‘53 Plymouth “Prices Slightly Higher West of the Rockies.”

18 Sep


It’s hard to imagine now that the US was once a not quite unified market a few decades ago.  Restrictive work rules and collusion between the rail roads meant shipping costs were high.   The interstate trucking industry had not been born.  There was no interstate.   So we in the western states paid a premium for manufactured goods from the distant East.

53 Plymouth : the two-tone was more expensive. We got the basic model, in basic black.

My parents had begun their married life with a ‘37  Ford coupe.  My father

My Dad's 37 Ford Coupe didn't look quite this good after he fixed it up.

had bought it for $35 off blocks, rebuilt the engine with help from a friend – they were not  mechanics, but could tinker, and together they got it running.- knocked out the dings and painted it pea green. It was getting harder to squeeze my brother and me into the space behind the single seat.  Among other places, they had driven it – and us – to Canada reaching as far north as Chicoutimi, where the road north stopped short of Hudson‘s Bay..  Among my few  memories of that trip  is waiting to be seated, all dressed up, at the Château Frontenac in Quebec, quite impressed by the waiter captain in his uniform, and the velvet rope he pulled aside for us.  And, perhaps to make up for the extravagance of such a meal, dining on peanut butter sandwiches in the garret room we rented in the eh old quarter of the Cite.  Perhaps I black out being sandwiched in the back space for seven thousand odd miles. And somewhere in  backcountry Quebec a curving road thorough dark forest, with occasional hamlets with general stores, ands tatty souvenir stands, a landscape I recognized instantly when I read “Surfacing.“ My parents decided to buy a ‘53 Plymouth, new.  They would pay cash, as they did for everything, except homes. By ordering the car direct from the plant and picking it up in Detroit, substantial savings were possible, savings that would pay for a trip east for my mother and her two sons, where her only brother and sibling was to marry. She was desperately homesick. The nearest rail stop was in Argus, at the western edge of the Mojave  The Santa Fe would stop if there were passengers or freight.  Argus seemed like a big city: There was a main street lined with two story shops and offices,  and a stoplight or two, a few side streets with small houses with green lawns, a strange sight after Trona’s sandy lots, all huddled together for a few blocks in the immense desert. Again, my memories are clear short shots, in and out with out fade or continuity, like the clear pictures that  dot a blackout bender. So I don’t remember the departure, only staring out the window as the train snaked through rocky canyons, snow melt roaring below.  The brilliant orange and red train so long that half of it disappeared around curves. It was endlessly fascinating. I loved trains, waved to engineers as they went by, and now I was on the most glorious of all, the Santa Fe.

The train was so long tha part of it disapeared as it took a bend.

My mother spent most of the time with her nose in a book.  Years later she told me that we were no trouble at all, spending or waking or looking out the window, and preening as old ladies patted us and said how cute we were.  It was the first time since her marriage, she said, that she had really had time to read. The books were Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” and Carson McCuller’s “Ballad of the Sad Café,” authors she introduced me to a decade later when she thought I was mature enough. We slept in our seats. Strangely, I remember staring at a rather dirty, and disgusting antimacassar on the seat in front of me. The railroads never did regain their prewar eminence in service, but air travel was still out of reach of most.    I don’t recall being served by smiling back waiters in the dining car, as most accounts of similar trips of the time mention. Knowing my mother, we probably ate slightly stale sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper all the way,  I do remember the conductor calling out the stations: Kingman, Gallup( which I heard as gallop, and so thought I would see horses) Albuquerque, and more. In Chicago, the huge echoing station, then a taxi across town to the Northwestern train for Detroit.  And my brother’s inconsolable grief as he realized that the departing cab bore away his momentarily  forgotten, but beloved stuffed chimpanzee. An identical replacement was quickly purchased in New York, named Zippy, as was his predecessor, and survived for many decades. There had been many soldiers on the train from California, some sleeping in the aisles.  There were more on this one, coming home from Korea at last.  When the conductor announced “Battle Creek, Battle Creek,”  I started awake and looked out to the darkness,  expecting war. Then morning, a clear blue sky,  as clutching our hands, my mother walked us across a vast parking lot,  with the blank and slightly scary factory buildings in the distance, past endless rows of shining cars, and then, checking the invoice, stopped by one, fished keys from her purse, and let us in. Night. My brother sleeps, his head in my lap, as I crane to see ahead through the window.  My mother is silhouetted in the light from the dashboard and soft music plays from the radio. We drive through empty streets, and then we rise on a brightly lit structure, great stone towers rising into the night, climb to the middle and looking across  to the skyline along the inky water, my mother sings out, ”Brooklyn!” As my grandfather carried me, mostly asleep, up the steps of the house where my mother grew up,  I felt immeasurably happy, somehow sensing, I believe now, that we had crossed a great distance, and that my country was vast, and full of wonder.


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