Claudia Myers: Colorful cars make colorful memories
We had never bought a car before, but had a friend who thought Travelalls were the only way to go.
DULUTH — My dad was a Ford man, yes, he was! He always drove a Ford — except for the two-tone blue 1952 Mercury hard-top with the dual exhausts that he bought from a teenage kid. He sure enjoyed that car, driving it around and making it rumble.
He's the reason I didn't learn to drive until I was 19, because he would use any excuse to drive his hot rod; he drove me to school, to babysit, to the library, wherever I needed to be, and he drove my friends to and from our house — vroom, vroom!
When we moved from upstate New York to Minnesota in 1957, the first thing he did was buy a new car, a grey and white Ford Fairlane 500. I was 17. You know he wasn't going to let me learn to drive in his brand new car!
My husband's dad was a Buick man. So you can see right there, that I "married up." Dad Myers had an old Buick coupe that he called "The Wildcat," and when Tom would come home from medical school, he would borrow his dad’s car and pick me up. We'd go and park in the Presbyterian church lot and steam up the car windows. It was a sweet day when Dad Myers traded in the Wildcat for a sleek little German Opel and gave it to Tom as an early graduation gift. We discovered that steaming up the windows was much easier in a small car.
We were married just before Tom's last year in medical school. The draft was still in effect, but you could get a deferment through The Berry Plan. So you could make it through medical school, as long as you promised to enlist the minute you turned in your cap and gown. So it was that Tom found himself on the way to Germany for a stint in the Air Force, with the little Opel in the hold of the ship, going back to the Motherland.
I showed up in Germany two months later, as soon as I had delivered our second child. After two years there, we came home with three children — and the Opel. But, the poor, poor Opel was never the same after leaving home for the second time. Immediately, it started having electrical problems. Then, it developed a horrible, scabrous skin problem that looked rather like leprosy. It was also having psychological problems, I knew, because every Sunday morning, when I had the three kids all spiffed up for church and in the car, it would refuse to start. Time to trade it in.
By then, we had moved to Duluth, where 4-wheel drive was not a charming luxury, but sometimes the only thing keeping bread, milk and dog food in the cupboard. We were working on the old Victorian house, which meant transporting paint, boards and old furniture to be stripped.
We had never bought a car before, but had a friend who thought Travelalls were the only way to go. So we listened to him and bought one. An ugly brown one. My husband is 5-foot-5; I am 5-foot-2 ½, and now we're driving a tank.
You know Travelalls are built from the pieces and parts of other vehicles, right? I would say at least 30% of its life was spent in the repair shop waiting for its pieces and parts to arrive. The first thing we did with it was pile everyone in and drive to Hartley Field to see if the legendary off-road vehicle could make it to the top of “Hartley Rock.” Yes, yes it could. And did.
With the kids going to dance classes, skiing and Cub Scouts, we needed a second car, so for the first time in my life, I had my very own car. It was used, and I didn't care. It was huge and difficult for me to drive. I didn't care. It was impossible to park and back up. I didn't care. What I did care about was that it was red — bright red! OK, a little faded, but yes, it was a red, Buick LeSabre, two door. It had black leather seats, and the doors were so enormous that I had to be careful where I parked or I couldn't get out. No seat belts, and three rowdy children and Clancy the dog in the back seat. Every winter, Tom would put chains on the tires, and they would go ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. I didn't care. It was mine and well, you know, red.
Eventually, we replaced the Travelall with a blue Pontiac station wagon, which morphed into a green Buick station wagon. This lucky vehicle was the one all three teenagers used learning to drive. When we sold it to a man who hauled it away for $100, he loudly commented that it “looked as if it had been driven on all four sides.” Possibly he was right.
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at The College of St. Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.