Monday, February 15, 2010

The Jalopy

Trying to remember that old vehicle causes me to strain and grimace, but, with the help of an old photo, I remember it!
by Charlie Leck

Lots of news is bombarding us today from Afghanistan and Washington, and I've gone through the Sunday NY Times pretty thoroughly, but I'm not in the mood for analyzing the news this morning. I was flipping through some old photos that one of my brothers sent me and they bring back faint memories. Maybe this is something all old men do; that is, trying to remember their boyhood days. I do this regularly here, but not for myself, but to leave a record of growing up in America. Can you imagine the treasure trove future historians are going to have when, a hundred years from now, they can look back on the blogs written by the world's very common people. I do not pretend to do it for important historians. I do it for my grandchildren and their grandchildren, so they will have, when I am among the stars, a more personal record than a historic one of their funny, old grandpa.

The photo above is the only one I've come acrosss of the crazy vehicle and it (the photo) was really in bad shape -- faded, and filled with scratches, chips, creases and stains. It took some patience, working with good, old Photoshop (perhaps, itself, a nearly forgotten item of history when you are old enough to read this) to get the snapshot into some kind of reasonable condition. As you look at it, the vehicle is behind my father's old, general store in Chester, New Jersey, in an alleyway between the store and an old storage barn just fifteen feet behind it. That old barn was off limits. We were not supposed to go into it because it was in such bad condition and really wasn't included in the lease arrangements that my father had with the owner of the buildings and the property. You can probably guess that we went in there anyway and climbed around in the rafters and curiously looked through all the old, old junk that was stored in there. Just being boys, you know!

Out ahead of the old Ford is Main Street, running to the left (west) and right (east). Across the way is an old building where one of my best pals lived (Buddy). The town library was also housed in that building for a portion of my growing up years. The very back end of the automobile that sits across the street indicates to me that the photo had to be taken after 1946 or '47. By the '50s, I think this old, decrepit car was gone.

Today I'm trying to remember everything I can about the jalopy. That's what we called the old Ford when we were little. It was a hybrid before it's time -- half car and half pickup. Other folks pointed to us when we drove down the road -- especially when we were in the big city -- and we'd wave to them and simply enjoy their reaction.

The Model A Ford in that photo was built with a rear passenger compartment called a rumble seat. Someone – my old man or someone else – removed the seat and installed a box back there to convert the vehicle into a pickup truck. The box wasn’t any more than 3’x4’ but it held a couple of milk cans or a couple of kids on a hot, summer afternoon.

So my memories of it come from when I was no more than 10 years old and, likely, younger. It's not easy to remember things in very great detail from those years in one's life; yet there are memories of this beat up old auto that come back to me in strange detail. If I try really hard, I can even remember the old, musty smell of it when I was riding up there in the front seat while my dad was driving down the street toward the Borough Hall. We were hauling a couple of our old, empty milk cans to the town pump, to get drinking water. In those years when I was little, before I was 10, we didn't have running water in our home. There was an old pump in our kitchen, from which we could get water of a sort, but not anything we would want to drink or do our cooking in. So, we'd fill the milk pails right up to the top from the town's public well. I remember how icy cold the water was and how I’d gather a bowl full in my cupped hands and try to drink it down before it spilled or leaked away between my fingers.

There weren't many people in town who didn't have plumbing and running water in their homes, but there were a few of us.

I remember mainly the drive all the way into the Bronx in that old beater of a car. We’d get more and more toots and hoots as we got closer and closer to the urban, sophisticated regions, nearing the George Washington Bridge. The Ford kept humming along (chugging in a way) and it was thrilling to go bouncing across the Hudson River, so high above it. I was little enough that I had to lift myself up and strain to see out the window. It was spectacular to see the mighty river so far down below us.

I remember we hauled my Grandpa Svejda with us on the return trip back out to Jersey. I got tucked in the middle of the front seat with the two big and old men on either side of me. The gear shift handle was between my legs and my old man warned me not to kick it. It was only about 45 miles from my Grandpa’s place out to our place in Jersey, but the drive took a couple of hours. My grandpa couldn’t make the whole trip without stopping to “see a man about a horse.” I wasn’t allowed to join them on these stops. I had to stay in the car and protect the luggage left out in the open truck box in the back. Grandpa and Dad went into a bar across a busy street, to go to the toilet they said; but I could smell the liquor on my Grandpa’s breath when he returned and slapped me on the knee and laughed at me. They’d brought back a bottle of Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Drink for me.

My dad shook me awake when we were on the North Road, close to entering the Borough of Chester.

“Almost home,” he said.

It had grown dark outside and the weak headlights of the jalopy were bouncing up and down as we rolled up Main Street toward the old, old general store that was our home. I was hungry and thirsty and had to get to a toilet quickly.

Life was going to be good for a while. My grandpa was here and we were going to listen to Dodger games together on the radio. He’d tell me about every batter that came to the plate and explain how the pitcher was going to place the ball and how the infield had curled around toward right field or was playing him tight at the corners. My grandpa loved his Dodgers more than any man on earth and he understood baseball better than anyone in the world. He’d get worse than angry when Stan Musial banged one over the right field fence against his Dodgers and I thought he was going to kick the big radio. He’d let out a mighty string of swear words, but they were in another language – Bohunk, I think – so they didn’t count with my mother as did the nasty cuss words I’d get my mouth washed out for saying.

“Go get me a Schaefer,” my Grandpa would tell me, “before they get this new pitcher warmed up. Take it from the back of the cooler so it’ll be colder.” While my Grandpa visited we kept a case of his beloved Schaefer beer tucked in the bottom of the milk cooler out in the store.

My brothers and sister all learned to drive behind the wheel of the old jalopy. I remember my sister taking it off to a dance one time. She came home aggravated about how the boys had made fun of her old car. She’d beg my parents to go out and get a respectable vehicle.

One day, after we’d installed running water and joined the semi-civilized world, my old man did go out and buy a real car. I think it was around 1951 and my mother hadn’t turned real sick yet and money was okay, so he bought a big, maroon 1947 Desoto Deluxe. It was a pretty slick looking automobile compared to the old jalopy. The Desoto was a “previously driven automobile” as they nowadays refer to used cars. It seemed in pretty good shape, but one rear fender began to lose its color a month or so after we got it and faded to a misty gray tone instead of maroon. One of my big brothers, both of whom knew everything in the world, told me it had been in an accident and the cheat-salesman hadn’t told my old man that it had been repainted. It wasn’t as much fun as the jalopy because it had big huge seats and I couldn’t see out the window when I sat in the car. It also had a back seat, I didn’t get to sit up front between my grandpa and my old man. Times had changed, however, and we weren’t hauling milk cans full of water from the town hall pump anymore. We had a bathtub now with hot and cold water and a toilet that flushed, and I was combing my own hair now.

I missed the jalopy and thought about it lots for a year or two after we got the Desoto. It sure was more fun to go down the street and see the people pointing at us and laughing at the sight of that beat up, old car.

I never stop being amazed at what hard work writing well is. I keep trying, though, and I keep trying to get better and better. I’ve got some dreams I’d like to fulfill, but it sure is hard work.

“Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful” [Alfred North Whitehead]

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