Category Archives: Brother
Driving a Car
In today’s western culture, most people can’t even imagine not having a car, or at the least, most had a driver’s license, just in case. But for my family, in the fifties, such a luxury was unthinkable. We took the public bus everywhere we could, including school, since my brother and I both attended special programs outside our “districts.” School busses were unknown to our community at the time.
When my brother went to high school, he was offered the opportunity to take “driver’s education” as one of his regular classes. This paved the way for our family to have a driver at last (around 1962), for good or for ill. Somehow, my mother, not long widowed, bought a a 1951 Chevy for $50.00. It threw a rod within a year and then we got a 1954 Chevy which my mother decided she would learn to drive. Considering her size, about 4’11,’ she basically looked through the steering wheel.
It took about three years for my mother to successfully pass her driving tests. In the Latvian community, she became the driver for many of the older ladies. My brother and I felt anyone who was in the car with her was basically putting their lives at risk. Amazingly enough, she had few accidents. The one time she ran over a median, she wrote a letter to the editor about the poor placement of the median and cc’d the Mayor. The city paid for her damages.
My brother managed to have enough car accidents for all of us. I wouldn’t say he was reckless, but he was impetuous. His worst accident caused several broken bones including his jaw. He lost a lot of weight that year since they set it incorrectly and he had to have it re-broken and wired shut a second time. To this day, he drinks very few shakes or smoothies.
I was younger than most of my classmates and thereby, did not take driver’s ed. until my senior year in high school. This was the give-away to my age and many taunted me for only being sixteen. Nonetheless, I was anxious to get out from the passenger side of my mother’s car.
Mr. Dill was my driver’s instructor and he found my name completely unprounounceable. Generally, he avoided saying my name altogether, but one time, while I was driving and two sophomores were in the back seat waiting for their turns at the wheel, a squirrel ran across the road in front of me. Naturally, I braked. Mr. Dill went apoplectic, stretched his foot over to my side to gun the car and said, “Step on the gas, Imengurdie, step on the gas.” The next week was unbearable with a new nickname to mock me and a close call with squirrel murder.
After my father died when I was nine, I assume my brother was my official caregiver. I call it an assumption since I don’t remember much of that first year without Papa. I still went to school and I had my own key to get into the house, but then my brother would come home from school eventually, and we would watch late afternoon television on our black and white Philco. (My mother kept that Philco until she was forced to leave her house by illness at age 89. You do the math.)
I remember the school days much better than I remember that first summer. I have no idea what I did all day. Did my brother work that summer? He was fifteen that June. I don’t remember. And unfortunately, my brother doesn’t seem to remember either.
The only thing that is crystal clear in my mind was our walking trips downtown.
My mother worked at an asphalt plant called Hetherington & Berner. She would take two buses to get there each morning and two buses at night and lucky for her, the return bus stopped right by our house on Park Avenue. In the summers, many of the employees would carpool downtown, about a 10 minute ride in order to do some shopping at the department stores. Back in those years, downtown shopping was still the norm.
Here was the routine, every couple of weeks (perhaps on her payday, I’m not sure), Mama would call us at home and tell us to meet her under the L.S. Ayres department store clock on the corner of Washington and Meridian Streets right at Noon. My brother and I would walk the distance, one and a half miles. My brother insisted that we could walk it in 30 minutes or less and although that may be a reasonable time for a teenager, it was a lot of double timing for my short legs.
But all the same, I was determined to keep up. I was determined to be like my brother. Unfortunately, about halfway there, my determination would flag and I would whine and cry and stomp for him walking strides ahead of me. I think this became a symbol for me, this constant effort to keep up with my brother, but all the same, a little behind.Under the clock, we would meet and hustle ourselves up to the 8th floor Tea Room. What a wonderful treat to dine in such luxury. And no matter how much I would eat, there always had to be enough room for Strawberry Pie. Or, on other days, we’d go downstairs to the Colonial Room and eat in the cafeteria.
I don’t really know how much time she had for lunch, but more than likely, it was an hour. And so our time in the tea room would be over before we knew it and my mother would need to meet her ride downstairs. And yet, despite the rush, we would stop on the way out at the candy counter and mother would buy us a couple of two-inch square blocks of milk chocolate to eat when we got home.
The walk home is not as vivid as the walk there. Or maybe we rode the bus, who knows? But to this day, pure milk chocolate and fresh strawberry pie are still my favorites. They are the emblems of the good life, the sweeter memories, the part that made the walk downtown worth it all.
My brother always made fun of me because it took me a lot longer to learn or do something than him. In particular, it took me forever to learn how to ride a bike. The whole process was incredibly daunting and the potential for harm seemed impending. And in truth, I did have some accidents.
Part of the problem was my learning field: the street. I was very aware that everyone in the neighborhood watched my slow progress, my fears, and my pathetic attempts to balance my body. Of course, I did learn and basically, my brother tricked me, as he ran behind me as though he was holding on when in reality I was riding alone. It worked.
But I would never say I was a comfortable bicyclist. Since my first bike was a little big for me, I hated stopping and experiencing that strong lean to the left or right to put my foot down. I tried to find a curb, but of course, that wasn’t always possible. So, the best thing was to keep going whenever possible.
The best part of learning how to ride a bike was the freedom it gave me to go places. Without a family car, both my brother and I were house-bound except for distances we could walk or the “kindness of strangers” to give us rides.
The most frequent trip I made was to visit my friend Gunta (and my brother, to visit her older brother, Karl). Her family and several other Latvian families had moved into this area, about a mile and half north of us. The homes were small but affordable at the time plus they were closer to the original Latvian Center (an old house on Central Avenue). It was all part of building community.
Unfortunately, this area was also in transition to poverty and began experiencing “white flight” in the fifties and early sixties (from both the blacks as well as the “foreigners.” The Latvians buckled down to stay, but the neighborhood changed all the same. Where our own neighborhood remained stubbornly “redneck” closer to downtown, this neighborhood became known as a black enclave.
For me and my brother, the last five blocks might include taunts, rock throwing, and chases. We were seen as interlopers and trespassers. One of the worst incidents happened when someone threw a bike fender into my brother’s front wheel and he went flying forward off the bike. He could have been killed. But still, we never told. We could not afford to lose our independence which trumped fear.