week, stuck in jobs where there wasn’t anywhere near the guaranteed security that I would have at the docks.
The future was bright, and into that bright future I’d be driving behind the wheel of my shiny, almost new Pontiac Parisienne. What more reassurance did I need than the confidence the finance company had shown in me?
I was on cloud nine. It was a time of huge paychecks, not to mention the adrenalin high of working the midnight shift as a dockworker. And then came quitting time when, into my shiny black, very fast, Pontiac Parisienne, I would leap for a few tours of the town before passing out in complete exhaustion. This was darn close to destiny fulfilled.
Something should be said about the social and economic environment wherein these events were experienced. The coal and steel towns of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia were small communities by today’s standards, but relatively large in the context of the 60’s. Mainland magazines would call the folks around there “blue collar,” but we probably would have called ourselves just “hard working.”
These were towns where sons did what fathers did, where daughters did what mothers did. And these were towns where sons and daughters probably repeated each and every single mistake that their parents made in their own lives. None of these folks would consider for one moment that the way of things could change, or appropriate that they should. In steel and mining towns, you enjoyed what you could, when you could. There were good times. There were long, unhappy bad times. Often, when the good times came, there was only tired relief. Celebrations seemed to focus on the birth and growth of children and grandchildren.
But this is digression…we were talking cars, specifically about boys and their first car. Some observers of the human condition have said that a man doesn’t forget his first woman. That may be true, but equally, a boy entering manhood never forgets his first car. He remembers his dreams, his final fulfillment, his thrills and his agonies.
He remembers too the “revelations” that came with his own wheels. The first of these was the number of instant friends one gained. Gaining friends is of course not the reason you get a car. If you weren’t successful and popular, you wouldn’t have the wherewithal to be buying a car anyway. And these friends seem to have the most incredible needs to get somewhere distant at the most inconvenient times imaginable.
The second revelation is something called “operating costs.” I am quite sure nobody ever told me about the cost of gas. And I am absolutely sure that no one ever told me about the cost of mechanical repairs. Even though I had worked for a year as a car parts salesman, I was appalled to discover these guys charged three times the retail price to install it. Then there was insurance. I felt like I was being made to suffer and repent for the sins of every bad driver since the Model “T” hit the streets.
The third revelation is about how bits and pieces of my shiny new car seemed to pop off or break with annoying, and embarrassing regularity. One day I rolled back the floor carpet and found….the road. Yep…had to do with something called “rust.” It scared me just a little bit to discover that I had been driving all those miles with nothing between me and a fast moving asphalt strip but a half-inch of furry nylon.
All these revelations, as awful as they were, paled before that fateful day when I took my father for a drive in my new car.
“A beauty, eh,” said I, as we tooled down the road towards open
country, and freedom from the ills of the inner city. It was Saturday afternoon and he had finally succumbed to my several offers to “come for a test drive.” Not that I would ever let him take the wheel. Not that he ever would ask. These rules are from unknown primeval sources.
“Not bad,” said he, as he cautiously allowed his eyes to roam the interior. “Great radio.” We traveled another mile or two, the wind blowing a gale through the open windows. “Everything OK underneath?” he asked. This was a permitted question, given that you couldn’t easily see the underside. Just so long as it wasn’t followed up with criticism, real or implied.
“Nah,” says I, “didn’t bother. The salesman was a straight guy who told me it had never been more than three blocks from home. Summer driving only.” That line, incredibly, was new to me then. I couldn’t even guess how many times I have heard it since.
“What’s the acceleration like?” Now this struck me as a bit of an odd, and possibly dangerous question. “Brilliant,” I said. “Did you think it was losing its edge because it’s a couple of years old?” This of course represented a grievous error on my part. Too late, I realized that I had gone defensive with what was probably an innocuous question.
“No, no,” he said, “quite the contrary. It’s just that she seems to have an acceleration boost of some sort. Who exactly owned it before?”
I knew I was now on dangerous ground, but for the life of me had no idea why. What the devil is an “acceleration boost?”
“Had she had any accidents?” I really did appreciate his calling my beauty “she.”
“Not a one,” I replied, “I made a definite point of asking the salesman about that.”
My father ruminated on these, and presumably other matters as I showed him how loud the radio could go and how fast I could drive on the most narrow and winding roads I could find.
He didn’t say much for some time, and I felt a slight unease creep in. I replayed our conversation, wondering what, if anything, had caused him to slip into a thoughtful funk. My bravado started to shrivel.
Though my friends and I suffered parents as a biological necessity; in truth, we longed for acceptance and praise. But such came only infrequently. What came with tedious regularity were the arched eyebrow, and the all too frequent critique. Years of this treatment eliminated all interest in seeking advice, but nothing would ever eradicate one’s needs for reassurance and encouragement.
My father, who of course experienced all these things with his father, was sensitive to all these issues. On our return to the house I was rewarded with a thanks for the drive in the country. He stood there with me for a moment, surveying my first tangible asset.
But now I was sure that something was indeed amiss. He asked if he could look in the trunk. That baffled me. “Sure,” I said, as I ran for the key. It popped open with a reassuring “pong.” He searched the trunk carefully, looking for what I could not imagine.
He found a small repair on the sidewall. It had completely escaped my notice. “She used to have a whip aerial,” he said. The significance of this to me was zero. And what he said next floored me. “What decided you to buy a second hand police car?” He must have heard my “gulp.” But he didn’t follow this with any comment or criticism – leaving me with the clear impression that he honestly wanted to know what my motives were. I was very pleased, to say the least, but I was too dumbfounded to even imagine a response. I seem to recall the best I could come up with was a lopsided grin, a grin that must have convinced him I was completely bonkers.
In the two years following, the significance of that little bit of history became quite clear indeed. The “acceleration boost” that may have helped capture hundreds of evildoers, had also ground the engine’s pistons to Jell-O. Tramping through snow, fields, floods and who knows what else had just about demolished the vehicle’s suspension. I am now convinced it had been bonded with plumber’s putty to allow it to get off the lot without coming all apart. And the brutal man-handling that service vehicles get meant that there was the creeping evil of rust behind every screw and in every crack and crevice.
I took the Pontiac Parisienne with me when I went to college. Returning to school was a decision I made when I got very tired of being a back shift stevedore who often failed to reach quota. And I had become very, very tired of being laid off every three months.
When the finance company came to re-possess my car, there wasn’t much for them to gloat over. There were more spots with rust than without. Where the antennae had been, there was now a gaping hole – a suitable match for the one under the driver’s feet. The black smoke it now gave off reminded me of the smokestack of a battleship. She was on her last legs, but I stood proud as they drove her away.
As sad as this denouement may seem, I need to remind my readers that it was merely the final chapter in a really quite good novel. One shouldn’t judge a book merely by its ending. And there is the larger picture: this was my first car. We boys don’t ever forget that. Now, if I could only remember the name of my first love……………
[This essay appeared in The Coastal Courier on July 24, 1993]