by Alita DeBerry
It used to be that automobiles in general did not come from the factory with standard equipment, such as radio and heater. Those were extras; special order items. And just coming out of the Depression, few people, unless they owned a piece of "the rock," could afford such frills.
The Frenchman remembers that as a boy they'd brag to each other that they knew someone who had a car with a "Radio, heater and 'lectric fan!" The little rubber-blade fan sat on the dash board and plugged into the cigarette lighter, I presume, or maybe flashlight batteries. But having such luxuries meant you were in high cotton.
After Daddy's car wreck in late 1939, when he recovered, he went to Memphis the next year car shopping, and returned with a used 1939 Hudson, which, of course, had no extras, barely the essentials.
Winter travel was grueling, calling for overcoats, overshoes, knit caps and gloves, even lap robes -- this was inside the car.
One severely cold January day we set off for Jonesboro, Arkansas, to a circuit assembly; the temperature was below freezing the whole weekend.
So Daddy, always on the lookout for his family's comfort, hit upon the idea of the old charcoal bucket which Mama used in summer to heat her old flatirons, and decided it could be pressed into service as a dispenser of at least a little heat.
So the charcoal bucket was fired up and stationed on the floor of the back seat. And when I mention our use of it, some folks have drawn back in horror: "Why, you could've been asphyxiated!"
Not to worry!
By happy coincidence, all the fresh air coming in though the broken window, to say nothing of the holes in the floor, where the mats and part of the floor had long since worn away, offset any danger of carbon monoxide. (One of our favorite pastimes in summer was hunkering down to watch the pavement under us go by.)
Ole Henry the Hudson was interestingly built -- did I say ugly? In back it was like one side of an A- frame house (like the PT Cruiser looks from the rear). The front began with that same slope to the bottom of the windshield, where it suddenly sported a gigantic hood, like the overgrown, bulbous nose of a career drunk.
Color-wise, Henry began life as a middling blue, between the blue of bluing and navy, but through no fault of his own, Henry had eroded into a dull chalky, pathetic blue/gray with splotches of iridescent purplish hues, resembling a bad bruise. You've probably seen the way an ancient black serge suit finally turns greenish or purplish with age.
That was Henry's color scheme. And I'm here to say, they don't make 'em like that anymore. These old rough Mississippi country roads took a lot out of Henry.
The few folks who were lucky enough to possess "wheels" learned a lot of tricks, by way of repairing a vehicle; especially learning to improvise and make do. And making do often involved bailing wire, scrap roofing tin, heavy cardboard (for windows and floor mats) and bailing wire.
Another standard during World War II days was "boots" in the tires to cover weak spots. One always, ALWAYS, carried his innertube patching paraphernalia; why, you never left home without it. And Daddy seldom miscalculated on that. For seldom was a journey undertaken without at least one flat along the way.
And you allowed, timewise, on any given jaunt for at least two flats. During the war years there was much scarcity of tires, so even if you managed to scrape up the money, you still had to have the proper coupons to prove they were a virtual necessity, such as hauling produce to market.
My Frenchman said they used to call their threadbare or bald tires "May pops," as they may pot at any time. (And usually did.)
Daddy's strong suit was not preventative maintenance, yet he managed to coax every ounce of endurance ole Henry could muster. I don't believe he was exactly indifferent to Henry's needs, even in the face of Dan's pleas to fix things as needed fixing, but fix-it money didn't grow on corn stalks, and he knew Dan's position on repair-- that nothing less than doing it properly would do.
Never did Daddy consider the junkyard as a source of supplies for any needed repair or organ transplant; such called for more time, patience and money than he was willing to invest.
For coldest weather, instead of antifreeze, he simply drained the radiator each night, drawing buckets of well water to refill it when needed.
Daddy's feelings seemed to be that if you played it close to the ground and kept your wits about you, you could always coax a few more miles or years from that workhorse. And he was right.
You see, he understood that old automobile as most farmers understood the mule's personality. That an old nag of a mule could usually be depended on for at least one more row plowed. Just this same way, he understood Henry's idiosyncrasies. Better than anybody.
When I was 15 or so, I was allowed limited use of the car to chauffeur Mama over to visit her parents -- only by going the backroads, however, never on the highway. And such a journey even just for two miles, called for planning.
Backing old Henry up was impossible, since reverse gear had gone arthritic and Daddy was the only one who could execute it. Good thing I would have both a circle drive and a half-acre yard in which to make my U-turns.
The gear shift was in the middle of the floor, and it wasn't easy for me to reach if I expected to see out the windshield. The seat lever had long since rusted into an all-the-way-back position to accommodate Daddy's six foot four frame, mostly legs.
So, in order for me to reach the wheel, gear shift and petals and see out the windshield all at the same time, I had to build a sort of throne; the platform consisted of all the dictionaries and Sears catalogs we owned, over which an armload of pillows were added to both seat and seat back, and off we'd go.
One day the starter died. Daddy did not elect to fix it, but had Dan make a long hand crank, such as T-models had to start the motor. However, on Saturdays when we went to TOWN, out of compassion for (to save embarrassment to us) girls, he'd park on a hill. And then on leaving, he'd coast down the slope, so he could slap it into gear, and the engine would roar into life again.
As Henry grew older and more feeble, he suffered more and more relapses.
After the windshield wipers called it quits, we'd still sally forth in high spirits, even in the rain, for Daddy had attached a small rope to the wiper appendage under the hood, and threaded it inside, and it fell my lot to sit up front and pull the rope at regular intervals. Hey, it worked.
The blade then would slap forward over the glass, then fall back under its own power. Another pull, another swipe. My goodness! I felt my dad was so clever. It was a pleasant diversion and worthwhile contribution to the trip. Why, it made me feel like a copilot.
Coming home one dark night our lights gave up the ghost. Not to worry, Daddy is here! He would hover on the shoulder until a car came up behind us, and then he'd rev up the motor as the car whizzed by, and we'd bounce back into the highway, at full throttle, clipping along at a dangerous pace, using that car's headlights.
But all too soon the lead car was out of sight, and off to the shoulder we'd go to wait for another 'seeing-eye.' It took a while getting home that night. Had it been a full moon, we'd have made it sooner.
Our family was a reading bunch of people. So when headlights came up behind us, well, Happy Day for us girls in the back seat.
Wonder what the folks in the car behind us thought when four open books shot up into their line of vision? Why, we could read by firefly light if necessary.
And so it went with the life and times of old Henry the Hudson.
Alita DeBerry has been writing professionally for twenty years, starting as a correspondent and feature writer for the Memphis COMMERCIAL APPEAL. For most of this time, Alita was also writing a column for several weeklies in the South. Her column has been published in the Atlanta JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION and her travel articles have appeared in several magazines.
Alita has been married to Horace DeBerry (the same man) for almost a half century. She refers to him in her columns as "The Frenchman." They have two daughters--Lisa and Stephanie.
The Deberry family has lived in various states--Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Colorado, California--and then retired to the home place in Carroll County, Mississippi, where Alita grew up. They've now stayed put for two decades.
And here's another: A funeral to remember: Getting there is half the fun!
Write Alita at Scribbler211.
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