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Column: My family’s ‘White Elephant’

My generation has accumulated a bunch of stuff. I’m no exception. I have accumulated a 1936 Plymouth Businessman’s Coupe. Black. The only color available. A white elephant.

An explanation of the origin of the term “white elephant” is in order. In Siam, if you found yourself in disfavor with the king, he would gift you a sacred white elephant. Since they ate tons of food a week, you were eventually bankrupt. Only the king could afford white elephants.

The Plymouth? Well. It is a bit expensive to store, maintain, and, on top of all that, isn’t really safe on the highway at anything over 35 mph.

You can at least ride an elephant.

The Plymouth is a classic. The first auto with hydraulic brakes. A six-cylinder engine which still is quite fast. My dad’s uncle, in the winter of 1935, hand-fed 100 feeder pigs to weight, and sold them in the spring of 1936, for eight dollars apiece. Eight hundred bucks was a small fortune then.

He bought the Plymouth for a bit over $600, and with the rest purchased a plow, a disc, and a harrow. He wanted the Plymouth Coupe because it has a trunk long enough to carry six full-size cream cans. (Farmers usually didn’t sell milk back then, only cream.)

Dad was about 16 that year, and helped his uncle, Wilbur Linda, with the chores. Imagine a hundred hogs, watering by hand, grinding feed, carrying feed, the manure. It was a lot of work.

So dad often got to use the Plymouth, which, at age 16, was better’n sliced bread. A brand new car! Dad used to tell about the night he and Rusty Dunley went drinking, and, on the way back, he decided to demonstrate to Rusty how, if one sat on the driver’s side fender, beside the engine, one could manually operate the throttle, and it would go even faster. It’s late at night. They’ve been drinking. Six-volt headlights are just about useless. Dad had the throttle assembly yanked back so far it fell apart, which put the car at full engine speed. Rusty was whooping and hollering and steering, thinking this was just the greatest! Dad was hanging on to the teardrop headlight for all he was worth, the car jumping around so much he couldn’t get hold of the throttle again.

“Shut’er off!” he hollered at Rusty. Rusty just thought he was having fun, too. At this point in the story, Dad would just shake his head and wonder how either one of them survived the escapades they got into.

One day, driving into town on Highway 9, which was still gravel back then, he came upon a highway patrol brake check. Until the 1936 Plymouth, all auto brakes were cable operated, and the cables would rust. Then the brakes wouldn’t work. Most didn’t.

The patrolman jumped onto the running board, told dad to run’er up to 25 mph, and slam on the brakes. Dad tried to warn him, but they didn’t listen to 16-year-olds back then any better than they do now. Dad got up to speed, slammed on the brakes, and the patrolman flew over the headlight and slid down the gravel road. He got up madder’n heck. Dad figured he was in for it but good, but the other patrolman was laughing, saying: “Don’t you know that car has hydraulic brakes?” Dad was sent on, relieved.

So what to do with it. It’s all painted up, the underneath is sealed with aircraft primer to stop any rust, which it doesn’t have because the 41,000 miles on it were put on long before they began salting roads. It has a new interior – all stuff I’ve had done to it. I used to go to the drive-in in it as a teenager; so did lots of cousins. A lot of history.

 “See that dent in the grill?” Dad asked me way back when.

“Yes,” I told him.

“My butt did that while Rusty was driving, trying to push it out of a ditch full of snow.”

I didn’t even have to ask why they were in the ditch.

At least elephants don’t get stuck in snow banks.