Or, how to abuse a ’49 Chevy
When you drive around the athletic fields near the sea wall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland today there are hundreds of cars parked along the roads. They have license plates from all across the nation. These are the cars that belong to First Class Midshipmen. During my time as a Midshipman from July 1959 through June 1963 we were not allowed to keep cars at the academy. Only during the last few months before graduation were you allowed to keep a car, and then it was parked across the Severn River at the Naval Station. Shuttle buses ran between there and the yard on weekends giving access to cars.
If you wanted a vehicle in Annapolis at any time before that it had to be an under-the-table deal. And that is how we did it. In the summer of 1962 during our leave after First Class cruise, my roommate Ron Walters and I purchased a 1949 Chevy from Walt's older brother in Hays, Kansas. It cost us $50. We named it "St. Christopher" because we weren't sure it would make it from Kansas to Annapolis; thus the nickname "Chris" and the title of this tale. We figured that if it didn't we'd just leave it in a ditch somewhere in Ohio and hitchhike the rest of the way. On the day we headed back east, Walt picked me up in Claflin, my hometown, and off we went. We loaded up the trunk with numerous cases of Coors beer (you couldn't get Coors on the east coast then), and a cooler full of iced down cans in the back seat. When the cooler was empty, we'd replenish it from the trunk. We drank our way across half of America. We threw the empties on the back seat floor. By the time we reached D.C., the pile of empties had reached the level of the back seat. When I think about this today I am amazed at our idiocy and that we made it back in one piece at all. It is one thing to drive under the influence. It is something else to drive 1330 miles under the influence.
We arrived in the D.C. area too late in the evening to barge into Sixth Company classmate Lionel Banda's house in Chevy Chase, so we pulled off beside the road in a park somewhere around there and went to sleep. The next morning we were awakened by a cop who was astounded by the number of empty beer cans in the back seat. He didn't run us in, so we headed for Lionel's house and arrived there just in time for his mom to make us breakfast. God bless Lionel’s mom…a true saint. She took very good care of Sixth Company ne’er-do-wells during our four years at the academy.
After that we headed for Annapolis and found a garage for rent just off West Street in a shabby part of town. It was probably about a mile from the Academy. Since we were always short of money back then, we coerced several more members of the Sixth Company to become part owners of "Chris". As I recall the ownership consisted of Walt, Dick Williams, Jim Carter, Bob Borlet, Bill Hughes, Lionel Banda, and yours truly. Our combined resources allowed for insurance payments, garage rent, and gas. You might think that having multiple owners would cause problems, but it turned out that we usually all went on liberty together anyway. Liberty usually meant going to Dave's Corner, a combination feed store and bar/restaurant, and low rent dump in Mayo, Maryland, which was either right inside the 7 mile liberty limit, or right outside it. Either way we were in violation-outside the liberty limits or drinking within the limits.
The prototype low rent dump--feed store on right, bar on left
Here's how it usually worked. After Saturday evening meal formation we would all head out the gate and walk to the garage. We'd back Chris out a little and leave the headlights on so we could see inside the garage. Sweatshirts and levis hung from nails in the walls. We changed in the garage. As the doors closed you could see overcoats and white covers on the nails in place of the civvies. We'd head for Dave's and spend the evening drinking cheap watered down beer, eating greasy hamburgers on the red and white checkerboard table cloths, feeding the juke box and playing pool or shuffleboard. Borlet hated the juke box because all it had was country and western music.
The denizens of Dave’s Corner had no idea that we were Midshipmen with our high and tight haircuts, inside out Navy sweatshirts, levis, and spit shined shoes. We really fooled the locals. One time they had a raffle for something or other, and Hughes bought a ticket. He asked the bartender what address he should write on the ticket, and the barkeep said, "Just put your Bancroft Hall room number." Yep, we had them buffaloed. As the witching hour of liberty expiration approached we'd head back and go through everything in reverse at the garage and stagger back to Bancroft Hall as the clock ticked over to midnight.
During one of our Class of ’63 reunions a while back Dick Williams, Bob Borlet and I decided that we would have dinner at Dave’s and relive some old memories. With our wives in tow, we headed for Mayo. We arrived at the proper location, but Dave’s Corner was no more. We headed back up the road a mile or so and stopped for dinner at a seafood restaurant. As we were devouring crab legs we asked the waitress if she knew Dave’s Corner and what had happened to it. With a wistful look in her eyes she said, "Some of my happiest days were spent at Dave’s Corner". After she left I said, "I wonder if she still has my picture." Borlet almost choked on crab he was laughing so hard at that remark. It never did take much to entertain Bobby.
It seems that Dave’s had burned to the ground several years after we graduated. The rumor was that Dave had torched the place himself after the civil rights legislation of the mid 1960s rather than allow black customers into the place. Nice guy. Of course I had always thought that no self respecting black citizen would ever set foot in as low rent a place as Dave’s Corner. But I digress.
During the whole of First Class year we did virtually no maintenance on Chris. She was never washed, except to clean the puke off the sides when someone ralphed out the window, as happened on more than one occasion. The heater went on the blink, and the only way we could heat the car was to put a slab of cardboard in front of the radiator. Somehow that got heat from the engine to blow back. The brakes were of questionable quality, and on one occasion we poured beer into the brake cylinder to try and gain some purchase. Didn’t work too well. The floor boards in the back seat were rotted through, likely from beer seepage during the trip from Kansas. You could literally see the road passing under the car if you were in the back seat. On one occasion we were driving up Maryland Route 2 enroute to Baltimore and someone threw a cigarette out the driver’s side window and it blew back into the open rear window and caught the headliner on fire. We couldn’t extinguish the smoldering material by pouring beer on it, so we just ripped out the stuffing and threw it out the window…and then stopped the car, got out and extinguished the burning stuffing by pissing on it…all four of us...on the side of the road of a busy MD Highway 2.
One weekend we gave Joe Polli a ride to his girl friend’s house somewhere in the D.C. suburbs. Our standard practice on D.C. trips was to stop at this dump on West Street that would sell beer to Midshipmen in defiance of the law, and buy a case of Black Label. Come on! That’s all we could afford! Joe wasn’t much of a drinker back then, had one too many, and passed out in the back seat. We left him on his girl’s front porch, rang the doorbell, and ran. I’m sure her parents were impressed. Joe wasn’t real happy with us when we picked him up Sunday afternoon for the return to Annapolis.
When Christmas Leave arrived Carter and Hughes drove Chris to Arlington, Virginia where both of their families lived at the time. They spent Christmas Eve in the garage working on Chris’ transmission. It seems that the transmission needed to be rebuilt because someone (unnamed) had stripped both first and second gears and it was tough getting up hills in third. If they hadn’t done that, I doubt Chris would have survived the year.
We usually only took Chris out at night. There were a few exceptions, like the Baltimore trip described earlier, but not many. As I think about it we were probably driving around on expired Ellis County Kansas tags and an expired safety inspection, if there was such a thing back then. We did have the minimal insurance, however. Otherwise we were just as cavalier about legality as we were about maintenance and drinking and driving.
Before graduation we "sold" Chris to a member of the Class of '65 for ten cents, fully expecting it to crap out before the summer ended. Much to our surprise, Chris was still around when '65 graduated, and was handed down to a member of '66. For all I know it is still sitting beside a back road somewhere around Annapolis as home for a family of illegal immigrants.
The cars parked around Dewey and Farragut fields at USNA are more than just a cut above Chris in appearance, cost and utility, but somehow I get the feeling that with Chris, we had more fun, expired Kansas tags and all.
Dirck Praeger sends