Highways to the future

Published 11:27 am Saturday, June 1, 2013

by James D. Howell

I’ve hitch-hiked to town and back; it is neither discouraged nor encouraged by my parents.

People are generous about sharing their vehicles with others. Not everyone has a vehicle and a shared ride to town, for me, is a normal part of life on the farm. My father shares his vehicle with others also. Many sailors from the huge military complex at Norfolk have found their journey partly provided by my father, either going toward or away from Franklin. Our community is generous.

Hazards of giving strangers a ride have not yet entered the conscious level of motorists on our local highways. Trust seems to be a natural part of community attitude.

Cars are not yet plentiful, and my siblings and I play the game of “Name That Car” frequently to while away the hours on the farm. It’s a matter of personal pride when we can identify a car or truck at a great distance, and have the identity confirmed as it passes our house. We venture into the “Name the Year” game when we become too good at individual car brands.

The machines of war have been altered to produce a dazzling array of automobiles to satisfy the restless hunger of post war American society. Our truck has served our needs quite well for a long time. Rumor has it that we , too, may get a car after the crops are in this year, if the peanut yield holds up. It’s been a good year so far, with plentiful rain at the proper time. So I, along with my siblings dream the dream of what car is in our future. For the time being, we play the “What kind of car is that?” game.

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler dominate the widely spaced, never ending, car stream that flows by our house. It seems each individual car brand has a good, better, or best level, with commensurate price. We acknowledge each, with a little more enthusiasm for the higher quantity of chrome on the more expensive; extra flash is pleasing to our young, eager eyes.

Luxury cars are admired in quiet tones, with reverence. Such vehicles are well beyond our reach, but we do not begrudge those folks with the wherewithal to afford one. We are quietly respectful. A Cadillac, Packard, Lincoln, or Chrysler makes our eyes shine; they seem, somehow, to dominate lesser brands. Fords, Chevrolets, Plymouths, and Studebakers draw forth a little more noise from our admiring voices; it seems we are more comfortable in this range and know more folks that have one.

The most challenging to identify are the Kaisers and Frasers. Their longish slab sided body style does not lend itself to identification at a distance. Children’s eyes do not pick up on minor body differences. Stranger too, are the Henry Js and Crosleys, although the radically different body styles are easily identified.

The automobile is the very symbol of post war restlessness. It is the freedom vehicle to strain and finally break the bonds of wartime austerity.

Each passing year, more brands and body styles flash across the end of our path. Aside from the “Big Three” are several brands, carrying dreamers off to a distant idea. Hudsons, Jeeps, Studebakers, and Nashes appear on our road. Older models really seem out of date with the newer sleeker body styles. A cousin has a Terraplane. Apparently it’s a good, reliable vehicle, but it ceased manufacture over ten years ago. His next vehicle will be more powerful, faster, and more comfortable.

Billboards along highways and on the sides of town buildings and country barns heavily advertise the new machines. Their message of bigger, better, faster, is not lost on our youthful eyes. New auto dealerships open up in towns large and small. Family photos, more often than not, contain relatives and friends around, in, and on autos. It’s a source of pride, a symbol of progress. Burma Shave signs, appealing to traveling masses, become ubiquitous, are memorized, and loved. The highway points to the future.

I lie in bed at night and watch the light from auto headlights as it is projected through my bedroom window upon the walls. They move in one direction, pause and move in the other direction as each vehicle rounds the sharp curve close by our house and continues toward Courtland.

I do not yet know the optical laws that provide the show, but I know headlights point the way to my future, somewhere out there, waiting.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com