It has occurred to me — as it surely has to a million swifter brains than mine — that you could outline the history of a 20th-century American family by writing about its cars.
“That’s the Rambler Pop-Pop bought with his retirement check and drove until the day he died … and that’s the Gremlin that got broken into while we were in line to get our swine flu shots in ’76 … and that’s the Chrysler we drove overnight from Memphis to Indianapolis to see the Grateful Dead … and that’s the Toyota Susie learned to drive stick on, that year she had her horrible first job, cleaning up nights at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Remember that?”
I’ve spilled a fair number of words chronicling the cars that moved the Blumenau family, starting with my second post on this blog. Along the way, I’ve written about the long-serving and faithful; the powerful but poorly built; and the simply comic.
I think I’ll add another set of wheels to the family caravanserai this week:
I’m not sure my grandfather ever drove the 1973 Plymouth Satellite that is the subject of today’s post. But it merits mentioning as another example of his anal-retentiveness.
My dad was long since out of my grandpa’s household by April 1973. My dad had been married for almost six years, had one child, and another was on the way. My grandpa wasn’t insuring my dad or his cars, I can’t imagine.
So what reason did my grandfather have to make note of the new plate number on my dad’s car? Did he write it down just to make sure he’d know that the right Plymouth Satellite had pulled into his driveway? Did he commit it to memory as he wrote it down?
God knows. But there it is on the calendar — New York plate number 286-MOR, a plate that would be part of Blumenau family life for a decade to come.
The new Satellite would have made its first visit to Stamford in late March or early April 1973 — a few months before the young boy above made his first appearance in the world. Perhaps that visit motivated my grandpa to record the license plate on his calendar.
The Satellite was the perfect car for a young and growing family in the ’70s — roomy and reasonably reliable. (My family went on to buy two fairly poor-quality Plymouth products in the 1980s, hoping against evidence to recapture the build quality of the Satellite.)
We made all manner of road trips in that car. I remember leaning over the front bench seat to see the view out the windshield, marking familiar landmarks on the way to Stamford, like the animated neon sign of Monticello Raceway. (The rear seat belts in the Satellite went largely unused.)
I also remember the Satellite’s unique bathroom facilities.
My folks had bought a plastic bottle, with a bell-shaped funnel attached to it by a plastic tube. And on those long trips to Stamford, we did not stop for bathrooms. Instead, little boys would kneel in the black-carpeted roominess of the footwell — with stern instructions of “don’t miss!” ringing in our ears — and do our business into the funnel and bottle.
We would arrive in Stamford in the chill of the early morning. And as part of the weary process of loading in all our gear, one adult or the other (OK, probably my mom nine times out of 10) would take care of emptying and rinsing the funnel and bottle.
For better or for worse, my kids will never know that experience. It is probably for the better: Had our car been sideswiped during a wee-wee moment, I would probably have been mentally traumatized as well as seriously injured.
But my four-wheeled piss-memories are not unpleasant. They symbolize a less complicated time, when we took chances we wouldn’t take now and, through luck, skill or blessing, got away with them.
We owned the Satellite for more than 10 years. I’m fairly sure it was the first car in the history of the Penfield Blumenaus to reach 100,000 miles, which was more of a milestone then than it is now.
When the time came to get rid of the car in 1983 or ’84, I remember wanting to spend a night in it. And I think I might even have done so, sleeping in the back seat on an early-summer evening with a pillow and a blanket.
It seems like a weird idea now. But I identified fairly closely with that car, being roughly the same age. I was not accustomed to saying goodbye to things my own age (I”m still not), so this must have been some idiosyncratic part of that process.
My family did quite well by the Satellite, all in all. A lot of the family memories of those years (birthdays, holiday get-togethers, and the like) had one thing in common — a big brown stallion of a car out in the driveway, which had moved the Blumenau family to its latest adventure and was awaiting orders to bring it safely back.
Every family history needs a couple of those.