Many autobiographers, among them Lincoln Steffens and Gertrude Atherton, described earthquakes their families have been in. I am unable to do this because my family was never in an earthquake, but we went through a number of things in Columbus that were a great deal like earthquakes. I remember in particular some of the repercussions of an old Reo we had that wouldn’t go unless you pushed it for quite a way and suddenly let your clutch out.
Once, we had been able to start the engine easily by cranking it, but we had had the car for so many years that finally it wouldn’t go unless you pushed it and let your clutch out. Of course, it took more than one person to do this; it took sometimes as many as five or six, depending on the grade of the roadway and conditions underfoot. The car was unusual in that the clutch and brake were on the same pedal making it quite easy to stall the engine after it got started, so that the car would have to be pushed again.
My father used to get sick at his stomach pushing the car, and very often was unable to go to work. He had never liked the machine, even when it was good, sharing my ignorance and suspicion: of all automobiles of twenty years ago and longer. The boys I went to school with used to be able to identify every car as it passed by: Thomas Flyer, Firestone-Columbus, Stevens Duryea, Rambler, Winton, White Steamer, etc. I never could. The only car I was really interested in was one that the Get- Ready Man, as we called him, rode around town in: a big Red Devil with a door in the back.
The Get-Ready Man was a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world. ‘GET READY! GET READY!” he would bellow. “THE WORLLLD IS COMING TO AN END!” His startling exhortations would come up, like summer thunder, at the most unexpected times and in the most surprising places. I remember once during Mantell’s production of “King Lear” at the Colonial Theatre, that the Get-Ready Man added his bawlings to the squealing of Edgar and the ranting of the King and the mouthing of the Fool, rising from somewhere in the balcony to join in. The theatre was in absolute darkness and there were rumblings of thunder and flashes of lightning offstage. Neither father nor I, who were there; ever completely got over the scene, which went something like this:
Edgar: Tom’s a-cold. – O, do ae, do de, do de! – Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking . . . the foul fiend vexes! (Thunder off)
Lear: What! Have his daughters brought him to this pass? Get-Ready Man: Get ready! Get ready! The Car We Had To Push002-webEdgar: Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill: Halloo! halloo, loo, loo! (Lightning flashes)
Get-Ready Man: The Worllld is coming to an End! Fool: This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen! Edgar: Take heed o’ the foul fiend: obey thy parents Get-Ready Man: Get Rea-dy! Edgar: Tom’s a-cold! Get-Ready Man: The Worrld is coming to an end!
They found him finally, and ejected him, still shouting. The Theatre, in our time, has known few such moments.
But to get back to the automobile. One of my happiest memories of it was when, in its eighth year, my brother Roy got together a great many articles from the kitchen, placed them in a square of canvas, and swung this under the car with a string attached to it so that, at a twitch, the canvas would give way and the steel and tin things would clatter to the street. This was a little scheme of Roy’s to frighten father who had always expected the car might explode. It worked perfectly. That was twenty-five years ago, but it is one of the few things in my life I would like to live over again if I could.
I don’t suppose that I can, now. Roy twitched the string in the middle of a lovely afternoon, on Bryden Road near Eighteenth Street. Father had closed his eyes and, with his hat off, was enjoying a cool breeze. The clatter on the asphalt was tremendously effective: knives, forks, can-openers, pie pans, pot lids, biscuit-cutters, ladles, egg- beaters fell, beautifully together, in a lingering, clamant crash. “Stop the car!” shouted father. “I can’t,” Roy said. “The engine fell out.” “God Almighty!” said father, who knew what that meant, or knew what it sounded as if it might mean.
It ended unhappily, of course, because we finally had to drive back and pick up the stuff and even father knew the difference between the works of an automobile and the equipment of a pantry. My mother wouldn’t have known, however, nor her mother. Mother, for instance, thought – or, rather, knew – that it was dangerous to drive an automobile without gasoline: it fried the salves, or something. “Now don’t you dare drive all over town without gasoline!” she would say to us when we started off.
Gasoline, oil, and water were much the same to her, a fact that made her life both confusing and perilous. Her greatest dread, however, was the Victrola – we had a very early one, back in the “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” days. She had an idea that the Victrola might blow up. It alarmed her, rather than reassured her, to explain that the phonograph was run neither by gasoline nor by electricity. She could only suppose that it was propelled by some newfangled and untested apparatus which was likely to let go at any minute, making us all the victims and martyrs of the wild-eyed Edison’s dangerous experiments.
The Car We Had To Push003-webThe telephone she was comparatively at peace with, except, of course, during storms, when for some reason or other she always took the receiver off the hook and let it hang. She came naturally by her confused and groundless, fears, for her own mother lived the latter years of her life in the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house. It leaked, she contended, out of empty sockets if the wall switch had been left on. She would go around screwing in bulbs, and if they lighted up she would hastily and fearfully turn off the wall switch and go back to her Pearson’s or Everybody’s, happy in the satisfaction that she had stopped not only a costly but a dangerous leakage. Nothing could ever clear this up for her.
Our poor old Reo came to a horrible end, finally. We had parked it too far from the curb on a street with a car line: It was late at night and the street was dark. The first streetcar that came along couldn’t get by. It picked up the tired old automobile as a terrier might seize a rabbit and drubbed it unmercifully, losing its hold now and then but catching a new grip a second later. Tires booped and whooshed, the fenders queeled and graked, the steering-wheel rose up like a specter and disappeared in the direction of Franklin Avenue with a melancholy whistling sound, bolts and gadgets flew like sparks from a Catherine wheel. It was a splendid spectacle but, of course, saddening to everybody (except the motorman of the streetcar, who was sore). I think some of us broke down and wept. It must have been the weeping that caused grandfather to take on so terribly.
Time was all mixed up in his mind; automobiles and the like he never remembered having seen. He apparently gathered, from the talk and excitement and weeping, that somebody had died. Nor did he let go of this delusion. He insisted, in fact, after almost a week in which we strove mightily to divert him, but it was a sin and a shame and a disgrace on the family to put the funeral off any longer. “Nobody is dead! The automobile is smashed!” shouted my father, trying for the thirtieth time to explain the situation to the old man. “A1as he drunk?” demanded grandfather, sternly. “Was who drunk?” asked father. “Zenas,” said grandfather. He had a name for the corpse now: it was his brother Zenas, who, as it happened, was dead, but not from driving an automobile while intoxicated. Zenas had died in 1866.
A sensitive, rather poetical boy of twenty-one when the Civil War broke out, Zenas had gone to South America – just,” as he wrote back, “until it blows over.” Returning after the war had blown over, he caught the same disease that was killing off the chestnut trees in those years, and passed away. It was the only case in history where a tree doctor had to be called in to spray a person, and our family had felt it very keenly; nobody else in the United States caught the blight. Some of us have looked upon Zenas’ fate as a kind of poetic justice.
The Car We Had To Push004-webNow that grandfather knew, so to speak, who was dead, it became increasingly awkward to go on living in the same house with him as if nothing had happened. He would go into towering rages in which he threatened to write to the Board of Health unless the funeral were held at once. We realized that something had to be done. Eventually, we persuaded a friend of father’s, named George Martin, to dress up in the manner and costume of the eighteen-sixties and pretend to be Uncle Zenas, in order to set grandfather’s mind at rest.
The impostor looked fine and impressive in sideburns and a high beaver hat, and not unlike the daguerreotypes of Zenas in our album. I shall never forget the night, just after dinner, when this Zenas walked into the living- room. Grandfather was stomping lip and down, tall, hawk-nosed, round-oathed. The newcomer held out both his hands. “Clem!” he cried to grandfather. Grandfather turned slowly, baked at the intruder, and snorted. “Who air you?” he demanded in his deep, resonant voice. “I’m Zenas!” cried Martin. “Your brother Zenas, fit as a fiddle and sound as a dollar!” “Zenas, my foot!” said grandfather. “Zenas died of the chestnut blight in “66!”
Grandfather was given to these sudden, unexpected, and extremely lucid moments; they were generally more embarrassing than his other moments. He comprehended before he went to bed that night that the old automobile had been destroyed and that its destruction had caused all the turmoil in the house. “It flew all to pieces, Pa,” my mother told him, in graphically describing the accident. “I knew ‘twould,” growled grandfather. “I allus told ye to git a Pope-Toledo.”
The Car We Had to Push by James Thurber in My Life and Hard Times