Monday, March 11, 2013

The Gear Shift Shuffle and Other Adventures

David and I recently endured a trip that involved car trouble. Argh. Hate. Car. Trouble. Our saga involved a small town auto repair shop, a triple A tow truck driver whose shirt said “Dennis,” but he told us to call him Ray, and a set of mechanic brothers of varying size and tattoos. All of that story, when I recover fully, might show up on another blog.

As I thought about our being stranded many miles from home, fragments of memories surfaced about cars and the trouble we had with them growing up – as I thought – we had more than our share, but maybe that was just my very limited experience.

Before 1963, my dad bought used cars. The first car he owned as a married man was a DeSota, a vehicle that none of us can recall, but my oldest brother Hunter remembers  he owned.

The next car was probably a 1954 or 1955 blue Oldsmobile, whose existence is sealed in the minds of all of us due to the unusual “ailment” it developed and how “we” managed it.

Being a frugal man, my dad put off the repair since he figured out a way around it – at least on a temporary basis. This four door Oldsmobile, and forgive me for my limited understanding of the mechanics of cars, had a glitch in the linkage between the shift and the gear mechanism. Something broke that caused the gear shift to work only in one direction.

The driver could shift into – let's say “drive,” but if he stopped or had to back up, then the gear had to be shifted manually from under the hood, an operation that each of us learned to do.

So, imagine this scenario: We're on our way to church. We come to a stop light. The back door opens, Hunter jumps out, runs to the front of the car, pops the hood, climbs over the wheel well, reaches into the engine, jiggles something, jumps down from the front of the car, slams the hood, runs to the opened back door, and shutting the door, disappears back into the car. Next light --- same thing --- this time, Margaret executes the drill.


Yes. Seriously. We. All. Did. This.

I'm making an assumption that Hunter and Margaret performed this little act more because they were older and taller and possibly faster. Kenneth and I might have been allowed to do this when there was not much traffic – as in the church parking lot. I mean, Mother and Daddy did have some sense. LOL.

I wonder what the drivers behind us thought – did they honk their horns, shake their collective heads at these children outside of the car at an intersection, or “tsk, tsk” at the McDaniels and their budget cuts?

My daddy learned to avoid red lights, coast through stop signs, and minimize the times we had to do the gear shift shuffle, but the ritual was done enough for all of us to remember it – as Hunter noted, “it was less than a year, but longer than a week.”

 the blogger, Kenneth, Margaret, and Hunter, 1957

The cars of my early years always seemed to need repairs – we owned the Oldsmobile, and then after that car – two Ramblers. These two cars, one green and one white, spent a lot of their time, as I recall, not running; however, one of the features of the car stands out to my brother and me  --- the push button transmission that we fought over to be allowed to push. Easily amused. We were. Are. Am.
The Ramblers' car repair history is part of our collective memories.
We know those two cars had a significant number of repairs done; one broke down on the side if I-85 in Gaffney, South Carolina, and one of them stood like a felled steer for several days at the end of our  driveway with a broken axle.

Note: Research on the American Rambler indicated that from 1958-1969, they were the lowest priced car in the US [must be why we owned one, a used one at that] costing around 1800 dollars new, and that they were popular for their “economy of ownership.” Popular where? Not in my neighborhood.


Daddy had a car mechanic he trusted, and he spent many Saturdays at Mr. Allen's Garage “getting the car fixed.”
Mr. Allen owned his repair shop and ran the garage from two or three bays in a ramshackle building behind his home, or at least I think he lived there. He and his two brothers, greasy, weathered, cigarette smoking men in overalls, peered into the hood, jacked the car up on the lift, and diagnosed the problem with relative ease. Perhaps cars were easier to work on in those days and “car trouble” a necessary evil of ownership.
Located on the left side of a fairly busy road, and as we all recall “on the way to the Atlanta Penitentiary” [we knew places by how close they were to other places], Allen's Garage had a bumpy gravel driveway that slung rocks left and right as the car climbed the slight incline to the back of the house where Mr. Allen and his brothers worked on cars.

The area behind his house was a veritable junkyard: big and small parts of cars lay strewn about, cars with no wheels, hoods gaping open, and empty windows filled the confines of his property [some of them abandoned there for good and stripped of all parts]. Overgrown weeds and tall grass lined either side of the drive, and at the fence in the back, an impenetrable barrier of vegetation left untended and grown wild made it a type of fortress.

In the car bays themselves, hundreds of tools, all shapes and sizes, dotted the ground, and oil stains the size of Detroit left crazy Rorschach inkblot designs beneath the lifts, and permeating the air – the reek of gasoline.

Mr. Allen climbed in, around, and out of the car, and sometimes, just jiggled something under the hood to make the repair, thus sending Daddy on his way without accepting a nickel. Other times, he delivered the bad news that “it was the carburetor, or radiator, or hose” that would cost an amount of money hard on our tight budget living family.

Since I remember his place of business and his reputation as a fair man, those visits to his garage made an indelible imprint on my memory and that of my siblings.

Sometime in the early 1960s, one of those Ramblers broke down as we traveled back to Atlanta from a Christmas visit with my mother's family in Virginia. On the side of I-85 [in those days a four lane] and over a 150 miles from home, we abandoned the car on the right side of the road and trudged up  the highway to the nearest exit in Gaffney, South Carolina.


For a number of reasons, the Rambler could not be fixed on the spot – possibly it was a Sunday, or a part needed ordering, or it was too late in the day, – but instead of spending the night in a hotel there, Daddy and Mother made a more economical decision. We did something that we had never done before – we rented a car.

The excitement of that rented car sent us all into a frenzied state: my parents, one of worry about the cost, and us kids, pumped to the max with adrenaline at the thought of an unfamiliar car. The four door sedan, I think it was a Chevrolet, had all kinds of bells and whistles, windows without a side bar, and a new smell that made us all want to inhale.

On the three hour drive back to Atlanta, we busied ourselves with examining every inch of that car; we crawled and poked and prodded the thing silly. I distinctly remembering Daddy, fearful that he would have to pay extra for something we broke, berating us from the front seat for our curiosity.

Later, my brother Hunter and my mother would take a Greyhound bus to Gaffney to pick up the supposedly repaired Rambler only for the thing to break down again. What happened after that is not in any of our memory banks.

For years after, when we made the trip up I-85 to Virginia, we looked at the Gaffney exit and said, “Remember when the car broke down there and we had to rent a car?”

Obviously, we haven't forgotten.

I don't travel that part of I-85 much anymore, but the last time I did, I looked over to see that gas station at that exit and thought of that memorable trip home.

The other story associated with the Rambler was a time Daddy bought an attachable luggage rack for the roof of the car to help alleviate the numerous suitcases necessary to take a family of six to Virginia for an extended stay.

The rickety rack, barely adhering to the roof of the car, required that the suitcases be tied to the rack with straps, and the air passing beneath the rack made a loud whistling noise at the 60 mile an hour speed we drove on the interstate.

On one of the trips with the luggage rack, we heard the noise as the straps suddenly broke, two suitcases got airborne onto I-85, popped open, and coughed up articles of clothing across the two lanes of traffic.

As we watched this event unfold via the rear window, two, alert tractor trailer drivers slowed down, stopped, and blocked the two lanes of traffic. Their quick thinking kept cars from running over our personal items. As Daddy pulled over to the right shoulder of the road, my brothers scampered out of the car, picked up the scattered clothes, and rescued the suitcases.

If I close my eyes, I can still see those flying suitcases shoot off the roof of the Rambler, land on the interstate, and our white clothing puffed out the sides like stuffing. The result of the winged luggage was at a minimal – scuffed leather and a broken clasp – we, however, continued to use that suitcase with its broken lock for years. 
By the time 1963 rolled around, the Ramblers were history, and Daddy bought his first new car from John Smith Chevrolet in downtown Atlanta --- a blue four door Belair.

We had hit the big time – the trips to Mr. Allen's on Saturday came to an end, no more break downs on the interstate, no more un-piloted suitcases – and my oldest brother was a year away from driving.

Scarier times with cars, my faithful readers, were still ahead.


  1. Cars, road trips, and family stories... your blog brings back memories for me, too. Like your family, we rarely had new cars. I believe the first car I remember having may have been new when purchased (before I was born), but it was way old by the time I was old enough to remember it. The first family car purchase I remember was a used yellow station wagon. I cannot recall the make and model, but I do know it had a rear-facing seat in the back. Sometimes the air worked and sometimes it didn't.

    When I was about 10, we planned a road trip to see my brother and his wife, who were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the time. Due to the unreliable nature of the station wagon and the length of the journey, my grandfather insisted that we take his brand new Oldsmobile sedan. Though I had looked forward to sitting in the rear seat of the station wagon and reading or spreading out, the prospect of getting to ride in a NEW car which still had its new car smell and a working A/C won me over in no time.

    So we set out on our journey from Dahlonega, GA to Oklahoma in my grandfather's car. The ride was so smooth in that new car. The trek would take us through the entire lengths of Tennessee and Arkansas and would require an overnight stay somewhere along the way. As the time drew near for our evening meal, it was already beginning to get dark although we were just outside of Murfreesboro, TN.

    At that time in history, the smaller highways were not nearly as well-lit as they are these days, and dark meant you saw nothing but what your headlights picked up along the way. Though we were only about a third of the way to Tulsa, Mom and Dad decided it would be best to stop in Murfreesboro for the night and get an early start the next day. So dad began to look for places to stay for the night.

    As we were riding along the dark highway, we heard a thud as the car hit something in the road. Before we even had time to assess whether it was a animal, vegetable or mineral, this horrible odor began to permeate the car. My father had run over a skunk in my grandfather's brand new Oldsmobile.

    I do not remember how we managed to find a car wash that was open or what the hotel was like when we finally managed to bunk down for the night. All I remember from that point on is the smell of skunk. Numerous washings of the undercarriage were not enough to wipe away the stench. A can of air freshener only served to make the skunk smell flowery. Nothing we did would erase the last message the animal delivered before its untimely demise.

    Still we journeyed on all the way to Tulsa and back. I wonder in retrospect if we began to smell like skunk, and people were too polite to say anything. Spending hours and hours in the midst of it was bound to have that effect on our clothes. It was the longest road trip ever.

    Had we been in the station wagon, the effect would not have been quite so horrible. I don't remember my grandfather's reaction to the "new car" smell being replaced by Ode de Skunk. I am sure he probably regretted loaning us the car for the smell never completely faded from the poor Oldsmobile. I do know that he never offered any cars for future trips.

  2. THIS is my FAVORITE piece of your writing on this here blog! My word. You better put these stories in a book... genre entanglement would surely include suspense, humor, mystery, history and memoir.

    (Did you read what I told Tallulah about the pre-read warning notice? I think it applies here too.)

    Thank you.

  3. OMG! That was a fantastic story!!! I love it! We've definitely had those type of road trips as well :). Remind me to tell you the flat tire one, one of these days!!!