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Column: Everyone has their share of car stories from days gone by

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Dec. 2, 2006

WORTHINGTON — Lately one of these columns recalled the slightly arched, 30-foot high railroad viaduct or railroad bridge that spanned the Chicago & North Western tracks south of Worthington. Cars rolled over that bridge to get to the Southwest Tuberculosis Sanatorium. This brought to mind a family story.

It was probably 1928. My mother still was a new bride and a new driver. She was out for a spin with my Aunt Erna, her younger sister, who was not yet married. They had my Dad’s shiny black Chevy coupe.

The sisters were nearly at the crest of the old viaduct’s arch when the engine killed. The Chevy began to roll backward. My mother kept cool; she pulled on the emergency brake. That stopped the backward roll but when she started the engine and tried to proceed, the wheels wouldn’t turn. The brake plus the slight incline held the car motionless.

What to do? If the emergency brake were released, the Chevy would begin rolling backward once again.

Aunt Erna spotted two stones, or two small rocks, at the edge of the roadway, at the base of the railing. She wedged the stones behind the back wheels. Wow! It worked! The stones held the wheels in place when the brake was released and the accelerator pulled the car ahead and over the hump. The joy riders were on their way with thanksgiving in their hearts. I think my mother said she never drove over that viaduct again.

Usually it was Dad who told car stories — well, my dad operated that Phillips station at the corner of Oxford and Humiston for three decades. He would tell at supper, “A guy pulled up with one of those new Kaisers this morning,” or, “There was a guy in today with one of those old DeSotos with the pop-up headlights.”

He would tell (late 1950s) about the twice-a-year visits by Alex Semrau of Ortonville who said he was “between 40 and 110” and who drove a 1908 Buick to Texas each fall and then back to Minnesota each spring. Thirty miles an hour, 24 miles to a gallon. “Thirty miles to a gallon in the mountains.” He always made my Dad’s station one of his stops “because he knows just what a Buick needs — a little water, a little air, a little gas.”

Leonard Thrall, who lived half a block from us, kept bees and sold honey. Conversation at Thralls’ supper table was often bees and honey. Conversation at our table was often cars. I supposed because my dad had the filling station we talked about cars just as the beekeeper talked of honey. Later I learned this isn’t the case. Many people talk cars at their supper tables. Everyone has car stories.

I was driving cars when I was only 13 or 14 years old, not on streets or highways but around the station. I parked cars, drove cars up to the gas pumps, drove cars into the shop for oil changes.

I remember the day, the afternoon, I first got my driver’s license. My Dad said I could take the car. This was the work car, a ‘36 Chevrolet. I had three buddies riding with me. I won’t embarrass them by mentioning names.

I started north on Highway 59 and we came to the place where the highway crosses Okabena Creek. This is how far — one mile? It was the farthest I ever had been from Worthington with myself behind the wheel.

I pulled to the side of the road, as planned, and we scrambled to the creek bank. One of the four of us had got a package of cigarettes. Camels. You don’t get more grown-up than this, driving an automobile and smoking a cigarette.

I didn’t get sick. Well, I scarcely smoked. I didn’t like it.

It was the Army that started me on cigarettes. Through one period, I was in charge of our section’s Jeep. I was driving our lieutenant along a street of Pusan, Korea, when a man leaned out a doorway and shot at us with a handgun. One shot. The lieutenant said, “Step on it!” but he needn’t have said it. I was already stepping. I was a pretty good driver by that time.

There is no end of car stories.