I know it was a ’39 Chevy coupe, but not from memory, only from the stories I’ve heard. The thing I do remember is its color: green. And its shape. I remember its smooth roundness. I just Googled 1939 Chevrolet coupe and it’s exactly as I picture it. I suppose even as a toddler I found its shape pleasing. I still do.
I’ve been thinking about that car because I’ve been thinking about my dad. Had he lived, he would have turned 98 on Saturday, Oct. 12. I cannot explain why, but I always thought it cool that my dad was born on Columbus Day, especially when I was a kid.
My dad died in 1994, a few days after Christmas. We knew it was coming but still I cried uncontrollably when I got the phone call from my sister. When the doctor told him he had lung cancer, he said, “I haven’t smoked in 20 years.” “But the 30 that you did caused this,” the doctor said. Like many of his generation, Dad got his Lucky Strikes with his C-rations. I can still see him with an unfiltered Camel in his mouth and a full ashtray of butts on the table next to him. He was just 73 when it caught up to him, a figure I am closing in on fast.
My dad and I were close, but it wasn’t until after he died that I really got to know him. That’s because my mom was lonely and needed someone to talk to. Newly divorced, I did too. Often she’d talk about the early days of their marriage, things I knew little or nothing about. Like the ’39 Chevy.
The photos of those cars on my computer screen look awesome. I wish I had one today. But the reality, the picture my mom painted, was not pretty. I was perhaps 2 or 2-and-half when my dad brought the car home. That meant my brother was an infant and my sisters 3 and 5. If you wonder why people my age are called “Baby Boomers,” there’s your answer.
The car was 12 or 13 years old and apparently showing its age. The floor on the passenger side was rusted right through, Mom said. Dad covered the hole with folded cardboard which, according to Mom, was not much of a help in winter. She’d sit in the front holding her newborn while the three of us crowded into the back, which was another story all together. The back, she explained, had two seats with a gap between them. A gap just big enough for dad to cram in one of our kitchen chairs. That was my spot. Forget car seats. Seatbelts wouldn’t even be the law for another 40 years.
My dad grew up on a farm, quit school in eighth grade, lied about his age and joined the army before he was 18, and spent four years fighting in the Pacific Theater without a single day of leave. His story was not unlike most of the young men of his generation. Neither was his return home.
What most GIs experienced back in their hometowns following World War II is brilliantly illustrated in the 1946 movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which won seven Oscars including Best Picture. Fred, played by Dana Andrews, returns a hero, but the only job he can find is the one he had before the war, a “soda jerk” in the local drug store. To make matters worse, the kid who was his assistant before the war is now his boss.
The only job my dad found waiting was the same a lot of guys around here found waiting: coal miner. But the anthracite business in the mid-40s wasn’t what it once was and the work was not steady. Like a lot of former soldiers and sailors, my dad kept his young and ever-growing family warm picking coal in fields near the mines and fed with “surplus” cheese and flour.
But he never complained, Mom told me all those years later. On the contrary, he was always happy, always making life fun. He learned much as a farm kid and so, not only did he go out in the summer and pick pails and pails of huckleberries, but also canned them to be enjoyed in winter. If he was out of work, he’d take that government flour and whip up, according to Mom, the best biscuits you ever tasted.
And on Friday nights, Mom said, he’d remember that in addition to being her husband and father of her children, he was also her boyfriend. This was before Billy came along and before the ’39 Chevy found its way to the driveway. While Mom finished up the baths of my sisters and me and got us into our jammies and off to bed, Dad would set off on foot from our little apartment on East Oak Street in Pittston Twp. to The Nook seafood restaurant on North Main Street in Pittston. He’d return with dinners of fried shrimp and french fries and maybe a quart of beer or two, which they’d enjoy on the back porch if the weather allowed or in the kitchen if it didn’t.
Before writing this, I jumped in my car and measured the distance he had to walk. It was nine-tenths of a mile. Knowing the shape my dad was in, I’m sure he got home while the shrimp was still warm and the beer still cold.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.