Growing Up In Waterford, PA


My '37 Chevy
by the late Herb Walden

Fort LeBoeuf Class of 1956

The summer of 1955 held a couple of big ups and downs for me. On the upside, I had made arrangements to re-start my high school career after a three-year absence, (I had a really bad cold). The downside was my car, which had passed away that spring after a lingering illness. Except for occasional use of my parents' car, I had no wheels! The school was two blocks from where I lived. With no car, how would I ever get there?

Thankfully, my cousin came to my rescue. He had just purchased a sort-of-new car. So, he gave he his old one --- a 1937 Chevrolet!

The Chevy was no stranger. My Dad had owned it first and had given it to my cousin a few years before. It was practically a family heirloom.

The car was dark green when Dad had it. My cousin painted it dark blue. Neither of these colors appealed to my taste. (Actually, I had no taste back then). So, I went down to Bowersox Hardware and bought a couple cans of paint and brushes. I painted the top portion of the car "Tulip Yellow" and the bottom "Sea Turquoise". It was a sight to behold. I'm sure some of you remember beholding it. Even now, I can't get over how good it looks in old pictures. Especially if they're in black and white.

To say I was nervous on the opening day of school would be a gross understatement. I didn't know very many people, and being a bit shy, it was hard for me to get acquainted. But the old Chevy proved to be a great icebreaker. Total strangers, kids I had never seen before would come up to me and say, "Why are you driving that thing?"

Conversation would ensue, and before I knew it, I'd have a new acquaintance.

My car was a real stand-out in the school parking lot. Not only was it colorful, it was taller than anyone else's car. Except for Alan Hazen's, which was a 1936 Chevy. But it was black, so there was practically no chance of confusing the two.

The only drawback to the color was that it was nearly impossible to go anywhere "incognito." You would be surprised how few cars there were painted yellow and turquoise. Well, maybe you wouldn't. The Chevy always announced my presence, whether it was in the school parking lot, or down at the restaurant, or up in the cemetery late at ------ never mind.

Everyone kidded me about the old car, but no one ever refused a ride in it. Before the school year was very old, I was running a regular bus service after class to Helen's Ice Cream Bar. By the time I'd get to the car at dismissal time, the backseat was already packed.

Cars of the 1930s were pretty narrow, and not many bodies were required to produce overcrowding. I never allowed more than two others in the front seat with me, and the one in the middle had to be small. As a matter of fact, the middle position became a permanent, assigned seat for Brad Gilmore, who, as you may recall, was smaller than anyone.

Since the Chevy had a floor-shift, Brad took over the job of shifting gears because if I did it, he was subject to a pummeling about the head and face with my elbow. I, of course, did the clutch work. Our timing was phenomenal. We never ground the gears. (In all fairness, I should tell you that, because almost everything about the car was worn out, you could shift gears without using the clutch at all --- if you were careful).

So, with 12 or 13 kids in back and 3 in front, we would make our way to the ice cream bar. You might think with all those bodies piled in the backseat, that a little hanky-panky went on. Well, there were so packed in that no one could even move. Heck, there wasn't room for any hanky, much less panky!

You know those little cars in the circus that drive out in the center ring and a million clowns get out? That's what we looked like when I'd pull up in front of the ice cream bar. The car doors would open, and half the high school would tumble out!

My bus service didn't go unnoticed. After a few weeks of up-staging Ringling Bros., Mr. Thomas caught me in the hall. Because he taught driver ed., he seemed to think he had some authority over all student drivers. I thought so, too, so at least we agreed on that point.

He said that he had had several reports of my car being overloaded. I admitted that there were times when a few arms and legs were sticking out the windows, but I also pointed out that there were never more than three in the front seat, (which, by the way, is the only thing the law stipulated at the time).

Mr. Thomas continued to mumble and grumble about overloading and safety and so on. Finally, he said, point-blank, "Don't do that anymore!"

Well, I pulled myself up to my full-height, looked him squarely in the eye, and said, as clearly as possible, "Okay."

I imposed a "10-person-per-backseat" limit. Evidently that was acceptable because no one ever bothered me about it again.

Evenings spent at Helen's Ice Cream Bar often ended with all the guys having cars laying as much rubber as possible as they took off for home. Naturally, there was always a bunch of bystanders who sort of kept score, I guess.

Most of the guys were driving cars two or three years old. My car was almost old enough to vote! When it came to peeling out, I didn't stand a chance. Heck, I couldn't even spin the wheels on slick ice!

So when my turn came, I'd back out onto High Street, rev the engine a few times, shift into 3rd gear, pullout the choke, and pop the clutch!

The old Chevy would cough and wheeze and literally jump a half-dozen times all the way to the Eagle Hotel while spewing a cloud of black smoke similar to Vesuvius!

I'd swing around the block to get the car running smoothly again and re-adjust my cervical vertebrae. Then I'd drive back by the restaurant. The bystanders would be convulsed in laughter, some practically falling on the sidewalk.

I must have done that routine a dozen times, and I got the same reaction every time.

Wintertime was great fun in the Chevy. With chains on, it would go anywhere. Except for color, it was a lot like a John Deere tractor. A couple of times, I was the only one able to drive into the school parking lot in the morning. A good, old Waterford snowstorm was just a bit too much for those fancy, new, log-slung cars that everyone else had.

One night in march, 1956, someone (I've forgotten who) was asking how fast the Chevy would go. I didn't know. I didn't care. Until then. Now I was wondering, too.

So we drove out the "High Road" to Stull's Hill. At the top of the hill, I turned around and headed down. I held the gas pedal to the floor, and we hung on for dear life!

I'm not sure how fast we were going! The speedometer needle was bouncing all over between 40 and what I estimated to be 130! That averages out to 85 mph, which is probably close to our actual speed. At the time, however, 130 seemed more like it!

It was not a comfortable ride. You know those paint-shaking machines in hardware stores? It was kind of like riding one of those.

Now you may not think 85 mph is very fast. Well, it isn't so fast if you're in, say, a Jaguar. Or a '59 Cadillac, for that matter. But picture yourself aboard a hay wagon at 85 mph. Or the tractor pulling it. Speed seems to be a relative thing, doesn't it?

I slowed down at the bottom of the hill, and we drove back into town at a nice, safe 30 mph. The car rode very smooth then. However, we were still shaking!

The next day, I took the car to have it inspected. It didn't pass. Whatever it is that is supposed to hold the front wheels on ----- wasn't! Only a couple of cotter pins were keeping the wheels from going their separate ways!

After the night before, this was news I didn't need to hear! Of course, my hair turned white instantly, and I developed a nervous facial tick which gave me the appearance of an intermittent snarl. Luckily, it was a weekend, and I was back to normal by Monday morning.

There was no fix for the poor, old car, I retired it and put it out to pasture in a --- uh --- pasture on my uncle's farm. My cousin and I drove it around in the fields and woods for a while, but it was deteriorating rapidly. Its odometer was on its third trip around, and its time had come.

That summer, we hauled it to its final resting place: Roy Green's junkyard down by the depot.

It's been over 40 years, but I still think of the old Chevy every once in a while. I'd like to say that I never had a better car. I'd like to say that, but I can't. I've had lots of better cars. In fact, every car I've had was better than the Chevy. But none of them has ever been as much fun!

P.S. Hey! Wanna see a picture of my old car? Grab your 1956 Sentinel yearbook and open to the title pages. There are a half-dozen pictures of the school. In the lower right is a night shot, and squarely in front of the school entrance is the Chevy! That's Miss Byers' Studebaker in front of it. And those are my tracks in the snow.

P.P.S. That picture was taken during one of our yearbook work nights. Mr. Stubbe was also working at something that night, and I told him I wanted to take some night shots of the school. He gave me the master key, and I ran up and down the halls lighting all the lights in the classrooms. I took a bunch of time exposures and then ran around again turning off lights and locking up.

Times have changed. If that were to happen now, I would have to be strip-searched, accompanied by an armed guard, and passed through a metal detector about twenty times. I'm glad we got ourselves born in the 1930s, aren't you?

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