My dad bought our family’s 1941 Lincoln Zephyr V-12 from our neighbor Lou Reed after the war. American auto production had ended in the U.S. in 1942, so the Lincoln was still one of the newish cars around. I’d say it was the fanciest automobile my parents ever owned. It was large enough that three teenagers fit comfortably in the front seat, with four in the back. I frequently filled it to capacity while cruising around Menominee and Marinette. A true luxury car, it had more gadgets than most cars of the day. Sideview mirrors on the driver’s and passenger’s side, a radio, a multitude of gauges, an electric cigarette lighter, ash trays in the back seat, a fan mounted on the dashboard, windshield washer fluid, and who can remember what else.
Driver’s training wasn’t mandatory in 1953, and, while Lou Reed had given me a couple of informal lessons as a 14-year-old, my dad took upon himself the task of teaching me to drive in the V-12 when I turned 16. Our first outing together was so emotionally intense I can still recall many of the sights and feelings.. We drove into town from river house, and the first mile and a half wasn’t too bad because Riverside Boulevard was empty. I kept the speed at a steady twenty. Once in town and approaching the Signal Electric Company on Park Ave., I was clutching the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles turned white. My father was silent and seemed grim, and I was even grimmer. I did make it all the way into town and back though. After a couple more outings, I worked up my courage to try steering with my right hand while resting my left elbow on the open window frame. My dad seemed more relaxed too. Before I knew it I was allowed to take the car out on my own.
On my first solo trip to town, I drove eastward on Stephenson Ave. until it dead ended into Sheridan Road at the M&M Brewery, and then I turned right on Sheridan to go toward downtown. After a couple of blocks I heard a siren behind me, and I pulled over. The police car, lights flashing, stopped behind me, and the officer came up to my window. I could hardly breathe. He asked me if I knew why he’d pulled me over. I said I didn’t know -- I didn’t think I’d been speeding. He explained that he’d been coming down Sheridan Road in his car and that I’d pulled out right in front of him. To avoid crashing into me, he’d turned sharply to the left, jumped the sidewalk, and wound up with the front end of his car in the Brewery fountain. He paused to let this sink in. Then he went on to give me some very earnest advice about looking both ways before I pulled out from a stop sign. Finally he let me go on my way with a warning rather than a ticket. In school the next day my math teacher, Mr. Miller, said he’d watched me get pulled over in front of his house, and he’d had a good laugh. In retrospect, it was a valuable life lesson. I’ve looked both ways at the stop sign ever since.
Like most teenage drivers, I did a variety of stupid things that I’m glad to have survived from. One of the worst involved the Lincoln’s superior technology. The car had a theft-prevention feature which allowed you to turn the ignition key in a particular direction and it would lock the steering wheel in place so that potential car thieves couldn’t go anywhere. I demonstrated this to Frankie St. Peter one day as we were driving across the Interstate Bridge. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the anti-theft device was made to be used only while the car was stationary, and if you locked the steering wheel while moving, you couldn’t unlock it until you came to a complete stop. In this case we were traveling across the bridge at about 30 miles per hour. I’d locked the steering wheel, but, to my horror, it wouldn’t unlock, and I saw in my rearview mirror that a large oil tanker was following behind us. Fortunately, we were headed in a pretty straight path, though my car was drifting gradually toward the curb. I couldn’t use the brakes because the tanker was too close behind. Ultimately, we hit and jumped the curb, and I brought the car to a stop up on the sidewalk next to the fence which overlooked the river below. The oil tanker veered to its left and missed us. Frankie thought it was totally awesome, though I could barely breathe.
The Lincoln was so emotionally significant to my life experience that my recurrent teenage nightmare involved driving it from Menominee to Marinette across the Hattie Street Bridge, which had collapsed in the middle, and plunging to my death in the Menominee River – an apt metaphor, I later decided, for all my anxieties about passing from adolescence to young adulthood. A lot of good things happened in the Lincoln too, but those will have to wait for another accounting.
-Jennifer M (2-1): The thing that most interests me in this story is that you ever did anything risky, even as a teenager. I see you as a pretty cautious person. Cautious enough that you wouldn't have taken risks, even when your brain wasn't fully formed. :-)
-DCL to Jennifer: You are right: (a) my brain wasn’t fully formed; and (b) I only took risks by mistake.
-Linda C (1-30): do you think there are vampires in the u.p.?
-DCL to Linda (1-30): Vampires have a definite preference for warmer climates, e.g., Egypt is a favorite country. However, some adventurous vampires have chosen to live in colder places such as Russia and Canada, and they have undoubtedly migrated to the U.P. I don’t think there were any vampires in my high school though.