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by Newt Harlan

The other day as I was driving through town, I saw a ‘55 Chevrolet hardtop parked in front of the café with a group of folks gathered around admiring it. I slowed to look without stopping, but the sight of the “old” car really got my memory wheels to turning.

I remember back when the ’55 Chevy first came out that it and the Ford Crown Victoria were the dream cars of every teenaged and twenty-something young man I knew. Man, we all just had to have one. Of course very few of us could do much more than imagine and wish, but we sure did a lot of that. I could picture myself in one of those cars - two tone paint job, fender skirts, fancy hubcaps, back-seat speakers, clear plastic seat covers to protect the upholstery. I would’ve needed a stick to fight the girls off. Alas, my dream never came about; by the time I could afford to buy a car like that, my tastes had changed, and I was happier with a new pickup.

Remembering the cars led to thinking about all the things that have changed on them since those days. For instance, when was the last time they made a hard top body style? I know it’s been long enough that I can’t recall; and, two-tone paint jobs, you know the kind where the bottom of the car is one color and the top another. I still see paint jobs that feature more than one color, but very rarely like those of old.

I don’t imagine many under fifty even know what fender skirts are. Fender skirts were (and I guess are) metal pieces designed to clip into the wheel wells on the rear of the car to cover the top half of the wheel. These were painted to match the color of the car and give the appearance that the bodyline was continuous from the front wheel to the rear bumper. (I know it sounds kind of silly now, but it was important back then.).

Fancy hubcaps (the standard issues back then) were small metal discs, just large enough to cover the hub of the wheel and the lug nuts. If your car was going to be anything but plain, you just had to have hubcaps that covered the whole wheel and the more ornate the better. Nowadays, they’re called wheel covers, and just about every car and most trucks that don’t have special alloy wheels have them.

In those days all car radios were AM and had only a single speaker installed in the dash centered under the rear view mirror. To really be “state-of-the-art” we would install speakers in the shelf below the back window behind the back seat, hence “back seat speakers.” If you were really fancy, you installed a Front-Rear-Both switch and a separate volume control for the back speakers on your dash. I don’t think the back seat speakers improved the sound quality very much, but it enabled the back seat passengers to hear the radio when you were driving with the windows down (air-conditioned cars were almost unheard of back then). We had what we called 4/60 air conditioning, which meant driving with all four windows down at 60 miles per hour.

Somehow people got sold on the idea of buying cars with nice fabric upholstery on the seats and then covering the seats with clear plastic covers to “keep 'em nice” for trade-in time. The same reasoning went for buying carpeted floorboards and covering them with plastic floor mats. The whole idea never made too much sense to me. In my mind, if you were going to spend the money for nice fabric and carpet, then you should enjoy it, and then if it wore out or something, install the seat covers and floor mats at trade-in time. In spite of my thoughts, this idea remained popular for several years during the ‘50s and ‘60s although it never worked worth a damn. After just a few months of exposure to the Texas sun and summer heat, the seat covers went from clear to dark amber and soon became brittle and cracked, and while the floor mats somewhat protected the area under them, the other exposed areas became dirty and faded, so that part of the idea didn’t work too well either.

Girls hated plastic seat covers. If they were wearing shorts in the summertime and got into a car that had been sitting in the sun, they could get third degree burns on their legs. Secondly, the plastic was next to impossible to slide on, making it hard to slide across next to boyfriends when the guys were driving, as was the custom in those days. In order to reach her accustomed spot, a girl would have to kind of wriggle over on her butt, which was extremely difficult to do with any degree of modesty in a skirt. The boys liked it though.

The clear plastic wasn’t limited to cars. Furniture manufacturers at that time covered their products with a light gauge clear plastic film to protect it during shipment and storage. Many folks just left it on to protect their furniture from everyday wear and tear, especially the “good” furniture in the living room. I remember many times visiting one or another girlfriend, going into the living room to get away from the watchful eyes of parents and siblings (while we did whatever it was that girls and boys do at that age) and having their mothers say, “Now, you kids be careful if you sit on that good furniture that you don’t fool around and tear the plastic; I’m trying to keep that stuff nice for company.”

Not too many years ago, I was helping a friend sort out and move some things from the house of an aunt who had recently died. There were furniture and lampshades in the living room covered with the original plastic film, still being kept nice for company after almost 50 years. The Salvation Army didn’t seem to care.

Then there were those lace or crocheted things that were placed on chair and sofa arms and backs to prevent their getting soiled from body oils. I think they’re called “doilies.” I hated those things. I’d go to meet some new girlfriend’s parents and be invited to sit down, and the next thing I knew I’d have the damned doily from the chair arm on the floor. If I reached down to pick it up, I’d either pull the one behind my head down or I’d knock something on the coffee table over. I sure am glad not many people use them anymore.

How many of y’all remember black and white television? That’s what we had when I was growing up. I think my family got our first TV around 1952, but I’m not exactly sure. I do remember that at first there were only locally produced programs available. Some people placed a colored plastic sheet over their black and white TV screen. The sheet was blue at the top; red, orange and yellow in the middle and green at the bottom. This was supposed to give the illusion of a color picture, but it didn’t do much for me.

Children were always cautioned not to sit too close to the screen because it would make you go blind, and there was no telling what all that radiation might do to you. Of course, my sisters and I and all our friends always sat as close as we could manage so as not to miss anything until our parents hollered at us to move back. As far as I know, none of us is blind or affected in other ways from this habit. This didn’t stop me from telling my kids or them from telling my grandkids: “Back up from that TV before it makes you go blind.”

Another idea at that time was if you watched TV in a dark room it was bad for your eyes. Most folks chose to put a lamp on top of their TV set to remedy this problem. Probably the most popular (and ugly and tacky as a velvet Elvis painting) were ceramic lamps molded in the shape of a big cat stalking prey. They all looked the same, except some were painted as black panthers, some as tigers and others as leopards. Thank God my family never chose to have one in our house. Besides, all that extra light interfered with the business at hand when I was watching TV with my girlfriend.

Around 1954 Houston finally got hooked up with network TV. In those days it was by telephone cable rather than satellite. Anyway, this opened a whole new menu of viewing for us and soon we were all hurrying home after football practice to watch “Mickey Mouse Club,” not for the Disney characters, but for Annette, Darlene and some of those other well built young things parading around in short skirts and mouse ears. We also had to watch American Bandstand so we could pick up on the latest dances, but my sisters were much better at this than I was. They’d learn the steps and then patiently guide my clumsy, two-left-footed ass through them. I guess they did a pretty good job because I could usually find a girl or two to dance with at the sock hops.

Then came color TV, a big novelty for several years. Folks who had color televisions used to have viewing parties on weekends to watch programs in color. Can you imagine a houseful of people trying to watch programs on one 19-inch TV set?

The two appliance stores in town at that time were located on opposite ends of Main Street and on opposite sides of the street. Both stores took advantage of the novelty of color TV and put sets in the show windows at the front of their stores with an outside speaker so that folks passing by could see and enjoy the wonderful new technology. This soon became a big attraction on weekend nights when folks would bring lawn chairs, cold drinks and snacks and set up right on the sidewalk for a night of watching color TV. The stores always were open and had an employee on duty to change channels and to help if someone decided to buy something. This practice lasted for quite a few months, but was finally discontinued when a brawl broke out over which program the sidewalk audience was going to watch. In the ensuing melee, somebody was thrown through the showroom window, breaking the TV set into pieces. Humble, Texas was kind of violent in those days.

I mentioned the 4/60 air conditioning we had in our cars back in those days. Well, the home air conditioning was about the same caliber; most folks didn’t have any. Our houses were cooled with fans. There were ceiling fans, oscillating fans, window fans and, if you were fortunate, an attic fan that would “cool” the whole house. These systems worked better than they may sound to us today, but back then houses were built for ventilation cooling, and we were more accustomed to life without the AC. However, I don’t think we ever got accustomed to those hot, muggy nights when even the night air was about 85 degrees. We also never got used to the mildew that grew on our shoes and clothes because of the constant humidity . . .or the attic fan pulling the wallpaper off the walls because we didn’t have enough windows open. I’m really not interested in going back to those days; I think I’ll just settle for my air-conditioned comfort of today.

Another memory that ’55 Chevy evoked was “aluminum Christmas trees.” I can’t begin to tell you why unless it is because that’s the time when these things were popular.

The aluminum tree was somewhat similar to the artificial trees of today, composed of a trunk with branches of increasing size from top to bottom, but the branches were made of silver aluminum-like material permanently attached to the trunk and folded up like an umbrella to fit into a tube for storage. For display, you simply removed the tree from the tube, shook it out and opened it up, unfolded the stand attached to the base and you were in business - no decorations or anything, just a rotating wheel of different colored discs with a spot light behind it, which made the tree change colors as the wheel rotated. Some folks thought they were attractive and really “state-of-the-art.” There was no tree to cut or buy and decorate or any other mess; just pop it out of the tube. I didn’t like them and thought they looked phony, cheap and tacky. I made the mistake of telling this to a girlfriend at the time whose family, unbeknownst to me, just happened to have a brand new one that year and were quite proud of it. Needless to say, that romance was over before Christmas ever came.

Amazing what the sight of one old car, that '55 Chevy, can conjure . . .


Newt tells us about himself:

I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin’ distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of “Dixie” being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. I’ve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I can’t get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ain’t is a perfectly good word and don’t plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ain’t.

I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.

E-mail Newt at: Newt281@embarqmail.com

Want to read more of Newt’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Ol’ Red and the Armadillo
Telephones and memories
Tastes like chicken


Read many more great stories listed on our USADS Articles pages.



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