In later years I was to wish we’d held onto the Studebaker, too, but we didn’t. Thanks to living so close to the school, for several years there we only needed one car, and cars aged quickly in those days. I could tell that several things were getting set to go wrong with it, so in the summer of 1956 Arlene and I decided to trade it in. Since it was her car, I let her make up her mind what she wanted, and I just basically went along with it. Even though I was pretty much a Ford man, we wound up buying a brand new end-of-the-model-year ’55 Chevrolet two-door with the V8 engine.
If ever there was a landmark car, that was it. I’ve always been partial to the way life was in the fifties, but I’ve said many times that they built some really butt-ugly cars back in those days. They were too big, too flashy, too loaded with chrome, and they reflected what the designers thought the public wanted, rather than what the public itself wanted. This phenomenon was capped off by the introduction of the Edsel in 1958, which of course fell on its face. I mean, name me a good looking American car from the 1950s. There weren’t many – the ’52 Studebaker, the ’55 Thunderbird, which chromed and sized its way out of its promise by 1958; the ’55 Chevy, which suffered from the same fate, and the . . . uh . . . well . . . you get my point.
In many ways the ’55 Chevy was the major milestone of these, not entirely because of the body design, which was pure and simple in an era when many cars were overdone, but from that little 265-cubic-inch V8 tucked under the hood. The small-block Chevy V8 introduced in that period may set a record for being the most successful all-round engine ever designed. That same basic design is still being produced all these years later, although a bit larger in displacement. You want to know what was under the hood of the largest number of NASCAR winners last year? The last twenty years? That small-block Chevy V8 introduced clear back there in the 1955 model year, that’s what.
That particular Chevy was a little special, too, in that we brought three kids home from the hospital with it.
Arlene and I had made up our minds that we weren’t going to rush into having kids, and that we wanted to get to know each other a little better before we went down that route. I have to admit that chance got involved in it, and Vernon came along a little sooner than we’d planned, but only a little sooner, in September of 1956. Raymond joined us in November of 1957. Arlene and I had made up our minds that we were going to try to keep our kids pretty close in age, but two kids in diapers in that little house was plenty, so we put off trying one more time for a girl for a bit. Elaine came along in March of 1960, and with that Arlene and I pretty well made up our minds that enough was enough.
The thought of having to live with three little kids in that house was more than we really wanted to deal with. We’d liked the house well enough to buy it back there in the fall of ’54, and it had served us well, but after Elaine came along we were pretty sure we were going to have to do something different. One of the things I’d liked about that house was it was within easy walking distance of school, so we could get away with only one car (by then the Ford didn’t count), but it got to be a pain in the neck at times. It was pretty clear we were going to have to have a second car no matter where we moved, so we decided to not look just in town. We decided we didn’t need to be in any huge rush about it though. In those days Arlene was working only part time, and getting someone to care for the kids when I couldn’t do it was something of a problem, so we had to be a little careful with our money. I had tenure by that time, so I knew I had a job with the school as long as I wanted to stay there, and that gave us a little stability to work with.
I started teaching driver’s education in the summer of 1955. A little to my surprise, I enjoyed it a lot and rarely had a kid scare me with their driving. The classroom part of it was easy, but I had to put in a minimum of driving ten hours with each kid. When you’re talking thirty or forty kids, that does a real good job of eating up a summer, and it got worse as the class sizes increased through the sixties when the "baby boomer" kids began to hit driving age. A lot of the simple stuff was pretty easy, since I could get the kids started on low-use country roads, although in driving around we usually headed into Kalamazoo or South Bend once or twice so the kids would get a little more idea of how to drive in heavier traffic.
I was riding around with a carload of my driver’s education kids one day along in the summer of 1960 when I happened to notice a farmhouse on Taney Road about three miles west of town. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, of course, or even the hundred and first. In fact, it had been for sale for a while. I’d often thought that it seemed to be in pretty good shape for an older house, and pretty close to what Arlene and I were looking for, except for the fact that it was a farm and we were just looking for a house. Now, of course I’d grown up on a farm, and if that taught me anything it was that I had no desire to be a farmer again.
But somehow that morning a different train of thought began to form. Just because it was a farm didn’t mean that it had to be a bad deal. It might be worthwhile to buy the place, divide the house and a large lot off of it, and then sell the rest. As far as that went, there was no reason I couldn’t lease out the land or have someone farm it on shares. I thought that might come close to covering the payments, and if I could do that it seemed likely that the land value might go up enough over the years to make it a decent investment. That thought was strong enough that on my lunch break I took a swing by the real estate agency to find out a little bit more.
It turned out that the farm was owned by an older couple. They’d owned it for years and farmed it for a good many of them, but in recent years had leased the farmland out. Now, they wanted to sell out and move to Florida. It had been on the market for a while and they’d just reduced the price.
That evening at dinner I brought the idea up to Arlene. She thought the idea might have some potential if the numbers worked out, so we made a date to check the place out. The house proved to be in very good condition; the old boy who owned it was something of a handyman, and everything was in top shape. The place had several outbuildings, including a fairly large barn and a large two-car garage. When everything was said and done Arlene and I agreed that we liked the place a lot. We played with numbers and fudged things around a bit, and wound up making an offer on the place. We worked out a deal to continue the lease arrangement, and never did get around to splitting the land off.
I guess you can take the boy off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. At least I didn’t have to do any of the work. My farming consisted of about an acre and a half of lawn, and I bought a riding lawnmower early on.
As it turned out our timing could have been a little better. We moved in before school started that fall, but by the time it let out in the spring of 1961 getting into town was a pain in the neck. We’d known for a couple of years that I-67 was going to be coming through west of town, between the town and our farm. They had to build an interchange and an overpass over the county road we used to get into town, and everything was torn up for months.
The building of I-67 brought the biggest change to Bradford of anything that happened in all the years since 1954. When Arlene and I first came to Bradford, the Indiana Turnpike a few miles to the south of us was not yet under construction, but once it opened it was an easy hop for us to run over to Schererville and her parents. Running into Chicago for whatever reason got a lot simpler – not that we did that very often, but we could when we wanted to. I-67 was a long time getting finished on the far side of Interstate 94 to the north of us, but right from the beginning there was a fair amount of traffic going past the town. It made Bradford a much more appealing place for industry to move to since shipping was a lot simpler. The population stayed right around 3,000, but over the years several factories moved in as the number of farmers decreased.
The Interstates changed things all over the country, not just at Bradford. Back in the early fifties we traveled all over the country mostly on two-lane roads. Some of them were pretty and interesting, but usually they were slow roads because you went through every darn town along the way with low speed limits, stop lights and anything else to slow you down. There were a lot of speed traps, and it was only from being careful that we didn’t get more speeding tickets than we did. The Interstates took away a lot of that; if you were going to a place like, say Indianapolis from Bradford your driving time was cut close to in half.
The price of that was the simple fact that for the most part the drive along the Interstates was a lot more boring than going down some of those older two-lane roads. If I have to go some place and time is an issue, I take the Interstate, but if I’m not in a hurry I still take the two-lane roads since they’re more interesting. They’ve changed a lot; a lot of the places that we depended on are gone now, the tourist courts and EAT places, and when you get right down to it I don’t really miss some of them. I do miss the era, though.
I knew from all the driving I did in the early fifties that a lot of those old two-lane roads were inadequate, especially for the amount of traffic they had on them, and as the amount of traffic increased as the country grew they became more inadequate. I don’t want to think about what it would be like to have the level of traffic we have today on those roads. We probably wouldn’t have it and more stuff would have to move by rail. I have to give President Eisenhower credit; he saw the need for the improved road network and pushed for it. In the long run it may be the most important thing he did for his country, and that was after already having done a lot of important things for it.
I have to admit that Arlene and I didn’t make use of the improved roads much the first few years. To be honest we’d had enough traveling to hold us for a while. We had a home after years of living out of our cars and we liked to enjoy it. Besides, we had little kids for most of that period. I can tell you from experience that making long trips with little kids is not a lot of fun, so we pretty much held our traveling to occasional runs to Schererville. That was far enough with a carload of kids.
I would have to say that Arlene and I enjoyed being parents, although I think I can say that we enjoyed it a little more when both the boys were in school along in the early sixties and only Elaine was around the house. Boys will be boys, of course, and with the two of them only a little over a year apart in age they got into all sorts of things together. As they got older, though, we began to realize that they were two different kids, and I think it took the two of them to drive that home to us.
Vern was the student; he hardly ever got anything less than straight A’s, and if a nice summer day came along with nothing better to do you’d likely find him sitting in the shade of the back porch with a book in his hands.
Ray, on the other hand, wasn’t all that good of a student, and it took a really good book to hold him for more than a few minutes. Ray’s talent lay in other areas. It was Ray who built the tree houses, Ray who tore things apart to see how they worked, Ray who would be looking over my shoulder and helping out when I worked on a car or something out in the garage that became my shop.
Let’s just say that I eventually wound up letting Ray drive the riding lawnmower before I turned Vern loose with it. Even though Ray was the younger of the two, he was more mechanically inclined and in tune with driving. Of course Vern thought he ought to be able to do it too, but I was more concerned when he was doing the lawn mowing. The good part of that was that for a number of years I didn’t have to worry about doing any lawn mowing myself.
I guess you would have to say that all and all, the first few years Arlene and I spent in Bradford were pretty ordinary and unremarkable – so much so that we hardly noticed the years passing. When you get right down to it, we’d gotten into a pretty normal, unexciting existence. That was just fine with us, because in the ten years preceding we’d had enough excitement that being normal felt pretty good to us. We didn’t have any complaints about the way our lives were going, and we were happy with them. Really, it would have been hard to ask for much more.