Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In my family, we don't have a love affair with cars

My family prided itself in not being swept up in the American culture of crazy automobile worship. Oh no, we're always practical about our cars, comfortable and safe transportation is all we need. Well, except for the fact, it turns out, that we really like to have our photos taken with our cars. I think that's evidence we liked them a lot more than we were willing to admit, starting with my mother's parents, when she was very young. Here they are having a picnic by a pineapple plantation in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, where they lived in the early part of the 20th century. 
That's my grandfather teetering uncomfortably on a wooden crate that says, "Stow Away from Engines and Boilers" with my mother, who looks to be about 3 (making this about 1915). The smiling woman in the hat, under the shade of the car roof, is my grandmother, with friends.
I hope some day to know what kind of car it was. But even though they had a car--grandfather was a banker, after all--they kept this--maybe just for fun, or maybe for those days when the car wouldn't start--and made a photographic record of it, too:
A couple of years later, as their fortunes grew, and as cars evolved, we find them out and about in this rather more capacious and sophisticated-looking vehicle with white-walls!
And yet later, their close friends, known to my mother as Uncle Billy and Aunt Suze, had a Winton 6 worthy of this formal portrait, which in turn was worthy of being kept along with all the other old memorabilia all these years:
What a magnificent beast!
My father's family was not to be left out, of course. Here's a portrait of my paternal grandfather, dated 1943, with a gorgeous, shiny Buick convertible, after the end of the "black-only" paint option era:
My parents met and married a few years after my grandfather had his picture taken with the Buick. My father, who was very junior in the ranks at Indiana University at the time, was nonetheless apparently able to afford his own car. I don't know the story around these photos, but they are marked "Spring 1948" on the back, and I would bet a lot it was their first new car. Here's a view of my mother posed in front it, revealing it to be a Frazer (and that she smoked cigarettes at the time):
Says Wikipedia, "The Frazer (1946-1951) was the flagship line of upper-medium priced American luxury automobiles built by the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation of...Ypsilanti, Michigan, and was, with Crosley, the first American car with new envelope body and fresh postwar styling." In those days it cost about half a year's salary.
By 1953 they had upgraded to a much more modern model. This appears to be a rather large two-door Kaiser, with 3-year old me playing on it.
Sometime during this period, one of our cars, maybe this Kaiser, was completely consumed in a flaming accident on a rural road. The story was that a woman was tearing along the road in the dark with no headlights on, and that my father, who could not have seen her coming, pulled out right in front of her. Somehow (in those pre-seatbelt, pre- airbag days) we weren't hurt, though I don't know the fate of driver who hit us. That was certainly the last time my father would buy a black car though, determining that the dark paint had contributed to our nighttime invisibility.
There may have been others in between, but the first car I have a good memory of was our 1956 flamboyantly pink Plymouth exactly like this restored beauty:
Thanks to Regina Antique Auto, Members' Rides, for the use of this image
My father was about as unmechanical as a man could be. But somebody with a sense of humor (namely, my mother) snapped this on a Christmas 1959 trip to Mexico. Although Mother and I were along, it was basically a business trip, and the cars were chauffeured. My father seems to be supervising the changing of a tire, something he certainly never could have managed himself on his own car:
Around this time,the station wagon became all the rage. Here's my father most debonairly posing in front of our Rambler Ambassador, red with a white blaze and all, in 1960:
Flash forward about 6 years. We now live in a house with a big garage, I have my driver's license, and I have to get myself to school, to work, and out to the farm where I kept my horse. And, Volkswagen not long before had invaded America. Here's my very first car, a 1959 VW beetle with no gas gauge, only a lever on the floor next to the gas pedal that, with the nudge of a toe, would allow just enough additional gas to flow from a spare tank to get me to the nearest gas station when the main tank ran dry:
You're probably thinking, "hey, there's nobody posed with that car!" but if you click to enlarge the photo you can just see my German shepherd dog Katja smiling from the back seat, eagerly awaiting a ride to our next adventure. What wonderful new-found freedom that was for us both!
Cute and useful as it was, my bug wasn't exactly a hot car. My mother, who also worked and had a busy life, decided to buy herself a car, and was unaccountably attracted to a bright red Mercury Cougar with white leather interior seats. Now that was a HOT car. It drank gas like it was going out of style, had a very heavy-duty four-on-the floor, and could lay a patch a block long (which my mother thought hilarious). Need I add, it was a boyfriend magnet when my mother let me drive it? Also unaccountably, my mother actually let me drive it from southern Indiana to New Orleans and the gulf coast of Texas with a boyfriend. I can't exactly reconstruct when that was, or how I managed to get my mother's approval, but here's the boyfriend at what appears to be the edge of a Texas oilfield with just the tail end of the car showing:
Boy, I loved that Cougar. The boyfriend, not so much.
By this time, though, I had sold my pretty green VW and gone off to college, where the undergrads weren't allowed to own cars. When I at last graduated, in her great generosity, my mother bought me my first new car. It was a 1972 Mercury Capri. Pronounced ca-PREE. Which drove my multilingual father, of European birth, insane, as the original Italian isle is unequivocally pronounced CA-pree. The showroom price was $3,000. It too was a sporty four-on-the-floor, very muscular and nimble, and gave me all pleasure and no trouble commuting across country and over the mountains of southern Arizona where I went to grad school. Unfortunately, I can't find a good portrait of the car--I hope there is one somewhere that I've overlooked. But there it is, with a giant U-Haul container bolted to the roof for a cross-country move, forming the distant backdrop for yet another boyfriend. Yes, he is Italian, so that his shirt is open to his navel revealing a gold medallion on a chain goes with the territory. 
Eventually, I wore out my beloved little Capri. It lasted only about three or four years until it started to show signs of serious engine troubles at around 80,000 miles. What I really wanted next was a BMW, but what I ended up with was a blue 4-door Toyota Corona. Not sexy, not hot, but plenty reliable and long-lived. I don't seem to have a great portrait of that car either, but here is KLK grinning hopelessly at me since I had pulled into a space centering his door perfectly over a giant mud puddle, 1989.
And here is the one-and-only interior shot I have from any of my cars. This is my dog Pia (aka Woofie) looking cute in the back seat of that Toyota.
She was a sweet, gentle dog, but had enough German shepherd in her (about half) that she defended that car, more ferociously than our home even, from threats like evil automated car washes and toll-booth attendants who had the temerity to reach toward the driver's window in order to accept toll payment.
The Toyota gave many good years of service, but was ultimately deemed seriously unsafe when it was possible to view the road through the rusted floor boards. In 1991, I bought myself a right nice new Honda Civic, bright red, four-on-the-floor again, and with air conditioning. It was my very first with air. Don't ask how I survived the Capri in Arizona without air conditioning. I have no memory of having been terribly uncomfortable, but it must have been so.
That's me, beaming from the driver's seat, Saugatuck Michigan, 1991. That was truly one of my greatest cars, comfortable, much more roomy than it looks from outside, mechanically sound, road-sure and peppy, but efficient. With crank-down windows, manual door locks, and of course, no airbags.
This darling lasted intact until one early morning in 2003, when I was driving on a mostly empty high-speed interstate highway and I came across a car stopped perpendicular to the median barrier. Both front doors were open and I could see the deflated airbag drooping over the steering wheel and the crushed front end. A few dozen feet away from the car was what must have been the hapless driver, no blood, no guts, just a cell phone socked to her ear. I can tell you that I was deeply impressed by the fact that the driver was uninjured in what could otherwise have been a very different sort of accident. I knew the time had come to upgrade.
I sold the Civic for $500 less than asking to a flattering male Italian graduate student  ("Oh, a be-yooo-teee-ful car, and a be-yooo-teee-ful woman") and summarily purchased my third new car, a silver VW Jetta with all the modern amenities I didn't even know I wanted, like a sun roof and heated seats (both are very nice). Isn't it amazing that I made it through half a century and into the new Millennium before I owned a car with air conditioning? Automatic door locks? Electric windows?  And that what goes around comes around. I started with a VW, and that's where I've ended up, for now.
Door County, Wisconsin
No, we don't we don't worship our cars in my family. But doesn't their coming and going mark signposts in our lives, their power, and sculptural beauty, and capacity bring us pleasure and ease, their very existence add to life's adventure?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

How my phone bill blew up

I would give up my land line in a minute (no more recorded mortgage offers from law-breakers violating my presence on the do-not-call list! no more legal but oh-so-annoying calls from politicans!) but cell phones still aren't that all that reliable in terms of sound quality, and besides, my battery runs down in no time. So why would I give up my land line? Well, for one thing, the cost in relation to the service is ridiculous. Typically, my bill for basic services and certainly no long distance, is a little over $23, with about 66% of that for line charges, federal access charges, and other mystery fees. Of course, my cell phone bill is similarly full of tack-ons, but at least long distance calls are included in my fixed exorbitant monthly total. No surprises with the cell phone, thank you very much.
But in late November, trying to eliminate the increasing pile of dead trees arriving in my snail-mail box in the form of paper catalogs that I'm also not supposed to be getting because I signed up for the no-junk mail-list, using my land line I called the sender of each new catalog to politely (while gritting my teeth) request that I be taken off their mailing list. After dialing what I obliviously assumed was the toll-free number of one of these senders, as they answered the phone it suddenly dawned on me that it might not be a toll free call--I realized I didn't recognize their area code as likely being in the usual series of freebies. I had the presence of mind before I said anything else to ask if the call was toll free, and the customer service representative answered, "no, but I'll be glad to call you back" (I wonder how any catalog store can expect to retain customers if they have to pay to order by phone?). She called right back, at the company's expense this time, and cheerfully confirmed she would take me off the mailing list. Fine, done. I assumed my goof would trigger a long distance charge of some kind on my phone bill, but I never dreamed it would come to this:

And that, my friends, is how my dumb little 32¢ sin blew up into a $3.58 charge.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

History in my hands

I've posted a number of times about my maternal family's connections to Puerto Rico, including my best reconstruction of my grandfather's life and death there, my mother's late middle-aged return for the best years of her life, and what little I know about Eliette Adonicam, who was the cook in my grandparents' home in San Juan. This good long New Year holiday weekend I was playing around on Flickr, enjoying looking at others' photos of that colorful Caribbean island, when I came across a couple of disparate groups (where members post their photos on specific themes) devoted to historical images of Puerto Rico. Most of them don't have a lot of members, and they don't have a lot of images, but what they do have made something click in my mind. Over the last couple of years I have scanned in only the most telling photographic portraits of my grandparents, my mother as a child and young woman, and her little sister Louise, who died at the age of 6 in those pre-antibiotic days. But in the fat envelopes I found among my mother's things when she died are easily dozens more fading photos of the countryside, the cities (which were so undeveloped they were almost rural in the first third of the 20th century), poverty and riches, lifestyles, and a couple of lesser or greater historical figures who were my grandparents' friends, all taken between 1908 and January of 1948. I've been busy scanning them all day today, and I'm not half finished.  Here, for example, are some very interesting shots of a handsome, dignified woman identified on the back of the undated photos, in my granny's handwriting, as Dr. Martha Caul, posing in front of what looks to be a once-grand, now-decrepit, country house: 
I guessed, since there are a total of four formal portraits of her, that she must have been an éminence grise and a good friend. How did we ever answer questions before there was Google? Several gems turned up, and this one, from the Poughkeepsie NY-Eagle, December 9, 1936, shows Dr. Caul deserves not to be forgotten by Puerto Rico. This is from the :
NEW YORK. Dec. 8 - Dr. Martha F. Caul, Brooklyn Physician died last night at the age of 68. 
Dr. Caul lived for many years in Puerto Rico and in the hurricane of 1928 [?] headed a Red Cross delegation in relief work. She also led a $2,000,000 relief fund drive for victims of the disaster. 
She attended public schools in Buffalo and was graduated from the Buffalo Medical college. Funeral services will be at her home tomorrow and burial will be at Brant Center [?], N.Y. her birthplace

She also turns up in Ancestry.com, where the image of a 1916 passport application reveals that she was born on May 2, 1869, and her profession is listed as farmer. She's there in the 1920 census as well, where, as a widow, her role in the family is head-of-household, and the industry in which she works is a finca de toronjes - she had a grapefruit farm! Here's another extraordinary tidbit about her life from the Emporia (Kansas) Daily Gazette of May 5, 1933:
Dr. Martha F. Caul, of Brooklyn, one of the best known women physicians (she witnessed the operation on McKinley when surgeons tried to save him from the assassin's lead) is said to have been the first women to own and drive a motor car in New York State. Barney Oldfield taught her.

McKinley was assassinated, in 1901, in Buffalo New York, so that excitement took place before she came to Puerto Rico.
My grandparents kept wonderful company: Dr. Martha F. Caul must have been an intrepid woman indeed, start-to-premature-finish.