Learning to drive with 80 horses under the hood
In Latvia in the early 1930s there were few cars and even fewer asphalted roads. In Aluksne, a small town of 5,000 located 30 kilometers from the Russian and Estonian borders, there were only three automobiles, one of which – a Model T Ford – happened to belong to my mother’s uncle Gorijs. As a result, Mother learned to drive, and even more remarkably for a woman at the time, passed her driver’s test, which she took in Riga, the capital.
There were few rules of the road, so the real feat was whether or not she could drive through a narrow gate forwards and backwards. Mother informed me that was not a test for the faint-hearted, for if one did not negotiate the narrow gate properly, the car would tumble down into the river channel below. Men had failed this test, Mother added, so passing it was all the more rewarding.
So when we came to the United States in 1950, Mother was the only Latvian person in Greenville (or even in Grand Rapids) who knew how to drive. Of course, we didn’t own or have access to a car, but I felt that Mother’s ability to drive somehow elevated us to the ranks of real Americans.
But in America knowing how to drive was taken for granted, as was owning a car. What distinguished a real American was the make, model and age of his automobile. As an immigrant, Father had felt a subtle pressure from our American sponsor, who owned a Chevrolet dealership, to buy a used Chevy. We were not technically indebted to Mr. Rasmussen, for Father repaid the $100 advance for passage to the U.S. with the first money he earned, but he did not want to offend Mr. Rasmussen, either.
So together, Father and I checked out all the dealerships in Greenville. After we had roamed the showrooms, Father gave me a penny for either the gumball or peanut machine. I turned the crank and as if watching a miracle, caught the exotic Spanish peanuts into the palm of my hand. Slowly, savoring the salt, I chewed each nut until it seemed to melt in my mouth. Afterwards, I licked off all the dry, flaky brownish-red husks that still clung to the little hollow of my palm.
Well, finally, Father’s admiration of the rocket-like nose and sleek lines of the Studebaker overcame his sense of indebtedness to Mr. Rasmussen. He bought, on credit, a new 1950 pale green coupe. Buying on credit was not something Mother approved, but Father (a banker in his former life) had faith in himself and America. Recently, in addition to working as the janitor at the Congregational Church, he had landed a job at Gibson’s factory, making refrigerators. He had also joined the local chapter of the AFL-CIO union and felt that his income was assured.
Although Mother already knew how to drive, Father wasted no time learning how himself. Once he did, the two of them drove as a team for the rest of their lives. After all, American roads were crowded with cars and drivers who wore hats (a sure sign of a dangerous driver, according to Latvian lore), so having four eyes and two heads when driving was, for them, a necessity.
At every stop sign, light or intersection, Mother would sing out either “All clean” or “Dirty,” so Father could concentrate on manipulating the clutch and gas pedal and not have to worry about traffic. Whenever he was ready to pass another car, Mother would turn her head back and make certain no one had sneaked up behind us or was hidden by the “blind spot,” while Father nervously scanned the oncoming cars and calculated how close or far away they might be. Sometimes the two of them would have to debate:
“Too close. Don’t pass.”
“No, I can make it.”
“But it’s not worth the risk!”
“It’s not a risk, I tell you.”
“It’ll be too late when we hit head-on!”
“We’re not going to hit head-on!”
“I don’t want to be another statistic in the newspaper!”
“You think I do?”
And then, with his foot jammed onto the gas pedal, his shoulders pressed into the back of his seat and his chin stuck forward with determination, Father would zoom past the slower car and breathe a sigh of relief. He would add the inevitable, “Thank God we have those 80 horses under the hood to pull us safely past!”
Father often referred to the Studebaker in terms of his 80 horses, and I secretly thought it was because Grandfather in his day had owned 40 horses, so now Father was “ahead” so to speak. I knew nothing about horses or horsepower, either, but would sit in the back seat and wonder if in Latvia 80 horses yoked together could actually beat an American car that had an 80-horsepower engine.
Somehow, although I could not explain why not, I just didn’t think so.
n Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.