I was a little kid and knew nothing about cars when Dad drove Katrinka. But I still remember that she brought smiles to people’s faces.
Or was it laughter? Or were they laughing at us, a family, rather typical, not unusual at all, except that our car was Katrinka, a car that you’d see today in movies about the 1920s, sort of like a box with tires, almost always black, and, of course, with running boards on both sides. If you’re young you don’t even know what a running board is. I won’t tell you! Suffice it to say that when Dad was driving Katrinka everyone else was driving something newer, nicer, and better.
Katrinka was indeed an old old car, but worse than that, she was unreliable. I don’t remember if Dad kicked her to get her going but I seem to remember that he did. Finally, she spouted her last hurrah and conked out on our Newark driveway. Permanently.
When Dad bought his next car it already had been used by someone else and was no longer a spiffy shiny model like you’d see advertised in Life Magazine, or Look Magazine. Dad’s cars always were second-hand and often came with assorted issues. But they were always made by General Motors. He was GM’s most loyal used car customer. While his siblings, and my mother’s as well, bought new Packards and Hudsons, Dad was always satisfied with a five-year-old Buick or Oldsmobile. Never a Cadillac, but also never a Chevy or Pontiac. He had his standards.
After Katrinka, Dad’s major problem with all of his cars was that they had tires. Our tires were not quite like mirrors, meaning that you couldn’t actually see your reflection in them, but they usually were seriously bald and that made them very prone to blowouts or flats. Fixing a flat on a busy highway became so routine that I thought I could do it myself. If I only had the manpower! You needed a jack to lift the car, and then various other pieces of equipment to remove the bolts, remove the tire, replace it with another version of a bald tire, and re-bolt. Had I known then what I know now I’d have been terrified at this whole procedure, but as a little kid, I was pretty calm about the whole process. Nothing bad had ever happened to any of us during the tire-changing, and therefore, I assumed, nothing bad ever would.
I do remember once, when the flat was on the Pulaski Skyway, at night, on the bridge — and without shoulders yet. That might have been slightly less mundane as my grandfather got out of the car and was directing traffic with his cane. But it ended well!
My father always was a reliable and hardworking guy, so this practice of tire-neglect was somewhat out of character. Nonetheless, it kept happening, especially on our long summer trips to Parksville, which were usually, or at least frequently, accompanied by a flat. It was just part of the routine. There we’d be, standing on the side of Route 23 or Route 17, five of us plus our dog Phoebe, the car densely packed with our clothes for the summer, while my father efficiently made the tire change. Then we’d be on our way again, hoping there wouldn’t be another flat since the spare was now affixed to the car and there was no other spare spare. I think Phoebe even knew to expect the little hiatus.
Mom, on all those occasions, never once yelled at Dad, never accused him of being negligent. She, like Phoebe and the rest of us, expected a flat and even added time to change it in her ETA (as my friend Waze would say). To this day, when someone is coming to visit us from a distance and they promise they’ll arrive at, say, 2:28, I remember those unpredictable moments with Dad.
Driving in those days was very different from today. And today certainly will be different from the future. For example, cars in the 40s and into the 50s didn’t have direction signals. If the driver wanted to signal his intentions to those opposite him or to his left or right or back, and the weather was chilly enough to require closed windows, he’d have to roll down his window and make all sorts of gestures with his hand, all this while steering the car with the other. Left turn was a straight arm with a pointed finger, right was a sort of right angle, and stop was a descended hand, fingers closed and pointed down. Despite the fact that opening the window in the winter would freeze the assemblage in the car, winding the window was not always a smooth as silk process, and knowing you might have to repeat the whole thing in a block or two could be demoralizing. Hence, my father barely bothered with signals, claiming the other drivers could see what he was doing when he did it. I learned my own inimitable style from my father. It’s lucky for me and the rest of the world that directional signals eventually were invented. But the postscript is that Dad never ever had an accident, not even a minor fender-bender.
Those bygone cars had no air-bags and no seatbelts. It is a miracle that any of us survived at all. I became obsessed with seatbelts in the 60s, when I had children. My kids were outfitted with harnesses, like little ponies, which were attached to buckles we had installed in our cars, until children’s car seats became commonplace. I am still horrified to remember the little seats that many kids sat in in the front of the car with their mini steering wheels and thin plastic belts. Gevalt!
So Dad was a risk-taker, although he wouldn’t have called himself that. One snowy day, previously reported but worth repeating, his car was parked in our Newark backyard garage. That snowfall became known as the Great Blizzard of 1947. The garage just couldn’t support the snow on its roof and it became abundantly clear that it was in imminent danger of collapse. My mother, calm and cool during flat-tire adventures, quickly foresaw my father’s plan. He would dash out in the fiercely blinding blowing wind, with no time for any hat or coat, and run into the garage to rescue the car. She started to screech at him, uncommon indeed for her, to forget the car and stay inside. He ignored her, retrieved the car and pulled out into the enormous snowbank that covered our driveway, just as the garage collapsed. One minute later he would have been lost to us in a catastrophic avalanche of wood, snow, and a car with four bald tires.
She, being an obviously tolerant wife, never mentioned that event again. Neither did he.
It would be nice to know that since cars are now easier to drive than ever before, they must be safer as well. I’m not spouting statistics, but it seems to me that there are more accidents with cars cruising casually at 80 mph, which Katrinka clearly never could have done, while their drivers text away.