Santa Maria Sun / Humor
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 32
Tales of transportation terrorDriving on the highway to Hell
BY ARIEL WATERMAN
Gather round, children, and I will tell you a haunting tale. Everything in this frightening story is absolutely true, and I have the pink slips to prove it! Stephen King had his Christine, Henry Ford had the Edsel, and NBC had My Mother the Car. But none of these nightmarish sedans can equal my own ghastly experiences with—the cars that wouldn’t die!
It all began when I was a child in Spokane in the early 1960s, when my mom dressed us kids up for Sunday Mass. Mom drove us around in a late 1950s station wagon. Occasionally, it failed to start, which prompted a call to my Uncle Carroll to come fix it. But we had to go to Mass first, and that meant a ride in Gertie.
Gertie was a 1945 black Oldsmobile sedan that looked like she was built out of cast iron bathtubs. We named her after the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state that tossed and rolled like a roller coaster on windy days. Riding in her, with her nonexistent shocks, was a shock to our spinal columns.
The sound she made when Mom cranked her up was like a cranky old man with catarrh waking up after a long night of cheap whiskey and cigars. I think that’s what fueled her, because she certainly smelled like it. There were times I could swear I saw the ghost of a mafioso hitching a ride on the running board. Or perhaps she was inhabited by the spirit of a gold-hearted prostitute because, if nothing else, Gertie was reliable. She always turned over.
Flash forward to Phoenix, Ariz., in 1969. I was a high school freshman with three younger siblings and we rode around town in a 1956, grey and white Ford Fairlane. Today this car would be regarded as a status symbol, but back then it was considered a beater. And it was.
This was truly the car from hell—license plate BSKT2666! It leaked and burned oil, smoked, stalled, and refused to back up. The alternator no longer worked, so a mechanic friend of Mom’s rigged up a way to plug it in every night to charge up the alternator and battery. It was hysterical to see people stare at the electric outlet plug dangling from the front of the car as we rode along.
Starting it up each day was a mission straight out of a John Wayne war film. Every morning my little brother Mikey would unplug the car, pull out the oil pan from below, and funnel all the oil back into the car. He then pumped up the rear tire that had a slow leak and was always flat by morning. I still can see him in his jammies working that bicycle pump up and down.
Once ready for ignition, Mom, my sister, and my youngest brother piled in; Mom put the car in neutral; and Mikey and I pushed it out of the garage and down the driveway. This accomplished two things. First, it helped boot the battery to start the car. The Fairlane’s reverse gear no longer worked, so if the car had to back up, it had to be pushed. Mom was always careful to park in town so that she could pull out, not back out.
At the gas station, Mom was also careful to put in only half a tank of gas at a time. Whatever pressurized the gas to stay in the tank no longer functioned. If she filled the tank, a bunch of gas came pouring out of the engine at the next stop.
We lovingly called the Fairlane our James Bond car because every time Mom hit the gas, an oil slick and black smoke screen belched out the back. Then the muffler would let out an explosive BANG! It was fun to watch people pull over and check their tires when that happened. Mikey and I chalked notches each time on the arm rest in the back seat. Aha! Third one today—a record!
Once we got moving, there was almost no stopping us. Really. The brakes had worn thin, and SuperMom practically stood at attention, her arm stretched out to prevent us hitting the windshield in an era before seat belts existed.
Occasionally the Fairlane stopped on its own, stalling at busy intersections just to cheese Mom off. That’s when I, as the oldest child, would spring into action. Grabbing a large monkey wrench from under the front seat, I would run to the front of the car, unlatch and lift the hood, and pound like the god Vulcan on the battery cables while Mom turned the key as stunned and amazed drivers watched. A few strategic whacks and that baby fired up.
Also, the horn had shorted out, resulting in it blaring at odd times of day or night, and terrorizing the neighbors. One of them gladly offered to disconnect the demon horn, so we had no means of warning people to get out of the way of our dicey brakes. Mom, always resourceful, would roll down her window, pound the side of her door with her fist, and yell, “MOOOOVE IT!” I still have fond memories of her shouting at motorists, the Fairlane’s muffler exploding, and oil and smoke pouring out the back as people fled for their lives. Ah, good times!
The Fairlane’s days with us ended when Grandpa came to visit. Mom’s father—a practical, Italian businessman who sold cars—practically did his business in the car when Mom drove us to dinner. With each exploding, smokey, oil bomb he’d shout in horror, “For the love of Pete!” I think it was the closest to a true religious experience he ever came, as he exclaimed “God Almighty, this is a death car!”
We were saddened when he left the next day. Four days later, I went to get the paper and found my Grandpa asleep at the wheel of a blue, AMC Ambassador. He had flown back to Spokane, pulled the Ambassador off his car lot, and promptly drove it to Phoenix.
“Donna,” he said to Mom. “You take this car and get rid of that death trap out there today! But first let’s get some breakfast and a racing form.” My Grandpa was a wonderful man who always had his priorities straight! We feasted on pancakes, bought a racing form, and then watched as a tow truck hauled away our Fairlane.
As it was pulled away, something happened and the horn engaged! Either that car said “Goodbye” or “Blow it out your keister!” I think maybe both. ∆
Ariel Waterman now drives a 1995 Nissan Altima because her husband won’t let her drive his 2008 Versa. Send gas money via her editor, Ryan Miller, at .
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