Remember When: Cars in my Books
Cars played a key roles in two of my books. In Murder in Minnesota, the first in the Wondering Woodie Mysteries, a restored 1946 Ford station wagon is involved in the plot from start to finish. In Road to Resilience, the second in my quartet of books about my mother’s extraordinary life, a car greatly impacts the storyline, no pun intended.
It just so happens that both cars are Fords. I never owned a Woodie as presented in my mystery, and I never actually saw the cars referenced in Road to Resilience. Pictures of them were destroyed in a fire that is covered in book three of my anthology.
The Ford in Road to Resilience played a role in the courtship of my mother and father. It involves an accident dad had in his 1928 Ford Model A Coupe that nearly cost him his life and delayed their wedding. After the book went to press, I remembered a second story involving an accident in the same vehicle that occurred only a few weeks before the one described in the book. Since I left it out by accident, pun intended, I thought I’d share it in this blog post.
My parents, Velma Steele and Jack Gooding met at the beginning of Fall in 1937 in Perry, Iowa. Mom worked in a flower shop and Dad delivered linen supplies to businesses in that town. At the time, Velma had been engaged to a young man for some two years but had only set a wedding date weeks before meeting my father. Needless to say, the engagement didn’t last.
From that first meeting, Jack spent every spare moment with Velma. When he couldn’t time his route to end in Perry, he’d drive there in his rebuilt 1928 Model A hardtop Coupe. Just out of high school and fortunate to find work, Jack had bought the car from a friend in 1934 for just $20. It was up on blocks at the time without tires and badly in need of an engine overhaul.
It took the better part of a year for Jack to get the car in shape with the help of some buddies and a little hard-earned cash. So, by the fall of ’37, the coupe was running fine under a fresh amateurish coat of paint personally applied by the owner. It was a great source of pride for a 23-year-old still living at his parents’ home.
Now in 1937, Jack made the nearly 40-mile trip from Des Moines to Perry in the coupe several times a week in under an hour. Given the condition of the roads, that was a race car pace. When you are young and desperately in love, however, everything needs to move faster. Besides, he had memorized all the potholes and ruts along the way that he needed to avoid.
By Thanksgiving of that year, winter was in the air. There had been a light snow that week coating the harvested corn fields that still showed the stubble left behind. Then, the temperature had plunged into the teens where it stubbornly stayed.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Jack picked Velma up in Perry shortly after his half-day shift ended and headed back to Des Moines where he’d made a dinner reservation. They did this as often as possible to escape the prying eyes of family and friends.
During that meal the two made a firm commitment to marry as soon as possible. This decision brought a mixture of joy and dread. The two would have to face Velma’s mother Alice, a very hard woman, and brother Edward. He was a close friend of the guy to whom Velma was still technically engaged. Shaking off the anxiety, they headed to Perry, eager to share their news.
Ever the gentleman, Jack went to start the car so it could warm up before Velma ventured outside. She emerged to be greeted by a dark sky that offered up snow flurries and an even colder temperature. Once inside the coupe, she found it still far too frigid for her liking.
Now, cars in that era were never known for having an adequate heater. Jack’s ’28 Ford Coupe was no exception. The good news was that the engine warmed up fast. The bad news was the heat coming out of the vent was far too anemic, especially for my cold-blooded mother. Even though Dad had planned ahead putting a couple of blankets behind the front seat, they did little good against the wind whistling through cracks in the floorboards.
Then, dad had the bright idea to pull the choke out to power the car. He told Velma to put her feet right under the pathetically weak heater vent, then he did the same. They cruised along this way at a gentle 30 MPH until only a few miles from Perry. There, they approached a small bridge.
As most know, bridge surfaces freeze before roads. Halfway across, the coupe hit a slick spot and skidded. Barely avoiding the bridge railings the car exited the bridge sideways. Dad tried to extricate his feet, which were tangled with Velma’s, so he could apply the break on the slow-moving vehicle.
While yanking at his feet, Jack reflexively pulled on the steering wheel too hard. The result was an overcorrection sending the car off the road and down a gentle slope toward an unfenced corn field. Fumbling for the choke, he finally jammed it in killing the motor. Momentum however, carried the car over a rise at the field’s edge sending it into the air just as dad hit the brakes.
Being airborne at that moment made braking useless. Landing hard on frozen ground, the Ford mowed down several rows of stubble before the brakes took hold. In the sudden silence and darkness, cut only by the headlamps shinning across the field, the couple stared at each other in wide-eyed shock. A quick check showed them unhurt, but quite rattled.
A few minutes later, after a quick check for damage to the Coupe, Jack was able to turn the car around on the rock-hard ground and ease his way out of the field. Except for some corn stubble stuck in the bumper and wheel wells, they had managed to escape major car damage, personal injury, and potential embarrassment.
After this experience, confronting my Grandmother Alice a short time later turned out to be a bit less daunting. The accident detailed in the book however, did not have the same humorous and harmless outcome. If you haven’t read about it yet, give The Road to Resilience a read.