|Morris Oxford Farina via Wikipedia|
Biomythology Note 38
Driving the Morris Oxford
I was five years old, hot, and enjoying a cool breeze that circulated above me in the car. My mother pulled into the Esso gas station on the north side of Greenbelt Road. The avenue ran east to west, so it was an easy turn off on her right. She wasn't in her usual Ford Fairlane; she was driving my father's car, a Morris Oxford.
There were attendants in each Esso service lane. One of them jogged over to meet her as she got out of the car. The young, curly-haired fellow wore a blue-gray jumper, his station uniform. It zipped up the middle like an astronaut suit. There was a dark, oval patch on the left side of his chest, which read 'Earl.'
“What can I do for you folks?” he asked. He smiled at my mother and spared a glance for me in the car.
“Fill her up,” my mother replied automatically.
I had started out in the back seat but I unstrapped myself as soon as the car stopped. While the grown-ups talked, I climbed between the bucket seats and tumbled into the driver side.
“Can I play?” I asked through the crack of the window before my mother could leave. By that I meant, could I rock the steering wheel back and forth and pretend to drive? It's what I always did when she left. Previously, we had a long talk about not honking the horn in parking lots because it wasn't polite. I'd shown her I understood by exercising a couple weeks of tortuously difficult self-restraint, so she'd told me I was permitted to play again.
“Sure,” she said. She turned from me to remind the attendant to check the windshield wiper fluid because it was low. She asked him about redeeming her green stamps.
After a minute, she left to do adult things, maybe with the stamps, although I never quite understood what she did. I remained standing on the seat as I played with the steering wheel. I twisted it left and right. After a while, I grabbed the stick shift and moved it around until I pulled the car out of gear. Then the stick fell loose into neutral and I could pretend better. I could steer, then shift, then steer.
My mother seemed to be gone longer than usual. The attendant finished whatever he was doing and he left me alone to attend to other cars. I bounced up and down in the seat. I sat and pretended to be a jet pilot. When I did, I couldn’t see out the window, so I gave up on the idea and stood. In a few seconds, I was bouncing on my toes.
I turned to the parking brake and tried to push it up and down. For a while, nothing happened. Then I remembered to press the button at the front of the brake lever the way my parents did. I pressed hard, and suddenly the parking brake went all the way down.
I discovered, as I jumped up and down on the seat with all my might and rocked the wheel back and forth, that now I could make the car move. The Morris Oxford started rolling. As it rolled, I bounced up and down harder and harder, more and more excited to actually be driving.
For the first few feet, the going was slow. The wheel became hard to turn because I was actually trying to turn it for real. The gas station was on a slight incline, fortunately, and I was facing the correct way. After a few seconds, the Morris Oxford really started to move.
Around that time, I heard a yelp. It came from the attendant.
"Hey!" he sounded distant because the windows, except for the crack on the driver's side, were rolled all the way up.
I barely glanced in his direction. I wanted to face front because I was finally going somewhere.
“Hey! Stop!" Suddenly, Earl appeared by my side. He spoke to me through the gap in the driver side window. "Kid, stop!”
He was a grown-up. I knew I had to listen. And the driving was starting to feel a little too fast.
“How?” I asked.
“Press on the brakes! You know the brake? Press the brakes.”
Of course I knew where the brakes were. I was five, not three. But I was standing on the seat. I sat down and immediately I couldn’t see anything out the window, which I didn't like. To show the attendant, I pushed my foot toward the brakes. I grunted theatrically. I flexed my feet. My toes didn't even come close.
“I can’t reach the pedal!” I explained. He didn't seem to get it.
“How ...” Young Earl looked totally befuddled. “Can you ... jeez kid ... steer! Steer!”
Apparently we were going to hit something. I hopped up to my feet, so I could see.
“Turn left! Turn left!”
I didn't understand what we were going to hit, maybe another car, maybe a bike or the big, gray trash can, but I knew which way left was. I pulled hard on the steering wheel. It spun a little easier than it had a few seconds before, which meant by using all my weight I was able to budge it a few inches.
"Yeah!" He sounded relieved for a moment. But then apparently he realized we were headed for more trouble.
“Unroll the window! Unroll it! Unroll it!” He repeated himself for a long time, looping around to the same request again and again, or so it seemed to me. He really wanted the window down.
That was something I knew how to do. I hopped down and tried to swing the crank. This time, I was grunting for real. I got partway. The crank stuck.
"Almost!" The attendant tried to be encouraging. "Keep going! Unroll it! Keep going!"
Above me, I could hear the attendant's footfalls pick up speed. He was starting to jog. I wanted to climb up onto the seat and see what I was missing. I must have hesitated, then, because his voice picked up speed, too.
"Unroll it! Kid! Please!"
I backed the window up a half-inch, which caused Earl to groan in frustration. He sounded almost cross. But I knew what I was doing. I had seen my parents use this trick. When the driver side window crank got stuck, they backed up counter-clockwise for a turn and then started another clockwise run at rolling the window down.
"Yes!" The attendant's feet skipped a step as he shouted. This time, I got through the tough part. Above me, a hand shot through the top part of the window and started to take control of the wheel.
"Hey!" I protested. He was getting grabby with my toys. I started to clamber back up.
When I tried to brush his hand aside, the attendant didn't let go. After a second, the car changed direction sharply enough to knock me over, so that I sat down hard between the seat and the door handle.
"Hold on, kid." He sounded calmer for a second. "Uh oh."
"Oh, come on!" He shoved the wheel hard to the other side. My body flopped across the front seat. "Damn, I mean shoot. You didn't hear me say that, kid."
"Shoot?" For a moment, I was able to stand up. The view looked different. The windshield faced the sun. While I was working on the window crank, we had rolled past the garage and turned around to face upslope. The car was drifting in a half-circle and slowing down. But another car was turning toward us.
"For Pete's sake!" yelled Earl. He turned the wheel pretty hard. It knocked me down to the spot between the seat and the door handle again. It made me mad. This guy kept playing with the car and there seemed to be a lot happening. I wasn't going to let it happen without me.
"I want to steer!" I wailed. I shot back up under his arm.
"I want to steer!" I planted both feet and grabbed the wheel.
"We need brakes kid."
I looked at him. His curly hair flopped over his eyebrows. His stubbly jaw needed a shave. His blue eyes bore into me with a look of calm but definite intent.
"We're going to have to go downhill," he said. "You've got to get down there and hit the brakes, kid."
I didn't know what he meant but I understood he was an adult and my mother would have told me to listen. Reluctantly, I got down to the floor. It happened more suddenly than I wanted because I slipped. When I righted myself, though, I hit the brakes.
"Good. Uh, shoot."
I felt the car turn.
"Hit the brakes harder. Both feet!"
For a second or two, I was able to do it. But my feet slipped. My body, fully extended, was inadequate to hold the pedal while keeping the same position. The problem was the way the car lurched and drifted.
"I want to get up," I announced.
"Unroll the window more." Earl sounded very, very sure of himself. "Then I can pull the parking brake."
"But I want to steer." His voice sounded urgent so I unrolled and complained at the same time.
"Sure, sure," Earl replied absent-mindedly.
At the sound of his agreement, I popped up into the driver's seat. I put my hand on the underside of the steering wheel, ready to take over. At the same time, Earl reached across me.
"Sorry, kid." His arm trapped me in the seat for a moment. He pulled on the emergency brake. The car rocked back and forth.
"Uh, yeah." He turned his head away from me as he let out a soft chuckle. "Okay, it's your turn, kid. You're steering."
Slowly, I rose to my feet. I noticed that Earl hadn't let go of the steering wheel.
"Can I help a little, kid?" he asked me with his most charming smile.
"Just a little." He never let go of his grip.
"Okay." While I was on my tiptoes, I gazed around. I didn't see the gas station anywhere. "Where are we?"
It looked like we were on the highway. Sure enough, this was Greenbelt Road. I recognized it. For a few seconds, I stared. The car had stopped on the shoulder, next to a twenty foot drop down a grassy embankment.
"Don't get out," he told me. "Wait for your mother."
His words gave me the cue to turn myself around almost all the way. I wasn't about to take my hand from the steering wheel but I wanted to see my mother. There she was. It took me a moment to recognize her. She was forty or fifty feet behind us as she marched down the shoulder of the highway.
That's where the story ends but it isn't quite where my memories end. I remember the attendant and my mother politely but firmly arguing about the emergency brake. The attendant carefully mentioned that she must not have left the car in gear or engaged the brake. My mother said, maybe the car wasn't in gear, that could happen, but she always set the brake. Always. As I remember it, she always did.
I kept trying to find a way to tell them about the brake but they never seemed to want to hear me. After a few minutes, I gave up.
Here's a note about power-assisted brakes and steering: someone has since told me the car might not have had them. I haven't been able to find information on whether the Morris Oxford (specifically the Farina model) came with manual brakes or manual steering. In any case, if my father's car was manual for either - if power-assist was an option he'd declined to pay for - it might explain why I had so much trouble.
Being five years old would have something to do with it, too, yes.