Historical Figures® News: June 2013

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Song of the Open Road

If it were never again necessary for me to operate a motor vehicle, it would be too soon. Unlike the average American male, my masculinity is not dependent on sitting behind the wheel of an automobile.

Perhaps this is an odd observation for a child born to parents who were both lifelong car owners and devotees of vehicular freedom. My father, at the time he married my mother, was immersed in flying. Airplanes that came out of World War I were the latest toys for young thrill seekers. And like many others, he was also heavily into motor racing (those gigantic vehicles of the late ‘teens), and he also went about on motorcycles. I still recall my first ride with him on one of those monsters.

I also recall the spacious elegance of those pre-Depression motor carriages with plush seat coverings, polished nickel plating, window straps, and all. While my father’s exploits as a ‘pilot’ and race car driver soon vanished after my birth (my mother’s insistence that he remain alive for the good of his family), he never lost his interest in flight. He went on to become an aeronautical engineer with his teenage chum John Northrup. As for my mother, she continued to drive until she was bedridden in old age.

Both my parent encouraged me to drive and both attempted driving lessons; unfortunately, tempers easily flared with my efforts. They gave up and left me content to be driven around. Of course, this led to embarrassing moments as I entered my late teens; nevertheless, I was always able to find peers who had mastered the wheel at an early age There was no problem with double dating, for someone else always had a car.

The whole business of my driving was somewhat delayed. Living in New York City and Washington, D.C. did not depend on owning a vehicle. There were never any garages around and besides, there was no place to park. Of course, I had begun driving and had my own vehicle by the time I went away to college, but I was never wedded to any car and only had to keep one when I finally settled down in California. 

I have driven ever since, and I am to this moment a good driver. I am also convinced that the Department of Motor Vehicles and car insurance companies have given me all manner of little discounts for not running over people or crashing myself repeatedly. I believe I also receive a discount for being very, very old and not being a menace on the highways!
Driving companions.
My antipathy toward driving resulted from my so-called career choice. In 1959, I embarked upon a career as a monologist. A public speaker necessarily has to do some traveling. Along with all the stage equipment and four or five boxes of Historical Figures, I traveled from one side of the country to the other several times. Eventually, most of my gigs were in California, and I found the back roads of this great state fascinating ....perhaps not at the moment I was driving them, but later on.

The peak speaking season for the clubs I worked was late September to late May and, as a result, involved significant winter driving. My sole goal was to get to the next engagement on time and with all the gear intact. I had no time for stopping at national parks or other forms of diversion; I just needed to get to the next town as soon as possible.
Historical Figures traveled first class between gigs.
For several years, I drove a magnificent hearse that was purchased for its “load space.” It required special snow chains for the big wheels and always a protected garage at the destination. I’ll never forget the horrors of those winter drives. Gas shortages required carrying five extra five-gallon tanks of gas. (Try not to run into anything...think of the explosion...) I once had to cross the Columbia River far above The Dalles, with its great rapids. There was no bridge at that time, so my big car was hauled by cables on a tiny raft across the roaring February floods of that river. I can’t remember when I was so terrified.

Another time in late winter while I was driving from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan, the motor began to falter as I rounded the bottom of Lake Michigan. My fear of being marooned in the winter wilderness kept me in a state of panic until I limped into a Grand Rapids garage late that evening.

On another occasion I did run out of gas between Seattle and Spokane, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. This was a huge dilemma. I feared to leave the Figures and hitch a ride to the nearest town. I tried to stop a truck for some extra gas, only to be reminded that the truck ran on diesel. Naturally, I had no phone to call the Auto Club, but finally I gave in, hitched a ride to the nearest settlement, filled my gas can, and hired someone to drive me back to the hearse.

These types of experiences happened all the time on long winter trips and were nerve wracking. Furthermore, I knew that all that sitting and the greasy meals at the end of the days would turn most men into lard buckets, but in my case, I was down to 178 pounds. Just a few seasons of this routine with worry about wrecks, worry about the Figures, worry about being late...all this and more put me off driving forever.

By the end of my thirty years as an itinerant speaker, I was hiring a driver and a rental van. I had several drivers in those final years, all pretty good men. They doubled as assistants in setting up for the show, so this was a big load off my mind and energies.
 
Larger cast required larger vehicles, drivers.
I always enjoyed the speaking and showing the Figures, but I hated the traveling. As it was, I never saw any of the wonderful sights that our country is so rightfully proud of. It was always eyes on the pavement or what glimpses I could get being driven to the next location. I was probably a backseat driver as well. I’d done so much of it, I knew better. Somehow it never came to blows, and we always got to our destinations in one piece.

Nowadays, I just turn the driving over to whoever is at the wheel. Of course, I do select the drivers with some care. If I never get behind the wheel again, it will be too soon. So far, so good!
                                 - G. S. Stuart