I sure remember the six winters when we lived on North Street in Lexington, Massachusetts during the 1950s. I commuted in a car pool for the first three years to MIT and then to the Boston Naval Shipyard for another three years. For both destinations the distances traveled were about sixteen miles, not enough to raise the eyebrows of commuters elsewhere unless they had experience driving in the greater-Boston area where motorists had invented road rage.
When it was my turn to drive my most-difficult problem was getting the car started; we didn’t have a garage. Fortunately our driveway exited to the north so that when gale-driven snow accumulated in six- and seven-foot high drifts behind our house, the driveway was blown bare enough to expose the gravel. However, the cold was something else and there were dark mornings when mine was the only car on the block that started.
Each evening I drove our early-series 1949 DeSoto to an area of our yard where the snow was just deep enough to prevent the wind from blowing beneath it. Risking fire, I placed a lighted kerosene lantern on the carburetor side of the engine and covered the hood with a heavy wool blanket while making sure that the air intake in front was sealed. Even with those measures the starter was barely able to crank the engine and four or five attempts were always required before the cylinders coughed enough to get going.
During one morning that was colder than all others I succeeded in starting the engine but I discovered that the oil in the heater’s fan bearings had frozen. Since the defroster was inoperable ice crystals obliterated my view through the windshield. During the commute, I had to use the front window vents to deflect outside air across the inside of the windshield in order to retard the ice formation. That combined with periodic scraping was sufficient, but because I was driving with my knees poked out from my overcoat, they became frost bitten.
Another aggravating circumstance was due to the extraordinary temperature gradient that existed along our route, so much so, that gardening books showed three different planting times between Lexington and the towns bordering on Boston Harbor. Having two-feet of snow in Lexington, and half of that in Arlington and Somerville, while there was none in Cambridge or Charlestown was not unusual. Thus, tire chains were impractical and those were the days before steel-studded snow tires. Also, the frugal citizens of Somerville refused to pay for snow-removal equipment that benefited commuters from elsewhere. When slush turned to ice during the night, we early-morning commuters encountered frozen ruts that were like railroad tracks. In Somerville, vehicles steered by themselves.
Since there were only four of us in the car pool to and from the shipyard, some evenings we were hit up for a ride by someone who lived on our route. Among those who occasionally asked for a lift were two young women. Both were of Italian descent, both were named Vera, but in all other respects they were as different from each other as two people could be. One was ladylike to a tee. The other, just a bit over five-foot tall, habitually cursed like the proverbial sailor.
One evening two of us were crammed in the back of a 1952 Studebaker Coupe with foul-mouth Vera in the middle. She was particularly hot under the collar about something that happened at work and exercised her gums with a blue streak. At her stop, I got out temporarily and stood between the car and a snow pile that was as high as my hand. As she was stepping out the back of her neck was exposed. In a split second I lopped off the top of the snow pile and plopped it down her collar to cool her off. During the next few minutes, until she ran out of wind, other commuters were treated to the sight of a half-pint wildcat chasing a Navy lieutenant commander around a Studebaker that had three hysterical guys inside.
But what I remember most about wintertime driving in New England were the dark mornings when, at midpoint in our commute, we picked up Jim McGinn in Arlington. McGinn, then about fifty-five, was slightly above average height, was thin, had sharp features and, although he was friendly enough in the car, his usual demeanor at work was that of someone with a sharp tongue who was quick to use it. Perhaps that was because he bossed some of East Boston’s sons of Erin in the Navy’s Industrial Manager’s Office. I cannot say that McGinn was a typical Boston Irishman because he seemed to hold himself distant from them. For all I know, he may have been an Orangeman, that is, a Protestant.
We didn’t expect McGinn to drive out to Lexington to pick us up and since he lived only one block from our route, none of us was troubled by him getting free rides. Thus, regardless of who was driving, every workday morning in the bitter black cold was the same when we got to Arlington.
To the minute, we arrived in front of the McGinn house at the scheduled time. The front light would come on and already bundled McGinn would appear with just his thin nose and breath showing. There were no cheery good mornings. It was too early, too black and too cold for that. As McGinn silently settled in the car, at his neighbor’s house a light came on and an unseen hand opened the front door just enough to let out a huge Great Dane.
The dog, as a true New Englander doing everything the same way at the same time, walked directly to the street, stepped off the curb in front of us, then turned 45-degrees and walked away while crossing the street. Since we could not proceed immediately, the five of us sat without saying anything while staring at the slim-hipped Great Dane’s huge testicles that were illuminated by the car’s headlights. When the dog disappeared in the darkness, ascetic McGinn always broke the silence by plaintively saying with a tremendous sigh, “I wish I had those.”
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo