More Stories of My Father

A Short History of the Automobile According to Clarence

All seven of us Atwood kids are pretty good with car maintenance and simple repairs. Dad made sure that we all had something to drive when we turned 16, but with his limited resources (and 7 kids!) those vehicles were a motley bunch. He favored Corvairs in the 60’s and 70’s, Ralph Nader be damned. The reliability of those wheels was questionable, so we all knew how to pop a clutch or clean a spark plug.

Dad’s first vehicle was a “cut down” Model T pickup. Cut down meaning that anything not absolutely required for forward movement had been removed. He paid five dollars for it, and when it broke down far out in the forest, he simply abandoned it. If one knew where to look, the rusted parts might still be found where he left it.

Dad’s Dad drove truck for Gulf Oil and for his brother-in-law delivering cordwood to the brass mills in Waterbury. At one time, he drove a Mack, perhaps a 1918, which had the unique characteristic of having the radiator located directly in front of the driver’s knees. During the winter, the cab was hot enough to drive in shirtsleeves. During the summer – well, on long hills, Grandad would put the truck in low gear, and walk alongside, reaching in through the window to turn the wheel as needed.

When Dad and Mom decided to build a house on the north part of the farm in 1947, Woodtick road was a one lane dirt path. They simply left the car in the road for the time it took to hack a pull-off out of the brush and trees at the front of their building lot. No one came along to complain.

In the 1920’s and early 30’s, cars did not have fuel pumps. The gasoline was fed into the engine by gravity. Thus, depending on the location of the fuel tank, you might have to stop, turn around, and drive backwards to go uphill so the gas would feed into the engine. Driving was much more of a skill than it is today, and quite a bit harder to do well. But lower speeds and fewer cars on the road left room for error. Breakdowns were frequent, and homeowners would normally let strangers in to use the telephone to call for help.

Around 1930, when folks were getting used to being mobile, the need arose to clear the roads of snow. Dad’s uncle acquired a tractor – one of the models that had actual tracks (think modern bulldozer, without the front blade.) The men fashioned a snowplow on the front of a wooden stone boat, and would merrily make the rounds of the town roads; one driving, the rest riding on the “plow” to provide weight. Until the tractor broke down, which was normal procedure. Then, the gang of men would unhook the stone boat, wrassle it around to the front of the tractor, and “donkey” the tractor onto the sled. Borrowing a team of horses from the nearest farm, they would tow the rig home for repairs. On one occasion, that proved impossible, so the tractor was fixed on site, with a fire in a steel barrel providing heat to the mechanics. Repairs took two days.

One of the gems that I drove in high school was a mid-60’s Opel Kadett. It rarely would go into reverse, so I had to be careful where I parked it. One day it refused to run at all, so Dad hooked a chain to it and we towed it to the local repair shop. It turned out to need a new alternator, but when I went back to pick it up, the bill was $65.00, about $15 more than I had. I was highly embarrassed when the guy said I couldn’t take the car without paying the bill in full, but then another man behind the counter spoke up. “Aren’t you Clarence Atwood’s daughter?” he asked. Upon my affirmative reply, he told the other guy to let me take the car, because he knew Clarence was good for it.

I was no longer embarrassed. I was Clarence’s daughter, and he was good for it.

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