SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – There’s no question that the majority of money spent on ground transportation in the U.S. goes for building roads and bridges rather than for railroads or other means of mass transportation. Other than in a few major cities such as New York or Chicago, most people around the country commute to and from work by auto as evidenced by the endless stream of cars that clog the nation’s arteries like multi-colored blood cells. Despite all the headaches and costs involved in their operation and maintenance, our gas guzzlers are loved not just as a means to get from one place to another but as status symbols and conveniences that make our hectic lives more enjoyable. What family doesn’t own at least one and what youngster doesn’t get a learner’s permit to drive as soon as he or she reaches the age of 16? But that wasn’t always the case, at least not for virtually everyone I knew while growing up in Brooklyn.
During the World War II years, cars were practically unattainable as was gasoline, and since the subway system and trolley cars were within a few blocks of everywhere, few people even knew how to drive. Cars rarely rode past my house so our street was a veritable playground where we kids spent every waking moment when not in school. In fact, the only person I knew who owned an automobile was one of my uncles who needed it for his business. The conveyance was actually a small van used to pick up used clothing, small furniture and appliances that he then sold in his 2nd hand store, and it had no windows, side doors, or seats other than by the driver. In case you’re wondering why I mention all this I’ll now get to the point of my story.
As was the custom in those days even after the war, most members of an extended family lived within a few blocks of each other as was the case with mine. One uncle however lived miles away so whenever the family had a get-together at his house it meant going there by subway, not the most ideal of circumstances especially when all dressed up, since it necessitated taking more than one train because there was no direct way of going. That’s where my other uncle’s auto comes into the narrative. One Sunday it was decided that we’d all go in the van, but since it had no seats, folding chairs were fastened to the sides in the rear and we all rode in style, about 10 of us in all. I don’t know how the grown-ups felt about the arrangement but we kids had a ball, singing and even banging on the van’s sides that were windowless.
When we finally arrived at our destination the doors at the rear were opened and out we piled like a bunch of gypsies, probably appearing to bystanders like clowns in a circus that keep coming out of a tiny car. I guess the uncle we were visiting must have seen the spectacle because when we were leaving after the day of merriment he said that the next time we showed up we should park around the corner of where he lived so no one would know we were related.
I still laugh about that incident whenever it comes to mind, and in a way I’m sorry those simpler and less formal days are gone. I’m sure however that my embarrassed uncle isn’t, wherever he now resides.