It’s much safer today

On a ride back from Santa Fe, I chatted with my granddaughter Celina. The conversation began right after some dude whizzed past us. It was clear he hadn’t had an oil change in years — if ever.

We pulled over to let the A.J. Foyt of the Rockies get way ahead of, as we didn’t wish to inhale the noxious fumes his car spewed. That prompted my second-oldest granddaughter to ask, “Was it worse when you were my age?”

Well yes it was, Celina, but we didn’t think of it as worse then; it’s relative. And we wondered what the air we breathe would be like when Celina, now 12, has her own grandkids.

Nowadays, it seems that everyone, not just every family, owns a cell phone. Your car breaks down and you dial (dial?) your cell phone for help. Except for the inconsiderate driver who overloads his pickup and lets newly chopped logs spill out, we don’t see many objects on the road, at least not to the extent we did in the olden days.

Remember the ring jobs that autos often required? I don’t have a clue as to what a ring is or does — or whether they’re still part of today’s autos. But it seems that every car we drove, as late as the 1970s needed a ring job.

One auto we drove may have been born in need of a ring job, and my dad, then an accountant for the Ford dealership in town, lamented that the cost of having a Werley Auto mechanic be the ring bearer would come close to the actual value of the car. Some of the “better used cars” in the Werley lot sold for around $800. Those in imminent need of a ring job were a bit cheaper.

So what was the automotive-environmental picture like back in the days when I began driving, more than 60 years ago? Town was darker then. Electric house lights were dimmer. And town was more polluted. Roads were bumpier and poorly marked, and 55 mph was as fast as one could drive without being ticketed. Seatbelts were still some 20 years away.

We used to walk most places and often inhaled the acrid smell of burning clutch, caused by gunning the engine with the clutch partially engaged. And as one who frequented my dad’s place of work, I got used to the smell of burning rubber as mechanics Leo LaChar or Bob Hood applied a hot patch to myriad tubes brought in for repair.

And the sickeningly sweet smell of anti-freeze permeated the garage. Because coolant was expensive, many people simply filled their radiators with water, then draining it each night in cold weather. Grand Avenue alone must have had 20 full-service stations.

In 1950, Jon, a friend, invited my brother Severino and me for a ride in a car that was new to him. At the time, Mills Avenue was still being worked on, and the bridge was incomplete, forcing cars to cross the trickling Gallinas. At the intersection of Mills and Hot Springs, we noticed a car racing toward us. There was a four-way stop, which Jon heeded, but the collision seemed inevitable and injured eight people.

All except me. Severino, meanwhile, suffered a broken leg and facial injuries. Jon sustained a fractured skull and other serious injuries. And the occupants of the other car received various injuries. Ambulances took the injured to the Las Vegas Hospital, then located across from Gambles.

If I could claim an injury it would have been the loss of about a dozen 1940 dimes that I kept with me. Meanwhile, Jon’s hospital stay lasted weeks.

Jon earlier had told me of a store promotion that offered a full pound of oleomargarine in exchange for a 1940 dime. He explained that buying that much oleo for only a dime suggested some kind of gimmick. He said that obviously that mintage of dime might become valuable some day; maybe there was a shortage of such coins and soon they’d become rare and valuable.

My only worry, as a 10-year-old, was whether I’d ever recover those hoarded dimes, which I kept with me in a church-offering envelope and which had likely landed in the Gallinas, courtesy of the car that hit us.

I attended school the next day and needed to listen through the accounts of several instant eyewitnesses with versions that would have made Edgar Allan Poe envious.

One said, “We were driving by just then and I actually saw you flying out of the car, and I’m, uh, almost sure a guardian angel was carrying you.” Another classmate said she’d been “right there” and saw me jump out. As for the angels that night, it might have been better had there been several on duty.

What bothered me the most was the sounds of the moans and groans coming from both cars. That affected me for years.

As we drove, last week, along the well-marked and well-lighted I-25, I realized how much things have improved since the ‘50s. I’d hoped Celina would now realize that travel is much safer today.

Yes, I’d hoped she noted the contrasts between then and now, but soon I realized the little one had dozed off a half-hour earlier.

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