Column: Dad's Final Drive Home

Special to the Gazette

It's what we did back in the 1940s — take long Sunday afternoon drives. After we had partaken of a hearty Sunday dinner and Mom had washed the dishes, our large family piled into Dad's small '38 Chevy and we headed off toward a destination unknown to all of us but Dad. And if he were "playing it by ear", even he might not have known where the road was going to lead us.

In those days before television our choices of entertainment were limited. Sure, we had a radio, and during the work week we gathered around the radio set in the evening and listened to "Our Miss Brooks" "The Jack Benny Show" and "My Little Margie"

Sunday, however, was when we wanted to get out and leave the house behind for a few hours.

I imagine that our exploits were pretty dull by today's standards, but we managed to find entertaining things to do, like watching the passenger ferry arrive at Old Point Comfort, or watching and hearing the steam locomotive depart in the C & O terminal in Newport News. Train spotting was high on the list of things to do. Dad's Uncle Eddie had been a railway man. He was Dad's idol when Dad was a boy and he had wanted to follow in his uncle's footsteps and grow up to be an engineer. That never happened, but Dad never lost his love for trains and rail travel. When he was a young man he had traveled by rail west to Ohio and back on several occasions. The sound of a train whistle was a siren song — it seldom failed to sing of adventure and travel to places exotic and unknown.

Although we sometimes went to the train depot, often Dad simply drove us out into Warwick County, along the former Rt 168 which paralleled the C&O line westward. At one point, the tracks ran along a bank high above Skiffe's Creek. Another spot, they bordered a wide glen that was filled with wild strawberries in the month of May. We were well acquainted with the little train stations along the way — Lee Hall, Harpersville, Oyster Point although no longer in use, they were relics of the past. Even when we drove up Rt 60 to Aunt Sally's house the train tracks weren't far away. Dad seemed to know the train schedules by heart. Whenever we heard the whistle of a distant locomotive approaching he would say, "That is the three-twenty for Richmond." Consult his silver-toned pocket watch, "Yup, right on time."

On Harperville Road there was an old country store, and out back, behind the store the owner had two bears in cages. I'm not sure why. He had a fox there and other wild animals, too. This was a practice that would not be allowed by animal protection activists nowadays.

i, personally, never saw the bears with my own eyes — I was afraid of the bears, cage or no cage. Instead, I remained in our car while Dad and my brothers walked around to the rear of the building to view the furry curiosities.

I suppose that the store owner kept the mini-zoo for publicity to draw in additional customers. I doubt that the ploy worked, however. Although Dad frequented the old market, I don't remember his ever purchasing a single item there.

Dad in his '38 Chevy, took us far east as Grand View overlooking the Atlantic, and as far northwest as Williamsburg.

We didn't always travel to see specific sites. The old saying, "Half the fun is getting there," certainly held true for our Sunday afternoon excursions.

Sometimes Dad in his '38 Chevy took us along Chesapeake Avenue (we called it "the Boulevard") along the waterfront toward Newport News, where the road eventually became Sixteenth Street, and over the small bridge that crossed over the entrance to Peterson's Yacht Basin. We passed, what was for me, a significant landmark, the Buxton Hospital, the place where I was born.

Or Dad might decide to drive in the opposite direction toward Big Bethel Road which was, for me, far out in the country. It was an area that was wide open with farms dotting the landscape. Occasionally we rode along what is now Mercury Blvd. Back then it was the Military Highway bordered on either side by swamp land and pinewood forest.

Farther out still, we drove along Highway 168 (now Rt. 143) heading in the direction of Williamsburg. I was enchanted by the herds of deer that roamed at will on the other side of the tall chain-link fence that outlined the limit of the Naval Weapons Station. How free and unperturbed by the passing traffic those deer were as they grazed beyond the chain-link pale. Perhaps not as lovely as the deer, but certainly more majestic were the enormous lion statues of Lions Bridge at Mariner's Museum Park.

Here in the 21st century of multi-car families it is perhaps difficult to realize that in the 1940s many families didn't own automobiles. In this, we were fortunate. Dad had owned a car since he was a young man. And he never lost that sense of pride of ownership. His Chevy was black, shinny, and sleek too, by the standards of the day. Sunday afternoons were when he drove it. Saturdays he spent washing it, waxing and polishing it to a gleaming finish. And, after all, what is the use of having this fine vessel of transport if you couldn't be proud of it? Yes, a fine vessel, and Dad was the captain of his ship. On a weekly basis he steered it through channels of roadways on the Peninsula.

Usually, Mom donned her Sunday best and we wound up at a public setting where a lady needed to be properly decked out. From time to time, Mom opted out for peace and quiet from us youngsters and stayed home.

Dad was a firm believer in the saying, "Children are to be seen and not heard." He was the captain of the ship, all right, and the disciplinarian, travel guide, and instructor. He seemed to know just about everything about everything we passed. He talked. We listened. Although I imagine that his views of the situation was different from ours. Four young energetic boys in the car probably kept up an ongoing flurry of activity.

In the summer months with the car windows rolled down, we dangled our arms outside to feel the onrushing air as we cruised the countryside. In winter, with windows up, we pressed our noses against the glass panes, our breath leaving a perpetual fog on the glass. And also left behind were our tell-tale fingerprints on Dad's freshly cleaned sedan. But our antics didn't seem to concern Dad — he had the patience of Job. We could be noisy — raucous even — so long as our noise was void of rancor. Dad held to the old cliche "boys will be boys."

Dad also adhered to Proverbs 13:24, "He that spareth the rod hateh his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." In the spirit of transparency, however, I must admit that as the baby of the family I lucked out. My dad never laid a hand on me, although the stories of the use of his razor strop were legion. It should be said, I tended to walk the chalk line.

I feared Dad, but more than that, I respected him. That respect for my dad has grown with each passing year.

Dad passed away on the afternoon of August 31, 1956. He suffered a fatal heart attack on the way home from work at age 62.

His funeral was held on Labor Day. His sudden death was an absolute shock. I couldn't believe he was gone.

Gone ... Dad gone. Gone also those weekly Sunday afternoon drives. Those special times for us youngsters, and for Dad too. He could drive away from the work-a-day world, the responsibilities of his job and the household demands. Sunday drives when he could nestle behind the steering wheel and take off to who knew where? — Prometheus unbound!

I remember sitting on a trundle seat in the back of the stretch limousine that carried us to the cemetery where Dad would be laid to rest. The hearst which held Dad's coffin led the way. Numb, I stared blankly out the car's side window as we drove past familiar sights Dad and we youngsters had seen on so many Sunday afternoons before. The same world out there to which Dad had shown us week after week. But now it was all so different, so strange and surreal. The fields, the farmhouses, the small patches of forest land, there still but unfeeling. Even the scattered herd of deer might have raised up their heads from grazing and given us an apathetic glance, unaware of the precious cargo that we were transporting for the last time to Peninsula Memorial Park.

Whipple, a Williamsburg writer, has published several books.

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