Them’s the Brakes. Or not. by
(58 Stories)

Prompted By Car Trouble

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Suzy’s Watervliet story started a cascade of memories.

I grew up in upstate New York.  Binghamton, to be exact.  Birthplace of Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company.  Never heard of it? It later changed its name to International Business Machines n/k/a IBM.  Actually, the claim of birthright is bogus.  The headquarters were in nearby Endicott.  But, then, things in Binghamton were always a bit. Different.*

I digress.  I abandoned the public schools to go prep school in ninth grade, Deerfield, in western Massachusetts.  To get there we had to travel Route 7 northeast through the Albany area (and Watervliet, Suzy) to get to Route 2 in Massachusetts.  Route 7 was a two-lane road that passed through a gazillion small towns and villages with unusual names.  Unadilla.  Quaker Street.  And Otego.  Ah, Otego.

Christmas break, 1963.  I was a freshman at Deerfield.  I was one of three local guys there.  One of my colleagues was from a wealthy family that had a full-time jack-of-all-trades whose duties included taking the scion, Jamie, back and forth to Deerfield.  The family generously allowed me to ride along.  At Thanksgiving, we left Deerfield at about 8am and sailed along, arriving in Binghamton by 1 pm.  But this December things  were not so smooth.

As we descended into the village of Otego, only about 55 miles from Binghamton, the driver shouted the terrifying alarm “I ain’t got no brakes.” Somehow, we made it down the incline in one piece and managed to coast into a service station, conveniently situated at the bottom of the hill.  It was probably not long after noon.  The station had a resident mechanic, who proceeded to put the station wagon we were in on a lift.  In time the problem was diagnosed.  The necessary part(s) had to be delivered from another location and then installed. Sooner or later.  Turned out to be later. Much later. We left after sunset, probably around 5pm or so.  Bored silly but none the worse for wear.  Not so our parents.  None of the three of us guys had thought to call home to alert the ‘rents that we were delayed.  So as the afternoon wore on things at home were far less than calm.  Only upon arriving home around six did we learn of the misery we had wrought. All was forgiven, but lesson learned.  Because the route to Deerfield was also the route to Harvard, I had seven more years of passing through Otego to and from school.  And I always remembered that first Christmas experience.**


*  Binghamton is the current home of the New York Mets Class AA minor league team. They are the “Rumble Ponies”.  Not your ordinary name for a sports team.  But then, the Eastern League, in which they play, also is home to a Hartford team.  The Yard Goats. Perhaps Binghamton and Hartford had a bet as to which could come up with the weirder name.  (And because you’re no doubt dying to know, “Rumble Pony” is a shout out to another Binghamton institution, the carousel.  There are, or were, seven within the city, and some still operate.  With extended use the machinery aged and it was common for the carousel horses to vibrate, or rumble, when the carousel operated.)

**Nowadays one making the same trip would bypass Otego entirely. I-88 now connects Binghamton and Albany.  The nearly four-hour trip has been reduced to two.

The station had a resident mechanic, who proceeded to put the station wagon we were in on a lift. In time the problem was diagnosed. The necessary part(s) had to be delivered from another location and then installed. Sooner or later. Turned out to be later
Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Route 7. I wonder if that’s the road we were on when we stopped to wipe the snow off the headlights. I knew it couldn’t be a highway as we know them today.

    This is a great story, Tom, full of local color (including Rumble Ponies and Yard Goats), a wealthy prep-school friend, and terror, both from failing brakes and missing children. What more could one ask for? Of course it never occurred to any of you to call your parents. Of course they had no way of knowing what had happened and were frantic. Why hadn’t cell phones been invented yet? Perfect portrait of the time and place!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Good story, Tom. And I know the places pretty well. Even was in Binghamton once on a business trip — though, as I recall, there was occasional air service from one of the NYC airports to get there, so no long roads were involved. Of course, a story like this could never happen today. Someone’s parent would have called one of your cellphones, even if you hadn’t been thoughtful enough to call them.

    I also recall when Hartford named the Yard Goats, but I forget the backstory to the name. That said, the grungiest name I’ve ever heard a pro sports team named was in hockey: a minor league team called the Sacramento River Rats. I just happened to see one of their jerseys in a skating equioment store on Long Island and sent it to a lawyer I had been adverse to in a big, ugly case in Sacramento. My note pretty much went as follows: “Dear Joe — I saw this jersey and couldn’t help but think of you.” He appreciated the joke, as I knew he would, and apparently hung the jersey in his office.

    • Thanks, John. Yes, there was a regional airport serving Binghamton with regular service courtesy (?) of Utica-based Mohawk Airlines, familiarly known as SlowHawk. At one point they launched a customer appreciation program that awarded medallions good for a free drink to compensate passengers for delays. Almost put them in Chapter 11. They were gobbled up, finally, by Allegheny. Caused a good deal of indigestion, I believe.

  3. Marian says:

    No fun losing brakes in December, Tom, but I can imagine the parents’ panic at wondering what happened. Cell phones are a mixed blessing but would have been useful in this scenario.

  4. Tom, I well remember your story about your youthful hard work erecting tents for the fairs!

    And as we have a house in CT, the Harford Yard Goats is a team my husband has seen play often!

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Losing brakes on a hill in December sounds terrifying, but what luck to coast safely into a service station with actual service. And maybe a pay phone no one thought to use. But lesson learned. Cell phones now are great as long as there is service and phone isn’t dead.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Thanks for sharing this entertaining story of your frightful brake down. The part about not notifying your parents was familiar to me. When our son was in high school, he and a friend went to a concert somewhere in the middle of nowhere. When he didn’t return all night, I was calling hospitals and police. Of course, he was fine. They were stuck in mud and traffic trying to exit the concert. I pointed out that there were phone booths along the way where he might have considered calling home. Right.

    • None so clueless as teenage boys. Perhaps better that if he had not noticed the pay phones than, say, that he had noticed, considered calling home and chose not to! In my own experience I must say I didn’t notice any pay phones in our vicinity that December afternoon. Then again, I didn’t look for any . . .

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Very entertaining story, Tom, from the jack-of-all-trades sent to drive the son (and you) home, to losing the brakes in December (truly terrifying). How lucky you all were that he was able to roll into a service station, even if it took a long time for the repair to be diagnosed, then accomplished. And of course, no one thought to call the frantic parents!

    As for the Rumble Ponies, we watch to a sports recap show on ESPN every night, featuring Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon. Kornheiser is proudly from Binghamton (went to the U of B) and occasionally goes back to see the Rumble Ponies play. He wore one of their jerseys at the end of the show yesterday, sent to him by a fan!

    • Oh, my. Thanks for this, Betsy. Didn’t know about Kornheiser, who is one of the few ESPN folk I admire. I wonder if he knows about the “before” of Binghamton baseball. Growing up the Binghamton team, known as the Triplets – Binghamton was one of the three adjacent cities that comprised the “Triple Cities” – was the Yankee AA farm team, also playing in the Eastern League. One of the joys of following the team back then was watching the promising newcomers who would one day become stars. It was quite a list. In the early sixties the team briefly switched to being the A’s AA farm team. Memorable for me because the manager, Granny Hamner, who had been an infielder with the Phillies Whiz Kids in 1950, decided to remedy a shortage of relief pitchers on the staff by taking the mound himself. Which he did so well that he was briefly called up to the majors as a pitcher.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    An irresistible headline and image followed by a story that’s pure fun. And then there’s Rte. 2, the sweetest little highway of my life, and baseball. Lots of smiles here, thanks!

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