Nancy A. Nichols | True Story | January 2018 | 35 minutes (7,098 words)
Back in the 1920s, my father’s brother, Donny, was killed at the age of seven in an accident of some kind. Exactly what happened has never been clear.
My father told many versions of this story. He used to say that an older boy had been playing with his little brother, and there was a rope around Donny’s waist. Donny was playing the part of the pony, and the older boy was riding him. In one version of the story, the older boy pulled the rope, and the little boy crashed into the curb and died almost instantaneously. In another version, Donny broke free and ran into the street, where he was hit and killed. Sometimes the older boy was my father; sometimes it wasn’t.
Sometimes it was an army truck that hit Donny, or maybe an ice truck. My father hit a ball into the street, and Donny ran after it. He told Donny not to go into the street, but Donny did anyhow. Or maybe he didn’t say anything; maybe he just stood staring. The truck driver tried to brake but couldn’t. Or he didn’t brake at all.
Both blamed and punished at the time for his brother’s death, my father began to lie as a child — perhaps as an understandable response to a terrible tragedy or maybe to cover up his own role in his brother’s death. Eventually, lying became a habit. My father lied about everything, consistently, reflexively, whether his lies served a purpose or not. He lied about which grocery store he went to and whether the car was insured or whether there was oil in the burner. Eventually, my father would become a car salesman, and lying would become his business.
During the 1960s and ’70s, he sold used cars on a small half-acre lot in our hometown of Waukegan, Illinois — just south of the Wisconsin border. I can picture him alone in the small shack at the back of the lot, his feet perched on an old aluminum desk. Cigarette hanging from his mouth, he was slow to get up but a fast-talker once he reached you.
Sometimes, he worked in the dealer’s new-car showroom on the other side of town. There, he sold Chryslers and Dodges under bright fluorescent lights that reflected off the showroom cars like a disco ball turned upside down.
Our bank account may have been empty, but the gas tank was always full.
In 1970, when I was in the sixth grade, he sold more Dodge Darts than any other man in the state of Illinois. The company gave him a small diamond pin to mark this achievement, and he wore it religiously. The automobile industry had embraced the “new and improved” sales strategy, and each year’s version of the Dart was slightly more alluring than the last. The cars all looked pretty much the same to me — the Dart was a boxy economy car that I remember in mostly pale pastel colors with shiny vinyl upholstery — but my father excelled at extolling the small virtues and changes in each new model.
He dressed the part of a car salesman as well as he played it. At nearly six foot four, he was unmistakable in his lime-green leisure suit and white belt and shoes. His slicked-back silver hair was a perfect match for black shirts paired with white ties and checkerboard sports jackets.
Though he mainly sold used cars, he would often drive new ones from the showroom floor, tooling around in the latest models, trying to gin up interest from the factory workers in town. This meant we had a new car every week. We rode around in one stylish model after another, the price tag stuck on the rear window, small paper squares beneath our feet to protect the carpet, that sweet new car smell burning our nostrils. Each new car filled us with hope and aspiration. Our bank account may have been empty, but the gas tank was always full.
* * *
While the invention of the modern gasoline-powered car can be most accurately ascribed to Daimler and Benz of Germany, the mass production and mass marketing of the automobile was perfected in my own fertile Midwest. Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced in 1908, and Ford’s assembly lines — inspired by the carcass disassembly process of the Chicago stockyards — lurched into action in the Detroit area in 1913.
Far from the complicated, sophisticated business we now think of when we contemplate the auto industry, Detroit was then populated by a group of smart, determined tinkerers, quarrelsome young men who were capable of working with their hands, men determined enough to work in unheated garages during long midwestern winters, men strong enough to lift the engines and turn the cranks that started early models.
“The auto was born in a masculine manger,” writes Virginia Scharff in Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. But beyond the men-and-machine myth lies a different story: women, too, have always loved their cars.
Scharff describes how the car liberated rural and small-town women from the farm and introduced them to the pleasures of the world: boyfriends, parties, libraries, and soda fountains. It took ladies in smart outfits to the country club and matrons in pearls and black velvet to the opera. Most of all, the car permanently altered the terrain of romance. Once confined to the parlor or the front porch, courtship now took place far from parental supervision, in cars on dark, country roads.
The car also changed the way women worked and lived. Automobile culture dissected towns and cities and led to the construction of a vast network of highways that delivered families to the suburbs. There, in surprising ways, the car enslaved women even as it liberated them. Where once “women’s work” was visible to all — say, in the vegetable garden or as laundry hanging on a line — much of women’s work in the suburbs took place within the confines of the car as the almost constant shopping and chauffeuring of children to activities outside the neighborhood became both necessary and routine.
But for my mother, the car was all about freedom. It took her to work and to the hairdresser — the unfortunately named Betty Gray’s on Grand Avenue — where every Saturday she had her dark black hair styled. During the week, she kept her hair in place with copious amounts of Aqua Net to stave off the fierce midwestern winds. At night, she slept on satin pillows.
She was striking — five foot nine and thin — and if she wasn’t exactly beautiful, she certainly gave the impression of great beauty. Perhaps it was her clothes, which were meticulous and impractical — bouclé suits in winter and, in summer, starched skirts with dozens of tiny pleats she hand-ironed, only to watch as their sharp edges wilted in the unrelenting heat and humidity.
Her car was as fashionable as her clothes and just as impractical. She drove an old light-blue Chevy Impala convertible from the 1960s. The car had white vinyl bucket seats, and the shift was on the console between the driver and the passenger seats. She drove fast, and if she had to stop on short notice, she flung her arm across my chest in the impromptu seat-belt move common to mothers of the day.
We made our getaway from my father in that old Chevy on one cold winter night. I’m not certain what exactly prompted her to leave; I guess she had had enough. She took me with her; I was five years old, and it was 1965. We left behind my older brother and sister. They were in their late teens, and I suppose they got to choose.
I remember sitting in the driveway, the engine running to keep us warm, my breath blowing a light fog onto the window. My father came out to the car. I rolled down the window, working that old-style crank hard, and he handed me a sleeve of saltines.
“Here,” he said.
And then the Chevy lurched into gear, spitting gravel as we turned out of the driveway and headed across town to the one-bedroom bungalow my mother had rented. The thin convertible roof leaked cold air, the car bucked as the engine slipped into gear, and the crumbs gathered in my lap.
I drank my first sweet cup of coffee that night out of an old lilac melamine cup. Munching on crackers and sitting on the floor of the tiny one-bedroom house, I thought it was going to be an extraordinary adventure. Although I didn’t know the word at the time, it was exhilarating.
As a child, I didn’t appreciate what a desperate act it was. My mother was the only divorced woman in town. She made little money as a secretary in the athletic department at the high school, and my father’s support came in fits and starts — probably because his own success was so tenuous. Sometimes he would hit it big with a new model or sales promotion, but other times a plant closure or a strike at a factory would slow sales for months. During the long winters, it wasn’t uncommon to come home and find the heat or electricity shut off because she’d been so late paying a bill.
Adult lives are always a source of mystery to children, and my mother’s was no exception. Our small industrial town had almost no social outlets for a newly divorced woman. My mother was Catholic, and she was either tossed out of the church or simply felt too uncomfortable to continue to attend.
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I remember one picture of her sitting at a restaurant with some of the other secretaries from the high school. She was wearing a white dress and a peach silk coat, her cigarette waving in the air.
She used to listen to high school basketball games on the radio on Friday nights. She knew many of the boys personally — those who were acting out or in danger of becoming ineligible to play because of poor grades were sent to her office during homeroom — and I would hear her calling out encouragement to them as she listened. She clapped her hands at each free throw they hit. She knew well enough that an opportunity was not something anyone could afford to waste.
On cold winter nights, her old Chevy would idle in the drive as she put on her makeup and waited for me to fall asleep. I didn’t know where she went at night, only that she was out.
Sometimes I would awaken to voices in the living room. Whenever she had a man visit, I was instructed to call him “Mr. X.” One night I awoke to a tall fellow whirling my neon Hula Hoop on his hips in the dark, and for the longest time that was my vision of sex — that lurid green Hula Hoop twirling in the nighttime.
* * *
Cars and sex have been linked almost since the very inception of the automobile. Wealthy ladies — especially socialites — were among the first women to own cars. And yet the early cars often demanded a physical force both to start and to steer, and footmen or other servants soon found themselves in the role of chauffeur — a term originally derived from the French, chauffer, to stoke or fire up. The word probably refers to the job of early drivers, who cranked the motors of the first cars.
But of course the engine of the car wasn’t all the chauffeur might fire up — or at least that’s how the pulp fiction writers of the time imagined it. In the colloquial, chauffer une femme meant to make hot love to a woman. The chauffeur threatened class and gender lines by leaving women alone with men of another class in an enclosed space and out of the house for the first time.
As a result, the car became both the source of and the setting for sensational, melodramatic tales. Victoria Scharff cites, for example, a 1905 Hearst Motor magazine serial, in which a fictional character named Lady Beeston waxes poetic about her car:
To think of “The Monster,” as she called it, was to long for it. That great living, wonderful thing with its passion for motion seemed to call and claim her as a kindred spirit. She wanted to feel the throb of its quickening pulses; to lay her hand on lever and handle and thrill with the sense of mastery; to claim its power as her own—and feel its sullen-yielded obedience answer her will.
This combination of lust and the car would play out again and again across the decades. In fact, women and their clothing were an early, but often unacknowledged, source of inspiration for car culture; some of the first terms for car parts were at least in part derived from women’s clothing. The “bonnet” or the “hood” covered the engine, and “skirts” hid the machinery of the automobile. And then, in turn, the car inspired clothing — coats, goggles, and driving gloves — designed to withstand the rugged and sometimes dangerous conditions early drivers faced.
As cars became more comfortable and easier to drive, protective gear was replaced by fashionable “car” clothing. In 1953, aware of women’s growing involvement in the purchase of the family car, the Ford Motor Company developed a line of “Motor Mates” — coats and accessories that matched their Victoria model. The handbags were made from the same nylon used in the upholstery and were advertised in Vogue as coordinating with both the interior and exterior of Ford cars. Ford dealers were encouraged to sponsor fashion shows, give the coats to local actresses to wear on television, and hold essay contests encouraging customers to write short testimonies about their love for the cars and, perhaps, their matching accessories.
About a decade later, Ford targeted women with “Sweetheart of the Supermarket Set” ads for the Mustang and ran a sing-songy promotion with a cosmetics company that went something like this: “Match your lipstick to your Mustang and add miles to your smiles.”
The Mustang, with its upbeat vibe, was famously Mary Tyler Moore’s character’s car of choice. Modestly priced at just under $3,000, it was engineered to create excitement among an ever-expanding set of baby boomers — especially young women. Auto writers dubbed it “the perfect car for the Pepsi generation.”
* * *
My sister, Sue, nine years older than I, drove a red Mustang convertible with white interiors that my father had bought for her used. It was a fast car, but my sister drove it slowly. She was absentminded and unhurried in the way of many great beauties. She would play with her hair while she drove — shifting gears and flicking her hair in a kind of rhythmic beat. Flick, shift, flick, shift.
Driving a convertible in Illinois was stylish beyond a doubt, but also impractical most days of the year. Sue’s car was a kind of fashion note — a perfect accessory to her white lace mini-dresses, flared bell-bottoms, and halter tops. It was a statement piece made of metal.
My sister continued to live with my father, but when I was in grade school she acquired her driver’s license and would often zip across town to pick me up for a small afternoon adventure. In the Mustang, we escaped from the mundane chores of small-town life, driving the hour into Chicago to explore bookstores and the vast oasis of Marshall Field’s, the giant department store. She took me to the beach — that sliver of sand in our town down near the factories and the coal-fired generating plant. Or we would go clothes shopping, fingering materials under the watchful eye of snooty store ladies and trying on clothes we couldn’t afford. Sometimes, when we wanted to go out to lunch, we would eat a grilled cheese sandwich at the counter at Woolworth’s or drive north to an A&W restaurant, where a waitress would bring us their signature ice-cold root beer and a sandwich called the Belly Whopper on a tray that hooked over the side of the car window.
But the ride I remember most clearly was anything but a pleasure drive. My sister came to pick up my mother and me just after nine on a weekday evening. A light summer rain had hit the streets earlier, and a slight steam was rising from the pavement.
Some of the first terms for car parts were at least in part derived from women’s clothing.
We piled into her little red Mustang and headed to the only hospital in town, the one I had been born in. At nine, I was still too young to visit a regular hospital room, let alone the emergency room, so my mother and sister left me alone in the waiting room.
Bright lights beamed down on me. I sat on a small couch and ran my hands over the rips in the upholstery. Empty Styrofoam cups surfed on Formica tables, and old newspapers—their coupons torn out — lay crumpled on the floor.
Eventually, my mother came to tell me that my father had been in a devastating collision with a drunk driver. He had been driving a Dodge Charger, the epitome of an American muscle car: fast and loud. My father used to sell them to boys back from Vietnam, wallets flush with battle pay, the fear and allure of death still close at hand. On summer nights you could hear their tires peel off the asphalt as they drag raced or screeched around corners, laying down rubber in the hopes of impressing some girl or letting everyone know how pissed off they were about something or nothing at all. They were shamelessly macho.
But on the night of his accident, my father’s high-powered performance automobile did him no good. He was stopped at a red light when he was hit head on.
The accident would leave my father with a permanent traumatic brain injury, a diagnosis that did not exist then. We knew he had a gash that ran all the way from the top of his head down to his eyebrows. The extent of his unraveling would reveal itself to us only later.
* * *
If the accident had an upside, it was that it briefly united my “broken” family. For a few months, my mother and I returned to the small red A-frame house where we had lived before the divorce to help tend to my father along with my sister and brother. For a child who desperately wanted a united family, it was a small, if fleeting, miracle.
But, of course, everything was different. Before the accident, my father was just a garden-variety kind of drunk. He would sit at home in his white undershirts, the kind we now call wife-beaters. He would drink Budweiser out of quart bottles. When he finished one, he would drop it under the coffee table and say, inexplicably: “One little dead Indian.” By the end of the night, a whole tribe would be polished off under the coffee table.
As a kid, you don’t understand that lots of folks drink. You think your dad is the worst, the most awful, the most embarrassing ever. Once, when he was drunk at a restaurant, I remember him falling over a waist-high wall and landing like a circus seal on his nose.
And really, as a child there is nothing you can do but try to be the most perfect child. Because, like thousands of other kids whose parents drink or do drugs, you think that if you are perfect enough no one will notice him. Or you think that somehow you will be magnificent enough to cure your parents. But, of course, you can’t cure them, and there is no way to distract anyone when your father has just landed like a seal on his nose in a restaurant. Everyone knew. Everyone always knew. At best, there was a little comedy in the anecdotes.
But, after the accident, my father became a violent raging drunk. The stories became darker, the kind of thing you couldn’t even whisper about to friends.
I remember one day he came home and beat the dog nearly to death while I cowered in the kitchen and listened to the whelping. There was no rhyme or reason to it. It was brain induced or drink induced — I never knew.
He went back to work, but he had lost the sweet-talking patois of sales, and our income eroded swiftly.
* * *
Books became my anchor. The words were printed in black and white, steady and unmovable, there to be checked and rechecked again, their logic forever bound together with a simple seam.
At home, we had only a half-complete set of encyclopedias that my father had bought from a college student going door-to-door. He had bought them more out of salesman simpatico than a lust for knowledge, and he must have arranged some kind of payment plan, since our set stopped with the letter M.
I don’t know what I would have done without Gertie. That’s what we called the library’s bookmobile.
The name came from the manufacturer, the Ohio-based Gerstenslager Company, which had originally made horse buggies but later specialized in retrofitting buses for multiple uses. Most famously, the company made five “Wienermobiles,” vehicles in the shape of hotdogs, for the Oscar Mayer company.
In summers, to help fill the long, empty hours of school-age children, Gertie moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, supplying books. Librarians, being no fools, were smart enough to park Gertie next to the candy store or the town pool. On hot summer days, Gertie had the remarkable advantage of being air-conditioned. She offered salvation, two books at a time.
* * *
After the accident, my father’s house — where my siblings lived and where I visited on weekends after my mother and I moved back to our bungalow — became more chaotic than ever. He was unable to mow the lawn or keep up with basic maintenance, so the grass grew knee-high and screen doors flapped wildly as the wind whipped off Lake Michigan.
We lived in an area of small but tidy homes, but our lawn — such as it was — was scattered with broken cars of different makes and models in need of various repairs or parts. Chevys sat on blocks beside a Mustang missing a door and a stock car covered with grease.
Maybe because of the cold winters or because of the unreasonably high winds that swept in off the lake, my father and brother also kept many spare parts in the house. Tires, chains, mufflers, and oil pans — all piled high next to the couch, on the TV, and on the dining room table. Some of the parts were for regular cars, but many were specifically designed for my brother’s dragster, which he took to the track on weekends on a trailer bed attached to his pickup.
Because, like thousands of other kids whose parents drink or do drugs, you think that if you are perfect enough no one will notice him.
My brother was thirteen years older than I. His name was Vanderbilt, but everyone called him Van. He was tall and thin, with greasy hair and ears that stuck out from the side of his head. In winter, when he couldn’t race his car at the Speedway, he played pond hockey behind our house, whipping pucks into a makeshift net with breathtaking speed.
One summer when I was eight or nine, wanting to play catch with him, I went running after a baseball he had tossed sky high. Despite his warnings, I swooped in to catch the ball barehanded. The ball slapping into my hand produced a pain I still remember today — one that spoiled my desire for almost any interaction with him; most of them seemed to hurt in one way or another.
A few months before my father’s accident, we’d all gathered at a local tavern called Louie’s to await my brother’s return from his physical after the draft. No longer married but linked permanently by parentage, my mom and dad held hands under the table as they waited. Towns like Waukegan supplied a steady stream of boys for the Vietnam War. They were summoned to a large armory in Chicago, where they followed red, yellow, or blue lines for physical and mental testing that would determine their futures.
Never a picture of health, my brother was six foot three but had a kind of scoliosis that made him appear slouched even when he was standing straight. He also had ferocious acne that would last his entire adult life. His general ill health made him an unlikely recruit. Half a dozen of his friends had already been called up—boys without a hope of deferment based on a college acceptance or a letter from a well-placed relative.
My brother lurched through the door and flashed a goofy smile and a quick thumbs-up. His category was 4-F — which translated roughly at the time to forever free. My mother erupted in tears of relief, and my father gasped, then awkwardly rose to hug him. “Atta boy, Butch,” he said. “Atta boy.”
My brother called his drag car “The Moving Van.” On weekends, he towed it to the track, where he drank beer and ogled women who wore halter tops and hoop earrings. Even in the wake of the car crash that almost killed our father, my brother would continue to race every weekend.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at it. In drag racing, everything has to go right: the wheels must be aligned, the fuel must be injected in the proper amount at the proper time, and the pistons must fire in an even rhythm.
My brother could never get the hang of jumping fast off the line, and midway down the strip, his axle would break, or a tire would fly off, and the screeching sound of metal on metal, with its distinct acrid smell, would mix with the exhaust fumes. The car would sometimes slide sideways, smoke obscuring our view — my mother and I would clutch hands and hold our breath — until we saw his tall body wriggling out the side window. He would be swearing and whooping. “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,” my mother would mutter, part in prayer and part in exasperation.
* * *
By the time I was growing up in the Midwest, Cadillac had cornered the market for hearses. In fact, there used to be an old joke: “It doesn’t matter what you drive today since your last ride will always be in a Cadillac.”
I had never ridden in a limousine before the frozen February morning one pulled into our driveway to take us to my mother’s funeral. I was ten, and my mother had died in my arms just days before, and a kind of shock had come over me. I was tingling on my right side, a symptom I didn’t disclose to anyone and an effect that would linger into adulthood any time I felt overwhelmed by events.
I don’t know whether my mother succumbed to stress or a complex cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol. She took a heady mix of drugs, including Darvon (now banned), a drug known to create an irregular heartbeat, and birth control pills, which in their earliest forms were linked to blood clots.
I was alone with her when she died. I knew she wasn’t well. When she walked up hills her breathing was labored, and her drinking had left her so weakened that she sometimes did not get out of bed on weekends. So, when I saw that she was unable to get out of bed that morning, I had refused to go to school, as I sometimes did when she had had too much to drink. She complained about it, but fell back asleep. I had made myself a frozen waffle and flipped on the TV when I heard her head hit the wall. I was fast calling 911, but they were unable to revive her. I sat near the corner of the room as the bed shook from the defibrillators, my small dog trapped beneath the bed and snarling as each vain attempt was made.
My mother had always loved yellow roses. Roses were the flower and symbol of her saint namesake, Saint Rita of Cascia — appropriately enough, the patron saint of desperation and hopeless marriages.
Saint Rita was from a warring family in Italy and was likely an abused wife. It was thought that her prayers changed the violent ways of her husband and brought an end to a decades-long feud with another village family. After her husband’s death, Rita petitioned three times to join the convent and was eventually admitted. She is credited with several miracles from her time there — one of which was making a rose bush bloom in winter in the frigid hills of Umbria. Thus, petitioners often leave roses and rose petals at the memorial to her at the Basilica of Saint Rita.
My sister, in some mixture of anguish and guilt at the death of our mother, decided that her casket would be covered in yellow roses. It was the kind of dramatic gesture we were good at: the carpets at home were threadbare, the electric bill was overdue, and my mother’s death meant the loss of one-half of our family income, but no matter. We would have a six-foot blanket made of hundreds of roses to cover her casket in the dead of a midwestern winter. It was a small miracle in and of itself.
So, that’s what I remember. Hundreds of small yellow tea roses wired into one great blanket, their petals quivering in the frigid winds as the casket was lowered into the ground. That, and the pallbearers — six tall men from the athletic department where she worked, many of them coaches of one sport or another at the high school, and all of them who might, at one time or another, have answered to the name of “Mr. X.”
* * *
The years after my mother’s death are a haze. In the days after the funeral and for years afterward, I was numb and fragile. My sister soon married, and my brother left home.
I was alone with my father, who rallied — until he didn’t. There were vast swaths of uncertainty — each of us lost in our own sadness and disassociation. He worked most days from ten to nine, with Thursdays and Sundays off.
In the wake of the accident, my father’s steady stream of lies had become a torrent. Dinner would be chicken at five, or noodles at seven, or maybe there was never a plan for dinner in the first place. There would be a birthday party for you, only there wasn’t. He was going to pick you up at school, but never showed. It was cold, sometimes below zero, and the snow was blowing. You waited and then eventually just started walking.
Still, you wanted to believe, so you told yourself you were the one who was confused. You were the one who got it wrong. And it went on like this for a long time. Until you doubted not only yourself, but reality itself.
I had never ridden in a limousine before the frozen February morning one pulled into our driveway to take us to my mother’s funeral.
I once got a D in geography from a teacher who felt I was being impudent for asking her how sure she was that Africa existed. Had she ever been there? I thought it a reasonable, even urgent, question. She sent me to the principal. She thought I was just being cheeky, maybe even rude.
My report cards from those years tell the story. Pleasant and compliant when engaged, I would as often as not simply drift away when not being spoken to directly. Illinois did standardized testing, and I remember having to go to the principal’s office to retake the tests orally. On test day, I had sat in my seat without filling in even a single bubble on the test sheet. I hadn’t flunked, exactly, but I had been completely absent while being fully present. “Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past,” writes Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score. “It is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.”
My mother’s old Chevy Impala rusted away in the front yard, and I would sometimes sit in the front seat, running my hands over its seats and sniffing the interior to see if it held any remnants of her perfume.
* * *
My father still sold cars — sometimes used and sometimes new — with varying degrees of success. By the early 1970s, as I was about to enter high school, sales of new cars began to fall as OPEC tightened production and gas lines formed at the pump. A few years later, Jimmy Carter, looking like Mister Rogers, famously appeared on television in a cardigan to warn us of the dangers of dependence on foreign oil.
“The rise of OPEC and the subsequent oil embargos of 1973 and then 1979 sent gasoline prices soaring and engendered dread among Western drivers that the availability of oil could not be taken for granted anymore,” writes Jeffrey Rothfeder in Driving Honda. The production of high-speed cars would drop precipitously in the ensuing years, along with Detroit’s single-handed grasp of the automobile business. In 1974, according to Rothfeder, only three years after entering the US market, Honda introduced its four-door Civic, which met stringent Clean Air Act emissions standards that called for significant decreases in carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and nitrogen oxide levels. It was the first car to meet those standards and was introduced at a time when Detroit’s big three automakers and Toyota were arguing vehemently that it couldn’t be done.
The slow unraveling of the American auto industry had begun. The era of the muscle car was being replaced by that of the efficient, if dull, daily driver. Chrysler would teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and then emerge again, but neither my father’s business nor his brain would ever fully recover.
* * *
Is it an overstatement to say I didn’t come alive again until I could drive? Probably, but that’s how I remember it.
When I turned sixteen, my father swapped an old snowmobile and an old boat he had kept in the backyard for the kind of car commonly known as a “beater” back then. It was an enormous old Chrysler, two-toned gold and brown with a tan interior — beige in both color and affect, and enormous.
I remember vividly the feeling of getting behind the wheel for my first solo drive. I got in and pulled the door shut. It made a kind of clunking sound as it closed. I put the car in reverse, and it made a popping sound like the joints of an old man. Cars today are largely made of plastic, but back then they were all steel.
I backed out of the driveway and onto the hardtop of the road. A light rain had done little more than darken the pavement. It was there that I felt the car accelerate as I gave it a little push up the hill. My car was ugly, but it was fast, with a 360-cubic-inch V8 engine. The feeling was unmistakable: pure power and freedom.
No longer would it be necessary for me to hide myself away in a fantasy world of my imagination. No longer would I have to be isolated in a small town without an adequate system of transportation, dependent on rides that didn’t show up. Now, I could easily take myself to the library or the Dairy Queen.
My Chrysler had long bench seats that fit six to eight giggling girls and made it perfect to “scoop the loop,” as we called our endless, aimless circles around downtown. Slowing down, we would flirt with sailors just released from basic training at Great Lakes naval station, located in the town next to ours, and then speed off as they rushed to talk to us.
Like most cars back in the days before four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes were common, mine was a sled in the snow. I used to take it out into the country to turn doughnuts. Putting a foot on the accelerator and a foot on the brake at the same time made it turn wide, lazy circles on icy pavement and snow-covered lots.
My mother’s old Chevy Impala rusted away in the front yard, and I would sometimes sit in the front seat, running my hands over its seats and sniffing the interior to see if it held any remnants of her perfume.
In summer, we would take a six-pack of beer down to the lakefront. One person would drive, and another would hook her feet under the dash and hang out the passenger-side door, dragging a can along the pavement to create long trails of sparks behind us.
The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan in 1920 and spent part of his childhood there. In his 1957 novel, Dandelion Wine, he painted an idealized picture of a town he called Green Town: vibrant, with rain barrels and grape arbors and fireflies lighting up a verdant landscape. But the Waukegan of my childhood, forty years behind Bradbury’s, was anything but green.
By 1976, when I turned sixteen, the pollution in the Great Lakes had reached its peak. Over one million pounds of PCBs were discovered leaking from a factory in my hometown. During the summer before my senior year, waves of small fish washed up on the town beach, forming a stinking carpet so thick that backhoes would have to be brought in to clear the area.
There was a highway to nowhere that ran down along the lake; an almost three-mile-long stretch that was supposed to connect our industrial lakefront to the thumping, prosperous metropolis of Chicago. Unfortunately for the town, the road was never connected to the interstate, but Amstutz Expressway (as it was named) made a fine drag strip.
On warm summer nights I raced past the dying factories. The acrid smell from the smokestacks mixed with the stink of the dying fish washed up on the shore. It all wafted together into the crisp scent of despair. Undeterred, I rolled down the windows, turned up the radio, and pushed the pedal into the floorboard. Even as a teenager, I understood the irony of driving eighty miles an hour on a highway to nowhere.
* * *
Eventually, I drove that old brown Chrysler out of Waukegan and down the toll road to Chicago, where I started on the long journey to becoming a writer, reporter, and editor.
Over time, I sorted out the chaos of my childhood, one fact at a time. I checked and rechecked each story, each number, until eventually I arrived at, if not the truth, then at least some version of a story that made sense.
If my childhood was spent keeping track of my father’s lies, my adult life as a reporter at The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and as an editor at the Harvard Business Review was about making sense of a symphony of falsification, deception, and obfuscation at all levels of business and government. There were the major chords of corporate scandal and the minor notes of misinformation we know as marketing.
“You can sell anything if you’re shameless enough,” a marketing person told me once.
“I know; my father was a used car salesman,” I said. He laughed.
He thought I was kidding.
Over the decades, there were lies, deceptions, and outright disinformation meant to sow confusion. “Doubt is our product,” one executive famously said of the tobacco industry. That, I discovered, was true of a great many industries.
As an editor, I once published an account written by the man who had run the Manville plant in my hometown; it made asbestos-laced building products. Every member of his staff had succumbed to mesothelioma — a direct result of their exposure in the plant. The dangers of asbestos had been known since the early 1900s, but, as the plant manager wrote, “Manville managers at every level were unwilling or unable to believe in the long-term consequences of these known hazards. They denied, or at least failed to acknowledge, the depth and persistence of management accountability.”
At the bottom of each story or scandal there was always the same truth: somebody knew. Somebody always knew. The plant manager knew about the leak; the engineers knew the airbags didn’t work correctly; the accountants knew the numbers didn’t add up; the bankers knew the mortgages would never be repaid. Dozens of executives at Volkswagen, for example, knew that the software in their vehicles had been programmed to make it seem as if their diesel vehicles met emissions standards when, in fact, they didn’t.
Chrysler would teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and then emerge again, but neither my father’s business nor his brain would ever fully recover.
In the past, the car industry has vehemently fought against the need for safety improvements such as seat belts, air bags, and emissions standards. Eventually, even the automobile itself, that piece of technology that once offered Americans freedom and the ability to access the wide-open natural spaces of America, revealed itself to be a powerfully deceptive and seductive fantasy.
In almost every way, the poetic promise of the automobile has proven elusive.
The stylish and powerful cars of my youth — the Dodge Charger, the Chevy convertible, the Ford Mustang — have given way to dozens of nearly identical daily drivers that clog the roads at rush hour. As one auto critic wrote recently: “Look, the mission is dreary, cost-effective shambling back and forth, day after day, between school, and store, and home, and work or station, until you die.”
Originally engineered and created, in part, so that city folks could enjoy the countryside, cars and the highways they require have infringed in almost every way on the nature they were meant to deliver us to.
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” Ford once said. “No man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
Today, the average American spends over 300 hours driving every year, despite knowing the truth about the dangers of car exhaust and its detrimental effects on one’s health, despite the undeniable fact that auto emissions are a primary cause of climate change. Today, naturalists and forest rangers report, the sound of automobiles can be heard deep into the wilderness.
Where once we drove fast on highways to nowhere, now we are more often stuck in traffic on our daily commute. And there we sit, as our government purposefully ignores the all-encompassing environmental degradation its policies and our collective exhaust will undoubtedly deliver.
And, of course, this policy of denial is just another form of lying — a fanciful story we tell ourselves about our future even as we fight to free ourselves from the personal lies of our past.
Nancy A. Nichols is the author ofLake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy. She is a former senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a former reporter for PBS’s The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
This story first appeared in Issue 24 of True Story, a monthly mini-magazine published by the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Our thanks to Nancy A. Nichols and the staff for allowing us to reprint it at Longreads.
Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath