"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Back when cars would "chug and cough"

1935 Ford sedan
The ease of motorized transportation has affected our culture, profoundly. We think nothing of making a shopping trip to Alexandria today. Many Morrissites do this.
Many ad circulars with the Morris newspaper point us to Alexandria. Cars are built to be much more durable and reliable today. Oh, but we do love our "classic cars." We'd be barely interested in stepping back in time to when such cars were current.
Certain aspects of the past would be appealing for us. We'd love to cherry-pick those aspects. Maurice Faust wrote warmly about the tapestry of Minnesota life as we once saw it. The Pierz native focused on the mid-1930s through late 1940s.
Faust talked about the miracle of rural electrification. He also wrote about cars and their limitations. He connected some of the challenges to the kind of social bonding we experienced. The relative unreliability of cars promoted a greater degree of social bonding within an area. People needed each other more.
A trip to Alexandria would not have been so routine then. I remember Dwayne Michaelson saying a trip to the Pomme de Terre Lake chain wasn't necessarily routine.
Faust is the author of one of those regional books that can really prove to be a gem. I model much of my own writing after his. He feels it's important to remember past time periods and generations - their trials, triumphs and day-to-day routines. We needn't focus on the major things.
I once bought Faust's book "Remember - No Electricity" as a Christmas gift. The '30s and '40s were when my parents Ralph and Martha were young.
Faust wrote that "the social season for us began after Christmas and went through the first Sunday after New Year's Day." I'm writing this post on December 27.
Life slows down a few notches for all of us. We increase our calorie intake. We travel long distances without any great concern that travel itself will be a problem. The realities of travel were different in the '30s and '40s. Faust wrote:
The fact that cars were anything but dependable was always remembered. Heaters were slow, batteries were short-lived, tires were solid from the cold, window defrosters were nonexistent, engines were temperamental, and radiators were apt to erupt in a fit of rebellion.
Cars were not the only concern. Good roads or rather the lack of them also was of concern. Winds that today cause only shallow pillow drifts across a highway, in those days could in a short time render a flat gravel, unimproved township road unusable. Mama always saw to it that we had the old horse blanket in the car in case of an emergency.
Conditions were not good by the standards of today, but keep in mind that when Mama and Papa ventured out with their parents, they went by horse and sleigh.
The fact that people were confined to a small area by lack of mobility had its rewards. Bonding with neighbors was the binding that gave people a sense of belonging and good feeling.
Thus we see the classic blend of good and bad that can be associated with an earlier time. Yes, travel was more challenging, but this had the silver lining of bringing us closer to each other.
The nostalgia can be easy to offset by all the grim aspects of that less advanced time. You only need read about the Armistice Day blizzard in Minnesota in 1940. The extent of that tragedy was staggering. It was hard enough that we as a nation were crawling out of the Great Depression. It seemed a less than certain crawl. Jobs were scarce and people didn't have disposable income.
William Hull in his book "All Hell Broke Loose," about that blizzard, wrote "many houses had no central heating system, or storm windows or weather stripping, or even insulation. Some rural areas still had no electricity or telephone service or running water in the house."
Antifreeze was expensive. As winter began to set in, many people opted to use cheaper alcohol in their auto radiators. Weather forecasting was quite inexact. There was no Interstate Highway system. The outerwear of the time - we might forget this - was not scientifically developed to protect us from the elements. Today such outerwear is heat-efficient and water protective.
I find I don't need the standard "winter coat" (i.e. heavy) in winter. What matters is that I wear the right stuff underneath. We are blessed by synthetics and by water resistant hats and jackets.
The Armistice Day of 1940 blizzard dumped a record amount of snow in 24 hours on Minneapolis.
Maurice Faust remembers how the routine Minnesota winter weather affected our habits. The period between Christmas and New Year's was for family and neighborhood. People gathered in card-playing parties. As a party drew to a close, the men attended to their vehicles. Faust writes:
The men went out to start the cars and hope the heaters would be productive. Mamas started to bundle up the kids - this could be hard to do because most of the younger ones had already fallen asleep. As the old car chugged and coughed, the stiff oil in the crankcase became less like molasses and the auto more readily responded to the accelerator for more speed.
By the time the machine with its load of family arrived home, most of the young passengers were sawing logs.
Sleigh scene from movie
Where Faust recalls the sleigh days, I'm immediately reminded of the movie "The Homecoming," a Christmas movie. It was the successful pilot TV movie that led to "The Waltons" TV series. Successful it was, but it does not seem to get re-run today.
I'm reminded of the scene where the charming and eccentric "Baldwin sisters," bootleggers, help out in the search for the father in the Walton family. We see an appeal to them for some gasoline. Making this appeal is actor Cleavon Little.
Cleavon Little! That name should prompt memories. Little stepped into movie immortality as "Sheriff Bart" in the 1974 Mel Brooks movie "Blazing Saddles," a movie that seemed to make my boomer peers delirious with laughter. I was never quite so enthusiastic about it.
Cleavon Little played "Hawthorne Dooley" in 1971's "The Homecoming." The late actor - he died when he was only 53 - was African-American which is important to know in connection with his movie roles.
"John-Boy" Walton is out searching for his father on Christmas Eve. Mother Olivia, played by Patricia Neal, has heard a radio report of a bus accident. Might her husband have been on board? Might he be searching for transportation to get home? He had left home in search of work in Depression times.
John-Boy searches across Walton's Mountain. The setting is Virginia, 1933. He stops by a church's Nativity play. He manages to borrow a car. He happens upon an African-American church where the affable Hawthorne Dooley (Cleavon Little) befriends him.
They run out of gas. They call upon the Baldwin sisters for help. Cleavon Little humors them for a time, after which he finally asks with some desperation about getting some gasoline.
I found the next scene to be the most striking and touching of the movie. It appears the sisters didn't have gasoline but they surely had transportation. We see the group in transit in a horse-drawn sleigh, gliding over the snow. I had to smile, thinking of how this primitive transportation had come to the rescue, sans any of the headaches associated with motorized transportation of that time, the headaches written about by Faust.
We all remember how John-Boy wanted to be a writer. He somehow felt he needed to be a little reclusive about this. This leads to a scene in "The Homecoming" that is cringeworthy for males. It's so bad, it taints the whole movie. The mother confronts her son, suspicious about what he's doing in his room with the door locked. Oh my. Males have their thoughts turn instantly to a certain type of situation.
Let's call it "self-stimulation" rather than the "m" word.
Patricia Neal in this movie makes a career transition to playing an older type of woman. We need reminding that Neal was the love interest in the 1951 sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
Alice Faye was another actress who transitioned from a "hot" female to a mother figure, the latter role in "State Fair" (the Pat Boone version).
Cleavon Little had little success after his iconic "Blazing Saddles" role. Was he typecast? Much of the humor came from the idea of an African-American sheriff in the Old West.
"Blazing Saddles" was a reflection of the cynical 1970s. It poked fun at the traditional western.
I'll add here, lest anyone worry, that the Waltons' father arrived home fine in "The Homecoming." The father reported optimism about finding jobs. But from the history I've read, we were far from escaping the Depression in 1933. Anyway, the movie had a happy ending.
The times as recalled by Maurice Faust had their charms, with lively family gatherings at holidaytime. Limited mobility did bring us closer together, without a doubt. The charms were unmistakable. It's probably best we overlook the special challenges and adversity.
My own family (my mom and I) will experience the old-fashioned bonding at our Morris Senior Community Center for New Year's Eve, at evening-time and not at midnight!
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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