By Patrick O’Dougherty
For years, after my parents had turned out the lights and said good night, I’d prop myself up on my pillow and study the night scenes outside my window. No matter what the season, the comings and goings of cars mesmerized me. Of course, summertime was best for my nightly observations. There were the warm breezes and the scents they carried, the sound of crickets and other insects, the full green sway of the trees lit by the lone street light on our corner, and best of all, the sight and sound of the passing cars.
My perch enabled me to look south down Route 62, which passed by our house. By keeping my eyes and ears open, I could first see the headlight beams high in the pines and oaks, heralding the coming of a car. Next came engine noise, or lack thereof. If all I heard was the hiss of tires on the road, I knew that I’d be seeing some sort of family car or another. This was OK because it was always fun to identify the make, model and year, (easily done in those days). However, if I happened to hear a deep, loud exhaust note, sometimes preceding even the headlight beams, I knew I was going to see a hot rod.
The hot rods got me wondering. Even at the tender age of six or seven, I’d already seen a few movies on TV that featured angst filled teenagers, rebelling against society and roaring around town in souped-up coupes and convertibles. I wanted in!
The thought of rebelling against anything both attracted and horrified me. Our parents kept us under a fairly tight leash and I was already chafing and building the foundations of a big resentment. At that age, the idea of saying “no” was beyond my comprehension and ability. I think that hot rods, along with being fast, loud and beautiful, represented a giant, emphatic “no.” This view, and the fantasies it fueled, is with me still.
When I was six or seven, I finally had a late-night summer adventure on those roads beyond my window.
I had strep throat on the fourth of July. My dad was away on business, and my mom, my brother, my sister and I were at home, celebrating a hot sticky, fourth. We were invited to a Fourth of July cookout at our next door neighbor’s, the Tavanos. My mom brought us across the street at the appointed hour, and all I really remember is not being able to eat anything more than cole slaw. I didn’t feel much like playing either. The afternoon seemed to wear on around me, I do remember eventually getting some ice cream, which tasted pretty good. My mom tried to cheer me up, but I could sense her anxiety. I sat, throat-sore and feverish in a lawn chair, pretty much out of the action. Except for the attentions of my mom and Mrs. Tavano, I was largely ignored.
At dusk, my mom took us back across the street, and, being the ages we were, it was time for bed. As I lay in my summer pajamas with the covers thrown back, I could hear the sound of firecrackers and larger fireworks in the distance. Swallowing was a major ordeal by that time. I lay in bed, sweated, and tried not to swallow at all. My fever made the passage of time lose all continuity with sounds and my surroundings. I had no energy or desire to look out my window on that night. My mom was in and out of the room with cold compresses and thermometers, although I couldn’t tell how often. I could tell that she was becoming increasingly worried, though. Those human vibrations seemed to penetrate any fever. Time passed.
At some point, my mom came into my room and whispered to me that we were going for a ride. I nodded dumbly. I swung my feet over the side of the bed and into my corduroy slippers. As I made my way down the hall under my own steam, I noticed that the night was very quiet. One of Mrs. Tavano’s older sons was in our living room watching TV. He’d been pressed into service as an emergency babysitter to look after my brother and sister. My mom explained that Mrs. Tavano was going to drive us to a place where someone would look at my throat and make me feel better. As my mom and I left the house and crossed the street, I noticed how strange and free it felt to be outside in my pajamas. I could feel the texture of the driveway and the street through my slipper soles, and the warm night air seemed to waft right into my pajamas through the arm and leg holes.
Mrs. Tavano was waiting across the street in her car. I can’t remember what kind of car it was, or what year, but I do remember it was big, with a throaty exhaust rumble that I found impressive. Not exactly hot rod quality, but not bad. I think now, that it had to have been pre-60’s vintage. I watched with some interest as Mrs. Tavano backed out onto Route 62. I’d never seen a standard shift automobile in action before other than on TV. It made me feel like a tough guy just to be in such a car. Both Mrs. Tavano and my mom smoked cigarettes as we started out, me in the middle of the two women on the front seat. Although I felt lousy, my fever seemed to diminish as we pulled away and moved down Route 62. Cigarette dangling from her lip, Mrs. Tavano shifted up through the gears easily. From my vantage point, my only view was of the glowing dashboard, and of the streetlights tucked up between the full green trees. If I put my hands down by my sides and pushed myself up, I could get a much better view. Of course, I had traveled this route many times before, but never at night, and never under such strange conditions.
Mrs. Tavano and my mom asked me how I was feeling from time to time. They also talked to each other, my mom telling Mrs. Tavano how worried she was over my condition. Because the conversation was about me, I kept one ear open. I focused the rest of my attention on the passing night. I suppose that the image of full green trees illuminated by old-fashioned bulb streetlights was permanently etched into my memory that night. The streetlights also shone on dark houses and quiet, parked cars in driveways. Sick as I was, it felt thrilling to be out and about while clearly, the rest of the world was asleep. Our trip on Route 62 led us toward Burlington’s center, where there was some activity. Waiting at the stoplight, I could see that we were not alone.
Next to us, on our right, was a car with two men in front. I could see the driver was wearing a tee-shirt as he rested one arm out the car’s open window. The car idled with a deep rumble. Not smooth, but deep and seemingly impatient. I’d been hearing hot rods rumble and roar past my house for quite a while now, but had never heard one standing still. It was, and still is, one of the coolest sounds I know. My list of really cool sounds has grown since, but I’m pretty sure that sound was the first to make the list. In later years other sounds were added; the opening riff to “Whole lotta Love”, the deep sound of very heavy surf during a storm at Marconi Beach, the sound of hurricane winds, the sound of a Hammond B3 through a set of Leslie speakers. I guess it’s a close call as to whether man or nature made the most impressive sounds.
That night, it was definitely the car next to us in Burlington center. I pushed as hard as I could with my hands for a better view, but still could not be sure what make and model those two guys were sitting in. My best guess was a ’55 or ’56 Chevy. The car had the bulk and rounded features of those years. It looked to be dark blue or black. The two men sat still as statues, as if at attention. I stared at them, without blinking. My Mom and Mrs. Tavano were not getting any of this.
Suddenly, their car revved, two quick bursts. I’m sure I was bug-eyed. I turned forward and saw the light turn green. The big Chevy revved again and moved through the light, turning right. Mrs. Tavano let out the clutch and we began to roll straight through the light towards Woburn. I tried to keep an eye on the hot rod, but couldn’t see over the front seat. But I could still hear. As I relaxed back into my seat I heard a loud roar, and the screech of rubber on asphalt. Both my Mom and Mrs. Tavano clucked their disapproval. I just sat and listened. The tires stopped screeching as they gripped the road, and the engine continued to roar. Man, I was stunned. The best part was when the hot rod shifted into second, and the tires chirped one more time as the big car roared out of earshot.
I don’t know if this was a major life changing experience but at the very least, an impression had been made.
The strep throat got sorted out at Choate Hospital in Woburn. I vaguely remember getting some medicine from a doctor that completely soothed my flaming throat. I’m pretty sure I slept on the way home.
When I was old enough and had the money and skills, I built myself cars that could roar and shred tires just like that hot rod. I soon found out that tires were expensive, as were clutches and other engine parts. “Disturbing the peace” tickets issued by local police departments were costly too. After a while, my rebellious instincts quieted, and my life direction got a bit more conventional. My hot rods became sedans and hatchbacks. Still, I love driving, late on summer nights. I always will.