My 16th birthday was in June, 2 ½ months after arrival in the United States. A day of great significance: I was allowed to work officially, and I could get a driver’s license. I obtained a required work permit and got a job in the same factory as my father, except I was assigned to the evening shift and made $1 an hour. My job entailed the hardening of hats by placing wool cones on vibrating steam tables and pulling levers to apply pressure to the top plate. Each worker operated two tables, set in a long row. The picture was right our of Charlie Chaplin’s movie “Modern Times”. I worked with men as if we were part of the machines, sweating, steam swirling around, and being subjected to constant mind-numbing whining of belt-driven pulleys. Still - great exercise! Nowadays people pay to belong to gyms to get such exercise.
I walked to the factory in the afternoon. About a dozen men worked in my shop. We worked until there were no more cones to harden. By that time the buses no longer ran and I had to walk 2.2 miles over a hill home to our cottage. The road went over a forested hill with only a few houses along the way to throw some light on the road. But it being late at night, even these gave no confidence. And just in case, I walked in the middle of the road away from the dark woods. On the nights that the moon was out, the shadows of the trees and bushes made me imagine all kinds of lurking monsters.
What motivated me to work was the desire to earn money to buy a car. The car was my symbol for freedom. It is said that Americans have a feeling that they can move whenever they want to some place where they are not known to start over. I felt very much the same way. I had become an American! I reasoned that should folk not like me in one town, I could just get into my car and move to the next town. In retrospect that was easy to imagine, since I had no possessions and gas was cheap (19 cents/gallon). I had no house, nor a family to tie me down.
Work provided exercise and money for me. I got stronger and saved money. But slowly a new attitude emerged as I watched the middle-aged men working next to me – do I really want to do something like this all my life or does life in America offer something more? Still, owning a car remained my first goal.
When we had saved enough money to buy a car, our sponsor put us into contact with a neighbor, Mr. Bishop, a car mechanic and truck driver. The idea was that he would drive us to a used car lot in Danbury and help us to pick out a mechanically good car. We went to this neighbor. Mr. Bishop greeted me with: “Son, you came to the right place; I have just the car for you!” And so we became owners of a 1934 Ford for $200.
I was only a year older than the car! Since none of us had a driver’s license Mr. Bishop drove it to our cottage, showed me where the starter was (a foot-depressed button on the floor) and how the floor-mounted gearshift worked, and left. It was decide that I would learn to drive first. So I practiced driving back and forth on our 200-yard long driveway. I was not able to get the gearshift out of second gear because the gravel driveway was very bumpy requiring a slow speed. For variety I drove on the abandoned cornfield. The battery was located under the driver’s seat. Unbeknownst to me the bumping over the furrows caused the battery to bounce up so that the terminals touched the metal floor. Of course I did not see the sparks, and the result was a mystery of why the battery had to be recharged in short intervals, and why there was occasionally an odd smell under my seat. The initial solution was to turn off the engine only when the car was on the high end of the driveway, so I could start the engine again by rolling downhill.
As required by law I had to wait one month after my 16th birthday, before I could take the driving test. I passed it. From now on shopping and going to work was by car. When school started again I drove to school in Bethel. After school I drove to Danbury to work in the hat factory, worked the night shift and then drove home.
During the wartime, when cars were scarce, Mr. Bishop had put a new engine into it: a powerful V8 engine. This made it a very fast and snappy car. As all old cars, it had mechanical brakes, which went quickly out of adjustment and made stopping unreliable. They had to be tightened monthly at a garage in Bethel (Lang and Thayer).
On one occasion state police set up a roadblock and controlled all cars on the way to Danbury for defects. By the time I grasped the reason for the police’s presence, it was too late to turn around. The police did not mind that on the passenger side the window did not roll down, but the driver’s side window was not of shatterproof glass. A no-no. Nor did they like my poor mechanical brakes. So I was required to have all these defects fixed. The driver’s side window was removed. The absence of the window became a problem only later as the winter approached, despite the fact that the car had a gasoline-fired heater on the passenger side near the floor. This blasted hot air on the feet so that while my feet sweated my face froze.
(To be continued.)
The mystique of owning four wheels (3)