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Prompted By Car Trouble

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My father had just traded in his early ’50s Cadillac for a brand new 1960 Chrysler Imperial, like the beauty shown in the featured image. It was roomy and comfortable, and at the time of this story it still had that wonderful new car smell.

My father had just traded in his early ’50s Cadillac for a brand new 1960 Chrysler Imperial, like the beauty in the featured image.

We were going on a family ski trip to Vermont, invited by some friends of my parents who were world-class skiers. They were trying to turn us into skiers too, and we were game to try it. We were able to fit all five of us, along with all of our luggage and other paraphernalia, into this amazing car with ease. We set off after my father was finished with his last patient on Friday afternoon – probably around 5:30 – for what was going to be a great weekend!

As we drove up through New York State on our way to Vermont, it started snowing lightly. It was dark, and my father had turned on the headlights. It seemed to him that they were not as bright as they should be, or was that just because of the snow? He wondered if it was his imagination, but he and my mother soon concluded it was not. He pulled over and wiped them off, thinking maybe the snow had caked on the glass, or the glass had gotten dirty on the road. But that didn’t do the trick. In fact, the lights seemed to be getting dimmer. Finally, in the town of Watervliet, New York, which was north of Albany and close to the Vermont state line, we found a gas station that was open and we pulled in. In those days, gas stations were also service stations, and they had a mechanic on duty even though it was kind of late on a Friday night. (According to Google maps, it would now take 2½ to 3 hours to get to Watervliet from our house in New Jersey, but the roads were not all interstates back then, and it would likely have taken longer. So it would have been 8 p.m. at the very earliest, and probably later.)

They started checking the usual things under the hood, and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Finally, they decided to put the car up on a lift so they could see underneath. Meanwhile, I had stretched out in the back seat and gone to sleep. They just left me there while the car went up on the lift. Was there any discussion about whether that was safe or not? I have no idea.

We were there for several hours, and I was the only one who got to sleep during that time. My sisters don’t remember how they passed the time, but they do remember that it seemed like an exciting adventure. (I was eight, they were thirteen and fifteen.) If my parents were worried, as I imagine they were, they didn’t let it show.

It turned out that the electrical connections had been reversed somehow, so the car was draining the battery as we drove, when it should have been recharging. This was the first trip of any length we had taken since purchasing the car, and apparently the in-town trips my father had taken (probably just to the hospital and back) weren’t long enough to cause a problem. Once they figured that out, it may have been a fairly simple matter to fix it, although then they had to charge the battery for a while so it wouldn’t die on us. When it was finally ready to go, they woke me up, everyone got back in the car and we finished the drive to Vermont. I believe we were going to Mount Snow, in southern Vermont, so it would have been only about another 1½ hours to get there. I suppose we then checked into the hotel, got some sleep, and went skiing the next day.

In discussing the trip with my sisters, we all remember the car trouble, and spending half the night in Watervliet, New York, but we can remember nothing about the skiing!


Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: funny, right on!


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Fun story, Suzy. And as soon as you mentioned the lights dimming, I was pretty sure that it had to do with the electrical system, as those were really problematic back in the 60’s. (Like the computer systems today.) For a while, I couldn’t hit the horn on my Karmann Ghia — which, apparently, required a lot of electricity — without it blowing a fuse. Imagine how tough that made driving in Cambridge and Boston!

    I was particularly amused by your being asleep when the car was on the lift. That would likely be considered child abuse these days, though it was obviously quite safe. Glad you weren’t a sleepwalker, though.

    I also remember that drive up to southern Vermont ski areas way back then (especially before I-91 was built). It did seem like it took forever. And the fact that I really didn’t like to ski made it even worse.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for confirming that the interstates weren’t there yet. I was pretty sure, because we were able to pull over to the side of the road to check the headlights. Also for confirming that the drive seemed like it took forever, even from Connecticut.

      You didn’t mention my song title title, by the late great Tom Petty. That’s the problem with one-word song titles, they just seem like words.

  2. What a fun memory Suzy – except for the frustrating car trouble of course – but I expected some calamity with 8-year old Suzy perhaps stuck up there on the car lift! But sounds like you happily slept thru it all!

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    I thought you were going to be caught in a snowstorm at first as lights were dimming. The reverse wiring brought back memories of getting a little cab-over camper for our truck and happily setting off only to discover the wiring was also bad (done by the lunk-headed son at “Harvey’s RV’s” discount lot where we got the camper) and it disabled the truck. Sorted out in Klamath Falls, but no sweet sleep on an elevated rack for us.

    • Suzy says:

      I don’t remember if the snow got worse or not. It couldn’t have been a blizzard or I would have remembered that. We were in Watervliet for hours, so maybe it had stopped snowing by the time we left.

  4. Marian says:

    Love your “nap” up on the lift, Suzy. Today insurance companies rule and you can’t get anywhere near the repair area. At least, with cars of that era, electrical problems were relatively easy to fix, and as John points out, that was fortunate because the systems were pretty bad. Interesting that you don’t remember the skiing part of the trip, which must have been unremarkable.

    • Suzy says:

      I do have some memories of ski trips, including one where there was an outdoor heated pool that you had to run through the snow to get to. And struggling to hold on to a rope tow. But I have no idea if they were from this trip or others.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    That was truly a car trouble adventure, although it seems like you slept through most of it. I can’t believe the mechanic let you snooze while the car was on the lift. Then again, that was a different era when folks were much less rule- bound or worried about things related to safety.

  6. First, thanks for the offline head’s up about your story. As I replied privately, I do know Watervliet from prep school days driving to western MA. And, yes, I remember “service stations” and on-site mechanics. When was the last time we saw one of them? Like John I was amused – and horrified – by your “uplifting” experience.

    And your story prompts a memory of my own upstate NY car trouble story . . .

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love that your father traded in his Caddy for an Imperial. My dad had a Chrysler dealership and also drove Imperials at the time. I agree, they were very luxurious. I used to sleep on the carpeted floor of the backseat (no seat belts back then).

    But whoa…bad electrical wiring causing the battery to not charge; not good! Glad that service station was still open so late on the Friday night. Unbelievable that your family left you sound asleep in the back seat up on the lift. At least you were well rested! And you successfully made it up to your destination and had a great time. All’s well that ends well, I guess. Quite the adventure.

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