Cruising Memory Lane: Every car drives a narrative about who possessed it


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I'm not a motorhead, really. If I could do without a car, I would. Nevertheless, my South Hills neighbors in the 1960s and '70s owned cars that still stoke me today.

Why? Because these cars were good storytellers.

I don't remember anything about the woman who lived in the split-entry down the street in Upper St. Clair, but, oh, her sedan. It was a late 1960s Dodge Polara. The front grille was menacingly ugly, but the back end was elegant: low slung with regal silver trim on the taillights. The enormous trunk lid seemed large enough to swallow a ping-pong table whole.

The Kershaws had the safest car in the neighborhood, a Ford Fairlane station wagon equipped with a fire extinguisher on the interior roof pillar. Alas, the Kershaws were well prepared for the wrong calamity; basement flooding was that family's nemesis.

Crimes were committed in the Sherrons' Chevy Bel Air on some weekdays. Elementary school-aged Mike Sherron would wait at the top of the street for his dad coming home from work.

Dad would stop, put his son on his lap and allow Mike to steer the car down Harrow Road, turn right onto Sandhurst and then left into their driveway. If Mike went on to be a safe driver in life, it's probably because of those prepubescent driving lessons. I was madly jealous.

The oldest car on the block, an orangeish-red early '60s Plymouth Valiant, was owned by the Dorgans. A terribly homely auto, it had diagonal rear fins that looked like the squinting eyes of a cat. And the trunk with an outline of the hidden spare tire reminded me of a Hoover canister vacuum housing.

The Dorgans had health issues, including allergies and asthma, as I recall. They moved to Washington state in the late '70s, looking forward to the purer air. Months later, Mount St. Helens blew its top and layered toxic ash over their town. I always wondered how they coped. The Valiant probably succumbed.

Mrs. Schmidt drove a green 1970 Buick Riviera, a sporty model with a sleek rear profile. One day the township decided to resurface our road with a cheap tarry substance called "slurry seal." Mrs. Schmidt's path home was blocked by wooden horses across the road.

Declaring "I have ice cream in the car," she moved the barriers and drove on the freshly laid mess instead of detouring. In retrospect, I'm sure she would have preferred sopping up a half gallon of melted Neapolitan to removing splattered black muck from the side panels.

I felt sorry for the Stemsons, our next-door neighbors. As their large family began to include more drivers, they needed a runabout so the kids could get to jobs and activities. Unfortunately, they chose a Fiat 128.

Rust munched through this car like famished aphids on a rose bush. Within three years, Mr. Stemson was regularly applying that pink body glop to its Swiss-cheesed fenders. No doubt, the corrosive process began on the ride home from the showroom. One could set up a lawn chair and witness this Fiat's decay in real time, with no need for time-lapse photography.

Hands down, the best automobile on the block belonged to a grand woman who lived catty-corner from us. Florence Ritterhoff was born in 1890, but she drove a burgundy 1965 Ford Mustang with a pompom on the aerial. The car was always immaculately polished.

Everyone in the neighborhood, including the adults, called her Grandma Florence, and she was revered by us kids. All she had to do was emerge from her front door and a flock of children would run to her porch.

She'd sit in a chair and revel in our company, asking each of us genuinely, "How are you!?" in a lilting Southern voice (though I don't know if she was actually from the South). We told her often that she would live to be 100, probably because we wanted her to be around forever. She died in her early 90s, I think.

I can't look at a '65 Mustang today without thinking of Grandma Florence, but even without her cool ride I'd still remember her fondly.

And then there were the Javelin, the Corvair, the orange plaid upholstered Cadillac, the pickup truck ... Simply sit on the couch, think of a bygone car and then let it tell you more. That's comfort.

intelligencer

Dale Abraham of the Central North Side, a Port Authority bus driver, can be reached at tictocrhythm@hotmail.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Cruising Memory Lane" submissions containing favorite car memories, along with other reader essays. Send them to page2@post-gazette.com; or to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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