Object Lesson

Everybody has one or two vehicles in their lives that have some special meaning. The first car they owned. Mine was a 1956 Chevy Bel Aire. Or the first car they drove over 100 mph in. Mine was my folk’s 1957 Plymouth wagon out on the Mid Cape Highway driving back to Orleans from Hyannis. That was the only make of car other than a Ford wagon my folks owned while I was living at home, and that was only the one time for about three years.

For me one of the most memorable vehicle in my life was an old, beat up Willys Jeep station wagon. Not like the ones you see on M.A.S.H.. but an early version of the Wrangler.

My dad bought it in Provincetown, the very tip of Cape Cod. It gave him a criminal record. The Jeep was unregistered so he took the license plate off our Plymouth and put it on the Jeep to drive it home to Orleans. For some reason or other he got stopped by the police in Eastham and because he’d swapped plates he ended up with a misdemeanor conviction, paid a fine ,and was placed on probation for about 6 months.

Unlike the one in the picture ours was coral pink and white. I think my dad did that with a paint brush though I didn’t see him do it. This wasn’t a new vehicle, remember.

After he had a lumbar laminectomy he couldn’t go back to work as a carpenter that winter, but one thing about my dad was his ability to spot a business opportunity. He got what was called a “Peddler’s License,” built a plywood thing-a-mah-jigger with several shelves and compartments and slid it into the back of the Jeep. We had a shed up in the woods behind the house where he’d stored a lot of equipment from the former catering business. He dug out a 5-gallon thermos for coffee. He contacted several of the suppliers he used for the Snack Shack in the summer and stocked up with candy and stuff like that. He and my mom would get up early and make dozens of sandwiches and my dad introduced the first roach coach to Orleans, Mass. The genius in this was that there was a window for this operation of only that one winter. There were, of course, the usual summer cottage constructions going on in the town as well as nearby Eastham and Brewster. But there were extra laborers working on extending the Mid Cape Highway through Orleans and up to the Eastham town line, and they were building Nauset Regional High School. He’d take off in the morning, hit all the construction sites and schmooze with his pals. He sure didn’t get rich doing this but it paid the bills and kept five hungry boys fed.

The primary function of the Jeep was to tow a trailer full of the Snack Shack’s daily trash to the dump. It wasn’t good for much more than that. The damned thing burned oil like you wouldn’t believe. It pretty much drank a quart of the stuff just to drive the eight mile round trip from our house to the beach on the other side of town and back.

One of the downsides to being the boss’s son is you rarely catch a break compared to the regular grunts that work at the place. It was in the middle of July ’59 and there’d been several continuous days of rain. First day everybody worked doing a deep cleaning. Second day half of the crew went home and the cleaning continued. Third day the other half got the day off. Repeat of the day before. Did the boss’s son? NOOOOOOO!!! Not until the fourth day. Finally my friend Fran Higgins and I got the day off. 

I asked my dad if we could use the Jeep. There was a movie over in Hyannis we wanted to see. My dad said, “No. The Jeep won’t make it that far.” Fran and I really wanted to see that movie so we bought a case of motor oil and headed over to Hyannis, 30 miles away. We stopped a half dozen times or so on the way over to pour oil into the engine. I don’t remember what the movie was, but it didn’t matter in light of what was to come.

We went through the same drill on the way home, stopping to give the Jeep more oil. That is until the damned engine froze solid in Dennis, two towns away from Orleans.

I called Leo Cummings, who owned the Sunoco service station we patronized to come and tow me home. THEN I had to call my dad…

“Uh, the Jeep is a Leo’s. The engine froze.”

“Where did that happen?” my dad’s disembodied voice asked.

“On the Mid Cape.”

“Really? Which direction was it headed?”


“Okay, walk home and we’ll talk this evening.”

There were no histrionics in the conversation. It was all very civilized. My dad explained that he WASN’T going to pay to have the engine rebuilt or to have a new engine installed. But the trash HAD to go to the dump every day. So that evening I phoned “Bushy” Freeman, the only trash collector in town and made arrangements for him to take over hauling the trash for us. I PAID every week out of my pay check. It came to about 75% of what I earned. My dad was very big on object lessons.

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