SIDNEY UNDERWOOD: GRANTSVILLE BOY LOVED HIS CARS - Merrily Underwood Reminiscences, You Can Too

"In a world that is centralizing, merging, consolidating and now globalizing, the spot or place where people are born, live and grow is still what matters most in life. It is in that place where we have our being and learn the lessons of life, from each other and the earth upon which we stand." - Bob Weaver

Former Grantsville resident Sidney Underwood, who now resides in Parkersburg, has recalled his childhood days on a Grantsville alley in a short story, coming of age with his parents Wayne and Marguerite Underwood, his dad being a well-remembered football coach at Calhoun County High School.

Now comes his story about cars and the life that is attached to them. It will hopefully ignite the reader's flame of reminiscing, in the kindest and gentleness way.

October 1946 - Pete and Mildred Kirby (right) with my
parents and me. Note the new bathroom addition behind my mother

By Sidney Underwood 2013

When the Underwood clan (all three of us) moved to Calhoun from Doddridge County during the summer of 1945, we arrived at our rented home on Phillip's Run in a 1938 Desoto coupe that had no back seat.

I probably rode there on my mother's lap as the mohair covered front seat was a narrow bench. That old car had a cracked window on the passenger side and a radio that did not play.

I can barely remember sitting on the spare tire with my young cousins when we were at the old homeplace in Doddridge County. We pretended that we were in a cave. It was our very own special hiding place.

What follows was told to me by my mother. Although I have a fair memory, I was only three years old at the time.

Our home on Phillip's Run was the house that Glen Fowler lives in today. The only person that my father knew in Calhoun County was Mr. M. T. Hamrick, the man who was instrumental in getting him to accept a coaching and teaching position at the high school.

We had just settled in when a young man appeared at our door and introduced himself as Waitman Stump. He stated that he and his wife lived down the road in the farm house below us. He said that he was a son of Dowd Stump, who also lived there.

My Mother inquired about the other neighbors who were nearby. Waitman stated that Mabel Stump, a relative, lived next door up the road and that another Stump lived in what is now the McCormick home. My Mother said that she had never heard of the name Stump before, and was certain there were none in Doddridge County.

She inquired as to whether there were others in the county with this peculiar name. Waitmam grinned and said there probably were more Stumps than trees in Calhoun County.

He said that on the edge of Gilmer County there were so many Stumps that they named a town after themselves.

My Mother always laughed when she recounted this story to me. Waitman, apparently, was a cool guy with a winning smile and a friendly word for everyone. My Mother told me that whenever she saw him and inquired about his family, he would always reply that everyone was fat and sassy.

Several days later we met Waitman's father Dowd Stump, who came by to offer his new neighbors produce from his garden. I remember that he was an elderly man with a gentle demeanor.

I do remember that our house had no indoor toilet that first year and I remember the cold winter time trips to the outhouse. The outhouse was at the far end of what is now Mr. Fowler's garden.

Sometime later, Mr. McCartney, our landlord had a bathroom installed by adding a room to the side of the house. Pete and Mildred Kirby built a small home across Phillip's Run behind our house.

My parents became close friends with the Kirbys. Mildred helped look after me when I was little. I remember riding my new tricycle in the back yard and rolling it over and tumbling into the creek. Mildred and her brother rescued me and dried me off and retrieved my trike. When told of my misadventure, my Mother was very upset and thereafter forbade me from riding in the back yard.

October 1946 (L) The Glen Fowler house on Phillip's Run.
My new tricycle; January 1947 (R) Dad and I at the
homeplace in Doddridge County. The Desoto is in background

My father settled in as assistant coach and teacher that first year. He soon became friends with Rue Powell who was a bus driver and mechanic for the school board. Rue drove the team bus on football trips.

Since the Desoto was old and had many miles on it, Dad wanted someone he could trust to make frequent repairs to it. He found the right man in Mr. Powell. Dad would buy the spark plugs, condenser and points, belts, hoses and brake shoes and take everything to Rue for the needed work.

From 1946 until he traded the old car away in 1949, Rue Powell kept it running.

I remember the day that Dad came home and reported to mother that we needed to get another car. Rue had told dad that he needed to do something as the Desoto was becoming dangerous and everything was coming loose on it.

The engine had lost compression and needed a complete rebuild and the steering gear and radiator should be replaced and it was leaking fluids. My Mother stated that she didn't think we could afford to buy another car at this time. Dad said that he was 35 years old and had a regular job and that he thought that he deserved to get a better car.

Sometime later in the summer of 1949, Dad traded the Desoto and brought home a brand new green Plymouth Special Deluxe four door sedan, his first new car.

Mother was not exactly happy to see this new car, but she said she should have known this was going to happen as dad had been spending a lot of time talking with Melvin and Lester Arnold at their auto dealership.

What I remember about that car was that it had a metal dash with painted wood grain on it. The dash had three large circular gauges and this car had a radio that actually worked.

It did seem odd to me that this green car with green interior had a white steering wheel. It's funny what a kid remembers. Occasionally, Dad would take me up to the field above the NYA building and let me practice driving.

I was too small to actually drive, but I would sit on his lap and steer the car. I remember that the steering wheel was large and it was difficult for my small hands to keep it going straight as I was only eight years old.

1952 (L) - I am standing beside the
49 Plymouth. Look at those pant cuffs!

Dad taught me to keep my hands at 10:00 o'clock and 3:00 o'clock on the wheel. This seemed odd to me as my hands were not level. Nevertheless, I learned to do it this way. Years later when I was studying the driver's handbook and preparing to take my driver's exam, I asked him about that. He said that most emergency evasive maneuvers involved turning the wheel quickly to the right to avoid oncoming traffic. He thought the reaction time was quicker with the left hand higher on the wheel. He said to remember that the left hand was for emergencies and the right hand for stability. That was good enough for me.

I have a confession to make. Something I never told to my parents. These incidents occurred about the time that dad was thinking about buying the 53 Plymouth.

We were living on Hardman Alley and my best friend, Bill Umstead, the son of the Grantsville Postmaster, was living on River Street.

Bill's Dad owned a 1947 Kaiser Sedan. Mr. Umstead walked to work and left his car unlocked in the driveway. When Bill and I were alone at his house, quite often we would go outside to that car and push it backwards up the gently sloping driveway to the edge of the sidewalk.

Bill would have me hold the front bumper which took a lot of effort while he quickly slipped inside and applied the brakes. I would then climb in on the passenger side. With him behind the wheel and me riding shotgun, he would release the brakes and we would drift down the driveway until we almost hit the garage door. At the last possible moment, Bill would stab the brake pedal. The car probably coasted 40 feet, but we thought it was fun.

After about three of these "joy riding" sessions, we would both be so arm weary and tired that we would stagger into Bill's house to rest.

It must have been divine intervention that kept us from getting maimed or killed. I don't think that Mr. Umstead ever noticed that his car had been moved. He should have noticed because we always left it sitting almost touching the garage door.

I have many memories of the 53 Plymouth. We had that car for eleven years and that was the car in which I learned to drive.

It had a three speed column shift and an eight button programmable AM radio. It also had an overdrive option that was actuated by pushing a lever under the dash. Although this car had a straight six engine, it would climb the hills surprisingly fast in second gear overdrive. I thought it to be sneaky fast. It looked like a large water bug with silver teeth going down the road.

I heard several years ago that Johnny Cash's first car was a 53 Plymouth. After he became famous, he wanted to get a fully restored car just like the one he remembered.

The Chrysler network searched and found one and had it restored and presented it to him in a ceremony. The 53 Plymouth was rather boxy in appearance with plenty of head room. Johnny Cash was not alone in liking them. Cab drivers liked them, too.

When I was twelve years old, Dad started teaching me how to drive. By that time, I had long legs and could reach the pedals. We would head up the Russett road to the NYA building.

Dad would let me get behind the wheel. He would slide in beside me and tell me to drive to the upper field which at that time was a large spacious area.

I would shift into low gear and drive as he instructed me to do. He would have me back up by throwing my right arm up on the seat back and look over my shoulder through the rear window.

I would back slowly with one hand on the wheel. I was instructed to do this over and over until my neck hurt. He made me do it this way as the car had only one small mirror on the driver's side door.

Soon, I thought I was hot stuff until the day he instructed me to drive up the access road to the main highway. He ordered me to stop midway and start out again just as it would be in a real life situation. Since it was a steep incline, I knew this would be difficult for me as I had to work the clutch, brake and accelerator in proper sequence.

I was intimidated by this challenge.

I stalled the car on my first attempt. When he said to try it again, I reached for the emergency brake to make it easier. He stopped me and said that no son of his was going to do it that way. Besides, he said that some cars had emergency brakes that were engaged with the left foot.

He said that would require three legs and since I only had two, I should learn to perform this maneuvers the right way, his way.

I would back down the hill and pull up and stop and after several failed attempts and get angry and frustrated and tell him that I just couldn't do it.

Acting like a knucklehead, I would park the car and get out and sulk all the way home. Mother would ask how the practice went and dad would answer that we were getting there but that I had a ways to go. He was right.

I remember that eventually I did get it right and felt a wave of relief and a real sense of accomplishment. Dad grinned at me and said that he was relieved too, since he didn't know how much more abuse the clutch could stand. I thought that this was a rather backhanded compliment.

Dad believed that repetition with good instruction would always yield positive results. Let me make one thing clear, my dad never cut me any slack whether I was learning to drive or playing football for him. At times in football, I thought he was using me as an example of how not to do something.

June 1958 (R) I am so pleased with myself because I have my new driver's license in my wallet. The 1953 Plymouth is in the background

I took my driver's exam in late May of 1958. I had just turned sixteen and was really excited about getting my license. I remember that Trooper Beck rode with me around the courthouse square. I had practiced parallel parking and was ready to show everyone I could do it, but he just handed me papers to mail to Charleston and got out of the car and left in his cruiser. I was both relieved and disappointed, if that were possible.

During the summer of 1958, I drove that car every chance I got. I looked forward to driving mother to the grocery store. It was always my responsibility to clean, wash and wax the Plymouth in return for having the privilege to occasionally drive it.

That car watched me grow up. I was eleven when it was new and I was well past twenty one when Dad traded it to Ted Burch for a new Chevy in the fall of 1963.

July 1964. Dad filling his pipe. The Chevy is about to get an oil change at Furr's Garage

There is always a first time for everything. There is also a last time for everything.

Generally, we do not recognize the last time until days or months have gone by and then we finally understand that change has occurred.

I was aware of that fact during the fall of 1963. I knew that dad was going to trade the 53 Plymouth away. By that time, I had my own car which was a 1960 Corvair.

We were at the old homeplace in Doddridge County. When we started back to Grantsville, I asked Dad if I could drive the Plymouth home since it would be gone the next week.

He and Mother followed me home that day and I was alone in the old car. As I drove west on Rt. 50, I tried to remember the many things that had happened during our ownership of this car.

There were the times when we went to Parkersburg to have the dreaded dental exams in which cavities were found and attended to.

There was the time during my senior year in high school when the Red Devil football team had been completely outclassed by Ravenswood on their field by a score of 38 to 6.

I remember riding home in the back seat of this car bruised and battered with an aching knee.

I was embarrassed and disgusted with myself barely able to hold back the tears.

There were the times that we rode in this car as a family to my Grandparent's funerals. As I traveled south on Rt. 16 along King Knob Ridge through the community of Mahone, my mood brightened. I started to remember the exciting times.

This was the car that took us to the Shrine Circus at Stadium Field in Parkersburg. On the way back to Doddridge County, I was riding in the back seat with two cousins, Eddy and Bobby Cutright.

I remember telling Dad that we boys needed to go. Dad pulled over in a secluded place on old RT. 50 in Ritchie County. We cousins jumped out of the car and ran down the bank out of sight of the road.

Standing there in the dark and looking up at the stars, I accidentally urinated on my cousin's pant leg. When Eddy realized what was happening, he yelped and jumped. Still clueless, I thought maybe he had stepped on a snake. He said some things to me that I can't repeat here.

I remember that he did say that he was going to kill me. Since he was older and bigger than me, I thought that he just might do it. I told him that I was sorry and that I should have paid more attention to the task at hand instead of looking at the galaxies.

I scrambled up the bank and asked Mother if I could ride in the front seat. I lied and said that my stomach didn't feel right and that I might be getting car sick. Dad thought maybe it was the hotdogs at the circus. To this day, my cousin has never forgiven me.

This was the car that took us to Cherokee, North Carolina where I was bitten by a "tame" bear cub at one of those tourist traps. Mother was so upset that she poured a whole bottle of hydrogen Peroxide on my face when, in fact, the bear had only grazed my left ear. Dad thought this was funny.

He said that he couldn't wait to get back to Calhoun to tell everyone that Sidney had gone after a bear and the bear got Sidney. Mother glared at him and said it wasn't funny and that her son could have lost an ear.

Dad agreed and wiped his eyes and convulsed again into helpless laughter. I remember that my shirt looked funny and I had white streaks in my hair for several weeks.

My memories of that old car are endless. My first date, my first kiss, my first.... Well, you get the idea. I had come of age, changing from a boy into a young man.

While I was experiencing change in my life, the Plymouth was unchanging and always there in whatever capacity that was needed. On this final drive home, it seemed so unfair to me to trade away this faithful servant after it had demonstrated such steadfast loyalty.

The 1964 Chevrolet Biscayne was the last car that my parents ever owned. Since I had the Corvair during my years in college, I never developed the affection for the Chevy as I had for the 53 Plymouth.

The Chevy was the first V8 that Dad had owned. It had the 283 cubic engine. It was a good car, but for me, it did not have the character of the 53 Plymouth.

In my declining years, I quite often think of that old Plymouth and I smile. I loved that old car. It was like a member of the family always there in good times as well as sad times. I like to imagine that it is still out there running somewhere and patently teaching some other young person how to drive. - Sydney Underwood

"We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings."

"All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being." - Thornton Wilder, OUR TOWN See also ... MEMORIES OF HARDMAN ALLEY - Underwood Recalls Grantsville Life, Cow Milk, Cowboys, BBs, Bikes And Tingling Ears