As the end of the year 1949 was approaching and the weather got colder, our unheated cottage got very uncomfortable. We had saved some money, and so my parents decided to get an apartment in Danbury, closer to work. Through an acquaintance that my father made in his English language class, we rented an apartment on White Street in a residential neighborhood. A bus line ran past the house. The apartment was on the second floor, and had five spacious rooms. It was in an old wood-frame house. It cost only $28 per month, plus $4 for a garage. The low rent was the result of rent controls that were still in force. But even this was hefty, since my father only earned $38 a week after taxes. Had we known that the garage was a separate item, we would not have allowed our car that luxury.
On December 1, 1949, I drove for the first time from our cottage to our new home with my mother, father, and his stamp collection. I recall that day well; because it was the first time that it snowed that winter, and the roads had a thin coating of that white stuff. As we approached the stop sign on the main highway leading to Danbury, (Rt. # 6), I applied the brakes and got a surprise: the car did not slow down but continued to the middle of the highway while making a pirouette. Fortunately, there was no traffic and I recovered from this, though my heart was beating a bit faster.
The Bethel high school principal arranged for me to finish my junior year there, even though I now lived in a different school district. This was another case of how much was done to accommodate me. Of course, since I had my own car I was not dependent on school bus service. But it was explained that local taxes pay for the local schools.
At the end of the school year came the junior prom. There used to be a myth that boys asked girls for a ride to some out of the way place, and then feign car trouble to have an excuse to delay getting home. With my car I did not have to do so. The car had no gas gauge, and I measured the amount of gas in the tank by sticking a long twig into the tank. But on this occasion I forgot to check that.
I asked Maggie Brown to be my date for the junior prom. We were all dressed up and danced to the band of Tex Benecke in a hall in Danbury. But after the ball, rather than taking the straight route to Maggie’s home I decided to show her the route that I had to walk between the hat factory and the cottage. Not exactly a shortcut. On the way down that hill it happened – the engine sputtered, which meant I was out of gas. My only option was to roll downhill. To avoid blocking the road I rolled the car to the edge as far as I could, which in this case happened to be a steep embankment. There was nothing amorous about this, because it dawned on me that we were a mile from the nearest bus stop, and that the buses would stop running at 11 p.m. It was 10:30. My embarrassment was compounded by the fact that the only operating door was on the passenger side, squeezed against the embankment. One by one we had to extract ourselves through the driver side window opening, which turned out to be quite a challenge since Maggie wore a gown. But despite a light rain we made to the bus stop with minutes to spare. She lived near her bus stop but after our quick good-byes, I had a very long walk home in my tuxedo.
That summer I learned a valuable lesson. Having been persuaded that the brakes could be improved by rebuilding the brake master cylinder, I decided to do this myself. For seven dollars I bought a brake rebuilding kit. The Luts's had become our family friends. Realizing that I did not have the needed tools I asked for help from their son, Bill, who was home for vacation from RPI. He volunteered the tools and their yard. But soon I needed also his help to reassemble the cylinder. With doing the repair myself, I had saved the cost of the mechanic’s hour’s salary. A few days later I took proudly my mother and father for a ride. Only 5 miles from home the brakes locked. The car wheels screeched as I applied gas. Swallowing my pride I called road service from a nearby gas station. A man appeared, bled some hydraulic fluid from the master cylinder and I was on my way, minus five dollars. The lesson of this episode was that I should not consider car repairing as a trade. For most of my life I have avoided getting my hands greasy.
Other Estonians arrived in Danbury about the same time. Since we were the first ones to have our own place, the increasing Estonian community at times gathered in our apartment. For a little praise I was very willing to provide free taxi service to our guests. In subsequent years the frequency at our place lessened as my mother’s illness (multiple sclerosis) advanced and folk acquired their own places and cars. With this my feeling of importance also diminished.
(To be continued.)
The mystique of owning four wheels (4)