Early American Grafitti
by  Carl Baumann,  BHS '43

If there had been alternatives like "off-road vehicles" in 1941, when I was 15, I might have avoided the trouble I got into. I had taught myself the basics of driving the family car, if only in the driveway, and received further instruction and practice on backwoods roads with my older friend Dick Brown in his 1937 Willys. I was really ready, in my opinion, to drive on my own -- but not according to the laws of either the State of New Jersey or my father.

It would have helped if my father, who didn't know (as did my mother) about my earlier driving experiences, had recognized my burning desire to drive, and took me himself out to the backwoods roads to let me drive the edge off my yearnings. But in answer to my frequent pleadings he would say, "If something happened they could take our home away," and  I suppose he was right about that. But his logic didn't quench my desires, and I soon found myself plotting a way to fulfill them.

There was a spare set of car keys in my parent's desk drawer, and at an opportune time, I sneaked them off to the hardware store to have duplicates made. Upon return of the original keys to the desk drawer, undetected, Phase One of my plan was complete.

Phase Two would require patience, a rare teen-age quality, awaiting a time when my parents would drive to a function somewhere in town and leave their car parked nearby, unattended, for at least an hour.

Phase Three would be the actual "borrowing" of the car while they were not using it, and not likely to become aware that someone else was...

A few long weeks later the ideal occasion finally arrived. My parents would be attending a Friday night Musical at the Methodist Church Hall on Clinton Avenue, and it was just a block away from the soda fountain next to my Bergenfield High School where I'd be hanging out with basketball teammates and the cheerleaders we schmoozed with.

Johnny Blaine was the star of our team, and also the best looking. Ruth Enright was the prettiest of the cheerleaders, and she was his girl. I was about the fifth-best player on the team (out of five) and with looks to match, but I somehow managed to be paired up with the next best-looking cheerleader, "Debbie Doe." She was not only very pretty, she was also very nice. She had nice parents too, which is probably why she was nice...

Anyway, when I sensed that Act One of the Methodist Musical was underway, I proposed to Johnny, Ruth & "Debbie" that we all go for a ride in MY car. Since this was an unexpected and exciting opportunity coming from a fellow 15-year-old, all said an instant "YES!" and off we trotted to where the car was parked, right in front of the church hall. 

I unlocked the car and we got in as silently as possible, trying not to slam the doors in closing. The engine started right up, with its own peculiar 1937 Nash-LaFayette sound, quite unlike that of the ubiquitious Fords, Chevvies and Plymouths in our middle-class town.

The first leg of our joyride took us past the soda fountain hangout, and thence down well-lighted Washington Avenue to honk and wave at friends along the way. It was a grand feeling, tooling along behind the wheel of the family sedan in the company of the classiest peer group in school... Then off we went to a relatively untravelled road at the edge of town for a "speed run" (of a modest 50 mph or so), and then to a dark side street for a few minutes of smooching... It was the "thing to do" then -- and all so innocent compared to nowadays, it seems to me...

Then my internal clock signaled that it was time to get back before the final curtain of the musical -- or it would be "curtains" for me, too...

About a block short of the parking space a siren sounded, and then flashing red lights appeared in the rear-view mirror. As I nosed into the parking space the headlights illuminated a man standing there -- my father!.. The police car pulled up alongside, blocking escape. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!.. The passenger-side doors flew open and three teen-agers flew to the winds. I sat trapped behind the wheel, petrified, as the officer shone his flashlight in my face. The jig was quite up...

I got out of the car, as ordered, and my father was absolutely stunned to see that it was me, his beloved and only son, who had stolen his car.  (My mother wasn't at all surprised, I later learned. She assumed it was me all along.)... My father and the policeman conferred. It was decided that my father would handle this and me, but not until the officer had convincingly warned me that if this ever happened again it would be straight to jail for me... Then off he went, in answer to another call on his radio.

My mother was still in the church hall, the musical just ending. My father had earlier heard, over the sounds of music, the distinctive sound of a 1937 Nash-LaFayette starting up, and he excused himself to investigate.
Upon seeing the empty space where his car had been parked, he rushed back in to call the police, who conveniently arrived on the scene just as we were returning with the stolen goods.

My father, still in shock, just said "Give me those keys and get in the car -- in the back!" He retrieved my mom from the church hall and we all drove home in total silence. At home, he said only, "Get to bed."

It was a near sleepless night. What punishment were those muffled voices downstairs planning for my major mis-deed? All sorts of awful possibilities ran back and forth through my troubled teen-aged brain... At long last morning arrived... I got up, got dressed and sat on the bed, afraid to leave my room, wondering what was to happen next.

Then my father entered my room and calmy said, "Carl, I think its time we had a little talk." He said next to nothing about my mis-deed, but proceded to tell me "the facts of life." At my age of 15 it seemed a tad late, but I listened politely, still anxious about what ax would next fall.

He then extended his hand to me, and in it were my illicit car keys..."Here," he said. "Hang these up over your bedroom door, and when you've reached the legal driving age of 17 you can take them down again."

So that was to be my punishment. Two years of unrelieved yearning!.. As I arose from bed to begin each day the first thing in sight would be those car keys, a daily reminder of what I couldn't have for two more years. They represented an imprisonment, of sorts, of my heart's desire.

I think my father's handling of me was most enlightened. He entrusted me with a great temptation to test my character -- and it worked, at least in regard to his car... The keys stayed where I hung them, untouched, for the two long years until I could legally apply for my learner's permit. (I didn't really need one, but that's beside the point!)

Forty years later I gave myself a similar test when I decided to quit smoking. I kept a full pack of my favorite Camel cigarettes in my desk drawer for two years, until I finally felt I'd licked the temptation. Then I gave them to the next unreconstructed smoker who happened by, poor soul..

Carl Baumann -- 1993
BHS -- 1943



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