During the thirties, Mother was unusual among teenagers as she owned her own car. She had been doing so well selling newspaper subscriptions on foot, that the newspaper editor bought her a car with which she drove all around Jackson County, selling subscriptions and bringing in stories about what various county residents were doing. She had that 1929 Ford when I was born, and she took me along on some of her sales trips. She said one of my first words was car, and as I am an unwelcome back seat driver, I figure it will also be one of my last words. I’ll be telling my husband, Dan, “Watch out for that c...!”
Not all my memories of her old Ford are pleasant ones. Once, Mother was driving us along Wynn Street, when an elderly man failed to observe the stop sign on a side road. He hit the Ford so hard that my grandmother’s back was never the same again, and the car door opposite the driver fell open causing me to fall out on the pavement. Luckily, as I’d been asleep, I was limp and relaxed, so did not suffer any serious injuries.
Mother was still driving that old car when my Dad was stationed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during WWll. The first year he was away seemed such a long one, Mother asked him to find a house we could rent for the first summer he was stationed there. As Mother seemed to have either friends or relatives in every part of the state, we leisurely meandered down the Atlantic coast line, staying with other families as we progressed downstate. Coming home at summer’s end had to be a quicker trip, partly because we kids had to be back in school on time, and my Dad had only a short leave before he had to return to his base. The two of them spelled each other driving and the first night, about midnight, they spotted an all-night diner, where they decided to get coffee as a means to help them stay awake longer.
They parked the Ford in front of the large windows facing the parking lot, and as all the kids except me were asleep, they locked the car, then took a table for two in front of the windows so they could keep a eye on the other children as they slept. I was about seven or eight at the time and thought it would be great fun to sit on a stool at the counter. An old fellow, apparently a bit tipsy, said, slurring his words, “Shay, little girl, wots yer name?”
Without a second’s thought, I blurted out, “Betsy! “
“At’s a fine name,” he said, and I thought so too. I’d never had an opportunity to name myself before, and took full advantage of it.
Remembering that diner with all the windows reminded me of another time when I was a mother myself with a car full of kids. We were living in California then, and I pulled up to a B & W Root Beer shop with front windows, where orders were taken. (Our children loved that place because the root beer came in small, child sized mugs.) It was not a drive-through, though, and I had to get out of the car and stand in front of the window to place my order. I pulled the car directly in front of the window, locked the car and was standing only a couple of feet away from the car while I ordered and paid the bill. I saw nothing wrong with that, but a cop thought otherwise. He told me I had to get back in the car, that it was against the law to leave unaccompanied children in a car, even if I was only two feet away from it. This embarrassed me, and I thought California law was ridiculously strict. I soon discovered I was wrong and it was a hard lesson to learn.
That same year, we were living in a house on the corner of Los Altos Street and Holly Avenue in Arcadia, California. Holly Avenue was then the main street leading to the Santa Anita Racetrack, and during racing season, it was heavily trafficked. Behind our house was an avocado orchard surrounded by a high brick wall, and a large gate opening to the driveway that led to the garage. After Dan left for work each morning, either he or I closed the gate behind him, and I sometimes unlocked it for him when he was due back home. One evening, I had the gate open and was waiting for him while our children were playing in and around the garage. Suddenly, our daughter yelled, “Mom, Mike is driving your car.” As Mike was about two years old at the time, that was not good. He had climbed into my old Renault and released the brakes. As our driveway sloped toward the gate, the car was traveling backwards, making its way directly toward the open gate and the busy street. I ran faster than Clark Kent can change clothes, jumped in the car, pushed Mike out of the way and slammed on the breaks without a minute to spare.
(About a week later, the L.A. Times reported that one of the Ram’s football players had also chased his own run-away car but his effort left him with a broken arm).
I had thought that leaving children unaccompanied in a locked car was against the law because of the possibility of their messing with the brakes, but I soon learned that wasn’t the only reason. Years later in Atlanta, I was about to enter an antique store when I noticed a baby left in a car seat in a gold Cadillac parked outside the shop. It was a warm day, and even though the window nearest the baby was slightly open, the baby appeared to be perspiring. I remembered the cop who reprimanded me at the root beer shop, and also noticed that there was a police station across the street from the antique store. Thinking I might be able to save some other mother from being embarrassed and possibly arrested, I went inside the store looking for her. There were only two other women in there. One was elderly and the other I assumed had to be the mother, so I approached her and politely told her that I had just observed that her baby seemed to be uncomfortable and she might want to take a look.
Instead of welcoming this information, she whirled around and in scorching tones, said, “ I suppose you’d like to come home with me and help me raise my baby too!
This was not the response I expected, and the elderly woman looked as shocked as I felt but said nothing. I imagined she might be the younger woman’s mother-in-law and I had unintentionally embarrassed the younger woman who was obviously trying to impress the older one. I knew nothing else to do but walk toward another part of the shop, but thinking that if she didn’t leave right away, I would call the police myself. I had read about dogs left in locked cars dying from the heat, and I certainly didn’t want to feel responsible for a baby dying for the same reason. Fortunately, the two women left before I needed to act and returned to the Cadillac.
It is said that “No good deed goes unpunished,” but even so, being verbally abused by someone is nothing compared to the horror of dying in a hot car. It has also been said endless times, but it remains always the truth. If you have young children, “you can’t leave them out of your sight for a minute!”