My Merry Oldsmobile by Maureen Sharon

 

 

My father’s car was a Hillman Minx with beige leather upholstery and carpets to match. The outside of the car was painted beige as well, but had black leather on the inside of the doors and black trim. The trunk was roomy and filled with my father’s art supplies, which he carried around from place to place as he made the rounds of record producers’ and movie studios’ design offices. It was a British car and smelled of leather and my father’s cherry-scented pipe tobacco, along with Old Spice aftershave and gasoline. A 4-cylinder car, the Hillman did not use much fuel, so maintenance was economical. My father would wash it by hand every two weeks or so, and I would sometimes get to help. It was our only car, since my mother didn’t drive, and it took us on weekend trips to the country, or out to dinner, or to the movies. Although my mother (pushing her shopping cart full of scripts, a small tape recorder and record player) took the bus to the studio where she taught drama and musical comedy to kids from 3 to 18, my father drove her home in the Hillman after the last class ended.

I have earlier memories of my father driving a black Model A Ford, which could not make it up steep inclines. I recall one particular occasion where he had to turn the car around so he could climb a hill in reverse! My mother was terrified, and I screamed with fright, while my calm, smiling father simply took his time driving in reverse to the top of the hill. His next car was a used Plymouth that looked like a tank. He kept it so many years that it needed a new coat of paint. I remember my mother berating him when he came home driving a very bright, garish, peacock blue automobile. My mother would actually blanch every time he came to pick her up from the studio, but I thought the car was beautiful. You couldn’t possibly miss it when it drove by. The next car was the one-and-only Hillman, a conservative-looking beige car, unique because of its small size and five-speed transmission.

When I was fifteen years old and took a Driver’s Education class in high school, I could barely imagine the freedom driving a car would bring. I remember going with my father to the DMV Office and taking in the sights and smells of the place. My Dad paid the fees and I filled out the forms, handing over my certificate proving I had taken and passed the Driver’s Ed class. I was given the test form and told to complete it in the time allowed and turn it in. I was very well prepared and passed the test easily, making 100%. I was given a California Learner’s Permit, entitling me to take the Driver’s Training class at school — the last hurdle before I could get an actual driver’s license. I absolutely fell in love with driving, which was very easy for me, yet filled me with a strong sense of power. It was, in fact, the most empowering experience of my life. The driver’s training instructor took our class of three future drivers to Laurel Canyon Boulevard (an extension of Crescent Heights Boulevard) in Los Angeles and had us take turns driving up towards Mulholland Drive. Taking a bunch of new drivers to Laurel Canyon’s winding uphill road was a very good idea, since we could not possibly speed and would have plenty of chances to move our foot from the gas pedal to the brake He had us take turns driving up and down Laurel Canyon throughout the first two-hour class. I was sold immediately on driving. The class continued until we had learned to parallel park, drive in reverse, handle driving in heavy city traffic, and (horror of horrors) drive on the Pasadena Freeway. By the time we completed our driver’s training class, I needed to practice until I was ready for my behind-the-wheel driving test at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Since I would be driving my father’s stick-shift Hillman during the driving test, my Dad took me out in his car and taught me to drive a 5-speed stick shift. Fortunately the Hillman had a very easy clutch, and I was soon shifting like a pro. He and I would go driving almost every day when he came home from work. Dad was a wonderful, patient teacher and was very generous with advice and tips. He kept cars for many years, and he grew attached to them. Thus, his cars were always cared for very well. Dad kept cans of motor oil in the trunk and taught me how to pull out the dip-stick and check the oil, brake fluid, and water in the car. He taught me how to drive in a manner that would not wear out the brakes or the clutch. He taught me to slow down before coming to a red light, so that I might merely have to down-shift and coast through as it turned green. That way the car would not have to come to a complete stop, which is hard on the transmission and uses gasoline. His frugal ways and the lessons he taught have stayed with me throughout my life.

When my big day came and we were on the way to the DMV for me to take my actual driving test, Dad said, “Maureen, you may want to cancel your test and reschedule it for another time, because the brakes on this car are not working well, and they need to be replaced.” I promised that I would drive very slowly during my test, and begged him to let me try. Miraculously, I passed. What joy! What pride! What power!

It took me less than one week to get into an accident. Radio playing a popular song, I was driving and talking with my friend, Danielle, on the way home from a shopping excursion when the huge Dodge car in front of me suddenly slammed on its brakes. My father’s little Hillman Minx now had an accordion-pleated hood, and the letter “G” fell off the trunk of the Dodge. Luckily, Danielle and I were not badly injured, although Danielle sported a neck collar for two or three weeks. At any rate, my Dad ordered me not to drive anyone around in his car ever again.

That summer, I got my first job. I wanted to earn enough money to buy my very own car. I was hired by our neighborhood druggist on Melrose Avenue. This was one of those old-fashioned full-service drug stores, equipped with a perfume/cosmetics counter, a soda fountain that served ice cream, sodas, sundaes, tuna sandwiches, and cherry, chocolate, or lemon phosphates too. A cherry phosphate was made by squirting three pumps-worth of cherry syrup into a glass and then adding seltzer-water from the fountain. Coca-cola and root beer were made the same way. I worked at the perfume counter in the very middle of the store. I think I earned about 75 cents per hour, which seemed like a great deal of money to me at age 15. I worked after school and on weekends at the drugstore.

My next job was even more exciting. During the summer when there was no school, I was hired by a mailing house to fold brochures and other items, stuff envelopes, apply stamps and mailing labels, and seal the envelopes. About 50 kids were hired for this unbelievably boring work. We all sat at one side of the long rectangular tables, facing front and not allowed to talk to one another. For five long hours each day we did nothing but pick up paper, fold it, place it in an envelope, etc. For this we were paid (guess what?) 75 cents per hour. But working Monday through Friday from 8 am to 1 pm

I could earn $18.75 each week. By the end of summer, I would have $75 to add to the money I earned from the drug store. I had $150 saved up so far. I kept my regular drug store job too, since I worked there only in the late afternoons (from 3:30 to 5:30 during the week and from 12:00 to 5:30 on Saturdays).

Before I knew it, my Dad told me I had enough money for us to shop for my very own car. My excitement was beyond palpable. We scoured the newspaper ads looking for used vehicles that were (a) affordable and (b) large and sturdy enough to meet my father’s approval. After the incident with his Hilllman (now repaired and functioning well), my father wanted me to drive a substantial car that would “keep you safe.” I had all of $300 to spend on this car.

We spent the next few Sundays looking at cars. Dad would look under the hood, kick the tires all around, inspect the bumpers and outer body of the vehicle, and look underneath for signs of leaking oil, gas, or any other liquid that should not be there. Afterwards, he sat at the driver’s seat and we drove around the block. I don’t remember how many cars we inspected in this way, but at long last I purchased my very own car – a blue 1954 Oldsmobile ’98 with automatic transmission. The year was 1960, but cars were made to last in those days. It looked like a huge tank, was the very first model that Oldsmobile made that had an automatic windshield washer. It got 7 or 8 miles per gallon and required about one quart of oil per week. My father said that this car would definitely keep me safe. In case I was in another accident that large Olds would come out the victor against most other vehicles on the LA roads. The car was in fairly good condition, and my father negotiated the price until my $300 was accepted. Wahoo!

Thus began my years as my mother’s chauffeur. The Oldsmobile also enabled me to drive myself to Fairfax High School during my senior year, when we moved to a new apartment on Castle Heights Boulevard near Pico – well out of the Fairfax district area. Without that car I would have had to transfer to a new high school and leave all my friends. Many cars followed that first purchase, but I’ll never forget that Olds.

© 2007

Maureen Sharon

 

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