Crow's-Feet Chronicles: My dad was a driving force
By Cindy Baker Burnett
Sep 24, 2018
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To a kid growing up in the 50s, the only thing larger than Daddy was the family car.   It was a big squatting hulk of steel with running boards, hood ornaments, and massive fenders. The backseats were large enough to transport cattle, where kids, unfettered by seat belts or car seats or any other safety device, had plenty of room to roam and punch each other.   It gulped gas, and on a quiet night, we could hear it rust.

In 1951 the automobile industry began offering power steering in some car models. Back then cars had power nothing and manual everything. People were more involved with their cars back then. They had to be. Sometimes older people complain about modern cars, saying, “They don’t build ‘em like they used to.” Thank goodness they don’t build ‘em like they used to, because when I was a kid, tires went flat every 75 feet. I cannot count the number of times I sat by the side of the road, watching my dad putting the jack under the bumper and jacking up the car, or occasionally just jacking up the bumper, leaving the rest of the car still squatting on the ground. That’s because they used to build ‘em in such a way that the bumpers sometimes came off.

I did count the number of times, though, that my family of five had to unload or load the station wagon when Daddy changed multiple flats on our summer vacation of 1958. Eleven times. In an effort to save money that year, my frugal dad had our tires recapped before we left town. My memory of that summer trip is a jacked-up dance troupe---lug nuts poised and waiting to be hugged by a twirling tire tool. Today, every time I see a gnarled gator on the highway, I think of that long-ago trip when we scattered pieces of black rubber (sometimes flying past our window) across New Mexico and Colorado.      

Cars in those days were also always “flooding.” To this day I’m not clear on what “flooding” means, but it happened all the time to us. The car wouldn’t start, and Daddy would open the hood, look at the engine, frown, and announce: “It’s flooded.” We didn’t know what “it” was, but we did know that it meant we weren’t going anywhere for a while, and that if “it” continued to be “flooded,” our battery---one of the most fragile mechanisms on the face of the earth---would run down, and we might catch Daddy saying a bad word.

My dad went back to a garage where he’d purchased a battery for our car six months earlier. “Listen,” Daddy complained to the garage owner, “when I bought the battery you said it would be the last battery my car would ever need. It died after only six months.”

“Sorry,” the garage owner apologized. “I sincerely didn’t think your car would last any longer than that.”