The only people who owned cars in Hungary during my lifetime there were Communist Party members, government officials, some member of the military, as well as the secret police. Budapest had (and still has) an excellent network of trams, buses, and the oldest Underground outside of Paris and London. For a time, my father owned a motorcycle. I remember sitting on the gas tank in front of him, and being allowed at his direction to twist the right handle on the handle bar. This gave more or less gas to the engine. Sometimes my mom would ride it as well, but she always made me sit on the seat behind her and hold on to her waist, feeling this was safer for me. We only had the motorcycle for a couple of years before my dad sold it. I never knew for sure if the sale was from my mother’s concern about the safety of riding the bike, or from a need for money, but one day it was gone.
Like her mother, my mom never learned how to drive. Not because she couldn’t, or was afraid, but because there was no need. We never had enough money for more than one vehicle, and between my father, my aunt, my uncle and me, there was always a driver available. My dad loved cars, and as soon as he could afford one, we had our first family automobile. It was a light green 1949 Chevrolet with a metal sunscreen atop the windshield, and a manual gear shift on the steering column. My father bought it for $50 from a colleague at his work, and it ran like a $50 car. The engine required a can of oil to be added with almost every fill up of the gas tank, and the shaking of the motor could knock fillings loose when the weather got too cold. My mother immediately gave it a derogatory nickname in Hungarian which is best loosely translated as “old urine.” My dad placed a couple of blankets over the worn-out seats, polished it with several coats of car wax, and managed to restore some of the shine on the large chrome bumpers. He drove it as proudly as a chauffeur driving a shiny Rolls Royce, until the old Chevy finally gave up the ghost after serving as our carriage for a couple of years.
My father next purchased a 1954 dark green Plymouth sedan. The car originally belonged to a Texas rancher, and attached to the hood was the head of longhorn steer with red eyes. The eyes and the horns would light up when the engine lights were turned on, making our car readily identifiable anywhere. Unlike our old Chevy, the car was only five years old when he bought it, and it ran well. He kept it immaculately clean and polished, including the large chrome hubcaps. I was recruited to wash the car with him every weekend, but I rarely did the job to his complete satisfaction, so he would often redo much of the work I had done. Needless to say, this did not motivate me in the way he intended, and soon car washing was removed from my list of tasks.
After a few years of prideful ownership, the car developed major engine issues. The mechanic informed my dad that the odometer readings didn’t appear to correlate with the degree of wear and tear on the engine, and that likely the used car dealer who sold the car had the odometer turned back quite a bit. Texas is a big state, with long distances between cities. Regardless of how it happened, the engine needed a major rebuild for it to function properly. Based on the cost, the mechanic (who was honest) advised my dad he would be better off buying another used car (preferably from a private original owner) than paying a lot of money to have the Plymouth fixed. This is how we ended up owning a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk.
In terms of styling and mechanical features, this was a car far ahead of its time. The unusual shape of the rear window and the art deco styling didn’t make this a big selling item for the company from Indiana, so that the company shortly went out of the car business. However, the performance of the car was excellent, and it being one of the first autos to come with Positraction made it a boon driving on the snowy, slippery streets of Chicago. The car eventually became a cult classic, and because so few were made, a collector’s item. My friends (and therefore I as well) thought it was “cool.” It was the car we owned when I was old enough to get my own driver’s license (I started working for Good Humor, and to graduate from the pedaling the ice cream cart to driving one of their trucks, I needed to be able to drive.) I begged my dad not to sell the Studebaker. Had he listened to me, the car would be worth a great deal of money today.
My parents reluctantly agreed to have me get my license, but refused to give me their car to drive until I was 18. This is how I ended up picking up my date for the junior prom in a Good Humor ice cream truck. She was not impressed, and wouldn’t talk with me most of the evening. My only consolation after dropping her off immediately after the prom ended was the ice cream bar to soothe my aching heart.
During my senior year in high school, dad sold the Studebaker and bought a red Chevrolet Corvair with a 4 on the floor manual shift. This was the car about which Ralph Nader wrote the book “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Though the car was a potential death trap, we were fortunate in not being involved in any accidents while owning it. To be honest, for an 18 year old, it was a fun car to drive on the occasions my dad let me take it on a date while in college, and was a big step up on the social scale from a Good Humor truck.
I didn’t own a car during the four years I spent in medical school in New Orleans, since food and a place to sleep took priority. The first car I owned was a graduation gift from parents, a l959 Chevy Bel Air. It was a big boat of a car, and drove like one. Everything I owned at the time fit inside it, and I drove it from New Orleans to LA, the city I chose for my internship. The car broke down on me in a small town in Arizona. I had less than a hundred dollars in my wallet, and no credit cards. In one of those moments when angels came into my life, the mechanic stayed up until almost midnight to fix the car, after finding out I didn’t have enough money for a motel. I didn’t know how much fixing the car would cost, but I knew I had to be in LA to start my training, and I was counting on my parents to wire money to me that I could later pay back. During the time he was working on the car, and waiting for a part he needed from the junk yard, the two of us talked about our lives. He was a Vietnam vet, and we talked about the people we knew we had lost over there. Almost half my graduating class from high school (I went to an all-boys school) ended up dying during the Tet offensive in 1967. Turned out, he was a survivor from the same time. When it came time to give me the bill, he asked me how much money I had. I showed him my wallet, but promised to get the rest wired to him. Given the time he spent working, I was expecting to pay hundreds of dollars. He just gave me a smile, took my $50 bill, clapped his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Just save a life for the ones we lost over there, doc, and we’ll call it even.” I couldn’t believe his generosity! The first time I went back to Washington D.C. and visited the Vietnam Memorial, I found the names of my classmates and cried. The I cried some more, remembering the mechanic with the kind heart, and for the loss of his friends, along with the memories he’s had to carry since coming home.
More to come…