Brooklyn Boro

Looking to the right

May 31, 2021 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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I was about to change lanes and looked over to my left. My granddaughter said to me, “What’s wrong?” I replied, “Nothing. Why?” Her reply: “Well you just looked at me.” Then came the lecture to the soon to be taking driving lessons youngster about sideview mirrors and BLIS systems. Later I thought back to that incident and my mind drifted back to Flatbush when I was that age. My have cars changed.

Engines were mostly V-8’s that got about 11 miles to the gallon. American Motors build the Rambler’s with six cylinders and after a V-8 a six could put you to sleep. Chrysler fiddled around with the idea for a while and came up with the slant six. It made the extraordinary mid-size Plymouths and Darts almost extraordinary. Until the oil embargo no one even thought of gas mileage. It was embarrassing to even bring it up. Besides, it was fun getting gas because the gas wars dropped prices to less than twenty cents a gallon and with them you got a plate, or a glass, or something that in spite of the come ons would never turn into a place setting, no less a table setting.

The engine itself was a “what you see if what you get” kind of thing. Its parts were all right in front of you for display, except the fan belt. I don’t even have to tell you… If you’d had your Wheaties, to see the engine you looked for the latch, lifted the hood being careful not to lose your grip because it was so heavy had it fallen you on you’d be impressed into an engine part. The hood you then held open with one hand while the other was fishing around for the steel pool that when properly placed would hold the hood up. It was sometimes not properly placed and nasty things happened as the post went sideways and the hood came down. However, my neighbor who houses his 1909 WIllys Overland in a garage across the street, said the hood was nothing. You hadn’t felt pain until the crank on that generation kicked back and hit you in the leg. With it broken or not, you still could go flying through the air like the Wallendas coming off a trapeze.

Simple was the over-all catchword for cars. Inside you had a rear-view mirror. It had no day/night differentiation. There was a driver’s side mirror. It was years before someone realized that there are cars on both sides of the one you were driving and next came the side-view mirror. Remember how odd it felt looking to the right and if you didn’t go through the contortions over leaning across the passenger’s seat, rolling down the passenger-side window, and adjusting the mirror, it was useless to you.

Oh yes, the windows. Crank that handle one way they went up, the other down. One blessing was that they stopped where you wanted them to, not rolling all the way up or down if you put too much pressure on today’s buttons. There was no air-conditioning. If you were driving alone or with only a front seat passenger, opening the back window for ventilation could be like do home exercises and could, in the summer, leave you soaking wet from sweat. Yet, some cars had that little savior called the “no-draft window.  Its intent was to block air coming in the front window from blowing the hair-does of female passengers right back to the beauty shop. The real deal was if you were the front seat passenger, you could adjust the mirror so that a torrent of air hit you right in the face. Humid and hot or not, it was better than nothing.

And speaking of air conditioning, it finally arrived. Perfection took a while. On hot, humid days, say with the car filled to the brim, bodies squishing around inside from the sweat, the AC would often freeze up. You had what looked like the inside of a refrigerator that needed defrosting and no cold air. For those who bought a pre-AC used car or cheaped out and wouldn’t buy a factory installed unit, there was always the add-on. They fit under the dash, often causing grievous damage to one’s shin, or a hem or pant cuff. And they froze up twice as many times as did their factory-stalled bigger brothers.

Most notable about the seats was their lack of seat belts and the political cultural wars that arose about wearing them. At first they were like airline belts. You could never find them. When it was discovered that in an accident a lap belt could permanently reconfigure your intestinal patterns, we came up with shoulder harnesses and other variations on that theme. Thanks to the seatbelt, you’re a lot safer in your car; they still are a pain to locate and put on. We might mention that before belts your safety device was the driver’s arm whipping across your chest to hold you into place. This was done out of love and with no knowledge of the physics involved. The forward speed of the body as the car stopped multiplied by the weight of the body often meant that above 5 or 10 miles an hour not even Charles Atlas could have kept that person in place.

Before we leave the front seat, let’s remember turn signals. Still into the early ‘50’s signals were just that, like you’d see sailors using on the deck of a ship. There just weren’t that many of them. You had to stick your arm out of the car and manually signal what you were going to do. If you were making a right hand when straight out. A left? The elbow was straight, and the arm pointed to the sky. As you may well remember, people had dozens of other motions they expected to make sense to those behind them.  “I’m slowing. I’m making a U-turn. I’m stopping—now! I don’t know what the heck I’m supposed to do at this intersection so don’t hit me.” This wasn’t so bad since most of us hung our arm out the door holding a cigarette. But in the snow or a rainstorm…well, a lot of people said, “Devil take the hindmost” and just kept the window rolled up.

When one thinks of signals, one has to remember the traffic cop who stood in the middle of four intersections, sometimes on a stand. On the stand, and with a whistle they were rock and rollers in motion. Off the stand, they must have run miles on each shift, darting towards the next lane of traffic to stop, or motioning back an over-zealous car, or hurrying with wind-milling arms, a slow-poke who was about to screw up the cop’s timing. One, I think in Pittsburgh, was so famous, they did news specials on him in action.

Every dashboard had a cigarette lighter and an ashtray. I knew some people who were such heavy smokers that at days end, or several days end, one needed a dinner fork to pry out the dead soldiers mashed into the little circle and then dropped into the tray. Or you could pull out the whole ashtray invariably making the front seat look like the ashen aftermath of a volcano. The dashboard too was simple; after all, how much did the average driver need or want to know about what was going on under the hood. As Jackie Mason once said, “Whoooo! It’s very busy under there!” You needed to know if you had gas; you needed to know how fast you were going. You probably needed to know how miles you’ve gone and a way to count miles to help you get somewhere. That was about it for the average car. And there was absolutely no place to put a cup of coffee or a soda. Then someone invented the gizmo that you wedged into the window receptacle at whose end was a cup holder. The cup was exactly on line with your elbow. Need I say more?

Once you got the back seat, where initially there were no seat belts it was boring. In some cars there were ashtrays and that was it.

But the trunk! In most of the TV shows and movies I like to watch, someone is always getting thrown into the trunk. With today’s cars, less SUVs, it would take some training in origami, or butchering, to get a fairly large human being into the trunk. In those days, trunks were ginormous. A team of field mice could play full field Rugby in one of them. In some of the cars, the trunk was half the length of the car and if you’re taking about a Cadillac Fleetwood, Eldorado, or other models as long as an aircraft carrier, you’re talking a lot of space. In other cars, trunks made up in depth what they might have lacked in length.

And there you have it, all from looking to my right.

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