Forgotten Ghosts on Forgotten Highways
August 18, 2015
They move out slowly like ghosts from the past.
But mostly black. Henry Ford made them that way.
“Give the customer any color he wants, so as long as it’s black,” Ford said.
His assembly lines did.
And America bought black.
There were cars other than Ford on the road, you know.
In them, these velocipedes of yesterday, America grew up, grew rich, and grew old long before its time. But a nation never grew weary.
It had luxury to ride.
The yonder side of the nation would never seem so far away again.
The automobile became mankind’s most ardent slave. It hauled him around. It carried his goods. It went where it was driven and did what it as geared to do.
It worked hard – overtime and overloaded – and was sometimes as cantankerous, as temperamental, as the goggle-eyed man who sat behind the wheel. It was kicked and cursed and criticized and ridiculed but never talked back – and only smoked now and then.
In that wizened old year of 1900, the newspapers proudly proclaimed that the nation boasted of possessing eighteen million horses and mules, ten million bicycles, and only four thousand automobiles.
One editorial even labeled the car as “an expensive luxury for the man who does not need one. It is well named the devil wagon.
By 1906, however, the press began to take a different view of those junkyards on wheels, those horseless carriages, those worthless toys belonging to men who certainly did not need them or had any reason to drive them.
An earthquake had destroyed San Francisco, left it shattered, crying amidst the pain and rubble. And every available automobile was commandeered by the military. The carriages rushed the injured to hospitals, the aged to safety, and took the city’s half-million homeless to shelters that would become their homes.
An editorial crisply reported: ‘Hereafter, the people of San Francisco will regard the automobile as a blessing rather than a nuisance.”
They were never fast, these automobiles of the past, but they were dependable.
They were never comfortable but at least and at last they had gained a measure of respect.
They didn’t roll.
Their highways so many tines were merely ruts chiseled by he rain, cattle trails that followed winding stretches of fence lines.
They wheezed and whined and groaned and rattled, and when they grew old men junked them, then neglected them, then forgot them.
They were tossed aside, shoved into open graves of disgrace.
They became the unwanted, piled together on crowded hillsides to rust away in the bramble bush of time, hidden away in the twisted vines of weathered barns, shut off like the derelict no one dares speak of anymore.
For no tears are shed for lifeless metal whose end of time is come.
Yet old automobiles don’t necessarily rest in peace.
The sentimental rescue them from their shame and misery, nourish them with diets of grease and polish, give them body transplants with the care and skill of a surgeon, squeeze the breath of life back into their tired old engines.
Cars roll proudly like antique royalty on the aristocracy of super highways, the long lost friend from a nation’s childhood.
They follow where new roads lead them, searching where old roads have gone, and never finding them.
They parade past eyes that have never seen them before, past eyes that look and smile and remember.
But all eyes are upon them.
No one ever looks the other way, not when memories pass by.
The Highways to Good Times they have traveled
To Hard Times.
To Sad Times.
Past the factories of their birth to the graveyards of their passing.
They roll proudly onward, hugging to the wheels of their last chance, pointing down the concrete of their next highway, maybe their last highway.
It’s good to see familiar faces again after all of these years.
Perhaps they’ve lived too long already.
But not one wants to see them disappear.
They died once, and once is enough.
Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Deadline News, written about an era when the Model T was in style.