“Well, I got us on a highway and I got us in a car. Got us going faster than we’ve ever gone before”
Goddess on the Hi-way, Mercury Rev
The year was 1960. I was ten-years old and my family’s life was changed forever when my mother got her driver’s license.
Today, it’s unusual for someone of driving age not to have a driver’s license. But, in the 1950’s, before the explosive migration to the suburbs, many wives living in the city did not need a driver’s license. A second car was considered a luxury. Pretty much everything was within walking distance. Banks were close. Local neighborhood markets were on every street corner. The doctor was usually within a few blocks, and he made house calls. Milk and bread arrived at your door. If you needed to venture farther than your own neighborhood without a car, the bus system usually got you where you needed to go.
Neighborhood bars were also endemic in cities in those days, as they remain today. There were four bars within a relatively short stretch of River Road in the Cramer Hill section of Camden, New Jersey. Our house was situated dead center among those watering holes. My father had adopted The Chateau, a former orphanage, as his favorite home away from home. It sat back from River Road and had a parking lot in front with a “ladies entrance” on the side.
My father loved driving directly to The Chateau on Friday nights after getting paid. Fridays were his “shot and beer chaser” nights at The Chateau. That was until one Friday night when he totaled our brand new Ford while driving home from The Chateau, the second time he’d totaled a brand new Ford within a year. That was when my mother said enough was enough. She decided it was time to get her driver’s license so she could rescue our car on Friday nights before my father again decided he had gotten too drunk to continue to drink and it was time to drive home.
While taking driving lessons, Mom seemed to have gone through several instructors. She took her lessons while I was in school, so I’m not too familiar with how the actual process worked. I just remember a string of dinnertime phone calls starting off with, “Hello. Yes. This is Mrs. Healey. Oh. You’re my newest new driving instructor?” I remember at least three or four calls like that. I’m sure stock in Hoffman-LaRoche, the company that made Valium, also skyrocketed right around that same time.
Despite the number of instructors she burnt out during the process, earn her driver’s license is exactly what she did!
On most Friday nights after she got her license, my mother would take my brother and me in hand and we’d go to rescue the car. When we spotted the car, usually at The Chateau, we would quickly jump in, Mom would start it up, and off we’d go. The first time we retrieved the car, my mother called the bartender to let him know the car wasn’t stolen in case my father sobered up enough to remember to call the police. After that first encounter with Mom’s repo service, my father never once questioned my mother’s decision to drive the car away on an inebriated Friday night.
Initially, “off we went” would mean just driving the few blocks back home and waiting for my father to stumble in. Eventually, my mother decided that if she could drive and had access to a car, why should she sit home on Friday night while my father was out having all the fun? So one Friday night, she decided not to drive right home. We went to the Carvel frozen custard stand. Thus began her period of being a “liberated” driver.
“Liberated” didn’t mean seasoned. If my mother were still alive today, she would be in her eighties. Back then, she drove like she was in her eighties. Very slowly. Very deliberately. To me, even as a preteen, I was happy she could drive. But with Mom’s average highway speed hovering around twenty-five or thirty-miles an hour, it also scared the hell out of me as all the other cars on the road raced by.
Grandmom was our sidekick. Grandmom stood about four-foot nothing and was very paranoid about Mom’s driving skills. Of course, Grandmom was very paranoid about almost everything in life. Even so, when mom got her license, Grandmom was the designated “other adult in the car who didn’t know where they were.”
Of course, this was pre-GPS days. So phone calls were made to people we were going to visit and directions written down for each sojourn. Sometimes though, little things intruded. Like Mom not understanding her own hand-written directions while driving down a road she’d never been on before. Or having Grandmom as a navigator that couldn’t read street signs because she was too short to see over the dashboard, which was about as good as having an un-updated GPS.
And, of course, add to that the two young boys in the back seat, each trying to torment the other into going totally postal.
On one of our earlier excursions, we were driving south on US Rt. 130 past an old dairy called Millside Farms. There was a sailor hitch hiking. In the front seat, I heard my mother say to my grandmother, who was riding shotgun, “Should we stop and pick him up?”
Circa 1960, you could still safely pick up a hitchhiker and chances were they weren’t a serial killer. “Of course,” Grandmom answered.
We stopped down the road just a bit and the sailor came running up to the car. Not seeing Grandmom over the back of the front seat, he reached and opened the front door. Grandmom’s “get in the back seat before I tell my daughter to drive away’” look instantly showed him his error. He opened the back door and climbed in with my brother, Ken, and me who were already fighting to see who was going to sit next to him.
The trip would be a short one, only a matter of fifteen miles or so, to drop him off in Camden. He was on his way to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, but Mom was not confident enough to drive into Philly at that point. So we headed to the main bus stop in Camden.
By the look on his face, I think the sailor thought he’d made a mistake getting in our car. With my mother driving at a breakneck speed of about thirty miles an hour down the highway, Grandmom’s constant “watch out” warnings about other cars she thought she saw over the dashboard, and my brother and I fighting like banshees in the backseat, the poor guy must have thought he had caught a ride directly to the Twilight Zone.
When we pulled up to the bus stop, the sailor profusely thanked us for the ride and jumped out as quickly as he could. He then seemed to pause to also thank God for surviving the ride with a newly licensed woman driver, a crazy grandmom who kept envisioning imminent accidents with cars that weren’t there, and the two bratty kids raising more hell than a destroyer in the middle of a major sea battle. He should have been awarded a medal for bravery for not soiling his white uniform pants.
During that same period, I played Little League baseball with the local Boys Club. One day, Mom came to pick me up after baseball practice. It had been raining and the field and parking lot were pretty muddy. Because it was the first time she’d come to pick me up in the car, Mom didn’t realize why all the other cars were parked on one side of the parking lot. She backed right up to the edge of the field where no other cars were parked and immediately found out why she was parked by herself. The rear wheels of the car sank about four inches deep in mud. Then came the inevitable spinning of the wheels causing the car to sink axel deep. Though several men and boys were pushing to help free the car, it went nowhere. One of the boys finally ran to a neighboring house and asked if someone would call a tow truck. People actually still helped strangers back then, so the call was made.
A half-hour or so later, as the sky grew dark, the tow truck showed up. Attaching a chain under the front bumper of our car, the tow truck driver started slowly tugging on it by letting the clutch in and out in his truck. He was making no progress. He kept pulling very gradually to avoid wrenching the bumper off our car. As his truck moved minutely back and forth, trying to free our car from the mud, the worst happened. Though he seemed to be on relatively solid ground, he too was in the mud. And, yes, as his wheels spun, his truck also started sinking as well.
The driver had to hike about two blocks to a pay phone on River Road to call for additional help. About an hour later, the stars by now bright and shiny in the sky, a huge tow truck showed up. It was the type used to tow tractor-trailers. It made quick work of pulling our car and the stranded rescue truck out of the muck.
For the rest of the season, my teammates would always ask if my mom was picking me up that evening. I guess they enjoyed the parking lot performance and were waiting for another show.
Another of Mom’s more memorable forays occurred on the night she stopped a bridge full of vacation seekers dead in their tracks. On the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, Mom decided it would be a good evening to catch a movie at a drive-in theater. The Tacony-Palmyra Drive-In was about a quarter mile before the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge on Route 73, a four-lane state highway and major thoroughfare for people from Philadelphia heading to the Jersey shore. Around that time, New Jersey became one of the first states to build jug handles, a construction that required drivers to make a right in order to make a left. Drivers follow an exit to the right from the road they are on. The exit curves around in a loop and brings them back to intersect the road they had been on, usually at a traffic light. At that point, the driver can continue straight across the original road they were on or make a left to head in the opposite direction from which they had been traveling.
Mom didn’t know anything about making a right to make a left, and Grandmom couldn’t see the direction signs for the drive-in. Mom drove past the jug handle and proceeded to the toll booth for the bridge on the other side of which sat the City. Philadelphia.
“I just got my license… I was trying to get to the drive-in… I think I missed my turn and I’ll get lost if I cross this bridge. What should I do?” Mom said to the toll taker, in an all-in-one-breath oral avalanche.
I’m not sure of his answer, but I clearly remember what happened next. At that time, the bridge was four lanes wide with two lanes of traffic each way. On the New Jersey side, the bridge widened to twelve toll booths, six in each direction. We were in the lane farthest to the left. The toll taker turned on the red light over his booth, stepped out, and talked to the man in the next booth. He then made his way through the traffic. He stood in the roadway just at the point where the two lanes widened to six and stopped the traffic. The man in the next booth then stepped out, moved some rubber cones, and told my mother to drive through the toll gate, make an immediate U-turn, and head back down Route 73. That’s exactly what we did. It took stopping Friday night Memorial Day weekend traffic to the Jersey shore, but, finally, off to the movies we went.
My mother’s increasing liberation and my father’s increasing libation eventually contributed to them divorcing a few years later. Mom’s driving did get better as time went on. Like most New Jerseyans, she learned to use jug handles. And Grandmom eventually realized she could sit on a copy of the Yellow Pages to see out the windshield.
But most importantly, never again was one of Mom’s cars involved in an alcohol-fueled accident.