Al Batt: Elvis owned a classic Cadillac station wagon

Published 6:35 pm Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


A hood was raised.

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That’s rarely a good thing on a car or a hooded sweatshirt. At a car show it’s fine, but a raised hoodie means cold weather and a raised vehicular hood indicates car trouble.

I stopped to see if the stalled car’s driver needed help on a shivering day. Automobiles give the impression of invincibility, but are fragile. I had little to offer in expertise, but I could look concerned and be sympathetic.

The driver waved me off, saying he’d already called the cavalry via the cellphone. He was appreciative and refrained from telling me to go thread a noodle.

I came across an old address book later. There were many names in it that have been moved to gravestones. Some of them I hadn’t thought of in donkey’s years. Outside a cemetery visit, there are few things that demonstrate the fragility of human life more than an old address book, a calendar covered in writing, or a mature photo album. Carson McCullers wrote, “There’s nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book.”

One man whose name was penned into my ancient address book had owned a full-sized station wagon. Remember those behemoths of the road? A beloved aunt had died and left him some money, much of which he’d used to buy the first new car of his life. The mantle of youth had slipped from his shoulders by that time, so he thought the latest humongous horseless carriage was the right choice for him. Until then, his old cars, with hoods raised, had to tiptoe past junkyards. I believe the model year was 1991 and his was definitely a General Motors product. It’d have been one of the trio of gas-guzzling siblings that included the Chevrolet Caprice, Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, and Buick Roadmaster. It was a woody, a cruise ship on wheels with simulated wood paneling on the outside. The Beach Boys celebrated these peculiar wagons in “Surfin’ Safari.” The Beach Boys warbled about surfing, which was a mysterious diversion for a youngster from the land of corn and beans. They sang, “Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out, some honeys will be coming along. We’re loading up our woody, with our boards inside.”

The first station wagon was built in 1923 by Star, a division of Durant Motors. Station wagons have been replaced with sports utility vehicle (SUVs) and minivans. The station wagon was a major hauler of families for much of the 20th century. Wagons went grocery shopping, picked up travelers at train and bus stations, ferried children to sporting events, and served as sleeping quarters for the penniless surfers The Beach Boys sang about.

Back to the remembrances of the man in my ancient address book. It wasn’t a stone tablet, but it was from that era. Some considered him to be shut-mouthed and it took a gallbladder operation to get anything out of him, but I found him nearly loquacious. He’d say things like this to me, “You’re doing great. If you find a dollar bill, it’s mine. I’ve lost a bunch of them.” I never knew what I was doing great at and I never found one of his $1, but he cheered me. I recall his station wagon as a motorized dumpster. He had a winter survival kit bouncing around in the wayback (the rear compartment of a station wagon). Things included in that kit included: Flashlight, dead batteries, blanket, petrified snacks, water, gloves, boots, first-aid kit, jumper cables, coat, stocking cap, a 1/4-mile long scarf (if he’d had a mother like mine), pillow, snow shovel (a heavy, retired grain scoop), windshield scraper, traction mats, tool kit, candles, matches, spiral notebooks, pens and pencils featuring advertisements, travel mug, extra spare tire and lug nuts, duct tape, a Bob Marley tape, and if winter became too serious, a map to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. These days, the winter survival kit has been reduced to one thing — a cellphone.

The wagon was natural habitat for fast food wrappers, newspapers, sales flyers, a shoe he’d found on a gravel road, receipts, sticky notes, and letters. The interior of the wagon resembled a well-dunked doughnut. It was stuffed. When he said, “Get in,” I asked where.

I understand a fully utilized vehicle. My car is often my office, clothes closet and library.

Only one thing demonstrates the rapid passage of time as effectively as an old address book.

A mirror.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.