Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Auto-Biography: A 1951 Packard, an Accident, and Undoubtedly Grace!

Hi folks -- I encourage my followers to send in their "Auto-Biographies," and here is a good one. Dr. Ed Garten has taught auto history with me from time to time, and in this post he recounts one of the most memorable events in his life. You can contact him at eddiegarten@gmail.com.

Life or Death Is Only a Few Inches Away

In August 1956, yours truly was just 9 years. Months earlier my mother and sister and I had been abandoned by our father who had left and taken up with what my mother always referred to that "brazen hussy."

My father’s father, my grandfather, owned a number of enterprises in our little town of Hinton, West Virginia, including Garten Motors Ford/Mercury. While bad feelings persisted all the way around at the time, grandfather on occasion tried to do a good turn toward my mother.

About six month after father ran off with his under twenty aged young lady, grandfather, apparently feeling sorry for my mother’s "situation" loaned her a car from the side lot of the dealership. Now understand, side lot of used cars held, in the front row, good conditioned Fords or Mercurys, typically trade-ins that were only a few years old. The second row of used cars typically was comprised of General Motors and Chrysler product trade-ins, generally still decent cars. That third row of used vehicles, however, always contained a motley assortment of "independent" vehicles like Studebakers, Hudsons, Kaisers, and the occasional Packard. Typically, these "back row" cars were real dogs and had prices on their windshields which might read -- $200 REDUCED or $100 -- AS IS.

In late summer 1955, Grandfather Garten "loaned" mother a 1951 Packard off the back lot and said "keep it as long as it runs." I guess he was trying to be nice to his soon-to-be ex-daughter-in-law. Then in late August 1955 (nearly 53 years ago) mother put my sister Paula in the back seat and me, riding shotgun, climbed in the passenger seat. We were off to the annual West Virginia State Fair, approximately 35 miles from our home. That Packard (like the one pictured) with the famed Ultramatic tranny (Historical note: Packard's Ultramatic transmission was the creation of the company's chief engineer Forest McFarland and his engineering team. The magnitude of the accomplishment is illustrated by the fact that it was the only automatic transmission produced solely by an independent automaker with no outside help). Sorry, but I digress…….

About six miles from the State Fair entrance was a very long, winding, and steep hill leading into Ronceverte, West Virginia, only three miles from the state fairgrounds.

Mother and two children headed down that steep hill (seriously, you have to understand West Virginia folks), about a mile before town. As he topped the hill, and a few thousand yards later, mother screamed: "No brakes, no brakes. There’s no brakes!!!!!."

"Pump the brake, mother," I yelled. Push your foot up and down fast!!!"

Mother pumped and pumped the brake rapidly, her eyes wild with fear. "Pull the emergency brake" I yelled to her. (Of course, how I knew to say this at 9 years old is still curious). She did, but to no avail.

We were gaining speed and I recall yelling "keep pumping the brake." I can still hear the "thud" of the brake petal hitting the floor (recall that many early 50s cars still had brake and clutch petals that went directly into the floor, not suspended like would be the case only a few years later.)

As we neared town I had no way of knowing how fast we might be going. Hey, I was only a scared kid. But I could see a telephone pole coming toward us on the right hand side of the car. (I still 53 years later have the occasional bad dream about this). Within a nano-second (like we’d say today) we crashed nearly head-on into that pole. No seat belts, no padded dash.

My sister, in the back seat, had apparently dived down and was protected in the crash by the back of the front seat. As for me, my head hit the dash and, according to what the police and hospital staff told my mother later, my head missed hitting the protruding radio control knob by two inches. Indeed, we were later told that the dash had been indented where my head hit. See the attached photo of the interior of a car identical to the Packard my mother drove.

I woke up later in the local hospital having been unconscious for a time.

What can one make of this event 54 years ago? A few inches to the left and I’d likely have been a dead child, mourned by my mother and eventually forgotten in time. But I lived. What do I owe to two inches? What do I owe to a gracious God who saw a larger purpose for me?

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