April 12, 2007

On My Aunt Enid, Cars, and History

Category: family,Tech — Biella @ 8:30 am

Those who know me even moderately well (as well as every doctor I have ever seen), knows that my real first name as “Enid.” That is the mysterious E. that sometimes precedes the Gabriella.

My mom’s intention was to call me Gabriella, the first name of some “famous” Italian Cabaret singer, Gabriella Ferranti. But when Enid, my aunt on my fathers side, passed away a few months before I was born, I was given the name Enid Gabriella. We have always used Biella or Gabriella but I like that I have Enid in there and have fancied from time to time to start using the name “Enid.”

By all accounts, Enid was an amazing and energetic woman, who reared her four kids with passion, was very open to friends and family, and who, despite living a solidly upper middle class Jewish life, was also involved in interesting political work(like helping Americans doge the draft by escaping to Canada). My mom held a special fondness for her because, well, honestly I think she was one of the only members of my dad’s family who she deeply loved. And Enid always went out of her way to show her care and concern, as when she immediately went to Caracas after my mothers first child unexpectedly died of a high fever at the age of five months.

Today as I was writing away, I received an email from my father that he sent to me and a bunch of cousins and other siblings where he attached a 9 page document of “remembrances” and memories of Enid. My dad, though in no way as bad off as my mother (health wise), is no spring chicken. And I think as he fast approaches 80 years old, he is committing a lot to writing and thus, keeping his memory alive for us. In fact, this reminded me of a really beautiful quote I recently came across on memory:

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” Luis Buńuel

But what was a little odd (but nonetheless very endearing) about most of the account is that it was not organized by stories, or date, but by car models. Yes, by technology. My dad organized the stories about Enid by virtue of the cars they had, which struck me a little strange because it is not like he was a car buff or anything (growing up we always had the most unsexy cars, like Ford Tauruses).

The cars he covers are the following:

The Model A Ford Convertible
The 1941 Oldsmobile
The 1948 Buick Convertible
A Chevy Convertible

Once you read his little tribute, it becomes immediately clear that his choice of talking about cars is also way for him to talk about “history” which is my dad’s great love (he can talk to you straight for 5 hours about some odd event in WW II and why he should have become a historian) as it is about Enid.

Case in point here:

This was the first General Motors car with automatic drive. It was called Hydromatic and even though this car had a powerful 8-cylinder engine, this first automatic drive was very sluggish. Forget about 0 to 60 miles an hour in 7 seconds. This was in minutes. It was the car that Abe used to teach both Enid and I to drive. We both had to have additional lessons with a stick shift car, because the driving test was only given on stick shift cars. I learned to drive in 1944, when I was 16. Enid took lessons from Abe and learned to drive in 1945 when she was fifteen. This was against the law, but the law in the name of Tom, the policeman that covered our neighborhood, liked Enid and looked the other way.

For those who care to read more (it may only be amusing to me and those few people that are into American car history), I have included all the cars and here are the main cast of characters.

Ruth = My Grandmother
Abe = Grandfather
David = Dad
Enid = My Aunt, David’s sister

Automobiles

1.The model A Ford convertible.

It was the first car Ruth bought after she learned to drive. Well, sort of learned. In any case Enid and I would climb into the rumble seat and away we would go. The driveway was very long and narrow at 250 Clark Road and backing out of the driveway was not one of Ruth’s skills. As a result all of the cars she drove were scratched on the right side and the stucco on the house was scarred. Ruth learned to drive shifting gears and this car was no exception. Many years later when all cars were automatic, Ruth didn’t know what to do with her left foot that was used to disengage the gears. She solved that problem by stepping on the brake pedal with her right foot and then stepping on her right foot with her left foot. She ruined almost all her shoes this way.

2.The 1941 Oldsmobile.

This was the first General Motors car with automatic drive. It was called Hydromatic and even though this car had a powerful 8-cylinder engine, this first automatic drive was very sluggish. Forget about 0 to 60 miles an hour in 7 seconds. This was in minutes. It was the car that Abe used to teach both Enid and I to drive. We both had to have additional lessons with a stick shift car, because the driving test was only given on stick shift cars. I learned to drive in 1944, when I was 16.

Enid took lessons from Abe and learned to drive in 1945 when she was fifteen. This was against the law, but the law in the name of Tom, the policeman that covered our neighborhood, liked Enid and looked the other way.

Every street in Brookline daily was covered on foot by a policeman. It was leisurely and he was given coffee in so many kitchens that he must have died of caffeine poisoning. The result of the kitchen coffee klatches, was he knew everything and everyone on his beat. When I got a BB gun at Christmas, he knew it, so it was easy for him to figure out who blew out the windows at an empty house one street above Clark Road. He came to school, called me out of class and got me to go home and get the gun and give it to him. Joel Kozol was with me, each taking turns blowing out a window. His father, a lawyer, advised Abe that the police could not keep the gun. Ruth had not liked the idea of the BB gun from the outset so the gun was never recovered.

By the time Enid could legally take the driving test at the age of 16, she was a really good driver. So much so that the people that gave her the test were skeptical that she had learned so well in such a short time, given it was a little over a month from her 16th birthday.

This was the car, that in the summer of 1946 I took, along with my friend Allen Koritz and a Danish boy that was at the International House, close to Columbia University, on a trip around the US. He came in place of the an Argentinean cousin, also staying at the International House, who got sick. The Dane, Hans Deitlif Bendickson, was a mature 21. Alan and I were 17. We each had a little over $200.00 with us and were gone about a month and half. A gallon of gasoline was 10 cents or slightly above, depending on the state. We camped out in the national parks, cooking our own food and sleeping in a tent that we had on a rack on the roof of the car. When we stopped at motels, they were up to $6.00 a night. In LA, we stayed with an Uncle of Alan for a week and in Vancouver we camped in the backyard of friends of Hans. I do not remember calling home, but sent telegrams along the way, that all was well.

It was the first time that any of us had been further south of NYC and it was unsettling seeing white and colored drinking fountains and bathrooms in Washington, D.C. The car held up pretty well and we had only minor repairs to the motor, but the tires were a problem. They were going flat so often that we were able to change them almost as rapidly as they do in the racing pits. We had to buy new tires in Canada, but all we could get were retreads. Everything was still in short supply and, worse, tires didn’t last long, as these new tires were made out of the first synthetic rubber. They still had many years of work to get synthetic rubber to what it is today. While we only had minor repairs to the motor, distribution and availability of parts left a lot to be desired. When the rotor of the distributor went in Yellowstone Park, it was not available in the park, so Allen Koritz put on his sailor suite that he used as a student at Admiral Farragat Academy, hitch hiked into the next town, 120 miles away, and came back the next day with the part.
At what is today Las Vegas, there was just desert and a big gas station at the intersection of Route 66. (There was a downtown Las Vegas. It was just one street, Freemont St, that had gambling, saloons and what was termed at that time “easy woman”, but we never saw it) As gambling was legal in Nevada there were slot machines in the men’s room of the gas station. I played a nickel and won ten silver dollars that I carried through the rest of the trip and, to this day, still have one of them. We left that station early in the evening so as to cross the desert to California at night. Automobile air conditioning was decades in the future.

3. The 1948 Buick Convertible
During all the war years no civilian cars were produced, so the demand was huge when the war ended. To prevent price gouging the Government initiated price controls on cars and many other products not made during the war years.
The Automobile Manufacturers had to comply, but to add to their profits they loaded the cars with additional features that were not price controlled and the car came not in the color you wanted but in the color that it had when your turn came up on the wait list. This car had the very first automatic or electric windows and it was a bright canary yellow. The automatic windows were just one of the many extras on this car that was not price controlled. No one would have ordered them because as they never were available before no one thought they needed them. They were simply added to any GM luxury car made that year and you either took them or lost your place on the list. GM didn’t create much of a future demand for this new innovation because they didn’t work too well. They had small rollers on both side of a window that were down inside the door. The rollers quickly lost their tension. They would roll but the window would not move. To aid them, with one hand you hit the button, and with the other, you grabbed the top of the window and helped it up. Down was much easier as gravity meant you only needed to push the button and tap the window. The up maneuver, by the driver, was not recommended while the car was moving.
Enid and I spent a lot of time in the summer of 1948 at Middle Sag, the summer home of Murray and Judy Rappaport at Amityville on the South Shore of Long Island. It was called Middle Sag because the modest two story wooden house set on about two acres of land right on the great South Bay, sagged in the middle. We often went with Ruth and Abe, but sometimes Enid and I would be given the Buick and would go alone. On those trips, we engaged in a friendly competition, mostly on the way down. The game was to see how long either of us took to pass 100 cars. Most of the trip was on two lane roads with considerable traffic so you really had to pass cars to make the trip in a reasonable amount of time. Enid usually had the shortest time passing the 100 cars. As I said above she was a first class driver.

At Amityville both of us learned to water ski. As we both snow skied, even though you leaned back instead of forward, we found it quite easy. This was done behind a powerful speedboat with the name of Slow Motion IV. Slow Motion I and II were owned by Guy Lombardo, a well known but rather corny Band Leader who was famous for his New Years Eve rendition of Auld Lange Sine. It was a boat that had won all sorts of races.
The owner of Slow Motion IV was a permanent weekend visitor to Middle Sag, Danny Tabas. He left the boat and a lot of other equipment at Middle Sag all summer. He came to Amityville on the weekends from the Philadelphia area, flying his own plane. Arriving, he would buzz the house and we would then go to the Amityville airport and pick him up. He had been a bomber pilot in WW II who met Judy Rappaport when she drove the ambulance that brought him from Mitchell Field on Long Island to a NYC Hospital. He had been burned and Judy took it upon herself to visit him frequently at the hospital while he was recovering. Judy drove ambulances for about a year as a volunteer in an organization that was shuttling many of the severely wounded in Europe to New York City Area Hospitals for treatment, but this was the only patient that was in the back that she got to know well. In order to qualify to drive she had to learn a little about how the engine works. Fortunately the motors of the vehicles worked fine during that year, because she never really understood much of what was under the hood. She was, however, excellent at swearing, which she did constantly when she had to press the siren button to get slow pokes out of her way.
The chance meeting of Judy and Danny really changed his life. On one of his visits to Amityville he met the daughter of a Rabbi and he married her. She, before accepting, made Danny give up flying. They continued to visit for years and their children called Judy and Murray their aunt and uncle.
At the end of my third year at Princeton I drove the Buick to Baltimore in order to pick up Enid at Hood College as, after two years, she had decided not to continue there. I drove to Baltimore with a classmate, Stan Hoffberger who lived just outside of Baltimore and at whose house Enid and I stayed before returning to Boston. At that time, 1950, the New Jersey Turnpike was

not quite complete and one had to take a ferry across the Delaware River. Stan Hoffbergers’ home, to me and to Enid, was the most elegant home we had ever been in. When I arrived with Stan, a man servant took my bag from the car and laid out everything in the room. Stan’s Mother, later, asked me if everything was in order. I said that I would like Enid to have my room when we picked her up as it had it own bath. She informed me that all the bedrooms had their own bath. Well, I guess, growing up in Brookline, I was not all that sophisticated. The next night when we all went to dinner at their Country Club (only German Jews) it appears that Stan’s older brother, a Princeton grad, was smitten with Enid but it wasn’t mutual as she felt he was too old. The ride home was uneventful and Enid did most of the driving.

3.A Chevy Convertible

It seemed that the car lasted for a long time but I guess that was only an impression because upon graduating Princeton I was given a brand new Chevy convertible while Ruth still had her yellow Buick. For some reason Ruth liked convertibles even though she almost never put the top down on hers because it messed up her hair. As for mine, I took it with me when, in the Army, I got my first leave in basic training and brought it back from Boston. I would, when given a weekend pass, drive back to Boston with two or three of my fellow Bostonians. In the winter, it was fine in the front seat but we had to have blankets in the back as you could see your breath back there. We were not supposed to go more than 50 miles on a weekend pass, but as we were in civilian clothes, who knew. Sunday nights we would finally get on the road around 10:00 PM, timing it to be back in time for revile, which, I think, was at 5:00 AM. Without sleeping we would then participate in a full day of mostly very strenuous physical activity. I remember going on 10 mile hikes with full equipment that included a wool winter coat that, when it rained, absorbed water like a sponge adding weight to an already heavy coat, a field pack with an attached entrenching tool, helmet and a rifle. The rain would turn to ice as it hit the pavement and eventually, with

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the metal on the boots, one would slip with all the equipment going in different directions. Finally, we would get to our bivouac area, set up
the tents and lay our waterproof ponchos on the ground. This had to be done because while we slept, the heat of our bodies turned the frozen earth to mud. We would, after the set up, finally go to eat. They would bring out a hot meal that was served into your mess kit. You lined up in the freezing rain and the meat was served first, then mashed potatoes then gravy and on top of all, the cold rain that congealed everything.
On some week-ends I would drive into NYC and stay with Uncle Harold and Aunt Fritzie on Park Ave. We would go to fancy restaurants and then back to the Army and field trips. It was surreal.

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3 Comments »

  1. Hi B aka E,
    thanks for the memories(as bob hope would say). Nice read. I have a friend named enid and now a 2nd. As for the chronology by cars, it makes perfect sense for someone of the 40s and 50s. Cars where America, they were status symbols, they were what everyone used to go from place to place with the family(besides maybe a street car or subway train). They were powerful and big. Each purchase was something to remember and a big expense. Today, most things have almost no significance in our daily lives like things in that by-gone age. Today, its all just stuff like that on ebay commercial where they say that you can bid on ‘it’.
    -K

    Comment by Kevin Mark — April 12, 2007 @ 10:54 am

  2. What a beautiful post! And simply amazing to have a first hand retrospective read about life in the 1940′s.

    And while I deeply agree with Buńuel, I can only think of Ingrid Berman’s counter: “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.”

    Comment by dmh — April 12, 2007 @ 11:02 am

  3. Nice post. It’s ‘case in point’, by the way, not ‘case and point’.

    Comment by noname — April 13, 2007 @ 12:50 am

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