Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Steal... Borrowing Cars for Fun and Profit. For Fun Anyway.

There were many Saturday nights I didn’t get asked to babysit. I can’t say why. Perhaps the Miller’s used someone else on occasion, but whatever, Ray and Mae Miller were always with the Saturday night gang.  On Saturday evenings I rode with my parents to Richard’s house. There they waited for the other half dozen or so couples to arrive. They all left together, car-pooling  to wherever  they went. They left we kids on our own.
Richard (pictured left) talked about cars constantly, he was obsessed with the automobile. He couldn’t wait to drive, but he had no choice. We were both fifteen, to young to get our licenses. I was several months the older. I would be sixteen that June. I think his sixteenth birthday was early 1958. We both had to be patient and wait, didn't we? Didn't we?!
Now, all the couples that joined mom and dad and the Wilsons on Saturday nights doubled up and car pooled, squeezing into just a couple vehicles. They shared different cars each time they went out. They left the other cars in the Wilson’s large parking area. Most of the time they left the keys in their cars. It wasn’t long before we were picking out a car to borrow.
We didn’t call it “stealing”. These weren't strangers' vehicles off the roadside. These were friends of the family, all folks we knew. Besides, we were only going to take the car for a couple hours or so and bring it back safe and sound. Sure, we’d burn a bit of gas, but who’d really notice?
Borrowing cars quickly became our regular Saturday night pastime. We would take the first car that had keys and joyride through the countryside. Those joining in the borrowing varied from week to week. Sometimes there was just Rich and I. (There was always Rich and me.)  Occasionally Tommy, and even Suzy, came along, but only if they were home and we couldn’t avoid taking them. Tommy and Suzy were touchy subjects. We had to be careful. We were always under the threat that one or the other of them would blab our jaunts. Our little adventures were something they could hold over our heads, and believe me, they would.
There were times Jim Whitlach (pictured right) was a passenger. He was a long-time friend of Richard’s who lived down on Route 23 in the western portion of the village. Richard was in the same classes at school with Jim and they had been friends before I moved to Bucktown.  I didn’t care much for him. He was kind of a hood and tough talker.

Tom Frame (left) also joined us on some of these outings. Tom was quiet and likable, a complete contract to Jim. He was also the best mechanic in our group. None of us were driving age, though, so there wasn’t a single driver’s license among us.

Sometimes our first destination on these Saturday nights would be at Rock’s, a drive-up restaurant that was approximately halfway between my house and Pottstown. Actually it was closer to my place than to the town. Rock's drive-in had recently been opened along the Pottstown Pike where it split between Old Route 100 and the Bypass. 
Rock’s immediately assumed the roll of the local hangout for teenagers in the county area south of Pottstown. The restaurant closed years ago, but the building remains and looks about the same. There is a slanted glass window to the front, with two small sliding panels near the bottom. You ordered and received your food at these little openings and could eat in your car or you could go inside, which was a regular sit down restaurant.

After Rock's we typically took an excursion into Pottstown to drag the main strip through the center of town and then spend the rest of the night we driving wildly over the back roads with the lights off, thinking this way no one would see us speeding along. We were especially preferred not to be seen by the county police. Yeah, it was priority one to not have a confrontation with the local cops,
not when driving without a license in somebody else’s car. The school scuttlebutt around school described the East and South Coventry Police like a cliché out of a movie about back country cops. More than one story circulated how somebody knew a friend who had a friend who got pulled over for a broken tail light. Oddly, the tail light didn’t get broken until he was stopped on the side of the road and officer whom-ever walked by it with his night stick. The tales were enough to send us in a panic if we saw suspicious lights coming toward us in the distance. As it was we never crossed paths with any cops.
We always made sure we got home well before 2:00 AM. There were times we almost didn’t make it.
You know a broken tail light is known as a mechanical failure and a moving violation. We never experienced any broken tail lights, but we had our share of mechanical failures.
One of the regular Saturday-night couples were named Moses. They had a gray car, but I don’t know the make. It was a coupe. We’d never taken it before, but this time it was the first in line and the keys were hanging in the ignition. In case you are wondering about all this carelessly leaving cars unlocked, it wasn’t a big deal in those days. My dad never locked anything. We’d go to the movies in Coatesville and he’d leave the car unlocked. He did take the keys with him, though. He never locked the house doors either. Times were different then, plus we were country and small town people. Everybody kind of trusted each other. These cars were parked on a friend’s driveway out around almost nothing. Leave the car unlocked with the key inside, no big deal. Now granted, leaving the key hanging in the ignition was a bit over board. People usually stuck them under the floor mat or in the ashtray (that’s another thing, almost all cars had ashtrays then). The Moses probably arrived late, got out in a hurry and simply forgot, thank you very much.
We took the Moses' car and had a grand time on the back roads. It had a little oomph to it, a kick going through the gears. The ride was somewhat rough, kind of bouncy. We didn’t care. We had the radio pumped up loud and we were having a rolling party.
Around 1:00 AM we knew it was time to hustle home, we were all ready cutting it close. Thing was we were on a narrow country road going in the wrong direction. We needed to get turned about and go the other way. Richard was driving and saw a cornfield with a wagon trail running up between a fence row and the corn. He figured this would be an easier turn around than attempting a three-pointer on the narrow road. He pulled into this skinny lane, basically two wheel tracks running between obstacles on each side. He went in about two car lengths and stopped and flipped the shift into reverse. When he went to back up he couldn’t. The car had no reverse. It sat there doing absolutely nothing. I think there was a humming sound. We looked at each other. Finally some of us got out, Richard put it in neutral and we pushed. Once on the road pointed the right way we jumped back in and took off. We knew there was nowhere to go but straight ahead.

We weren’t averse to snatching bigger game. One night, Rich and I were the only ones left at the house. We looked at the cars in the drive and then decided to take his dad’s dump truck. Well, he decided to take the dump truck. His dad must have allowed him to drive it in their lane a few times. He didn’t appear intimidated by the extra gears and all the other rigmarole about the cab. He drove it out and down Route 100 without too much gear grinding.
Richard didn’t turn off into the side roads, but drove us right into Pottstown. We were bouncing along on some of the north section streets when he slammed over a curb tuning one corner. Something heavy fell off the truck into the street with a great thump. It sounded awfully huge and maybe whatever went astray was too much to lift. We didn’t stop to check. Rich tromped the accelerator and we got out of there. I don’t know what fell off or if his dad ever noticed. Richard never brought it up, so I left it alone. We did decide to leave the truck parked by the garage after that.

The closest we came to disaster and its sweet companion of death was a night we drove my dad’s car down. It was my family’s car so I drove.Yes sir, the joyride of my life and it was going along smooth and fast. Tommy Wilson, Jim Whitlach and Tom Frame were with us in the Studebaker.
When the evening was growing late we were cruising up a hill somewhere near where Ray Miller lived. Once I passed his house we topped the hill and started down a long decline. Not certain of the location, we might have been on Fulmer Road somewhere around Pigeon Creek. This part of the road continued to slope downward for several miles and it went through a series of S-curves. To the right of the road at every S-curve the ground fell away off a steep embankment.
I was doing about fifty when I crested the top and picked up more speed on the down slope, too speedy to feel comfortable. I tapped the brake and the pedal went to the floorboards with no impediment. It went further, faster than if a had slammed down some giant foot upon it. There had been no resistance what so ever. I grabbed the emergency brake arm and yanked for all I was worth. It felt like I would pull the lever out of the floor by its roots. I expected it to hit the roof. But nothing happened to slow the car.
“We don’t have any brakes,” I yelled.
Everybody laughed. They didn’t believe me.
We came upon the first of the S-curves. There was no shoulder. The road simply drooped off an embankment on the right side. I swung the wheel as hard as I could and we squealed around, ever picking up speed and baring toward the next S-curve. They weren’t laughing now. The force of the turn had knocked reality into their heads and fear into their hearts, as well as Tommy Wilson onto the floor. Personally, I was too busy to be scared.
There were more S-curves and more loud squeals, but I got us through them. It was a good thing those old Studebakers had a low center of gravity (pictured left a 1953 Studebaker like the one we took that night, same color and all). The car eventually drifted to a stop on the long flat stretch at the bottom of the hill. I lay my head against the steering wheel panting. Darn, we still had to drive the thing home!
I was shaking.
Richard and I traded seats and he drove it back to his house, low gear all the way (pictured right Richard’s home from the air).

We parked it where we found it. Around two-thirty the party animals got home. They said their goodbyes and the driveway grew quit. My parents called me to go home. I got in the backseat without a word. What could I say? After all, how should I know the car’s brakes were gone?
The Wilsons lived on a hill. It flattened out as a plateau where their house and parking area was. The drive went flat about fifteen feet and then dipped sharply down the hill. It leveled for a short distance at the bottom and dead-ended into Route 100. There was a blind curve up the pike on the left. Dad would have to make a ninety-degree turn to the right to head in the direction of our house. If you went straight across the pike you would go over another embankment straight down through brush for several yards.
I braced myself, scrunching down in the back seat (no seatbelts in those days). Dad went over the hump of the drive and discovered he had no brakes. My mother began screaming. The car picked up a lot of speed on that sharp decline, but dad made the turn and got us home. It wasn’t until then my mom stopped screaming. I was never so glad he was a professional driver with a lot of experience.

I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t tell my parents about knowing about the brakes until the night of their fiftieth wedding anniversary. I told everyone that night. I wrote it into the speech I gave and treated it with a lot of humor. There wasn’t much humor the night it happened.
Not every “borrowing” ended in disaster. Most nights we just had fun. The stupidity of what we were doing never crossed our minds. We continued driving at reckless speed through the dark nights over the back roads without lights on so no police spotted us. We considered ourselves cool when what we were was dumb.
Still, there was this one time with just Rich and me cruising about in his parent’s Dodge when we picked up a girl.   Her name was Dot and she lived in an apartment building on the outskirts of Pottstown. It was rather late in the evening. We pulled up alongside the building and Rich tossed a stone against her bedroom window. She looked out and he motioned her down. She came down the fire escape and got in between us. She had just gone to bed and was only wearing these Baby Doll Nighties (pictured left are Baby Doll’s of that era, 1956 to be exact). In the right light I could see through her top. We drove directly up the main drag of Pottstown and took her to Phillips Tropical Treat for milkshakes.
Some nights were worth the risk.

We did take a risk driving that girl through the middle of Pottstown to Phillips’ Tropical Treat. The township was very Blue Nose at that time. They ticketed if you crossed the street against the light or anywhere except at the corner. They had a nine o’clock pm curfew on teenagers. The first showing at the movie theater left out at 9:00 pm, so they allowed a little leeway for going from the theater, but if a cop had seen us we might have been pulled over. Wouldn’t that have been a nice pickle, two fifteen year olds illegally driving someone else’s car with a half-naked girl passenger.

The risks of taking other people’s cars on joyrides did not deter us. We continued the practice through the spring into that summer, then life changed again.

No comments: