Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Fun Times with the Family Cars

I’ve had a driver’s license since I was 18, but I’ve never actually owned a car. When I lived with my parents, I drove one of my dad’s cars. Years later, Ken was the one who bought the vehicles (usually every couple of years), and he was the one who drove them.

It’s probably just as well that I never had the urge to buy a car. Given my history, I don’t think I would have had much luck with one of my own. Whenever the family cars had a problem, I was the one driving them.

Dad bought a new Chevy Bel Air when I was 17. A year later, I was driving the car when the driver of a pickup truck made a left turn into my side of the Bel Air. The collision sent the car into a tree. The impact with the tree threw the car into reverse and sent the vehicle crashing back into the truck.

End of Chevy Bel Air. Dad then bought a Tempest, a little, blue four-cylinder Pontiac.

The Tempest conked out on me one day on the way to work. I was in another town, about five miles from home. I had to have the car pushed to a local repair shop where our wonderful small town mechanics later picked it up and hauled it to their shop.

Of course, I was in the driver’s seat while the Tempest was pushed to the local shop. I had never been pushed before. I was a nervous wreck before we got there.

The Tempest had no park gear; I had to put the car in neutral when I parked it. Dad decided to get rid of the Tempest after it re-parked itself one evening while I was shopping at a big box store. I came out of the store to find that the car had backed into the aisle and was blocking traffic.

Shortly after that, Dad bought a blue Dodge Dart (BDD).

Let me count the ways.

BDD lost power the middle of rush hour. Fortunately, I was on a less-traveled side street in Nearby City when that happened. I left the car in the middle of the street, with the emergency flashers blinking, while I found a pay phone and called home for further instructions.

BDD lost the transmission. I confess that this might have been triggered by my trying to rock the car out of a fairly deep mud puddle. Yeah, I know, my bad.

BDD lost the radiator hose on the Massachusetts Turnpike. I was somewhere between Worcester and Springfield when I noticed that the heat gauge was registering hot. I pulled off the highway and found a repair shop that fixed the problem for me in about ninety minutes and for a reasonable price. Later, Dad checked in with wonderful small town mechanics to make sure everything had been done right.

A year later, on my way to Springfield early in the evening, BDD lost the brakes in Lee, about two minutes before I reached the Massachusetts Turnpike. Trying not to panic, I drove into a used car lot, turned off the ignition, put on the emergency brake, and sat there hyperventilating until the man who owned the business came over to find out what I was doing there.

I’ve always wondered what our wonderful small town mechanics thought when they heard about the brake issue. I visualize one turning to the other and saying, “It’s her again. Every time something goes wrong with one of that family’s cars, she’s the one driving it.”

I love public transportation.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

OMG, I Used to Live There

Recently, I read an online news report about a man who threatened his neighbor with a sawed-off shotgun. Shortly thereafter, the man barricaded himself in his studio apartment, with the shotgun, of course. Shortly after that, a law enforcement contingent composed of several state troopers and local police officers converged on the scene. Fortunately, the man surrendered without a shot being fired by either side.

This scary event took place at an apartment complex in Massachusetts. When I saw a picture of the complex, I thought OMG, I used to live there.

Yes, I certainly did. In the mid-seventies.

My very first apartment was on the first floor of that complex. Had I noticed the bullet holes in the window of another first floor apartment before I signed the rental agreement, I might have turned around and looked elsewhere. But then, I never would have met Ken and later had the good fortune to escape from the cold New England winters.

Ken soon convinced me to move—no, not in with him—to an apartment on the second floor. He didn’t think it was safe for a woman to be living on the first floor. I guess he thought I was pretty naïve or something, because, hey, I grew up in rural Berkshire County. But I had heard about the break-ins on the first floor. According to a gossipy tenant, feral teens from the not-so-nice neighborhood to the north made a habit of jumping the complex fence after sunset in search of open windows and easy pickings.

I took Ken’s advice seriously. Really I did. I intended to ask about moving. Sometime. But I wasn’t in a hurry. I figured I would be safe as long as I kept my window closed and locked. However, when I came home from work one afternoon, I found a note from Ken saying I could move up to a second floor apartment. Guess someone in the complex office had ESP. Or something.

The next day, I moved to the second floor, into an apartment two doors down the hall from the local illegal immigrant. Incidentally, she was from England.


Saturday, September 05, 2015

Some Family Reunions Just Aren't Meant to Be

One afternoon, back in the Early Jurassic Period, Mom took my four-year-old brother and went to the next door neighbor’s house for coffee and conversation. She left nine-year-old me and my seven-year-old brother at home. Although leaving us alone today would probably result in a visit from a CPS employee, it wasn’t a big deal then. And Mom was probably gone for only thirty minutes.

Long enough.

I was sitting on the couch in the breezeway, doing nothing, when I spotted a familiar yellow tabby cat slinking across the meadow in search of a snack. A year ago, Taffy and our cat had been litter mates, two cute little fuzz balls cuddling together in a cardboard box under the cellar stairs.

They must really miss each other, I thought. I went to the basement where my brother was playing with the model train set up. “We’re going to reunite Tippy with his brother,” I told him. “Taffy’s out back. Go get him.”

I snatched Tippy from his snooze on top of the washing machine. I managed to haul him up to the breezeway before he clawed my arm, wiggled free, and jumped on the couch. Several minutes later, my brother returned, dangling the equally reluctant Taffy. Brother dumped Taffy on the couch.

I guess I was waiting for the cats to rub noses in a friendly greeting, like I’d seen dogs do. Instead, the cats arched their backs, fluffed their fur, and hissed at each other. Tippy lunged at Taffy. Taffy clawed Tippy’s nose. Tippy leaped off the couch. Taffy made a break for the back door, bounced off the glass, and crash landed on top of Tippy. Uh, oh, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought as Tippy backed his sibling into a corner.

At nine, I was too young to understand the nature of cats. All I understood was that the cats were siblings. And siblings were supposed to love and be nice to each other. They weren’t supposed to growl and hiss at each other. Or beat up each other.

My brother assessed the situation and disappeared.

I scrambled onto the couch as the snarling ball of fur careened from one end of the breezeway to the other. I knew I had to get those cats out of there before Mom came home. I hopped off the couch, grabbed a broom, and jabbed the nearest cat. Taffy clawed the broom. Tippy jumped onto the window sill. I inched around to the back door, yanked it open, and swept Taffy onto the patio. Before I could slam the door, Tippy raced after him.

I watched the two cats disappear into the tall grass and decided that, unlike people, cats had no family loyalty.

[The original version of this essay was published in the Great Barrington, MA, The Women's Times in December 1996. About 14 years ago, I posted that version on the Themestream site with permission from the publisher of The Women's Times.]

Thursday, August 20, 2015

I Torpedoed My Academic Career

During my senior year in high school, the first publically funded community college in the state was established in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. I was accepted into the first class of 150 students. In hindsight, that was a real achievement (and a real surprise) because I was competing with students from all over the state.

At the time, I was about as academically motivated as a chipmunk. I applied for admission only because my dad thought it was a great opportunity for me.

I had been taking business classes during my junior and senior years, so I assumed I would be placed in the two year business education program in college. I was doing well in the high school classes, and I actually enjoyed the one class I took in bookkeeping. However, I wasn’t looking forward to sitting through two more years of typing, shorthand, and business math. I thought those classes were beyond boring.

My acceptance letter came with a string attached. I had to take the SAT that summer. I didn’t think the SAT was required in order to enroll in what was essentially a secretarial training program. I wasn’t happy about having to take the test, but, of course, I took it. And, as I recall, I was a nervous wreck during the test. Way too many of the SAT questions seemed over my head. I took a chance and answered most of them, anyway—unless they involved advanced math.

I really thought I had done badly on the SAT. I never looked at my scores. To this day, I don’t know what they were.

During orientation, I learned that I had not been placed in the business education program. Instead, I had been placed in the liberal arts transfer program. My counselor advised me to take classes that would get me into the University of Massachusetts in two years.


Although I hadn’t been looking forward to two more years of typing and shorthand, I knew darn well that I belonged in the business education program. I couldn’t figure out what had happened to change someone’s mind about that, and my parents didn’t ask questions.

My first semester went well. After a short adjustment period, I settled down and ended the semester with decent grades. And, with the exception of the F in French, my second semester grades weren’t too bad either. Unfortunately, the F was reflected in my cumulative average. However, my other grades were high enough to keep me from being put on academic probation.

By the beginning of the third semester, my mind was on my social life and the new guy I had started dating. I also started slacking off on studying, and sometimes I skipped a class just because I didn’t feel like going to it that day. When grades came out in December, I had squeaked by, but just barely. I don’t remember what my cumulative average was, but I do remember that I was put on academic probation.

If, by some miracle, I eventually completed the liberal arts transfer program, I knew I was not going to get into the state university or any other four year college. My overall cumulative average was too low.

At that point, I figured my academic career was heading south fast. And, to tell the truth, I didn’t particularly care.

But I did care enough to want to quit while I was ahead. I had no idea as to what I would do if I left school. I knew I would have to get a job, but what kind of job? None of my classes in the liberal arts program had prepared me for a job in the real world. During the past eighteen months, my typing skills had regressed, and my shorthand skills had disappeared.

I figured I was going to end up stocking socks and underwear at Woolworth’s or assembling widgets in some factory. But that was okay because the scary prospect of having to find work was better than the scary prospect of flunking out of school.

I tried to convince my parents to let me quit, but they were having none of it. Finally, we compromised. They agreed to let me reduce my course load from five to three classes and then do a fifth semester in order to “catch up” and graduate.

I chose to register for three classes that seemed interesting, yet fairly easy. I decided to take a second literature class because I had gotten a B in the first one. I also registered for an economics class and a sociology class called Marriage and the Family.

By the end of the semester, I had quit going to the economics class unless I felt the need for a nap. I attended the sociology class on a semi-regular basis. I sat in the back of the room and concentrated on doodling and making notes that had nothing to do with the class. I didn’t think I’d need to know much about marriage and the family any time soon. A high school boyfriend, whom I still liked, had dumped me, and my current on-and-off boyfriend wasn't what one would describe as marriage material.

The literature class was the only class I really liked and went to faithfully. On the last day of finals, I torpedoed my B average in World Literature 102 by arriving five minutes late for the exam.

I should have gone to the teacher and begged for mercy. Instead, I went to Friendly’s restaurant—at 8:10 a.m.—and ordered an ice cream sundae with extra hot fudge sauce and whipped cream. I ended up with indigestion, an F in English literature, and a 1.8 (D-plus) cumulative average.

And that’s how I got kicked out of college for academic reasons.

However, a few years later, I resurrected my academic career by taking an evening class at a four year college. After a few semesters of liberal arts classes, I decided I needed to study something that would make me more employable.

I reapplied for admission to the community college. I did really well in my accounting classes and other business classes. With the exception of the French class, I successfully repeated all the previous classes that had ended in bad grades. I graduated with an Associates Degree in Liberal Studies (aka my Associates Degree in Whatever) in the early 1970s.

[Postscript: In the late 1990s, when I was finishing the requirements for my B.A. in English at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, I had a tutee who was on academic probation. She had a 1.8 cumulative average. The same cumulative average that had gotten me dropped from college in the Mid-Jurassic Period allowed her to remain in school in 1996. How times had changed.]

Sunday, August 02, 2015

I Committed a Federal Offense at the Age of Twelve

According to an online article from the MassLive news site, Amtrak has pressed charges against a Massachusetts couple who were “allegedly” caught having sex between several sets of railroad tracks one evening last month. Both members of the amorous duo were charged with trespassing and lewd, wanton, and lascivious behavior.

Well, I guess I could have been charged with one of those offenses when I was twelve. Guess which one?

Too old for dolls, too young for dates, I was bored during summer vacation. There was nothing for tweenagers to do in our small, rural town. I could spend only so much time reading every day. And I wasn’t interested in the insipid soap operas that dominated the afternoon programming on our one and only television channel.

I walked a lot, just to have something to do. Two of my friends lived at the edge of town, which was over a mile away. I sometimes walked to their house. More often, I walked along the railroad tracks that were located in a somewhat isolated area near the river.

Last year, a transit district officer in Vista, California, told me that trespassing on railroad property is a federal offense. Oops. I guess if anything was railroad property then, those tracks were.

I wasn’t the only one committing a federal offense back in the Early Jurassic Period. Fishermen and neighborhood kids trekked the tracks from the first warm day in spring until late autumn. The river, though shallow in most places, was our swimming hole during summer vacation.

Way before I was born, the area where I walked had been dubbed the Jungle. For years I thought that epithet had been inspired by the trees and bushes that bordered one side of the tracks. It wasn’t until I was twenty-something that I learned the Jungle was rumored to have been the site of a hobo camp during the depression.

I can’t recall hearing gossip about any strange goings-on in the Jungle during the depression—or at any other time. As far as I know, no one was ever maimed or murdered in the alleged hobo camp or anywhere else along the tracks. But whenever I reached a certain area in the Jungle, I got a creepy feeling that stopped me from continuing beyond that point.

In 1993, a coworker at SmartMart told me the Jungle was haunted.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Fun Times on the Party Line

Thanks to the invention of the cell phone, almost everyone, from young children to senior citizens, now has a private phone line. It wasn’t always like that. Too bad cell phones weren’t around when I was in high school. Cell phones would have made my friends and me very happy and kept people from getting annoyed with us.

Until the early 1960s, we had to share a line with four other telephone customers. One of them was the elementary school; another was a family who lived near the school. I think the third customer might have been an organization that didn’t have anyone working there on a daily basis. I have no idea as to who the fourth party was. Apparently, those people didn’t use the phone much.

When I was a junior in high school, I would come home from school, drag the phone into the hall closet, and call my best friend who went to a different school. Yeah, I confess that sometimes we tied up the line for well over an hour. Or more.

The grandmother of the family living near the school frequently interrupted our conversations, asking us to get off the line because she had to “make an important phone call.” Grandma was polite about it, and so were we. We always hung up so she could use the line.

Her grandson, whom I’ll call “Jack,” was a different story.

One afternoon, Kate and I must have been discussing some really interesting teen gossip. I never heard the click that indicated someone was checking the line. Then again, maybe Jack liked eavesdropping, just in case we mentioned someone he knew.

After putting up with us for what probably seemed like hours to him (but really wasn’t) he broke into our conversation, yelling, “Get off the phone. You two are on the phone twenty-four hours a day. Why don’t you move in with each other?”
I was stunned by his outburst, so I had no words. Kate started arguing with him. I don’t remember what she told him, but I’m sure it was something I wouldn’t repeat here. Anyway, we did get off the phone. And I think I stayed off the party line for a while—maybe even for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

I Would Have Been More Scared Than Bored

A few days ago at the neighborhood café, I heard a woman mention the name of a small town in New Mexico. I so wanted to butt in on the conversation, but I didn’t. Doing that would have been rude, and I was brought up to be nice.

Why, yes, I do have a story to tell about that place.

Way back in the Late Jurassic Period, Ken and I lived on a ranch in Arizona. Ken worked there, but the bookkeeping job I was supposed to get fell through. I could tolerate watching the soaps with the foreman’s wife for only so long. I spent most of my days moping about my present circumstances and wondering if I would ever get off the ranch and back to civilization and a job.

After a few months, Ken became discouraged with the rather chaotic management of the ranch. He thought we probably should move on. I wanted to move to Tucson, but Ken vetoed that idea. He wanted to move to a small town in New Mexico. He told me there were a lot of ranches in that area. He was sure he could get a job at one of them.

I had never heard of that town before, or if I had, I didn’t remember. Most of the small towns we previously traveled through in New Mexico were in shabby shape, with little to offer someone like me who bored easily and thus preferred city life. I thought we would be trading one ho-hum place for another.

I did not want to move to Roswell, New Mexico. And, as it turned out, we didn’t.