Chester Martin Remembers Our New 1941 Plymouth

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

My dad could plainly read the tea-leaves - that the U.S. would soon be involved in a second World War. He would sit in the kitchen of a morning before leaving to catch the bus, and read aloud to my mom and me about what "Mr. Hitler" was doing. The unpredictabilities of war were about to change the country's way of life for years to come. Steel would be needed for the war effort and auto manufacturers would be building military vehicles. Gas might also be rationed.

Dad was very conservative in everything he did, so the prospect of buying a new car was something he did a bit grudgingly. It was true that our old "A-Model" Ford was increasingly out of date. His co-workers were urging him toward buying a new car just in case things got bad, and that is what he did. (And things DID get bad!)

He had known the people at Rice Brothers Chrysler and Plymouth for a long time through his mail routes - they were located somewhere near where Zarzours's Restaurant is located today - so he chose them and one day drove home in a brand new 1941 Plymouth!

It was a really great car for its day, although it lacked a heater, and air-conditioning for cars was still about one decade in the future. I was much taken with the odometer which lit up from green to red as you increased the speed; it reminded me of a feature which could have been displayed in the New York World's Fair of 1939, which we had visited.

Dad, of course, had lived all through World War I, and had the suspicion that gas might soon be rationed - and he was right. Partially wishing to "break-in" the new vehicle, and partially simply to enjoy it, he and my mom planned two very nice trips for us. One was to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which had only recently opened and whose popularity was steadily increasing. A second trip was planned to St. Augustine and Daytona Beach, Florida.

Both those trips were of great excitement to me - to meet Chief  Standing-Deer in the Smokies, and then to sit on the beach near the then-new clock tower at Daytona while digging periwinkles out of the sand with my mom.

The Smokies impressed me for life! I fell in love with the simple layout of Cherokee, there on the banks of the Oconaluftee River with its dark, mossy bed. It was ideal for kids to wade in, if nothing else. In those days the "trading posts" seemed very real and authentic, like going back a hundred years in time. The pleasant smell of new leather pervaded the atmosphere in those places, and I loved it! There were wigwam-shaped tourist cabins with live bears chained outside them. And then there were the several Native American men who shot their bows and arrows mainly for the fun of it, as nobody had their hand out. My greatest delight in Cherokee was to meet Chief (Carl) Standing-Deer, who was a great tourist attraction in his own right. He got frequent write-ups in newspapers throughout the South, and we kept watch in our local papers for stories about him. I remember him singing some kind of chant for us that sounded like, "wah-HEE-yah", and I never knew if it was an authentic Cherokee chant; I only knew that I was enCHANTed by it and have remembered it all my life.

After Cherokee, we followed Route 441 up the mountain to Newfound Gap and Clingman's Dome. Between those two sites we got stopped in a minor traffic jam where we saw a mother bear with FOUR cubs! That is rare, but I have photographic proof of it. That first trip to the Smokies was seminal, as it has intrigued me ever since 1941 and kept me going back for more. It was many years before I discovered Cades Cove and other delightful areas of the park.

Our Florida trip in the new Plymouth occurred just before I started first grade at Anna B. Lacey. I remember telling Ms. Bynum our teacher about it. My mother knew a very elderly lady at St. Augustine, and so we stopped there to visit with her. She lived in an old house on one of those streets lined by live-oak trees with the very long fronds of Spanish moss which undulated in the breeze. It was near the Fountain of Youth site, and so we visited there. The famous "Bridge of Lions" was new, and it beckoned us on to points south: Daytona!

We stopped at an old-line tourist home in Daytona Beach, which we would see on subsequent trips for many years. It stood beside U.S. Hwy. A1A, the easternmost highway in the country. I saw a documentary on it in the early days of network TV, and it was a virtual "Route 66" of the eastern seaboard, extending from Maine to Key West. There was a pedestrian tunnel under the highway at that time which connected our Parker's Tourist Home (and others) with the beach. A  major feature here was a newly built (WPA project) clock tower which has become a defining  symbol of Daytona Beach. I recently Googled it and found that it is still there after more than 75 years since I first saw it, and that a high-rise hotel has risen behind it! One would think that if the coast of Florida was gradually sinking into the Atlantic, that the stone clock-tower would have sunk at least an inch or two by now. But no - and I am glad. And the new high-rise hotel looks pretty secure as well!

The Rice Brother's 1941 Plymouth served us well on both those trips, and, although my dad had several new cars in the intervening years, he kept that one purely for sentimental reasons. It stayed with us - and in remarkably good shape - until about 1960. It was my first "dating" car, and we even improved it by adding a heater during my high school years.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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