Fading Photographs

[Related photos can be found at https://woodburygenealogy.shutterfly.com/pictures/12.]

Photography as we practice it was invented in the 1840s in France.  By the 1860s and the start of the Civil War in the United States there were enough cameras in use to provide the first widespread photographic record of historical events.  Who isn’t familiar with Mathew Brady’s posed scenes of President Lincoln visiting General Grant in front of a battlefield tent?

The 1860s was a period no longer after the invention of the camera than, say, the period during which we have had smart phones.

The technology of photography spread quickly, and with it a responsibility was born that most people didn’t think of — until too late.  It is that responsibility which I want to press upon you now.

By the 1920s, millions of photos had been taken and perhaps millions of people had appeared in them.  Movies were already being made by stringing together thousands of rapidly-shot tiny images and replaying them just as rapidly between a lamp and a reflective screen.

By the 1920s, also, the people who had appeared in the earliest photos ever taken were mostly no longer with us.  But their children were still living.  The people who held those earliest photos in family albums and lockets and ornate frames knew who they were.  When I was a child, my parents, born in the mid-1920s, could name every face in every photo in our three or four family albums, even though some of those photos had been taken fifty years before they were born.

By the 1990s I was in possession of a large quantity of these old pictures.  Also, by this time, my parents were dimming a little, and it actually occurred to me that I needed them to start labeling the old images.  Well, we did sit down on a couple of occasions, but instead of methodically doing the work, we permitted ourselves to be entertained with a few stories that went with a few of the pictures, and the rest were set aside for a later date.

My father died in 1998, and the quantity of photos, not to mention other old documents, that emerged from his belongings after his death is a terrible waste of lost memories.  We, his children, don’t know who most of those people are and didn’t know that most of those photos even existed.

A couple years later, I wrote to my father’s sister, Ginny, in the Farmington area, by then in her eighties, and told her I needed her help with some old pictures.  She wrote back and agreed to the idea, but added that she was always busy making pies for the church and watching her grandchildren, but surely we would have a good time some day and go through pictures.

Well, we didn’t, and Aunt Ginny died a year or two after that.  My mother, right now in 2016, still enjoys three square meals and a warm bed in a nursing home in Farmington, Maine, but she doesn’t even know any of her own children. [Addendum: Mom died in 2017 at age 92.]  We’ve lost her contribution to the effort as well.

I have made an effort, though.  I have a fairly extensive genealogy of the past few generations of my ancestors.  And in many of the old photos, I do know at least one of the faces.  By using some logic in the way you would solve a puzzle, I will add possible names to the other faces and see whether it makes sense according to their apparent ages and the setting or period in the image.  Once I have made sense of one photo, I will look for the same faces in another and then follow my conclusion through a number of photos.  If my guesses are reinforced by other photos and settings, I will call it good.

And this is where it struck me that my generation has an even more urgent responsibility than my parents had.  For I am old enough (66 in 2016) that I knew not only the images, but was also actually acquainted with some of the people themselves, who were born as far back as the 1860s, if they were still alive when I was a kid.  And it struck me how much farther back my mother could go, if her mind were still with her!

It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.  But it is difficult to bring the task to the top of the list of things that must be attended to day by day.  I am the last chance that a lot of these people among my ancestors will be positively identified.  If they are not, then the pictures (quite a few tintypes among them) are useless and may as well be donated to a garage sale.

I have the same responsibility regarding the images I have taken with my own cameras over the years.  Fortunately, modern photo-organizing programs on computers urge us to pay attention to that detail.  But for my generation there is a double-whammy, for I have thousands of photos I took myself using film cameras.  And, what’s worse, one trunkful of a thousand of my own photos once sat in a flooded basement.  Those pictures are now all permanently stuck together.  My only hope, if there are any important ones among them when I tear them apart, is to find the negatives and scan those.

I have that project under way as well.  On a make-shift desk in the basement I have a spare scanner and an old computer, both pretty much dedicated to converting film negatives to digital images.  The scanner produces astonishing images from 35mm negatives, and I get to be the first to resurrect a picture I took in the 1970s, when we were just starting a family and making a home of our own.

If I don’t do it, though, it will be beyond my own children’s knowledge and resources, not to mention available time, to take over the job.  It’s a job that I accept with enthusiasm.

A cousin in Ohio sent me a couple photos recently.  She knew they were our ancestors, but there was no identification attached.  I have an extensive family history, written by my mother, so I began to work on them.  One photo features 16 people posed for a group picture, the other depicts ten people in a similar formal pose.

If you’re related to the Dershem family or any of the other names included below, you may find this interesting.  If you’re not related, then the rest of this will be worse than boring, so be forewarned!

I was able to puzzle out the first photo, below, because I instantly recognized my mother’s father, Richard Ivan Miller, back row, second from right. I don’t recall that I had ever seen a photo of my Dershem ancestors, but I surmised that the woman sitting before my grandfather is my grandmother, Ella May (Dershem) Miller, although I had only ever seen a couple of pictures of them both taken much later in life.  (I had also never seen them in person; both of my mother’s parents died when she was a teenager.)  The next guess, since this is almost assuredly a family photo, was that it is a portrait of Ella May with her parents, siblings, their spouses, and children.  Using the family history from my mother, I began attaching names.

dershem-family-1913

This photo, then, taken in 1913, shows James Milton Dershem and Effie Alice (Sunderland) Dershem (seated in front row, left) with their six children and spouses and all their grandchildren. The three older children were married, the three younger ones were not.  If this is indeed the explanation for the photo, then no one is missing and there are no extraneous people either (except the fellow in the straw hat on the left, around the corner of the house — he may be cropped out in some versions of the photo).  The six Dershem children (with year of birth) were John 1881, Daniel Frank 1883, my grandmother Ella May 1884, Hattie Blossom 1895, Byron Homer 1898, and Oliver Perry 1900.

So here they are: front row, left to right: Oliver Perry Dershem 1900, my great-grandfather James Milton Dershem 1861, Cleta Dershem 1906, my great-grandmother Margaret Effie Alice (Sunderland) Dershem 1862, Margaret Irene Miller 1908 (called Irene), Hattie Blossom Dershem 1895 (called Blossom) holding her nephew Bernard Ivan Miller 1912, Bernard’s mother and my grandmother Ella May (Dershem) Miller 1884.  Back row, left to right: John Dershem 1881 holding Lawrence Dershem 1911, Goldie (Rabe) Dershem 1888, Daniel Frank Dershem 1883 holding James Cleon Dershem 1911, Ruth Velma (Ohm) Dershem 1889, my grandfather Richard Ivan Miller 1885 (called Ivan), Byron Homer Dershem 1898.

Oliver Perry was known to my mother as Uncle Dutch.  Daniel Frank is sometimes listed as Franklin.  Cleta, in front, is daughter of John, left rear.  Margaret Irene Miller was the oldest child of Richard Ivan Miller and Ella May (Dershem) Miller.  Bernard Ivan Miller was their second child, after Margaret Irene.  I assumed 1912 for Bernard’s year of birth, although I’ve seen it as December 1913.  If 1912 is correct as his birth year, then the year of this photo is 1913, likely in the springtime (Easter?).

Richard Ivan Miller’s father, Dan Miller (not in the photo), is written about in Kate Gardner’s 1884 diary, found elsewhere at this web site.  And for a haunting look at this subject from my father’s side of the family, see my article Mary Jane, Mary Jane.

The photo below of the five couples with no names is older, I believe.  Maybe 10-15 years older, some time in the 1890s up to early 1900s.  I say this mainly because of their clothes.

dershem-fam-1903-close

The white-haired man is far older than the other four men, so I’d guess he is the father of the family and, if this is dated around 1900, he may have been born in the 1830s.  Perhaps the other four men are his sons, or a couple of them are his sons and a couple of the women are his daughters.  I started with James Milton Dershem, my great-grandfather whose family is gathered in the first photo above, and went back one more generation.  If the old man is his father, John Rueben Dershem, born in 1838, then in 1900, at age 62, he had four living sons and three living daughters.  Another son, Elijah, died in November 1900, so if these are his four sons, it would have been taken in the summer before Elijah died.  But Jesse Glenwood Dershem, the youngest, was only 17 that summer.  None of the men seated in the photo is that young, unless maybe the giant, who appears to be the youngest.  I remember Uncle Jesse, and he was no giant.

Looking at their faces, the man in the middle could be James Milton Dershem, who was 39 in 1900, and the woman behind him could be his wife and my great-grandmother Margaret Effie Alice (Sunderland) Dershem.  And the young man standing off to the right side could be a youthful Jesse (not visible in the cropped version).  So maybe this is John Rueben Dershem, the white-haired man, with his wife behind him, and his married children and spouses, some time after 1900, (but not later than 1905, the year both John Rueben and wife Louiza (Imler) Dershem died). So let’s say it’s summer 1903.  (Jesse wasn’t married until 1907.)  My great-grandfather James Milton Dershem was 42 in 1903.  His sister Sarah Catherine (Sally) was 37 and, my mother says in the family history she wrote, that she knows Sally was married but knows nothing about Sally’s husband.  Another sister Emma Louisa was 33 in 1903 and was married to a Miller but my mother’s history says he was not related to her dad Richard Ivan Miller (whose father came from Virginia by way of Pennsylvania, not Ohio).  James’s brother Sheldon Aaron (known as Shell) was 29 and was married.  And James’s sister, John Rueben’s daughter Missouri Mae Dershem (whom we all knew as Aunt Hattie) was never married.

The more I study this, the more I can accept the conclusion that this is a portrait of John Rueben Dershem with his wife and his married children, along with their spouses.  It’s the summer of 1901 to 1904, but I’ll say it’s 1903.  I’m going to say these are the people in the photo:

Left to right, the women are Sarah Catherine Dershem (married name not known), Emma Louisa (Dershem) Miller (younger than Sally), my great-grandmother Margaret Effie Alice (Sunderland) Dershem, my great-great-grandmother Louiza (Imler) Dershem, and Ollie (Harbert) Dershem, Shell’s wife, who my mother says was burned to death in her home when Mom was about 10 (about 1935).  I place the first two women in this sequence, Sarah on the far left, because Emma was younger than Sarah and, if they are standing behind their husbands, I assume the giant to be the younger of the two men on the left.

The men, left to right, then, are unknown husband of Sarah Catherine, _____ Miller (no first name in my records) husband of Emma (whom my mother knew as Aunt Fid), my great-grandfather James Milton Dershem, my great-great-grandfather John Rueben Dershem, and Sheldon Aaron Dershem.  These would have been all the married children of John and Louiza at the time.  Four other children had died by this time including the aforementioned son Elijah who died in 1900.  Jesse was 20 in 1903 and not married yet, and, as mentioned, Hattie never married.

The Aunt Hattie that I knew was John and Louiza’s daughter Missouri Mae but called Hattie, born in 1877 and sister to my great-grandfather James Milton Dershem.  She died in May 1953.  I remember going into her house with my parents after she died (the original Dershem family farmhouse) and the house being empty and cold inside. It was probably the late fall of the year, possibly even early in 1954. I know it’s odd to have a clear memory of something that early in life, but it stands out sharply for me.

James, my great-grandfather, had a daughter, Hattie Blossom, born in 1895, died in 1964.  She was known as Aunt Blossom, married to Lewis Frysinger of Defiance, Ohio.  Mom’s history says she had 16 children.  (She’s the one holding her sister’s baby Bernard in the first photo.)

When I study the 1913 Dershem photo, I can see the near resemblance of James and Margaret to the ones I believe they are in the center of the 1903 photo.  And the three men on the right in the 1903 photo, with the oldest in the middle of the three, all look enough alike to be father and sons.  The other two men do no look like Dershems.  But, to look at them, the two women standing behind those two men could be John Dershem’s daughters.

Let’s suppose that’s all wrong about the second photo, that they are not my great-great-grandfather Dershem and his married children and spouses.  That explanation fits, but let’s say it’s wrong.  Then, who is it?  I looked through the Imler, Sunderland, Miller, Little, Betts, Gardner, and Wagoner (Waggoner) lines and could not find a set of family members who would fit the pattern, and besides, all who are my direct ancestors would be much older than those depicted around 1900.  It could be some side branch of the family, like maybe a whole bunch of Sunderland cousins the same ages as our Dershem great-grandparents.  But why would such a photo as that be in my cousin’s things, inherited from my mother’s sister?  I go back to the man in the middle of the 1903 photo who, even though he has a moustache and would be about 10 years younger in this photo, still strongly resembles the one identified as James Milton Dershem in the 16-member 1913 photo.  If those two men are the same person, then I stand by my conclusions.

For a short story, with touches of truth embellished with a lot of fiction, see Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corneralso published at this site.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner

We were in the house on Greeley Chapel Road less than a week when they hung a traffic light at Dershem’s Corner.  Dad told of it when he came home from work that day.

“Did you see what they’ve put up at the corner?” he asked my mother as he met her in the kitchen, sounding more amused than annoyed.  “A traffic light.  Not just a flashing yellow one; a red-yellow-green, honest-to-God traffic light.”  I was in the front room, which was no distance at all from their conversation, the house was that small.

“That’s peculiar,” Mom replied, which always meant, “I’m confused.”

Dad went on, “Not a house or building of any kind on that corner.  Two pastures, an orchard, and a corn field.  And a traffic light.  What was wrong with the stop sign?”

“Do you suppose it’s because of that young couple and their baby who were killed last winter?”

“Who were they?  Just some poor transplants from West Virginia.  Not like they were the governor’s nephew or something.  And it’s not like other people have been killed there.”

“Not lately,” Mom said quietly.

“Hmmm?”

“A couple of my uncles were killed there when I was a little girl,” Mom recalled.  “That’s how it came to be called…”

“…Dershem’s Corner,” Dad sing-songed.  “Okay, like thirty, thirty-five years ago.  That doesn’t exactly make it a trend.”

“I suppose not,” said Mom.  “Maybe it’s just a bad intersection for accidents.  That corner does appear rather suddenly if you don’t know it’s there, and people do seem to go too fast on this road.”

On this road.  I had shortened it to Gree C Road, which Dad later took to mean Greasy Road, for some reason.  Our house sat midway along a flat, four-mile straight stretch without stop signs.  Two miles to the left out our driveway and you were at Dershem’s Corner, our usual direction whenever we went somewhere.  Two miles to the right, toward Allen-Auglaize County flatness and Midwest farming infinity, you came to the Erie Lackawanna Railroad tracks beside a little stream and a cemetery, where we would pick wild strawberries in the midsummer’s swelter.

Dad’s route to work took him to Dershem’s Corner for his wait at the new traffic light, across the broader, much busier State Highway 117, and four miles or so further on Greeley Chapel Road to the small factory where he worked, making some kind of airplane parts.  It wasn’t many days before he set a pattern of grumbling every time he came through the door from work.

“Light is red every time I hit it.  Every single time!”

“Well, the state road needs more time,” Mom answered vaguely.

“More time for what?  I sit there three or four minutes and I’ll be damned if more that five cars go by.”

“Please don’t run a red light, Wallace.  I don’t want you to get killed there too.”

The only regular occasions I had for riding with my father through that light came on Sundays when we went to and from church.  Sure enough, the stupid light might be green as it peeked through the elms overhanging the approach, but no matter how Dad timed his assault, the thing turned red in time to arrest his advance.  It was a veritable drawbridge lifted just before an invader could cross the moat.

“I swear someone sits in a house and watches me come up onto that light,” Dad began repeating as the days rolled on.

“I suppose they do,” Mom replied the first time he alleged this, not catching his drift.

“Someone has a button to press to change that light whenever they see me coming.”

At first Mom said: “They do not, Wallace. That’s ridiculous.”  On subsequent days she took to saying: “Which house, Wallace?  There’s no house near that intersection.”  Eventually she merely complained that she was tired of hearing it.

The traffic light became Dad’s overwhelming obsession.  But Dad had a surprise for him, whoever it was, wherever he sat, who had his thumb on a traffic light switch.  Dad bought a new car.

136yh-rear

I had wondered when he would do it for two reasons.  One, I had already concluded privately that that would be the way to break the spell of the traffic light, and two, Dad had promised me an incentive for moving out of Lima and into the countryside: I would inherit the black 1939 Chrysler that had served as our family car for ten years and had already been broken in for 15 years before that by Dad’s uncle, Homer Gettle, over in Fort Wayne.

At 14, I was not licensed to drive, but Dad had intimated, in a lighter moment, that he would let me learn by driving up and down Gree C Road.  “You mean right away?” I had asked, not ready to believe it.

“Sure,” he had answered, and spoke as well of using the lanes in Woodlawn Cemetery and Faurot Park when we could go off together for practice.

There was just one problem.  The Chrysler needed some work.  Nothing major, he had assured me.  But it wouldn’t be ready for me to take out onto the road until the problems were corrected.  I’ll say right here that it needed two things: some brake work and an adjustment to the throttle linkage on the carburetor.

I knew about the brakes.  Whenever we were out, Dad had to pump them a few times before we were confronted with any occasion to stop.  I understood, to a point, what this accomplished.  I had seen brake shoes and brake lines exposed on other vehicles.  Fluid was funny stuff.  That’s what I knew.

I was also aware of the linkage problem.  For months Dad often had to “kill the motor,” as he put it, which just meant turning off the key, and he’d coast to the side of the road, where he would raise the left side of the gull-wing hood and flip a short rod back down beside the carburetor because it “went around the eccentric.”   Then he could set out again as if nothing had happened, until it happened again.

Dad’s new used car was a ‘59 Chevy, two-tone baby poop.  Besides being twenty years newer and relieving us of the mechanical problems, this car had one additional advantage over the Chrysler, as I saw it: It was a station wagon.  The old Chrysler, a four-door sedan, stood six feet tall.  Two steel bars bracketed to the rain gutters made a roof rack.  U-bolted to this rack rose a covered plywood box, painted black like the car.  Inside it were the essentials for living in an extended family whose members were reliably unable to provide their own garden hoses, rope, copper tubing, lamp parts, and such.  Since Dad always kept a rake and sometimes other long-handled garden tools lashed to the lid of the box, the overall effect was that of a black armored car with a machine-gun nest on top, the rake handle nine feet off the ground and pointing frontward.

When the station wagon arrived, the stuff from the black box found a new home in a jumble behind the new car’s rear seat, while the rake found a new, lower perch on the Chevy’s luggage rack.  After that, the box lay empty atop the Chrysler.

The first few mornings with his new wheels Dad smugly rolled onto Gree C Road headed for work.  By the second week he was back to accusing someone of sitting in an upstairs bedroom of some house nowhere near the corner, with a finger on the switch to change the light as Dad approached.

The last I heard them speak of it, Mom suggested that Dad come home from work the long way some day, so that he could approach the intersection not by Greeley Chapel Road but by Route 117. Surely, if 117 was favored, then he would be too, she had reasoned.

+ + + +

I suppose Dennis Dershem’s name had passed my ears during the first few days in the new house. Mom was quietly excited to move to this stretch of road, where every house for miles was occupied by a Dershem or Sunderland or someone else connected with her ancestors.  So, for days, she enumerated her cousins, many of whom she hadn’t seen since childhood, even though they had never been more than ten miles away, and most of whose children she had never met.

Like me, Dennis was one of those children.  He was sixteen and a half when I met him but I had him by a few pounds and an inch or two.

It was late June.  School was out.  Dad was at work.  My little sister, Raelene, was at the next house up the road for the day.  Mom and my littler sister, Tammy, had ridden off with a carload of female relatives.

I was mature enough to stay home alone.  The Chrysler sat on a large patch of mown grass next to the long driveway.  I spent the early afternoon happily lying underneath the car with a toothbrush and a coffee can of gasoline, cleaning the grease from every inch of the undercarriage.  In two days I had polished the lower engine and suspension components this way, and now I was grooming the transmission housing as if it were going to a wedding.

I said “alone.”  Beside the car, his heaving chest too high to squeeze into any space larger than a culvert, lay our old Saint Bernard, Boner, (named by Raelene when she was too young to pronounce “Bernard”).

I was thin then, and scooted easily about on the cool, shaded grass beneath the great machine.  I had paused behind the transmission to regard a pair of exposed, inward-curving brake shoes poised to clamp onto a small drum on the driveshaft.  I pressed them to the drum and let them snap back to rest, agape.  A thin cable ran along the frame and its frayed end stopped just short of this pair of shoes.  Here, then, was my parking brake.  I mentally added it to my list of repairs, none of which I knew how to do myself.

Dennis appeared as a pair of Converse sneakers bracketed by a pair of spoked wheels somewhere near the front bumper.  I ignored him for a long time.  I wasn’t ready to meet kids.  Here was one on a bike, and I had my own car already, for crying out loud.

“This is a straight eight, ain’t it,” the sneakers said at last.  “New Yorker.  First year they made a New Yorker.”

I squeezed the parking brake shoes to meet the drum a couple more times and let them snap back, mostly in order to make some mechanical noise, before slithering out into the light.  I decided on a mildly smart-aleck approach, although it didn’t really describe me.  “What cousin are you?” I asked.

The kid looked hurt.  Then something in his countenance rose up to meet my toughness.  “You junkin’ this piece of tin?  Here, let me help you strip it,” he said and parked his bike.

“Hell, I ain’t junkin’ it.  Runs like new.  ‘Fact, my dad just sold it to me,” I claimed.

“You have your license?”  The kid helped himself to one hood latch and raised that side.

“Naw’chet,” I admitted grudgingly.  “You?”

“Didn’t pass the test yet.”

“You took it already?”

“Yeah.  I been sixteen since January.  I can drive, though.  Drove this road here since I was six or seven.  Cars, tractors, even trucks.  They don’t care how you really drive on the test.  They just want to see how you can act like a old lady behind the wheel.  I didn’t catch onto it the first time.  Next time I’ll know what they want.  Stop way back. Turn your head way left and way right like maybe a herd of cows is s’posed to stampede by any minute.  Proceed with caution.  Drive like you left on Saturday to get across the street to church on Sunday.”

He had me grinning.  “You really are sixteen,” I accepted.

“Sure.  You?”

“Almost fifteen,” I exaggerated.  I was really fourteen and one third.  And I reflected that once you hit sixteen you didn’t have to think in age fractions any more.

“What’s your name?” he asked me at last.  He had established his superiority in years, so was now empowered to demand that I reveal my identity.  Until we knew our rank, neither of us could ask.  He was also empowered to open the driver’s door and slide in behind the wheel.

“Larry.  Larry Miller,” I said.

“Okay, Larry Larry Miller.  I’m Dennis Henry Dershem.”

I made some comment about too many Dershems to keep track of them all.

“I’m the only one you’ll ever really need to know.  Don’t bother with the rest.  I can tell you all about ‘em sometime.  Most of ‘em are just simple.  Work too hard but don’t know nothin’ and don’t have nothin’ to show for it.  Lived out here all their lives.  Me too.  Nobody interesting to hang out with, except a couple of the girls are pretty nice if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t know.  “You mean our girl cousins?”

“Oh, yeah.  We’re cousins, ain’t we.  Yeah, they’re our cousins.”

“Whadja mean, ‘pretty nice?’” I asked, leaning on the door frame.  This was getting somewhere, although if it was going in the direction I suspected, it was alien territory for me.

“Just nice to look at and stuff like that,” Dennis frowned at me from inside the car, then, as if disgusted, he added: “We don’t mess around.”

“Good, ‘cause I have sisters,” I said lamely, not wanting to elaborate.  I didn’t want this kid, cousin or not, to think about them in some funny ways, either.

He seemed to forget the subject.  Instead, he gave me a raised-eyebrow look that spoke of mischief.  With a half grin, he asked: “You have a key to this thing?”

“Nope.  Not yet.”

“I seen you drive up in this here car when you moved in.  Lotta cars, so I was hopin’ this was yours.  I like the old ones.”

“What kind do you have?”

“I’m gettin’ our ‘51 Studebaker pickup when I get my license.”  I was at least even with him here.  I wasn’t “getting” this car.  I already had it.

“No key, huh?” Dennis mumbled, still in the driver’s seat.  He stiffened to reach into a pocket of his jeans.  The thing he held up looked like a pair of wires with alligator clips on every end.  “Do you know how to hot-wire a car?”

Part of me leapt with excitement.  Part of me shuddered in panic.  Since I hadn’t answered, he went on: “It’s easy,” and he reversed himself on the seat, head toward the pedals and feet in the air.

“Yeah, well, I don’t really have, uh, permission to drive this yet.  Besides, it has some, you know, small problems.”

“I can check ‘em out,” he said, reversing ends once again.

The starter button stuck out from the dash.  Dennis pumped the gas, floored the clutch, and with an exaggerated gesture, pushed and held the chrome button.  The Chrysler replied immediately with the contented hum of leashed power.

I ran around to the passenger side and jumped in.  It was in no way my intention that the car actually move an inch from where it sat, but hearing it run for the first time under my authority made me flush with eagerness.

Holding the clutch down, my cousin put the column-mounted shifter through the three forward and one reverse positions several times over.  He pressed in the large knob under the dash marked OD, and then pulled it back out.  This was the only thing he seemed unsure of.  “You leave it in overdrive all the time?”

“Yep,” I said, unsure of myself.  I recalled something Dad had said about it going into overdrive by itself when it needs to — if the knob is out, I assumed.

Dennis shoved the knob in.  “No sense in wasting it,” he said.  “Whatja say was wrong with it?” he then asked.

“Uh, the carb linkage sticks –“

Dennis revved the engine high and let go the gas.  It calmed right back to a sweet idle.  He did it again, the engine complying once more, then just said: “Yeah?”

“And the brakes are weak.”

“You just pump them up,” Dennis said, and did so.  I watched as the pedal started low and then responded with shorter strokes.  Dennis stood on it for a moment to show that it was hard.

“What else?”

“The parking brake is unhooked.”

“Where’re we fixin’ to park that we need a brake?”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

Then he pulled it smoothly into first and let the clutch out very professionally.  We were pointed toward the back field, away from the road, so I remained silent as we crunched onto the driveway and rolled past the house.

Dennis let the car make a couple of slow circles in the barnyard behind the house while he rolled down his window.  Then he spun the wheel with ease and pointed us in the direction of the road.  Boner was trotting along my side, pleading to go whithersoever we might be headed.  I stepped onto the running board, threw open the rear suicide door, and slammed it after the big oaf lolled in.

The car turned right, onto the pavement, and accelerated so gradually it felt like a train pulling out of a station.  I rolled my window down and actually relaxed as I peered over at my distant cousin.  He was fiddling with the few switches and buttons that protruded from the warped and buckled white plastic veneer that coated the metal instrument panel.  Then he threw me a reassuring grin.  Boner laid his heavy chin onto the back of my seat and sniffed the stirred air.

Dennis began explaining all.  I let him feel superior and just said “Oh,” over and over.  He thought the radio, huge and brown and ‘30s-looking, was the neatest part.  Even back then they had push buttons to set the stations.  He even knew that the radio antenna ran beneath the running board.

Then he showed me about shifting.  This I already knew, too, but it didn’t hurt to hear it analyzed so thoroughly by a truly good teacher.

Over the course of four or five minutes we lazily covered the couple miles to the single-track railroad crossing.  Dennis let the Chrysler roll to a stop directly over the main line.

“What are you doing?” I asked, annoyed, not alarmed.

Squinting up the rails, he said: “Look.  You can see halfway to Indiana one way.”

“Halfway to Jupiter the other way,” I added, agreeable, and was about to gently urge that we not wait until a headlight appeared in either direction when Dennis backed into the maintenance road alongside the tracks and turned us back toward home.

“Let’s give it a little try-out,” he suggested, picking up speed in first.

As I uttered: “Uh…” he knifed into second and pressed the gas.  The flat-head straight eight had reserves I had never seen my father use.  Boner, his massive head resting between our shoulders, began panting.  I noticed that, as Dennis shifted into third, he also pulled out the overdrive knob.  The flat, straight road ahead was clear and quiet for at least a mile.

We gradually picked up speed until Dennis stomped the gas as hard as he could, his back stiff against the seat.  The car glided forward as if we’d changed gears once more.

My cousin-teacher-pal grinned at me and then let off the gas — only this time the pedal didn’t rise from the floor in response.

The car still accelerated.  Glancing at me, Dennis exaggerated the act of lifting his foot from the pedal, but the car didn’t take the hint.  We both peered straight ahead.  Dennis muttered some curse.  Boner began a faint whine.

Dennis next began calmly pumping the brake.  Each push sank deeper toward the floor until the brake pedal, as the gas pedal beside it, refused to come back up at all.

“Quick!  Hold the wheel!” Dennis ordered.  As soon as I reached toward it he let go and dove to the floor.  While he tugged the gas pedal, I kept us on the center of the road, where the painted line would be if this were an important highway.  Within a couple seconds, at Dennis’s tugging, the pedal separated from the rod that connected it to the linkage.

Flipping onto his back, on the floor, Dennis glared up at me wide-eyed.  His head lay on the dead brake pedal, his feet pressed into the back of his seat.  Back-handed, over one shoulder, he pressed the clutch.  The engine, freed from the work of propelling the car, screamed in agony.  Boner howled.

“Let it out!  Let it out!  You’ll blow the engine!” I yelled.

Dennis was already letting go in order to fumble with the wiring behind the dash.  Dad’s trick of turning off the key wouldn’t help at this point — no key.  He yanked some wires out and made some sparks.  The radio hissed.  Something popped like a dropped light bulb.  But nothing changed.

Fields whisked past like sample house lots — wheat, corn, wheat, clover, oats, wheat — as fast as you could say the words, which, frankly, it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do.  Occasional trees shot past us like close-set fence posts on either side, doing that rapid wum-wum-wum that trees make when they rush past.  The air inside the car was a hurricane.  The two or three houses before ours, along the road, weren’t even blurs.  I did recognize the green lawn of our house looming on our left, but before I could think of anything, like BLOW THE HORN, it was gone.  (I thought I saw a red car in the driveway, way up by the house.  That would be Mom and Tammy being dropped off.  That would also mean Dad should be home soon as well.)

With Dennis still operating behind the dash, yanking his hand back now and then, and cursing, I held the wheel true.  I had no idea how fast we were going — I doubted, in a flicker of lucidity, whether anyone standing in our driveway even would have realized that a car had sped past — but when I glanced at the speedometer for the first time I felt the loss of presence that always accompanies shock.  It was stuck on the maximum, but I was too stupefied to register what that was.  A hundred?  A hundred twenty??

Just beyond our house came a set of three minor dips in the road.  Whenever he had the family along, Dad liked to take these at about fifty, giving us all a triple dose of that momentary sense of weightlessness that kids love and mothers disapprove.  I knew those dips well.  At fifty they were just over three seconds apart.

Dennis had just hauled himself upright when we topped the first one.  As we fought for the wheel — Dennis leaving the steering to me and only trying to steady himself with it — I counted one second to the next and one more to the third bump.  The car’s suspension bottomed out on each one but there was no graceful sense of weightlessness in the series. The car remained a level, shuddering projectile.

As we took the bumps I lost some control of the steering while Dennis’s chest slammed helplessly against the wheel.  He seized it first by the cast-metal horn ring and pulled back, pilot-fashion, breaking the ring right off. Then he leaned into the wheel with terror in his eyes and took over once more.  He held us on course.

My mind has always been good at math.  Three seconds between dips at fifty meant one second apart at a hundred-fifty.  Still the old Chrysler seemed to be gaining.  And at a sedate rate of a mile a minute it would take two minutes to cover the straightaway from our driveway to Dershem’s Corner.  At a hundred fifty, we would cover one mile in something like twenty-four seconds, or two miles in — something less than a minute!

As we closed the distance on the Corner, the car’s suspension, or drive train, or entire body — it would never again matter — began to rumble violently at the strain on all systems.  Something vibrated.  Then something else in sympathy.  Then things began to fly off in rapid succession: hubcaps, which were discovered months later, the after-market rear-view mirrors, and the wide wooden lid to the black box above us.

Nevertheless, our velocity climbed.

There wasn’t time for thought.  It’s true that a few images bulleted through my mind as fast as the minor features passing along the roadside, each vision representing an option, I suppose, but each with a built-in objection: Jump out — but, then, how do you tuck and tumble at that speed, and what of poor Boner?  Turn the wheel slowly and take us into a field — but the ditch was too deep and we’d roll over.  Step on the clutch and let the engine blow, but what kind of explosion would that make in our faces?

As if to accentuate our predicament, Dennis jerked uselessly at the parking brake handle.  It locked in the “up” position — holding nothing. He tromped one more time on the flaccid brake pedal…

Then time ran out.

A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved, inclined approach to the state highway intersection. As the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, rushed closer, I saw a glint of red through the branches.  In another second we zoomed under the arch of high branches like an experimental fast train entering a tunnel.  In a half second, wum-wum-wum-wum-wum-wum, we were out the other end of the tunnel, approaching Mach-point-3.  Boner was licking my ear, but it was more his shrill whine that bothered me, so I slunk down in my seat and let my eyes roll skyward.

When we hit the long, steep grade to meet the edge of Route 117 it felt as if we’d taken a giant speed bump.  Already lying low in my seat I saw the traffic light pass inches above the windshield — and it was green!  Then came the percussive crash of traffic light meeting gun turret.  And that’s all I remember until all had become still once again.

Dad would later tell how he had taken Mom’s advice and had come by way of 117 in order to approach the intersection that afternoon from a different direction.  Another car, a pokey ’54 Rambler, blocked his way or he’s sure he could have beat the yellow light and lunged around the corner onto Greasy Road, bound for home, before it gave us the green.  That Mom’s prayers were answered and he was prevented from racing the light became the remaining bit of evidence I needed for the existence of a benevolent God.  Instead, he coasted to a stop behind the obstructing vehicle and stared at the yellow lens giving way to the red one, grinning at the irony of the curse that was still upon him.

He would then tell how the filament in the red light facing him had barely begun to glow when a lumpy, black fuselage without wings, resembling a 1939 Chrysler, with the dog, Boner, facing him and pleading at the rear window, rocketed beneath the light, its wheels fully eight feet off the ground and still ascending.

The meeting of the plywood box with the gently-swaying traffic signal was the bonus in the show, the sort of special effect they don’t print on the ticket or even announce in the pre-show publicity.  Only the lucky seat-holders find out about it.

Plywood chunks fluttered far and wide while the sheered metal jacket of the signal spun skyward.  Severed utility wires completed the performance with a shower of sparks.  It was practically a two-ring circus, for if the audience were watching the sparks, they were missing our finale.

Of course, none of this passed through Dad’s mind as we were leaping the highway.  The instant passed too quickly, and Dad, for the moment, was dumbstruck.

The driver in the stopped car ahead of Dad’s opened his door and stepped onto the pavement in order to peer after us over the roof of his Rambler, too late to truly catch our descent.  Dad didn’t wait another second but jerked his wheel to the right, gunned it, passed on the berm, then cornered sharply right to follow us onto Greasy Road.  And greasy it had become.

Dad missed our touchdown, well beyond the improved grade on Greeley Chapel Road’s opposite approach to the highway.  That’s good, although he heard it as he was breaking free of the traffic.  What he missed was the violent annihilation of one mighty automobile which had served as his family car for ten years; one classic car that had promised to serve as my prize for many more to come.

There was nothing to salvage.  Of course.  By the evidence, as soon as the rear tires were relieved of the pavement’s resistance, the motor threw a rod which jackknifed the crank which burst the oil pan.  The weight of the engine pulled the front of the car downward, permitting, we suspect, a neat four-point landing.  All four wheels broke clean away upon impact.  The front bumper, meanwhile, turned under and scraped away the oil pan, the battery under the driver’s seat, pipes, shocks, drive shaft, differential, and gas tank before then shearing off the rear bumper.  These and all their mounting hardware strewed the roadway in a slurry of engine oil and rear-end grease and water.

The two big, pontoon-like front fenders fanned outward to become the wings on a snowplow, rotating the car a hundred eighty degrees to face Route 117 again, as if the hulk were contemplating another aerial assault on the light.  While we were airborne, the bi-fold hood turned into a crow taking flight, only to collapse and tumble into an orchard.  One rear door flopped open on the landing, the upper hinge apparently a victim of fatigue.

Dennis’s face and chest did a number on the steering wheel for the second time.  He spent seven weeks in the hospital, preparing for a rigorous court appearance.  I broke a hip, lying, as I was, low in the seat and below the dash.  I was out in ten days, wondering how I had escaped breaking my back as well.  As I see it, my twenty-percent hearing loss was a consequence of the wheel-less car’s screeching on pavement and the cannon-like sound of the near-empty gas tank exploding belatedly when it struck pavement after performing its own independent quick flip in the air.

Dad parked well back from the menacing wreckage and watched as Boner exited lamely from the stilled, dark, mechanical carcass.  The big dog tried to run but dropped at the edge of the road, whined and tried again.  And dropped again.  We couldn’t afford vets in those days, but he healed.  Ever afterward, when he needed to be taken somewhere, we would have to tackle him and drag him into a waiting car.

In the days and weeks that followed Dad had little to say about the affair.  Nothing he could say was anything but obvious.  “The next car you own will be the one you earn yourself.”  I heard that once.  And once I heard him mutter in measured syllables: “One hundred sixty-five miles an hour!”

While I was still in the hospital, the three or so other witnesses who had comprised our audience made urgent inquiries with my parents and Dennis’s.  Then they went about their lives, the way people do who have been present at other incredible events.  I don’t mean events like plane crashes, which aren’t incredible, just spectacular.  I mean something incredible, like… like a three-ton car lifting off and taking kamikaze flight to destroy an offending traffic light.

+ + + +

Dad seemed mostly pleased in one small way.  For nearly a month, after the flight of the New Yorker, a stop sign filled in for the traffic light, and that suited him fine.  Then the light was replaced, only this time — (What?  Did they think the moment would ever be repeated?) — they hung it a good twenty feet above the intersection instead of the standard fourteen or so.

From then on Dad had one green light after another when he approached that corner.  My mother said it was because he had learned to time them and to come up onto the intersection more casually than before.

By summer’s end the state settled on a simple warning signal, flashing yellow for the state road and red for Greeley Chapel Road.  A one-paragraph blurb in the Lima News noted the change.  It didn’t mention our accident but said the change had been mandated in order to discourage those motorists who might otherwise be tempted to race the light.


For a photo of some actual Dershem family members, see the article, Fading Photographs, at this site.


This story appears in THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind