The following is a reprint of an article in Bridges, March 2022 by Giedré Kumpikas, former teacher at Hicksville High School.
My Love For Cars
To grow up in America and not love cars is un-American. The beauty of the lines, the colors, the mechanics, the 8-cylinder horsepower, the tires, black or white walls, or red, or gold. Cars have played a major role in the events of my life and have furnished a backdrop for it. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I admired the sleekness of the convertible Ford Thunderbird, the majestic Cadillac, the luxurious Buick Riviera, the custom-made design of the Pontiac, and, of course, the ultimate American sports car - the Chevrolet Corvette. The Mustang made its appearance later and soon became the car of choice for young people. Being picked up in front of my high school by my teenage boyfriend in his 1953 Corvette, to the envy of my girlfriends, was a thrill. It was straight out of “Grease” or “Rebel Without a Cause.” A boy with a nice car was a great feather in a girl’s cap. My next young man had a 1959 Chevrolet Impala - it was red, with a blue interior and bench seats. Couples could sit close together, frequently with the young man’s right arm around his girl, steering with his left arm. There were Drive-In Movie Theaters, and “Submarine Watching,” and malts at a CarHop. The bucket seats put a stop to that togetherness. Those cars had personality. They were all different, all unique. There were turquoise cars, gold cars, blue, green, yellow, red, even pink cars, and cars with fins. It was romantic. Today’s cars are boring - boxy, gray, black, shades of brown, and white. They are indistinct from one another. Somewhere along the way, they lost their dazzle and became more “practical, more aerodynamic.”
I remember, at one summer youth camp, speeding on a country road in Michigan with a very handsome young man I had just met in his sleek, black 1958 Ford Fairlane Skyliner convertible blasting "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the M.G.'s. We were young, carefree and the car was fast. There was no thought of danger, just the thrill of the ride and being with someone I liked very much. Summer days; beautiful cars; exciting music. Elvis Presley was singing "It's Now or Never" and that became my song, forever associated with that wonderful summer.
My curiosity about mechanical things began at a very early age, not to speak of one morning announcing to my mother “I swallowed that.” Alarmed, my mother asked, “What?” I showed her a lamp from which I had unscrewed a screw and swallowed it. I was around three. My first experience in a car was at the age of two or two and a half in Lithuania. My father had me sit in his car, a stately consular Buick, and told me not to stick my little finger into the cigarette lighter, which, of course, I did, with the predictable results.
In Germany, as refugees having fled from the Communists, we were living in the English Occupation Zone near Kiel. My father used to take me for rides on his Harley. I would sit in front of him, his arms around me, holding me tight. I was only four, but I felt the excitement even then. Ever since, I have loved Harleys. For me, they are the only motorcycle. My mother told me that my father would take her for a ride on his motorcycle while still in Lithuania, but she would sit in a sidecar. When the war ended, he obtained a DKW, a type of small truck, from a German lady, who gave it to him because she said that the English would confiscate it anyway. We drove south with it to the French Zone. It was a nice little truck with a canvas top, but it did break down in Karlsruhe on the way. To this day, I still like the smell of oil and gasoline and remember my father filling the gas tank, repairing the tubes in the tires. He repaired the little truck, and we did make it south to Tübingen. While there, he would take us on trips to the Black Forest, where he went wild boar hunting with some friends, while my mother and I sat in the truck, quite frightened, as we saw the wild boar rushing past us. We also drove to the Bodensee, on the border of Switzerland; we saw the source of the great Danube, which was a tiny stream in the mountains of the Black Forest; and once even drove up to the Principality of Liechtenstein to visit the castle of Prince Urach. The Princess of Liechtenstein held my hand as we walked around the castle grounds and visited the rooms, some with fantasy decorations of gnomes and goblins. One day we got stuck in a pelting rain on a forest road and while waiting for the rain to stop, we heard the haunting sound of a gypsy violin emanating from a caravan nearby deep in the forest.
It seemed mystical and unreal. That little truck stayed with us for five years until we left for the United States.
Our first American car was a 1936 white Ford. I did not like it at the time because it looked so old-fashioned, smallish. I was embarrassed when my father used to pick me up in school. Now, I think of it fondly. It too took us on exploratory trips to Bear Mountain, Greenwood Lake, Lake George, on many Sundays to Prospect Park - places where new immigrants used to go on weekends. I must also mention, Putnam, Connecticut, the Convent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, a summer meeting ground for our new arrivals, as well as Kennebunkport, Maine, the Franciscan Monastery, another Lithuanian vacation spot. Having a car meant so much. It gave us freedom and a semblance of normalcy.
When I was fifteen my father bought a newer car, a 1950 Chevrolet. It was dark blue, longer than the Ford, and had rounded fenders. My driving lessons began. There were winter months of practice in the Rockaway and Riis Park parking lots. My father was a strict teacher, having driven diplomats in Lithuania. He always said, “Drive smoothly, not jerkily, so that people do not spill their drinks. And do not brake abruptly. Smooth and easy.” After a few months of practice, I asked him to let me drive our ’50 Chevy with three on the column. One down, two up, three down. For those who only know how to drive automatic cars, three on the column meant it was a standard shift. I was good. I could shift without a problem - step on the clutch, balance the gas, and go. As I drove on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, in heavy city traffic for the first time, I could see that my father was nervous, but I was a naturally good driver. Nonetheless, ever since then, my father said that I was a cowboy behind the wheel.
Next came what has become an American classic - a 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air. It was a beautiful car - turquoise, with a lot of chrome. My parents and I used to go to a secluded beach called Plum Beach, where I learned to fish and swim. Later, I used to drive it to Rockaway Beach on weekends, because I was such a sun worshipper. It was dependable and ran for a long time until my father sold it to a Polish diplomat, who kept it for many years as well.
My first car was a brand new, white 1962 Pontiac Catalina with red bench seats. I was so proud of that car. It floated, long and elegant. I bought it the first year when I started working. It cost $3,000. As soon as I bought it, I suddenly had so many friends. My cousin warned me not to become a chauffeur, but everyone wanted to ride in it. To break it in slowly, my parents drove it out to Montauk Point, at the very end of Long Island, where it seems that all the waters of the world converge and pound wildly against the rocks. My mother said that it had been a beautiful ride for the two of them. I was happy about that.
I drove that car cross country with a friend and saw so many beautiful sights - the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, the Sequoias, Crystal Cave - its pitch-black darkness frightened me terribly. A spelunker I was not. We saw Indians still living in mountainside caves. At one point, we were close to running out of gas on a hilly desert road with no gas station in sight, when suddenly, as we reached a rise, as if by magic, a small rusty gas station appeared almost like a mirage. A real desert person came toward us, and, I asked prayerfully, “Do you have gas?” He answered, “Sure do, Miss.” I loved those soulful, simple people we encountered on the road. America is a wonderful place to explore and see. The variety of flora and fauna and people is extraordinary, but you need a car to feel the full impact of its vastness and beauty.
I learned so much from my father about cars, their maintenance and care. Since I was always rushing towork in the morning - my teaching classes began at 8 A.M. - my caring father would get up in the morning and sit in my cold car to warm it up. I wonder how many fathers do that for their daughters?
In the meantime, my father bought a 1966 Pontiac Le Mans. He was so very happy with that car. It was a beautiful gold car, but unlucky. One day while it was parked in the lot where he worked, a milk truck toppled over and crushed the roof.
Thankfully my father was not in it. He did not want to repair it, because he was superstitious. He sold it and the new owners repaired it and even came by to show it to him. It made him sad to see his beautiful car drive away. He replaced it with another Pontiac, a 1966 four-door red Tempest sedan with a powerful motor. He used to call it his “junk” car because it was second-hand.
I kept my beautiful white Catalina for nine years and then decided to change. My father and I went to Myrtle Motors on Fresh Pond Road, and I ordered a yellow Firebird with a white interior. When the time came to pick it up, I went with my mother. She took one look at the car and said that it looked like an egg yolk and that she would not let me buy it! The salesman was upset because it was a custom order, but then we saw a beautiful car on the lot, it was a Pontiac GTO, Palomino Copper in color, a two-door coupe. My mother said, ‘Now that is the car for you.’ The salesman tried to dissuade us, saying the car had too much power for a young girl. It had a 455 c.i.d. (cubic inch displacement) motor and 360 HP. My mother, unperturbed, answered, “You don’t have to use it, but it is good to know that you have it.” Impeccable logic. I loved and still love that car. It took me cross-country, over the hills of Pennsylvania, the valleys of Nebraska, the mountains of Utah, the deserts of Nevada and New Mexico, and through dense fog and rain in Wyoming to California and back to New York. It is a classic muscle car, pure Americana.
On my way from San Francisco to Los Angeles to take the southern route back to New York, as I was driving with a friend, accompanied by another friend in a second car, suddenly my GTO came to a dead stop! We were in the middle of a desert. This was before cell phones. What to do? I sent my two friends in the second car for help. As I was standing on that desert highway all alone, I tucked my jewelry under my sleeves and prayed. Hardly any cars drove by. I saw a group of Hell’s Angels riding by in the distance in the opposite direction. The sun was beginning to set. A man stopped by in an El Camino and looked at the motor but could not help. He drove away. It was getting darker and darker. Finally, my friend arrived with a tow truck. The other friend was told at a gas station that her differential was leaking. It was an old scam from which I had escaped in Utah, but she was alone and fell for it. They changed her shocks, which had nothing to do with the differential. I was so happy to reach New York, and I was probably the only person ever to smile upon seeing the traffic jam by the Holland Tunnel.
In between, in 1980, I had an accident with my GTO. The city was repairing Madison Avenue, and I hit a raised manhole cover and smashed the oil pan. My poor car. But I refused to give it up and repaired it. While it was in the shop, I needed a car. Someone had a non-running Pontiac Firebird sitting in their parking lot. It looked dilapidated, unpainted, and did not run. I bought it for $200, put in a battery, had it painted blue for $99, but did not fix the muffler. It became known as my “Demolition Derby” car because I would roar into the school parking lot where I was a teacher. Once my GTO was repaired, I sold it to a student. I wish I had kept it, but I was running out of room in the garage.
I drove my GTO for nineteen years until I decided that I needed a more practical automobile for work. I also wanted to preserve the GTO; it had served me so well and faithfully. So, I chose a 1989 beautiful white Pontiac Bonneville four-door sedan. Once again, it was luxurious, smooth, easy riding, and exceptionally comfortable. Although it was a conservative car, it was stolen right from my driveway within one year. The police found it with all four doors missing. I suspected that the company that picked it up and replaced the doors (which turned out to be water damaged, because they corroded after one year), was dishonest, because the directors were fined, some of the managers went to jail, and the company went bankrupt. My mother loved my Bonneville because it was so comfortable and spacious. And I still have it as well. Memories. We used to drive it to East Hampton and back in one day, about 200 miles, and never felt fatigued. I drove it to Niagara Falls and to Montréal and Québec City, and to the beautiful Basilica of Ste. Anne-de-Beaupré. in 1990, someone convinced me to buy the ultimate American sports car - a Corvette. I found a listing in New Jersey for a 1987 Corvette, drove to look at it, and there it was - a magnificent, shining red beauty. I was dazzled by it and took it for a test drive. It was a powerful car, 8 cylinders with a 350 H.P. engine. But since I had grown up with 8-cylinder cars, I was not intimidated. I bought it two days later and at sunset, as I drove home overthe George Washington Bridge with the Targa top removed, I felt the complete freedom and exuberance that only a magnificent machine can give.
By 2005, one of my friends criticized my Bonneville, not only criticized but insulted it, because she had a new Japanese car. I became angry and thought of what would be the most annoying car to buy to show off? I drove around and did not find anything to my liking, but then I stepped into a Mercedes Benz. I fell in love with the E350. It had a white exterior and a pale beige interior. It looked so very elegant. A Mercedes is a Mercedes. You can feel and see the quality in the moldings, the comfortable seats, the details, all so very fine. I bought a 2006, and suddenly, some other people in my circle of acquaintances began buying that very same car.
My latest car, I prefer not to say last, is a 2019 Jeep Cherokee. I like the name “Cherokee” because since my arrival here in the United States as a small D.P. (Displaced Persons) child, I became fascinated with American Indian, rather Native American, culture. I used to read books about the Indians, learned the names of the ponies they rode, like “piebald.” And I always commiserated with them for the loss of their land, perhaps, because we Lithuanians had also been subjugated periodically by outside nations. The entire folklore of cowboys and Indians, the prairie, the “noble savage” theme so popular in the 18th century, fascinated me. Perhaps it was pure romanticism on my part, but my Cherokee is a tough car. It goes through snow and slush and sand and ice, and it gives me security.
So, I come to the end of my saga of my love for cars. I have six, yes six. I forgot to mention that on one of my trips to Lithuania I bought a 1996 BMW 523. It was only one of the four automatic cars on a lot of hundreds. Most people in Lithuania drive cars with manual transmission because they are more economical, and gas is very expensive in Europe. As of this writing, we are quickly catching up to high gas prices. But it is not in the American character to give up gas-driven cars. Perhaps, we shall be forced to do so one day, but the love for speed and power is inherent in this culture.To me, the car is a 20th-century American art form - powerful and beautiful. I have loved all my cars, but most of all, I love my GTO.