|Jul/Aug 2016 Nonfiction|
Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady
After we had spent ages on boats, wagons, buggies, and trains, we took to using cars. The first of us to drive an automobile, a century ago, was the eldest of my father's five older brothers, my uncle John Bridges. He bought a Model T Ford around the time of the first World War and used it as a salesman making calls on merchants in Tidewater Virginia.
Henry Ford had begun making the Model T in 1908, and within a decade was producing over 700,000 of them a year. The Model T could reach a speed of 40 or 45 miles per hour and it cost an affordable $500. (Later, in 1925, when the stock market was beginning to boom and the newly rich bought grand long limousines, Ford reduced the price of the Model T to only $260.)
In 1917 my father, Charles Bridges, turned fourteen. John, who was 30, taught him to drive the Model T down the quiet roads of Gloucester County, where our family had lived for a long time; our ancestor Mordecai Cooke was born in 1623 in what had been Powhatan's homeland. There are no steep hills in that part of the Tidewater, but the Model T engine produced only 20 horsepower. John told young Charlie that if he encountered a difficult slope, he should try climbing it in reverse, which was lower-geared than either of the two forward speeds. "But," my father used to tell friends, "that was no help when I got stuck one day in deep mud. We had to hire a horse to pull the car out."
Whether my father ever bought a car for himself during the next 20 years, I don't know. In much of America there were other ways to get around. Later in his teens, for example, when he was finishing Maury High School in the city of Norfolk, he would go on swimming parties to Virginia Beach, which the young people reached not by car but on the rail line running out from the city to the old Princess Anne Hotel, the only hotel there. In those years passenger trains linked most towns in America, and there was also a thick network of urban and interurban trolley lines. One could—but I think none did—travel from Wisconsin to New York entirely by trolley, town to town.
Even if my father did not own a car then, he drove one sometimes on business. I remember him telling friends that when he went to work for Libby, McNeill and Libby in the 1920s, hoping to get into the company's export department and see more of the world, he worked for a time as a salesman in the bayou country of Louisiana. In a morning he would drive around to call on a number of small-town Cajun grocers. Each would offer him a "small black," a little cup of strong black coffee. By lunchtime, he said, he would be so full of caffeine he could hardly talk. Years later it occurred to me that if he had that many small blacks, he must have worked hard, making many calls on a morning. His labor and intelligence and courteous Virginian ways paid off over the years, and he rose to head his company, but it was hard slogging along the way.
Gov, as I learned to call my father, and Mother married in New Orleans in 1931 after he had spent four years for Libby's export department in Latin America. I was born the following year, and we moved to Chicago, where Libby's corporate headquarters was located. The Great Depression had arrived, and the national unemployment rate rose to 22 percent. Gov's salary was cut twice, 25 percent the first time and then 10 percent more. It was only in the spring of 1936 that the Bridges could afford to buy their first car, a little Ford sedan. Until then the family's weekends had been spent in the city, on hot summer days at the beaches along Lake Michigan. Now, one Saturday, Gov drove my mother and me in the new car 100 miles southwest into the Illinois countryside, to Starved Rock. This is a sandstone monolith rising 125 feet above the Illinois River. There the Ottawa tribe besieged a group from the Peoria tribe in 1769, after a Peoria brave assassinated the great Ottawa chief, Pontiac—and the Peorias up on the bluff all starved to death.
I always remembered standing on top of the bluff with my father and looking down at a steamboat in the river below us. But where was my mother? I asked her that, many decades later. "Oh," she said, "I was sitting in the car, because I was six months pregnant with your sister." The first of my two sisters, Shirley Bartow, was born that August, which dates my memory of Starved Rock neatly to May 1936.
It was in 1937 that my parents first drove the Ford down to New Orleans with Bart and me, to stay with my grandparents the Devlins while Gov went on a long business trip to Europe and Africa. We drove for many miles through Mississippi on what must have been a major north-south highway—and was not yet paved. People knew things were getting better, though. The US Soil Conservation Service had discovered the marvelous kudzu vine and was planting kudzu on Mississippi roadsides to stop erosion of the red clay soil. That was a serious mistake. Soon kudzu would climb high on the list of aggressive invasive plants in America. Today, in places like the banks of the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal outside Washington, kudzu vines cover whole groves of trees and bushes.
When we drove south to stay with my grandparents, my mother's younger brother Daniel Devlin was a young surgeon in the Public Health Service, assigned to the Marine Hospital in New Orleans. In those days we still had a large merchant fleet, and the United States maintained a network of Marine Hospitals in major ports to care for sick and disabled sailors.
I loved Uncle Dan and his wife, my Aunt Eleanor, and they were kind to me. He bought a big Buick and, seating me between his legs, let me drive it one day down a narrow New Orleans street—until a streetcar came heading toward us. I have always remembered how once Dan and Eleanor had me—just me!—to dinner at their duplex on the hospital grounds. Later we sat on their screened porch in the dark warm evening and Dan played his guitar, sweet music.
My uncle was killed by a drunken patient in early 1938. After Dan died, Eleanor decided the Buick was too big for her, and Grandma Devlin took it over. My grandfather was a Louisiana gentleman and his wife was a Louisiana lady who deferred to him; but Grandma was also a strong and enterprising character. Grandpa never learned to drive; Grandma did all the driving.
Both Grandpa and Grandma, and their friends, hated Louisiana's Governor, later US Senator, Huey P. Long, to them a corrupt demagogue. Admirers called him the Kingfish. Returning from Washington to Baton Rouge in 1935, just after he had announced at the age of 42 that he would run for President against Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Kingfish was shot and killed in the state capitol. The killer was identified as a young physician named Carl Weiss whose family was friends of our family. The story I heard told by the Devlins, from the time that I was a little boy with big ears, was that Weiss had gone up to Baton Rouge, carrying a pistol for protection, to confront Long, who was arranging a bill to remove Weiss's father-in-law, a judge, from office. The press said Weiss had shot Long, but the Devlins always said it was Long's bodyguards who had begun firing and killed both Long and Weiss. In recent years some ballistic experts have concluded that such was the case.
I am not sure the Devlins had acquired a car when Long met his end. Grandma rode with her best friend, Elizabeth Brenchley, to Baton Rouge for Long's funeral. At the cemetery they found admission was by ticket only. They went downtown for a cup of coffee and then returned to the cemetery. The service was over and the gates open. The two ladies found the Kingfish's fresh grave, spat on it, and drove home to New Orleans.
Grandma often took me with her in the Buick when I was in New Orleans and she went shopping. She usually stopped to call on her long widowed mother-in-law, my great-grandmother Mary Amélie Devlin. Great-Grandma always wore black in mourning, decades after her husband's death. She lived in a big raised cottage near the corner of St. Charles and Carrollton Avenues that is now the site of a shopping center. My grandmother was then in her late fifties and from my point of view an aged person but, I always marveled, she politely called Great-Grandma "Mrs. Devlin."
Not far from Great-Grandma's house, St. Charles Avenue turned sharply right to become Carrollton Avenue. On the inside of the angle was a Gulf service station, run by the plump and friendly Mr. Dunn. After calling on Mrs. Devlin, Grandma usually stopped to buy gasoline. Mr. Dunn always had something for me for lagniappe—a word, Mark Twain said, that was worth traveling to New Orleans to get. It might be just a piece of candy, but sometimes it was a copy of a little Gulf Oil magazine. One issue, I remember, reported the exploits of the late great aviator Wiley Post, who had died in a crash in Alaska a couple of years earlier together with Will Rogers, the great humorist. Post, I find, used Gulf aviation fuel, and Will Rogers had starred in a Gulf-sponsored radio show.
I also liked to go with Grandma when she drove to Langenstein's market on Prytania Street, a few blocks from the Devlins' house on Octavia. In those days the store had separate big pens with wire mesh sides that held quantities of crabs, crawfish, and lobsters. The pens were not full of water, but were sprayed periodically by a clerk to keep the creatures cool and alive. It was an interesting scene for the kid from Chicago.
Grandma would ask for half a dozen nice crabs with big claws. The clerk would scoop them up and give them to her in a double paper bag. At the checkout counter old Mr. Langenstein, like Mr. Dunn, always had a piece of candy for me, pour lagniappe. Then home, where Amy the cook and maid had a big pot of water boiling on the kitchen stove. Into the water went the crabs. The next several minutes were as interesting as the pens at Langenstein's. The crabs swam vigorously, and then their shells turned red, and then they stopped swimming, as the boy watched. Was it this that turned him into so heartless an adult?
By the time we entered World War II my father was moving up in his company and the Bridges had two Fords, an old sedan for my mother and a 1942-model two-door coupe, one of the last civilian cars that Ford built before Pearl Harbor.
Not only were there no new cars on the American roads during the war, gasoline was rationed. Mother's sedan got an "A" sticker, which permitted her to buy three gallons a week and so drive maybe 50 miles, quite enough to go shopping and visit a friend or two. Gov's car got a "B," worth eight gallons a week, since he had to drive to Libby's corporate headquarters in the Union Stockyards and was certified as having a job essential to the war effort. For the most part American civilians took trains and buses, and walked. National obesity was far in the future.
It took some time after the war ended in 1945 for our country to get back to a peacetime economy. In the summer of 1946 the Bridges took their first postwar vacation trip. Gov drove the four of us from Chicago to Virginia Beach in the 1942 Ford. He took what he calculated as 150 miles off the drive by putting us and the car, when we reached Baltimore, on the pleasant little steamship of the Old Bay Line that sailed overnight down the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay to Old Point Comfort, across Hampton Roads from Norfolk. The trip from Chicago to the seashore took us three days. Except for the original stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that ran eastward from Pittsburgh, our route was only two-lane roads. The slowest of them was the US highway across Ohio with narrow brick pavement that had been widened by adding an asphalt strip. As I recall, in a day's drive we tried to average 30 miles an hour.
Soon Gov was able to buy his first postwar car, a big Buick Super sedan. I turned 15 in June 1947, and got my Illinois driver's license. One afternoon soon after that I took the Buick—Gov was still driving the Ford to work—from our home in Hinsdale on a cruise down roads southwest of town, through what was then still farmland.
What I did that day remains in my mind as a strong argument for not letting young people drive until at least 18. I drove those back roads, mainly unpaved, at 60 and even 80 miles an hour. I saw almost no other vehicles but at one point I came over a rise and there, not 200 feet in front of me, was a Stop sign and a paved highway. I slammed on the brakes, but could not stop until the Buick had skidded past the sign and was out on the highway. There were, thank God, no other cars.
Twenty years later I read Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows aloud to my children, over a number of evenings when we were living in Rome. I came to the rich, conceited Toad's obsession with overly fast driving, and thought back to my own wild ride. I did not resemble Toad in either face or fortune, but I had been as foolish as he.
That afternoon in Illinois did teach me a lesson. I might drive fast, but I never drove so wildly after that. Nor did I ever tell my parents about my afternoon excursion. If I had, I doubt they would have let me drive the Buick, together with my Aunt Tete—Angela Devlin—later in the summer from New Orleans to Illinois. My parents had driven the car south and my father soon took the train north to go back to work. My mother and Tete were going to do the drive north together, but for some reason my mother and little sister went home early, and so I was named assistant driver for the 900-mile trip. It took us three days. On the evening of the third day the sun set and night came on when we were still an hour away from Hinsdale on US 45. I was driving. We started across the long overpass above the parallel channels of the Des Plaines River, the Illinois Waterway, and the old Illinois-Michigan Canal.
Suddenly I saw in the darkness a car stopped just in front of us, and two or three people changing a tire. I swerved left as the people yelled. I was sure—pretty sure—I had not hit anyone, and 20 minutes later we were home. Years later, Tete and I admitted to one another that we had each quietly searched the newspapers for several days, for a report of a hit-and-run driver on that overpass.
Some of my friends in high school had Model A Fords, which had long since replaced the Model T and were now around 20 years old. A Model A in good condition sold for perhaps 75 or 100 dollars. In addition, one needed to buy insurance. Whatever the cost, I couldn't afford it from what I earned on summer jobs that paid not much more than a dollar an hour; nor was my father going to treat me to a car. Nor did I have a car later, as a student at Dartmouth College, but I had friends who did, and I always found a ride to go down to Massachusetts to date girls from Smith or Mt. Holyoke, and once I even got a ride to Florida with my classmate Pancho Conn for a week of spring vacation.
When I married Mary Jane Lee in 1955 my parents' wedding present to us was... a new two-door Ford sedan! On our honeymoon we drove it happily to the Appalachians and Virginia Beach and back to Illinois.
At some point my wife, who like me had grown up in Chicago, mentioned that she had never gone very far west from the Windy City. She had never seen the Mississippi River, although it was only a couple of hundred miles west. She was working for a Chicago securities firm and I still had a little money left from a generous scholarship. We could afford a weekend trip. On a Saturday we drove west to spend the night in Galesburg, Carl Sandburg's town, and on Sunday morning we drove small roads to reach the Mississippi at New Boston, where the map showed a ferry crossed the river from Illinois to Iowa.
Judging by its name, New Boston's founders had great hopes. Its site had been laid out in 1834 by a young Illinois surveyor named Abraham Lincoln. Steamboats started calling there; the town lay on the great river route that stretched from the Twin Cities south to New Orleans. A railroad came to New Boston, and managed to cross the river. It was a little railroad that went nowhere important that was not served by bigger lines, and not too many steamboats stopped. The town's population never reached a thousand. Now in 1955 the line of old stores on the main street had many empty windows—but the ferry still ran.
We drove down to the riverfront and found the ferry tied up at the dock. It had a little wheelhouse and it could carry three cars. We drove on board, the second vehicle, and nothing followed us. In ten minutes more we cast off. I paid a fare of five dollars, which we thought a reasonable price. (I still think that; I find on the Internet that over a century earlier, in 1835, the ferry had charged two dollars and a half for a four-horse wagon.)
It was summer on the Mississippi and the river, which at New Boston is less than a mile wide, was not high. The current was running at not more than three or four miles an hour. But our little craft was not over-powered, and slanted slowly upstream. A big towboat passed us, sliding fast downstream with its flock of three dozen barges, thousands of tons of coal and grain.
It took us a pleasant 20 minutes, as we stood in a breeze by our Ford, to reach the Iowa side. There was no town there at all, just a low earthen bank, fortunately not muddy. We drove off and reached a paved road in a few hundred yards. That evening we were back in the Chicago suburbs, and Mary Jane had seen the Father of Waters.
Then I enlisted in the Army, and was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. Mary Jane drove the Ford to Missouri for the only two weekends the cruel sergeants let me free. And then I was sent across the sea to the 97th Engineer Battalion, stationed at the Caserne Maginot in Verdun, where the horrendous battle had been fought 40 years earlier. My father took back the car and sold it, he said, for $1,200, the original price. I wondered whether he had really gotten that much, but I didn't raise the question when he sent us the $1,200. My wife crossed the Atlantic to join me in Verdun, we bought a little Austin A-40 four-door sedan for $1,240, and we spent weekends touring Europe.
There are no more Austins now. In the 50s there were enough of them in France as well as Britain that the garage of Messrs. Mabille & Taboga in Verdun had an Austin sign in front and was happy to service our A-40. The two proprietors were good artisans and mechanics. Once a little screw went missing from the glove box, and the glove box door would not close. Austin did not bother to supply garages in France with such small stuff. Mr. Mabille made us a new screw—two, in fact, so as to have one in reserve. Perhaps that was not a major feat, but the two men also made us more important things, like a switch on the dashboard that started the engine after we had lost our last ignition key and new ones had to come from England.
In September 1956 I had two weeks' leave coming, and we took the Austin to its homeland. From Verdun we drove to Calais and put the car on a ferry to Dover. The crossing took an hour and a half. I got seasick and was glad when we came in to port, although it was raining. I asked the customs officer if it rained much there. "Rain much?" he said, "It's a land of rain." That was a little discouraging but we started driving through Albion.
We had made no reservations. September was not tourist season and we knew that tourism in 1956 England was not heavy. The rain tapered off as we drove west from Dover. We stopped twice at country hotels that said they had no rooms free. It was dark when we left the second hotel. I had driven a mile or more without seeing a car when suddenly headlights appeared—and the car was coming in our lane. No! I was driving on the right, which is to say the wrong, side of the road. I swerved, we escaped death, and we drove very cautiously through England after that, saying to each other "Stay left!"
The roads of England were all two-lane—the first stretch of controlled-access British motorway opened two years later—but there was little traffic. Many people were still driving small prewar cars. One afternoon outside Oxford we passed a brightly painted Roma wagon, a vardo, being pulled down the little road by a solidly-built little horse.
Ours was a good trip, much of it in sun. After those first hours near Dover we had no trouble finding inexpensive places to stay in Bath and a Cotswold village and Rutland and Market Harborough and Cambridge and Oxford, and finally London. We spent our last nights in England at a B&B near the British Museum that was inhabited by Irish people. The landlady was a native of Cork and the stairway featured a framed plenary indulgence and a life-sized statue of St. Joseph. We sat at breakfast with an Irishman from grim Liverpool who was soon to emigrate to Baltimore. He wanted to know what Baltimore was like. I said, "Pretty much like Liverpool, I think." His face fell.
The following April, in Verdun, my wife reached full term in her pregnancy. Nothing happened. There came a Sunday morning when she was two weeks overdue. "Let's go somewhere," she said. "Let's go see Trier." We had never been to Trier but we knew that it dated to Roman times and there were Roman ruins.
There was also the fact that Trier lay 100 miles northeast of Verdun, and across the border in Germany. American soldiers' wives had passports, but soldiers had only Army ID cards which, if coupled with travel orders signed by one's commanding officer, would permit the bearer to travel in-country and to cross borders. We headquarters clerks did not like to bother the C.O. unnecessarily, if on the spur of the moment we decided to go to Paris for a weekend, or to Luxemburg—or to Trier. We had access to the travel order forms, and would type one up as needed. For some reason, call it military tradition, we always signed the form "Carl Sandburg, Capt., Commanding."
I drove to the caserne and came back home in a few minutes with the appropriate order from Captain Sandburg, and we took off in the Austin.
Four hours later we had seen the ancient Porta Nigra and the imposing basilica of the Emperor Constantine, and were sitting in warm April sun at an outdoor café enjoying coffee and pastry.
"I think," said my wife, "that I'm having labor pains."
Quickly I paid the bill and carefully, gently, I started driving us back to Verdun. I had visions of the baby being born in Germany, and me being court-martialed for forging an order and being absent without leave, and Mary Jane bringing the baby to the stockade for me to see through the bars.
Thank God, we made it. It was the next morning that our first child, David, was born in the little army hospital in the Caserne Maginot.
Many years later the thought came to me that a court-martial might have kept me from entering the Foreign Service, in which I spent three interesting and successful decades. But as I have written elsewhere, God protects fools like me—at least at times.
When David was two months old the three of us drove over the Grand St. Bernard pass for my final two weeks of leave, which we were to spend at a pleasant and inexpensive hotel that the good Agence Havas had found for us in Cannes.
The road grew steep, with a gradient of over ten percent, as we climbed the pass. The radiator began to boil over. British engineering had perhaps not imagined Austins in the Alps. Still we made it to the top, the last mile with high snow banks on either side of the road. Poor innocents, we did not know there could still be such snow in the Alps in June. We viewed the half-dozen great dogs at the grim old monastery, 8,000 feet above sea level, and drove down toward the sunny Riviera.
Disposable diapers had not yet been invented, so my wife rinsed out cloth diapers in service station restrooms and hung them out the Austin's windows to dry. We reached the Riviera and came flapping along the dramatic Grande Corniche in our modest sedan, not quite in the style of Grace Kelly driving Cary Grant along that road in her elegant Sunbeam convertible, in their recent hit To Catch a Thief.
Soon after that, on an unusually hot weekend I drove the Austin from Verdun to La Rochelle and the Army kindly shipped it to Brooklyn in time for us to drive it home to Illinois, after I was discharged in Brooklyn in July. In late August I joined the Foreign Service in Washington, and for two years we lived in a small apartment in Arlington while I worked in the State Department. Our trusty sedan continued to serve us well on weekend jaunts to Harpers Ferry and the Delaware coast.
In the summer of 1958 I took two weeks' vacation. Mary Jane and children flew to Chicago to visit our parents, and the following Friday evening I left for Chicago in the Austin as early as I could, which given State Department hours was not early.
My route was two-lane roads except for the stretch of the original Pennsylvania Turnpike that I could take from Breezewood to Pittsburgh, and the brand-new 241-mile Ohio Turnpike. When it turned dark I was in Pennsylvania, making my way up to the turnpike at Breezewood. I was tired after a long work week. I turned off the highway onto a little road that took me to the top of a grassy hill. I parked, pulled out my sleeping bag, and lay down on the grass to sleep. But I couldn't sleep. After an hour I got up and drove straight through to Chicago, 700 miles. Ah, youth! (I had just turned twenty-six.)
The following year we, now four after the birth of Elizabeth, and the Austin went to the embassy in Panama. The Austin liked the tropics better than it had the Alps. We drove it without problems across the Isthmus to Colón and out to the fertile province of Herrera, and to the cool heights of Cerro Azul just an hour from home, and more often to the Fort Amador beach, where we hoped there were no holes in the shark net. Besides sharks a 700-pound sawfish, reportedly the world's record, had been caught nearby. But we were safe; exposure to the sun at nine degrees north of the Equator was a greater danger.
Panama has a fascinating mixture of peoples and races, although the language and culture are mainly Caribbean Spanish. One day my wife and I left the children with our fine maid, Sabina, and drove west 100-plus miles to Herrera, part of the squarish large Azuero Peninsula that juts south into the Pacific Ocean. We had several reasons to go there; Sabina, for one. She came from the town of Ocú in Herrera and said it was a good place to spend a day. She was handsome and tall, at five feet eight or so taller than most Panamanians; and we had read that when the Spaniards first came to Herrera they had found there a tall Indian people. Besides, Herrera was known as the home of the pollera, that beautiful formal dress of Panamanian women. And the Azuero was still a somewhat isolated peninsula, and it would be good to get away from the crowded capital.
What we found as we drove through Herrera was not tall Indians but a population of small farmers who looked to be of mainly Spanish blood. We drove into Ocú and stopped when we saw a procession moving across a soccer field just down to our right. A group of youths in costume and masks was coming, led by two or three boys playing drums and a horn. Another boy had a black bull's head, and was urging forward a boy with a mask who wore a skirt that must be covering a soccer ball to make him look pregnant.
I thought suddenly of The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer's account of primitive religion and its survivals into modern times. Bullfights in Spain had long been associated with fertility rites. We were watching the vestige of an old fertility rite. Panama had been settled in good part by people from Andalusia, and they must have brought this with them.
When we got home we told Sabina what we had seen. Ah, of course, she said, "Hoy es la fiesta de Pedro e Pablo. Fué la mojiganga." Indeed it was June 29, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. But the mojiganga? We had never heard the word. I looked in my big Spanish dictionary: a thing done in jest or for entertainment. Not exactly; what we had seen was something out of pre-Christian Europe.
In Panama Mary Jane became pregnant with our third child, and as had happened with David, the baby was late in coming. "Let's go somewhere," said my wife one Sunday. It was a refrain I had heard before. We drove into the Canal Zone, to explore back roads in the then pristine big-tree forest. After some miles we were on a little dirt road, and a little far from anywhere; too far, maybe. As I turned the Austin around we suddenly saw a long, low, dark creature. It was the rarest of big cats, a jaguarundi. And my wife announced that her labor pains had begun.
We got to Gorgas Hospital, Mary was born, and eight months later we went, now five in number, to Bavaria, where I was one of two Foreign Service officers assigned for an academic year to Detachment R, the Army's Russian school in Oberammergau. The Austin was full of miles, but we had no money for a new car so the A-40 sailed to Germany, its third sea voyage. It still boiled over on steep grades, but we didn't drive much, preferring to hike and climb the mountains around Garmisch, where we lived. We kept the car going until, eventually, I sold it for $200 before we headed to Russia.
Other than our free days on the Bavarian Alps, for me the best of our time at Detachment R was our graduation trip. A dozen Army officers and we two FSOs, Bob German and I, plus two German drivers spent four weeks in a small Setra bus driving through Communist Europe: Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the USSR, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. The Soviet press on occasion called Detachment R a school for spies but it was not that; it provided instruction on matters Russian and Soviet for future military attachés in Communist Europe, and for diplomats including a few future ambassadors. It was perhaps curious that Communist police regimes would let "spies" cruise through their countries as we did. We assumed that they would someday plan a reciprocal trip. As far as I know, they never did.
The trip was memorable but nearly came to an end after a week, when we were driving through the marshy country of Belarus and a great moose ambled onto the road just in front of us. Our driver swerved and we continued.
The trip gave me a sense of what Eastern Europe and Russia were like that I could never have gotten otherwise. Two of the four weeks we spent in the USSR, seeing drab cities and drabber villages, forests and vast fields. On the last day we toured a huge collective farm in what was then Soviet Moldavia. The kolkhoz consisted of over 1,000 acres of vineyards, and after driving up and down the vineyards on a hot day in May we were invited to visit their winery. We walked down into cool caves. The winery director told us they produced seven wines and a cognac, and would like us to taste them. Several young women in white appeared and distributed to us small glasses cleverly shaped to catch delicate taste and odor—glasses which they filled to the brim.
Our leader on the trip was the school's deputy commandant, Major William Thoma. He saw that our Soviet hosts were not drinking. Gentlemen, he said, you must join us. They demurred. Drink with us, he said, or we'll go back to our hotel. They shrugged their shoulders and drank. After seven glasses of wine and one of cognac we had dinner together. I have a faint memory of Bill Clark going out to the bus for the accordion he had brought along, and all of us singing a couple of Russian songs we knew—and Rick Agather, who was to die as a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, dancing along the tabletop in company with our Intourist guide who had lost an eye in World War II.
Next morning we drove to the Romanian border, where the Soviet border troops held us with our hangovers and headaches for four hours in a hot sun while they went through all our belongings.
My wife and I had hoped we would not need a car in Moscow. We were saving all we could, to buy a house in Washington someday. However, we soon realized that an automobile was a necessity in the USSR. We began to assess our options.
The embassy's budget and fiscal officer, Dorothy Weihrauch, had a Volkswagen and she said it worked well in the harsh Moscow winters. Equally important, VWs cost less than any American car. That was what we wanted. But the embassy's deputy chief of mission, Jack McSweeney, had improved on the State Department's edict against shipping foreign-made cars at government expense. He decreed there would be no foreign cars at Embassy Moscow at all, even if employees were willing to ship them at their own expense. In vain I pointed out to him that the B&F officer had a Volkswagen.
"She talked me into it," he said, "And besides, she's a woman." What was I supposed to make of that?
"Order a Ford or Chevy," he said. I bit my tongue and went away fuming. Not long thereafter, the ambassadorial Cadillac drove into a Moscow mud puddle which turned out to be five feet deep. The frame cracked and the car was shipped to Frankfurt for repair. When it returned, an older Cadillac that had been shipped in as an interim vehicle for the ambassador fell to none other than Jack McSweeney, who found it nicer than his official Ford. However, the State Department, which forgot about some things but not about Cadillacs, soon cabled the embassy that it must sell the older one.
I was the assistant general services officer, responsible for matters like disposing of excess property. I dutifully sent out notices offering the Cadillac for sale to embassies in Moscow, including our own. Seizing the opportunity, I bid on the car myself: 500 rubles, around $500 at the official rate of exchange. The only other bidder, an Egyptian diplomat, offered 300 rubles. I had won! Mary Jane and I chuckled when I told her the news that evening. We would drive through Moscow, me up front in a chauffeur's cap and her lounging behind, the grand lady.
Next morning McSweeney called me in to say my bid was no good.
"Don't you realize," he said, "What the General Accounting Office would do if our contracting officer bought a Cadillac for 500 dollars?"
I said I saw no problem. I had been scrupulous in following procedures. No matter; I must put out a new request for bids. I did so, and upped my own bid to 700 rubles—and won again, only to be overruled by the DCM. Why, sir? Then came the real reason: "You don't understand," he said, "what people would think of a subordinate officer driving a Cadillac while his superior officer drove a Ford."
I did understand. I was tempted to tell him off, but it would have been the end of me in Moscow. The third time around there were two bids. The Egyptian bid 600 rubles but the aide to the British ambassador won the car easily by offering fifteen hundred. I hoped our DCM would often find his Ford parked next to the Cadillac of a very junior diplomat.
Soviet restrictions on travel were severe, but we did all we could to try to learn what was going on in that secretive country. In April 1964 the assistant agricultural attaché, Keith Severin, and I took the embassy's new Mercury station wagon to Ukraine. I hoped to meet local officials, writers, managers, and just plain citizens; Keith wanted to see how the fields looked, the year after the disastrous harvest of 1963 had led the Soviets to buy American wheat for the first time.
From Rostov we headed south toward Novorossisk, but we never got there. Our Mercury stopped dead on the empty steppe, miles from any village. We pulled up the hood and tried to locate the problem. Clearly it was something to do with the ignition, but nothing we could figure out how to fix.
We knew the cops would come looking for us; they would not lose sight of two American diplomats for long. It was one time that we wanted to see the Soviet fuzz. It was getting dark on the April steppe and a cold wind was blowing.
Sure enough, soon a miltsiya car pulled up. The two officers asked politely what was wrong.
"The ignition," we said.
"We'll fix it," they said.
They pulled up the hood but they too failed to solve the problem, so they flagged down the next passing truck and ordered the driver to tow us to the Rostov miltsiya headquarters. The colonel in charge there made clear that he had better things to do than deal with us; but he had the Mercury towed to a truck motor pool. Next morning the car was fixed. "Defective points," said the burly mechanic; "I had to remake them." We wanted to pay him, or at least give him a bottle of whisky (we took a modest supply on trips), but he would accept nothing; nor could the motor pool, a socialist enterprise, take in cash.
The next spring, in Washington, I received a postcard postmarked Rostov on the Don from my traveling companion, Keith. "Guess what?" he wrote. "Came here with a Ford. Same problem, same mechanic. He says bring a Lincoln next time, he's never seen one. Cheers."
Meanwhile in Moscow we had borrowed $2,000 from the State Department credit union and bought a red Ford Falcon. One afternoon my wife and our friend Evelyn Musser drove it up the Moscow River, to visit a village with an ancient church tower. We had seen the church from the road across the river leading to the beach where diplomats spent summer Sundays, just inside the 40-kilometer limit, the farthest that foreigners could go out of Moscow. Mary Jane and Evi found a little road to the village, and drove down through cornfields to photograph the church, closed for decades but still the most beautiful thing in the shabby village. Beyond, a track went down to a stream. On the other side of the stream was a paved road.
The two imperialist agents forded the shallow stream and drove up into a very special place. There were large villas. In front of one stood a large ZiL convertible. Now, the only ZiL convertible ever seen in Moscow was used by the Minister of Defense to review troops at Red Square parades. That one was brown, this one pale green. Later I heard it belonged to Khrushchev's son-in-law, Aleksei Adzhubei, the editor of Izvestiya.
Mary Jane and Evi suddenly realized they were inside a resort for top Soviet officials—certainly not a place where Westerners were welcome. What to do? Keep going; a gate was visible at the far end. The old woman gatekeeper flagged down the Falcon. The game was up. There would be a nasty confrontation... Could the comrades kindly take a friend to Moscow? "Da, da." The lady in question got into the back seat. She began to chat with them in Russian, while the two American women gave cursory answers and looked at each other, repressing giggles. The adventurers left the Russian at the nearest bus stop, drove away, and exploded in mirth.
The Soviet foreign ministry sent our embassy each quarter a diplomatic note that listed our numerous alleged violations of Soviet regulations. Incredibly, they missed the Falcon's intrusion. Whoever was on guard at the place of big villas must have decided that the red sedan with diplomatic plates had to belong to a diplomat from some Red country.
A couple of months before our departure from Moscow in 1964, I sold the Falcon to a colleague, took a succession of trains to Germany, and picked up a new Volkswagen Bug at the VW factory in Wolfsburg. Mary Jane and young David, Elizabeth, and Mary joined me, and we drove to a Quaker conference near Montreux that brought together younger diplomats from all over the world, including two young Soviet foreign ministry officers, for a week's discussion. One afternoon the two Russians and five Bridges squeezed into our VW and we drove to Gstaad for tea. The next evening, one of the Russians told me he had heard that there was fighting in the Gulf of Tonkin. We ran down to the VW, which had a good radio, and listened to a news broadcast in English. The Russian said he thought Beijing would enter the fray and there would be a greater US-Chinese conflict than in Korea. I do not recall attempting a prediction. Certainly neither of us could guess that America would lose 50,000 men in a useless war.
While I returned to Moscow for my final weeks there, our friend Evi flew out to join Mary Jane, and they and our three children went off in the Bug to visit beaches and old towns on the Dalmatian coast. When Evi returned, she informed me that I owed her $500. That was nearly a month's net pay for me. When I had last seen my wife she had more than enough cash to last until we met. (It was a time when credit cards were little used and there were no ATMs.) What had happened?
The trouble began in Dubrovnik, where a gang of boys stole two wheels from the Volkswagen. My wife reported the theft to the police and went to the local VW dealer, who had no wheels for sale but lent her two to drive the car onto the northbound ferry. At Rijeka, Mary Jane went to the Volkswagen dealer, borrowed two wheels again, and drove the car off the boat. Everyone, said Evi, had been very helpful. The party then took the train for Trieste.
As they neared the Italian border, Mary Jane realized she had left little Mary's passport in Dubrovnik. Nothing daunted, she showed the Yugoslav border guard just her own passport, which contained photos of all three children, included soon after their births and then crossed through after they were issued their own passports. The Yugoslav guard pointed at the lines across the pictures. Mary Jane shrugged and, using her best Slavic, which was Russian, said "Ya nichevo ne ponimayu"—I don't know understand anything. The guard shrugged in turn and walked away down the corridor.
Then came the Italian guard. He knew some English, and he pointed out the passport page that confirmed the children had been excluded from the document. My wife must have looked sad if not distraught, because eventually he said "Okay. You go straight to the American consulate in Trieste." And so the entourage crossed into Italy. My wife went to the consulate, which arranged for the missing passports to be sent there. Next she bought two wheels in Trieste, and took them to the VW that was waiting for them in Rijeka.
The ladies then decided to drive to Florence, where they stayed in a lovely if expensive hotel ("Not so expensive," says my wife) and went shopping to make up for their troubles. And that was why I owed Evi Musser $500, which I paid gladly before joining my family in Paris to sail home on the S.S. United States with the Bug in the hold.
From Washington we went two years later to Embassy Rome, accompanied by our trusty VW Bug. We drove it all over Italy with the three children and our new dog Seumas in the back seat. Seumas was not small, the children were growing, but they almost fit. They also fought. One day we stopped in a village and Mary Jane bought a large wooden spoon. Henceforth VW discipline was maintained with the spoon. On a long trip the mother would not even look back to identify the troublemaker, but laid on indiscriminately. My three oldest children still claim that this bent their young souls, but we have never agreed to that.
In April 1969 my wife took the children to Greece for spring vacation. Seumas stayed with me in Rome, but the VW was even more crowded because our friend Roberta Schneidman and two of her children went along. They returned full of stories. They had almost slid off a cliff on a muddy road; they had collided ("Barely," said Mary Jane) with a bus in Patras, before driving onto the ferry for Brindisi. But the big news was that my wife thought she was pregnant.
The birth of Andrew necessitated a change of cars and housing. We moved from a crowded apartment near Piazza Navona to an old restored farmhouse on two acres near Morlupo, north of Rome. I bought a roomier Volkswagen, a hatchback with a new Bosch ignition system. One evening Mary Jane and I drove into town to an after-dinner get-together at the house of Luigi Vittorio Ferraris, a senior Foreign Ministry officer, a brilliant man with interesting friends. We stayed until almost midnight. Home was 30 kilometers out the Via Flaminia from the city. About 22 kilometers out, the car stopped dead and I could not revive it. We began to walk, my wife in high heels. There was almost no traffic, and no one would stop for us. But it was a fine spring night and my wife remembers hearing the first nightingales of the year.
From Rome we went to the embassy in Prague, in 1971, three years after the Soviet army crushed Dubcek's "socialism with a human face." It had not crushed the Czechs and Slovaks. We made good friends; we had never known a people with such a liking for Americans; but the StB, the security police, were an oppressive presence and people understandably had their heads under their wings. At least on the surface they obeyed the Communist bosses, and the officials were cold toward us "imperialists."
The StB trailed me both on foot and in cars, sometimes quite visibly. I mentioned this to my wife, who had noticed nothing of the sort. She had, however, discovered a number of used-goods shops in Prague, state-owned like all Prague businesses, with interesting things offered at modest prices. One weekend we went browsing together. She drove, since she knew all the places. After visiting two stores, I told her I saw four cars following us: an old black Mercedes and a blue Simca which I knew from earlier occasions, plus two Skodas. Nonsense, she said. Still, perhaps this distracted her. She took a wrong turn and, driving up a narrow street in Malá Strana, we found ourselves in a blind alley. Backing out, we saw backing out behind us a black Mercedes, a blue Simca, and two Skodas.
One day the embassy received a letter from the "Anti-Fascist Fighters' League" in Polomka, a village in Slovakia, inviting us to attend the dedication of a monument on the site where a British and American mission had stayed in 1944 after the Wehrmacht had put down the Slovak uprising—the Slovaks had risen against the Germans and the puppet regime that Hitler had installed in Slovakia.
We knew nothing about any such US-UK mission. We sent a telegram to the State Department asking if Washington had any information about this. Several weeks later we received in the diplomatic pouch 40 or 50 pages of Top Secret memos that had been declassified. The memos confirmed that there had been such a mission, composed of I think eight OSS men. When the Slovaks rose up against the Nazis in l944, the OSS team and a lot of weapons and ammunition had been flown into Slovakia to help the uprising. The Germans diverted two divisions from the Russian front to Slovakia and put down the uprising. The Slovak fighters and the OSS team took to the mountains. One of the OSS men was a Slovak American who came from the village of Polomka. The team went there, and the villagers took them up to a mountain hut where they stayed safe. They found that a British team from the equivalent of the OSS, the SOE, was staying at a little summer hotel nearby.
Eventually somebody in Polomka squealed. At dawn on Christmas Day a Wehrmacht platoon surrounded the hut and took six of the eight Americans prisoner. The other two Americans had spent the night with the SOE team, and when they heard shooting they hid in the woods—and lived to tell the story. The six captive Americans were taken to a concentration camp in Austria, tortured, and executed.
Stephen Barrett, the number-two in the British embassy, and I decided to drive out to the dedication in one of our embassy's Fords. Son David, now 15, came along as our official photographer. We were followed by the StB, but no matter; we hiked happily up the heavily forested mountainside and along a long ridge, led by the local head of the Slovak State Forests. Just below the ridge the Slovaks had rebuilt the OSS hut—the Wehrmacht had burned it down—and put a bronze commemorative plaque on the wall. A number of village women had come up earlier, bringing lunch for us all. After sandwiches we hiked back down to Polomka and had what you might call a festive meal at the local inn. We departed for Prague late in the afternoon.
The Slovak fuzz, which was said to be more vigilant than the Czech fuzz, had followed us to Polomka and followed us now, in two Skodas. I decided to see if Skodas were as fast as Fords. I drove 65 or 70 miles an hour along the twisting mountain roads and I could see the Skodas hanging on with difficulty. A mile before the sign marking the Czech border, one of the Skodas passed us; I thought the driver had a smirk on his face. Both of their cars turned around at the border. There were no vehicles waiting for us on the Czech side. We had brought camping gear, and a few miles beyond the border we turned onto some small road and camped out in a meadow in a quiet forest, with no one else around. We drove back to Prague the next day after an interesting expedition.
After Prague we spent seven years in Washington and then went back to Rome. This time in Rome I was the deputy chief of mission, the embassy's number-two. It was the most responsible job I had had abroad, and I enjoyed it although we were concerned about terrorism. The ambassador had an armored Cadillac, and Italian police cars in front of and behind him wherever he went. I had a fine Italian driver, Luciano Lecci, and an armored US-made Ford, but there were no guarantees. My friend Ray Hunt, a retired Foreign Service officer who directed the Sinai peacekeeping force, was followed one day on his way home from his Rome headquarters in his chauffeured Lancia. One of the followers leaped on the back bumper and shot at Ray through the armored back window. The second or third shot penetrated the armor and killed him.
One Saturday afternoon I drove myself down to the embassy in the armored Ford, which was an apricot color. I planned to get the car repainted, to make it less obvious. An American-made Ford of any color was a rare sight in Italy, but no Italian cars were apricot; the nearest thing was Rome taxis, which were then orange. Saturday afternoon was shopping time and the Via Veneto was jammed, so I was moving very slowly. A woman came running up the middle of the street, pointing at me as she came. Was she fingering me for accomplices nearby? She came up to my window and asked "Libero?" She thought I was a taxi.
The embassy kept a second car in reserve for the ambassador in case the Cadillac should break down. It was a big, German-made, well-armored Ford Granada. It sat unused in the embassy garage, until one weekend when the ambassador was out of the country and I was therefore the chargé d'affaires. Mary Jane and I were invited to be the ranking guests at the annual US Marine Corps ball at NATO headquarters in Naples. The ball was on Saturday night, and Sunday morning we were to meet our group of hiking friends in Rome to go climb some modest mountain in the Appennines. I gave Luciano the weekend off, and since the German Ford was faster than my apricot one my wife and I took it to Naples on Saturday.
We had a good time at the ball and it was past midnight when we left. We did want to get some sleep before climbing two or three thousand vertical feet with our friends. In a few minutes we got onto the autostrada and were heading for Rome. There was almost no traffic and I went fast. If the Carabinieri should stop me for speeding I would tell them I drove fast for security reasons. But we saw no Carabinieri.
The distance from the Naples autostrada entrance to the exit for Rome is 218 kilometers, 135 miles. I did it, I remember well, in 85 minutes, and so averaged 95 miles per hour, start-to-stop and including curves. That might be nothing for a haughty Lamborghini owner, but for this American it was fast driving. Later, as I will tell you, I went much faster on a highway, but I was not at the wheel.
My last post in the Foreign Service was Mogadishu. Somalia's ghastly civil war lay in the future and I traveled widely, usually without escort—although on my first trip to the northwest, where the Isaq clans had begun to contest Siad Barre's dictatorship, I was accompanied by an army truck with a machine gun on the roof.
The official sedan for the American ambassador to Somalia was not a Cadillac but a handsome blue Oldsmobile sedan. My driver was an engaging Somali named Scerif Ahmed Maio who became my friend. When I went to visit places in the countryside I would sit next to Scerif and converse with him in my halting Somali, which never got good enough, for want of a capable teacher, for me to use with officials, who in any case almost all spoke English or Italian. With one Somali general, who had spent six years in the USSR and hated the Russians, I spoke Russian, as a sort of mocking joke between us.
Every month or so I would go see the dictatorial President, Mohamed Siad Barre, who lived and worked in his fortified hilltop palace called Villa Somalia. (It had been Villa Italia when colonial governors lived there.) Most often the appointment would be at around midnight. Siad, like his fellow dictator Josef Stalin, kept late hours. A few minutes before the scheduled appointment Scerif would fix the two small flags, American and ambassadorial, on the front fenders of the Olds and we would drive to Villa Somalia, which was not far from where I lived. The driveway went up a steep incline to the entrance. Scerif took it slow, because searchlights focused on the car made it hard to see and there were a number of guards armed with AK-47s. Siad's guards came from his immediate clan, the Marehan, and I always thought they looked too young and too trigger-happy.
The president's office would confirm my appointment far enough in advance that Scerif could go home for dinner at the end of the regular working day, and come back later to take me to see the President. Late one evening, though, I got a call to come see the President right away. Why the urgency, I was not told. In any case I would of course go, but go without Scerif, who had no telephone at home and lived too far away for me to go get him, if indeed I could find his house in a part of town that lacked street lights.
I put on a clean shirt, stuck the flags on the Olds, and started off. I still remember driving slowly, slowly, up that incline into the blinding glare of the searchlights, and stopping when someone shouted. The young guards must know whose vehicle it was—right? They held my car there a long while. Fortunately they didn't shoot.
The next day I told the Minister for the Presidency, Abdullahi Addou, that I was not going to repeat the experience. I was, I said, always pleased (not really) to see the President but, urgency or not, I needed a little more advance notice.
The best driving in Somalia came when my friend Bill Fullerton, the British ambassador, and I took a Land Rover and a Toyota 100 miles along the Gulf of Aden, not on a road but just on hard beach sand and gravel. Days later, after we had reached Cape Guardafui, the Horn of Africa, by plane, boat, and finally several miles on foot, we did another long stretch by car, inland. For two or three hours we drove side by side across the great Daror plain, racing through the night across a treeless, roadless land. One big boulder could have been the end of us. There were many stars and fortunately no boulders—as has been true for much of my life.
I worked at several jobs in the years after I left Somalia and retired from the Foreign Service. My last paid job, aside from small amounts I have made from writing—which has also provided some psychic income, in some ways as good as dollars—was as a part-time consultant for Tatra, the second-oldest (after Daimler-Benz) automotive manufacturer in Central Europe.
I had gotten to know Tatra in the 1970s, while serving at the embassy in Prague under Ambassador Albert W. Sherer. His nickname was Bud and he came to Prague from ambassadorships in Togo and then Guinea. Those were not big posts but he and his vivacious wife, Carroll, had found a lot to do in Africa. Now in Prague, he told me one day, he was frankly bored. Czechoslovak officials did not want—or did not dare—to see much of the American ambassador.
As head of the embassy's political/economic section I was responsible, among other things, for trade promotion. "You know, Bud," I said, "The Czechs keep telling me they want to have more trade with us. What if I tell them my ambassador would like to visit some of their big industrial enterprises, to try to drum up trade?"
"Fine, Peter," he said. "I don't think it'll work, but go ahead and give it a try."
I gave it a try and the officials were receptive. In the next few months the ambassador visited (of course with me along) a number of major enterprises, from the Skoda engineering works in Pilsen, west of Prague, to the big steel mill at Kosice in eastern Slovakia. Among the places we visited was the Tatra works at Koprivnice, a city of 20-odd thousand people in the forests and small mountains of northern Moravia, 200 miles east of Prague. It was perhaps not the ideal location for an automotive plant, but Tatra's founder, Ignác Sustala, had been born there and had started making wagons there in 1850. In fact much of the Czech industry's amazing growth in the 1800s and 1900s took place in relatively small places.
Tatra's top management greeted us warmly and showed us their plant, equipped in large part with modern machinery from West Germany. Then we went out to the proving ground. The ambassador and I were given rides over a course with steep hillocks and deep trenches in a new Tatra truck, the T813. It was unlike any Western vehicle I knew of. It had a large air-cooled, rear-mounted engine, and swing axles that let it cross really rough terrain—like the proving ground. We drove through a pool of water that was four or five feet deep, up an incline that seemed almost 45 degrees, and across a trench that the driver said was a meter and a half wide, about five feet. It was one tough vehicle. Tatra said it sold all it could produce, principally to two other Communist states, the Soviet Union and China, where T813s worked well in Siberian cold and roadless Sinkiang.
What could American industry provide Tatra, assuming our restrictions on exports to Communist countries would permit sales? We reported to Washington on our visit, and again after Tatra wrote us to emphasize their interest in American machinery. (You can read my second report at Wikileaks.) Nothing eventuated. In addition to our export restrictions, American industry, alone among industrialized countries, had still not gone over to the metric system.
Two decades later, retired from government, I was again in Prague, now as the resident representative of the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development. The EBRD, in which the US Government has a 10 percent capital share, was created in order to help the formerly state-run economies of Communist Europe turn to free enterprise. My job was to look for Czech companies that might need us.
I thought of Tatra. An old friend, Jaroslav Jirásek, was on the Tatra board and he told me that the company had been trying to privatize but had had bad results. Gerald Greenwald, former vice chairman of Chrysler, and two other veterans of the US automotive industry had signed a sweetheart deal with Tatra. They would get large salaries plus a 15 percent share in the company for spending just five days each month working for Tatra, not necessarily even in Koprivnice. They simply were not around enough to run things, Jirásek told me, and proved unable either to help Tatra maintain sales to the Russians and Chinese or to find new markets.
Eventually I left EBRD, which was a mess in its own right. By now the three American executives had left Tatra. Perhaps I could help the company, which was limping badly, to sell trucks in America. They gave me a consulting contract. The company thought it could start by selling in Alaska, where the vehicles would stay entirely off-road and so would not have to meet US standards. That was not the case, as I tried to prove to them. Moreover, it came clear that to succeed in selling in the US—and they dreamed of sales to our military—they would need a lobbyist in Washington. I did not want to be that. We parted amicably.
The best of it had been my trips between the Prague airport and Koprivnice in a Tatra—not a truck but a large and long Tatra automobile. Tatra had started making cars in 1897, and in the late 1930s its chief engineer, the Austrian Hans Ledwinka, designed a small streamlined model with an air-cooled rear engine. Tatra called it the lidový vuz or people's car—which in German is Volkswagen. Ferdinand Porsche later admitted he had "looked over Ledwinka's shoulder" when designing the original VW Bug.
After World War II Tatra continued making cars, bigger ones but still streamlined and with a rear air-cooled engine. This continued after the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948. Tatras were more expensive than the other Czech car, the Skoda, or the little East German Trabant. The Tatra went therefore entirely for official use, and as Communist bureaucracy got bigger, so did the Tatra.
Eventually Tatra got agreement from the Czechoslovak central planners to have an Italian firm, Virginal of Turin, design an all-new luxury sedan, the Tatra 613, still to be powered by a rear-mounted engine, a big air-cooled V8. Tatra would provide the 613 to top Czechoslovak officials and it would also have a limousine to sell to other Communist countries for their officials' use.
It was a glaring example of central planning that didn't work. The Czechs had neglected to check with the other countries of state socialism about their possible interest in the new 613. There was no interest. The Soviets produced their own Cadillac-like sedan, the Zil, and the other Communists of Central Europe bought Western luxury cars, Mercedes-Benzes and Peugeots, for their top dogs. Nothing daunted, Tatra went ahead, producing not many more than a hundred 613s a year. They might not be economic but they were beautiful, fine for a top Communist bureaucrat. Even after the Communists were kicked out in the Velvet Revolution, Tatra kept on making them. It seemed hope sprang eternal in Koprivnice.
When I came from America to consult Tatra management in the 1990s, a Tatra driver would meet me at Prague airport in a shiny 613 and take me to Koprivnice and back. The first 200 kilometers, 125 miles, from Prague to Brno, were along the D1, a four-lane limited-access highway that was as well engineered as a German autobahn. I always sat next to the driver, and watched not just the pleasant countryside but the speedometer. At times we got up to 220 kilometers an hour, around 140 MPH, the fastest I have ever traveled on land, not counting trains.
The 613s had an oblong license plate, smaller than the ordinary Czech plate. Once I asked a driver if that exempted them from being stopped by the police for speeding. "No," he said, "It's just a plate for experimental vehicles. Sometimes they stop us—if they can catch us."
Tatra finally stopped making automobiles in 1999. Nobody wanted them except rich car collectors. The company still makes trucks and it is still limping, but a Tatra truck did well in the 2016 Dakar Rally, the world's toughest, coming in first in a couple of stages. I remember Tatra sometimes when I drive across our High Plains. Speed limits on the Interstates are 75 and even 80 MPH in Western states. I tell myself I might do twice that in a 613.
Alas, the time is coming when my children, if not the authorities, will tell me I am too old to drive, either fast or slow. Perhaps that will not come soon. I think of Cousin Albert Roussel. When he was 92, years older than I am now, he was the oldest licensed driver in the State of Louisiana.
One day Cousin Albert and his wife drove in from St. Mary's Parish to have lunch with some of our relatives in New Orleans.
"Albert," someone said at the table, "Aren't you getting a little old to be driving?"
"Bless you, cher," he said, "I don't drive."
"You don't drive? What in heaven's name are you saying?"
"No, no. I don't drive. I just hold the wheel. My wife drives."
I could imagine Grandma Devlin smiling, as she drove the big Buick down St. Charles.