Sunday, March 21, 2010

Doing Sixty: Reflections on automotive proliferation and speed

Presented to the Club by Richard Nunley on Monday Evening, January 12, 1998.

Driving down the Maine Turnpike from Portland one Sunday last summer, we found ourselves in three solid lanes of traffic all traveling at high speed. Even in the right-hand lane we had to go 70 simply to avoid having the car behind (or the camper or the heavy-laden trailer truck from New Brunswick) climb our rear bumper. Cars in the left-hand lane must have been traveling well in excess of 80, much faster in my opinion than the ordinary eye and hand can react within one car’s length to any sudden change.

To many drivers, such a situation has probably become routine. To someone like me who mainly putt-putts short distances at slow speeds around the Berkshires, it raised the question whether evolution has prepared us for the prolonged intensity of mental stress, physical immobility, and hormonal readiness-for-anything that high-speed, traffic-dense interstate driving demands. Is such tension conceivably a contributing factor of our epidemic rates of personality disorder, family instability, heart disease, maybe even cancer?

It made me think back to the first time I ever did 60 — the first time I ever went “a mile a minute.”

Reconstructive memory says it must have been in the summer of 1938, when I was either a late 6 or early 7-year old.

Junior Bancroft, the son of a family friend, had been given a cream and green “V-8” roadster for a graduation present, whether from school or college I don't remember if I ever knew, and all that summer in white flannels and polo shirt and slick Vitalis hair he tooled about dashingly from beach to tennis count to yacht club in his peppy little car.

One day he magnanimously asked us little kids to go for a ride. I remember my hesitation; I wasn't sure I wanted to go a mile a minute, and through my mind passed all the stern expressions of disapproval I had overheard grownups exchange about wild young fellows, as well as the guys’ own brags about being chased by the police for speeding — the police!

But before I could think how to articulate my anxious reluctance, I found myself lifted by his tanned geniality into the rumble seat and told to hang on.

Of we went, past Grandma's house, past Mr. Josselyn’s store, past the creamery, past the coal sheds by the railroad depot, past Stackhouse Pond, faster and faster past sumac thickets and village elms and cornfields and stone walls that flew by in a giddying blur to the straight new State Road where he could “open her up.”

The car roared, wind blinded and deafened me and took my breath away, and the Howard Johnson's (new then) was merely the orange flash of a split second as we tore by.

Somewhere on the straight stretch through the woods he “opened her up and hit 60!” and I was never so relieved as when he slowed down, turned around, and took us back to ice cream cones at HJ’s. I was limp in the leather rumble, and trembled as I licked my butter pecan.

Apart from that spectacular spin, rides in cars were few and far between in my childhood.

Not until I was an adult did I acquire that second-nature easiness with a car that marks most 20th century Americans comparable to the classic cowboy's familiarity with his horse, and never have I acquired the deep intimacy with engines that keeps both man and machine contentedly purring.

The main reason was that I was given to being carsick within a mile of setting out on a journey. The driver of the car, usually an aunt or uncle, was not always painstaking about disguising his or her irritation at being obliged to pull over on short notice and watch time evaporate while somebody else’s wretched child gushed and dribbled his breakfast or lunch over the roadside grass and leaves. Timid soul that I was, I so much dreaded their disapproval that on any subsequent outings I did not always give sufficient warning and my churning stomach would spew its unlovely contents over the plush of the back seat before the car could be stopped. The upshot was that I passed months at a time without getting into a car or going anywhere I couldn't walk to, a decidedly un-automotive childhood.

Perhaps it was partly genetic. In later years, her much older brothers and sisters all merrily laughed whenever the story was told of my mother’s attempts to get a license. On her third try she got so flustered coming down the long slope of Egypt Hill toward a closed set of level-crossing bars that she totally forgot how to stop. The day was saved only by the quick reactions of the agile DMV inspector who was able to stamp on the brake pedal and pull up the emergency mere feet from the crossing as the 9:40 accommodation neared. She never tried again.

Probably the Depression had something to do with my immobile childhood, too. In after years my father was fond of observing that he lost his job, he lost his savings, he lost his house — and then I was born. Three years later my mother died. My brother and I were taken in by an aunt and her husband and my father went to board with my grandmother, both households more attuned to the carless McKinley administration than to the automotive era of FDR. All in all, it was not a time for much joyriding.

Interestingly, though, members of the family who did have cars managed to keep them despite the Depression. Uncle Bob and Aunt Julia and Aunt Annie all had Model A Fords, Aunt Ethel had a Packard (operable only in summer; every Columbus Day she had it put up on blocks and went to live in Boston until the 19th of April); Uncle Dick always had a Pierce Arrow. I can't remember what make my father's car was, salvaged as it must have been from the wreckage of his hopes and plans, although I remember it was a coupe with a windshield that opened outward at the bottom and had little ball-fringed pull-down shades on the round windows just to the rear of the driver’s and passenger’s doors.

I learn from Tom Lewis’s recent book, Divided Highways, that these men and women of the 30s were not unusual, for car ownership remained fairly constant even through the direst years of the Depression. By the 30s cars had ceased to be pleasurable playthings and for the majority of households, especially in country parts, had become basic necessities like electricity and telephones.

In 1929, 26.5 million cars were registered in this country, up from 108,000 in 1906, and from 9.2 million in 1920. By 1939, 31 million cars were registered, the population of the country then standing somewhere around 140 million.

In 1939, a 21-acre parking lot, the biggest ever at the time, was opened at the New York World's Fair (the emblem of this fair, whose theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow,” being the famed Trylon and Perisphere). The parking lot accommodated 43,000 cars at once, many of them, no doubt, “streamlined” in the up-to-date tear-drop shapes made the standard of fashion by designer Norman Bel Geddes. The next year the Pennsylvania Turnpike was opened, and the following year war production ended the output of civilian cars for the duration.

Teenagers today probably couldn't readily conceive of how unusual Junior Bancroft was in having a car of his own in 1938. The general rule was one car per household, if that. Youth, like the aunt and uncle who brought me up, had to depend on rides from others, and being allowed to take the family car for the evening was a rare and grave exception to normality.

As I recall, at college in the late 40s and early 50s, only second-semester seniors were allowed to have cars on campus, and then only if they were not receiving financial aid. Not even veterans could legally have cars (although these battle-tested Marines and Flying Fortress navigators and parachutists and tail gunners managed, I’m sure, to find ways and means to park their V-8s and Henry J's quietly downtown or out among the married-housing prefabs).

I remember the Hudson Terraplane my father let me borrow to take back to Winter Carnival my senior year. It was a two-seater, but huge, much bigger than the little Festiva I drive today. It rose above fenders of Wagnerian dimensions. I don't know how he came by it — it was not like him to keep spare cars on hand. I don't know what year it was — I think pre-war, but what I do remember is that it was an automatic.* The gear shift was a small nickel box on the steering column with little tabs you pressed down for first, second, third, reverse, or overdrive. Running, it hummed a merry high-pitched whine, as if it were pleased to be out on the road. I've never seen (or heard of) another like it, and although it was “mine” for only a weekend, I remember it still.

I remember driving it across a sparkling New Hampshire early the morning after a January blizzard, up through Jaffrey, Antrim, Washington, Goshen and on to Cornish, Lebanon, and Hanover, almost the only car on the road, up hill and down dale, through woods and snow-blanketed villages and past family farms that were still viable, though within a decade most of them would go under, victims of a changed economy and the advent of a different way of life brought on by the car itself and the change-accelerating toll turnpikes and interstate highway system that came in its wake.

In 1939, there were, as we have said, 31 million cars on the road. In 1953, the year of my ride across New Hampshire in the Terraplane, there were about 38 million. In 1993, the most recent year for which I have found statistics, there were 146.3 million, up 42 million in the 13 years since 1980. If we add in trucks and buses, in 1994 there were 201.8 million vehicles on the road.** In 1993 passenger cars rolled up 1,624,000,000 miles of travel.

Our perception that there are ever more cars on the road is indeed borne out by statistics, and it’s not likely that too many of them on the open road keep it down to 60 — within living memory thought of as the ultimate in speediness.

Do you remember the first time you went “a mile a minute” — or has that miracle always seemed normal and natural to you, the speed God intended as the very minimum on the interstate?

*The Terraplane was produced by the Hudson Motor Car Company from 1932 to 1939. 

**By 2007, total number of vehicles on the road had risen to 254.4 million.

1 comment:

  1. Dick Nunley, who wrote an always insightful, engaging, and thoughtful column in the Berkshire Eagle for many years, was always a role model to me of efficient and masterful writing. This piece is a good example. He was the E.B. White of the Berkshires, and I wish that he was still writing here. He has not been replaced, nor sadly, is he likely to be.