Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Death By Peugeot


There's a lot to be said for childhood innocence, and not burdening one's children with the worries of the world before they really need to know. Let them spend a few golden years swaddled in love and imagining a boo-boo is as bad as it gets. I did. I was gloriously ignorant. For instance, I had no idea how thoroughly endangered we were whenever we got in the car with my father.

Daddy had mostly God-like qualities, like infallibility and grumpiness. My father didn't smite us in any way but he sure could have punched us an early ticket to heaven every time he got behind the wheel. I didn't realize it until I started driving myself.

For one thing, he didn't have any particular skills. And if another driver did something he didn't approve of, which happened constantly, he got all upset and started driving faster to keep up with his blood pressure. You could tell, even from the back seat, when someone did something bad, because Daddy would say "Why, you miserable so-and-so" and start swerving. Speaking of protecting children from the world, "miserable so-and-so" was about as bad as it got. True story: I saw the word SHIT scrawled on a bathroom stall in sixth grade and not too much later I heard someone say it out loud, and I remember thinking: did they read that off the bathroom stall in Taylor Elementary?
 
He also didn't have cars that were necessarily up to the job. I think he researched his auto purchases carefully but I'm not sure what qualities he was going for. Back in those days we didn't have that many divided highways. Your average road was two lanes at best, and if you got stuck behind a slower car you had to pass it in the oncoming lane. Even when I was little I dreaded that. There would be this awful buildup with him edging into the oncoming lane to see if anyone was coming, all tensed up for a few miles, and then all of a sudden he'd stomp on the gas, and our car would get louder but not necessarily any faster, and finally, minutes later, he'd edge back into our lane while we watched oncoming traffic spray gravel out of the shoulders.
 
I know other kids' fathers' cars did better than that. But we never got one of those big boats that when you stomped on the gas it rocketed away. The first car we had was American, but it was no Chevy or Oldsmobile. It was a ten-ton rhinoceros of a Studebaker with suicide doors. It probably would have withstood a heck of an impact but of course we would have long since exited through the windshield. It did have a nice commodious back seat and my sister and I slid side to side on it like ball bearings when we took a curve. You could also kneel backwards on it and play with things on the big back shelf. Butt-first is probably the safer option for going through a windshield.
 
The other problem my dad had with driving is sometimes he kind of forgot he was doing it. We took the country roads all the way, and maybe traffic was sparse, and the thing about George Brewster was he could spot a cool mushroom from fifty yards out. Many people must have wondered why the little gray Peugeot 304 they were following suddenly slammed on the brakes for no reason. There was always a reason. But you had to be inside the car to hear Dad point and yell Ramaria botrytis! and even then you might not get it.
 
I still get a chill from the time we were all in the car, and everyone noticed we had sort of drifted into the oncoming lane, and assumed Daddy was planning to do something about it, what with the oncoming trucks and all, but then we looked over at him and his whole head was cranked to the side admiring the view. We all started screaming and Dad jerked the car back into our lane. The truck was all over his horn when he passed us. I know what he was saying. He was saying Dad was a real miserable so-and-so.


37 comments:

  1. My mom only learned to drive in her late forties because she had to be able to drive me to school. (Catholic elementary schools didn't have school buses -- or even cafeterias. Most of the kids went home for lunch, then came back for afternoon classes.) She seemed to be a pretty good driver, but she had a big-ass 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk. There were no seat belts in those days, and I vividly remember playing Barbies in the back seat with my best friend, Diane Hall, as mom drove to the local shopping center. It never occurred to us that anything bad could happen. Of course, there were fewer cars on the road back then as well. Just yesterday, I was driving down I-95, and swore to myself I would never take it again. I saw THREE horrible accidents (going in the other direction) in just the short stretch I was on. Traffic was at a standstill in that direction, and slowed in my direction by line painters and rubber-neckers. I drove with my jaws clenched and my hands white-knuckled as they clung tightly to the steering wheel. Next time I need to go ANYWHERE, I will take the indirect, more scenic route.

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    1. I drove so little last year ($78 worth of gas) that when I did, I found myself perplexed how to operate the thing. I think I did everything right, but kept second-guessing myself. Did I stop at the stop sign? It's possible this is the first warning of being too old to drive.

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    2. Pfft. You just don't drive enough. Of course, maybe in Portland, you don't HAVE to drive. Delaware HAS buses... but they do not go everywhere and have their times spaced out so that you would have to spend all day getting anywhere. If you can do your marketing and get to alcohol without having to drive to procure it, I wouldn't worry too much about it. But Paul and I live in a "food desert." ANY supermarket is not within walking distance. It would take me all day on a bus to get to the farm markets I frequent. In Delaware, ya need a freakin' car.

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    3. Sorry about that. Walkability is a #1 concern for me. The only time I'd actually need a car is to drive to the coast or the mountain (although I could bicycle either place).

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  2. My father was a terrible tailgater. And would zoom up to things before finally slamming on the brakes at the last possible moment. I didn't notice that as a small child, but as a teenager and older I used to practically put my foot through the floorboards trying to get him to stop well before he seemed to feel it was necessary. It was terrifying. And of course seat belts weren't even a thing until I was an adult with a child of my own - I don't know when they started putting them in new cars, but I do know we actually had to get them installed in my old VW Beetle in 1975 because we had this new baby and needed the seat belt to attach the car seat with, if nothing else!

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    1. Hey, Dad didn't tailgate! I can say that for him. But you remind me of several dads I know who had two speeds, stomping on the gas or the brake.

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  3. Scary. And familiar. Though my father DID consider himself an excellent driver. My rebellious stomach didn't.

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    1. I'm with your stomach on this and I don't even know your father.

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  4. Oh Murr, what a great read this was! Loved the photos (that one of you at the top is priceless), loved even more the hilarious looks back of "Life with Father", Road Edition! I have to get one of my sibs to read this. There were 6 kids in our family, always screaming dibs for one of the 2 window seats in the back seat and I don't know why. We'd always wind up getting pummeled with cigarette ashes (or worse, a live butt) from either of our chainsmoking parents. Ah, the good old days!

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    1. I'm feeling better already! My dad quit smoking just after I was born, apparently. (It still killed him though.)

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  5. OMG, my dad! I suppose he thought that just because he could do bodywork repair and painting, it didn't matter if he crumpled the occasional fender. Except, of course, that there was Mom, us three kids, and Grandma in that old Impala with him.

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    1. Gotta admit it helps that he can fix what he broke, though.

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  6. In addition to the 'play shelf' above the back seat, there was even an arm rest that folded down in the middle. But we didn't use it because we (my sister and I) preferred to slide around and play, 'fall whichever way the car makes you', sometimes with an assist from Daddy. It was a 49 Chrysler Windsor. Talk about a boat! And I have been known to forget that I'm the driver instead of the passenger.

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    1. I've had passengers politely inquire where I'm going ten or so miles past the exit I was supposed to take. Why, I don't know. Where AM I going?

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  7. Anytime my dad had to stop quickly he would throw his arm across whoever was sitting in the passenger seat. Even after seat belts came into fashion he still had a tendency to do that.

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  8. This is hilarious! We were a Chevy family until my Mom the teacher bought a VW bug for I think $1200. She was a teacher and it was in her budget. Every June when school was out we three sisters, and grandma would pile into the VW and Mom would drive up to Victoria for a week. My little sister spent her time in the little storage place behind the back seat. My grandma got the front passenger seat. It always rained the whole way up and back and Mom was invariably getting stuck behind a huge semi which she couldn't pass because we weren't going down hill. Ah memories! Thank you for the laughs this morning!

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    1. I still can't bear to pass anyone on a two-lane road. And I once had a Mazda RX-7.

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  9. My dad was a great driver. My step-grandfather, on the other hand, terrified everyone except my grandmother. She had buried four previous husbands so maybe she was used to death. Every Sunday after church the whole family (my parents, my two siblings, and I) would pile into my grandparents' Rambler for a relaxing Sunday drive. EOf course, it was never relaxing for any of us except the geezer driving, and no one had the nerve to say so.

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    1. Sunday drives! Remember when there'd be little humps in the road that felt like a roller coaster? Why did they smooth those out?

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  10. On our regular Sunday drives, at some point my brother would say, "I'm gonna barf," and my father, who was driving, would say "No, you aren't. And I would hold my breath until my father pulled over to the side. Sometimes not quite in time. Made those Sunday drives very fraught.

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    1. I threw up on my grandmother. She was in the front seat and I was in the back, so that took some effort.

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  11. Dad taught mom to drive with we three kids aboard. In a Hudson.

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    1. Can you even imagine teaching someone how to drive with the kids along? And that was standard shift.

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  12. Will Rogers — 'When I die, I want to die like my grandfather who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.'

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    1. One of my favorites! I don't think it was Will Rogers though. I just checked and it's attributed to almost everybody. The one that seems most likely is Jack Handey. But you know--maybe Abe Lincoln or Mark Twain or Andy Rooney...

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  13. I also grew up gloriously ignorant and I am very thankful for that. I'm still largely ignorant, but most of the gloriousness has been worn off.

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  14. Dad drove a 12-cylinder Hudson through much of the war. His 1st car after the war and the 1st one I remember, was a green 1949 Pontiac. It was such a big deal that, as a three-year-old I remember going to pick it up at the dealer. It, or one of its later replacements, had plastic seat covers which had decorative "punches" that each created four sharp little spikes. We kids got to sit on these torture devices. They didn't bother the boys, in their long pants, but *I*, in my short, fluffy little dresses, got torn up. I learned to beg a towel from Mother so I'd have something between me and those spiky seat covers. Thankfully my Dad was an excellent driver, but we all stood on the seats, played on the 'back deck' and generally cavorted in dangerous ways inside the death traps that automobiles were in those days.

    After working in the ER in the 1960s and seeing the injuries sustained by untethered children in auto accidents I insisted on a car seat for our 1st born. It was inadequate by today's standards, but it was something and better than the nothing we had in my day.

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    1. I had forgotten about those seat covers! We didn't have them but I know I've sat on them before. What were they thinking? Was it to purposefully create friction so you wouldn't slide around so much?

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  15. My dad used to take us skiing to western NY in a Buick 225, a boat of a car. His greatest pleasure was to straddle the fresh powder in the breakdown lane and remark how “smooth and quiet” it was. We only needed a tow truck once. BTW, when my wife and I lived in Toulouse, France, ‘90-92, we sadly purchased a used Peugeot 305, the middle aged couple car (we were not) instead of a Citroen DS (what I really coveted). We had to push start it many times and suffer it’s uncool ness around France and beyond.

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    1. First time I got in a Citro├źn (I had to move it to get to my car in a lot) and turned the ignition it went UP. That was startling.

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    2. Greatest suspension system ever!

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  16. My father didn't want my mother learning to drive- so she learned on the sly while my father was at work. She drove the old 1941 Ford Sedan that had a gaping rusted out hole in the back floorboard. My 7 year old brother, me (5) and my 10 month old sister were tossed about willy nilly in the back while my mom figured things out on Woodward Ave (yes, and 8 mile) in Detroit. One afternoon my brother took the baby's pricey buster brown "first walkers" off Betsy and threw them through the hole in the floorboard. I remember the whole family cruising up and down Woodward Ave that night, searching for baby shoes. He was muttering more than "miserable so and so."

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    1. I want to know more! How did your father find out? I imagine that it was hard to keep a secret with 3 kids in the backseat! Jeez. Men were even bigger dicks back then than they are now. As if that's possible.... Oh, HI, honey! Nothing.... (Gotta go.)

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  17. My Dad was a terrible, distracted driver, always fussing with his pipe. The upholstery on the driver's seat was pockmarked with holes from the burning embers. When we were in Salzburg, Austria in 1954 (Dad was a Foreign Service Officer) we had a '53 Chevy BelAir we had brought back from home leave the summer before. It had one of those legendary, small-block, GM V-8's (a 283?), and one day, while we were on our way to Munich on the autobahn, Dad decided to see if it would do 100 mph. It did. We all rejoiced, until a gull-wing Mercedes sports car zoomed passed us doing maybe 130-140.

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