When I was a young boy, growing up with my brother in Jamaica, I enjoyed the occasional weekend or holiday “drive outs” with my parents. Although my mother was a good driver, it was my father who did the driving. On most occasions there were no set destinations, and this gave my brother and I a tremendous sense of adventure. The means to that end was my father’s dark blue, 1950s-Ford Prefect. It was a four-door, three-speed, manual “stick shift”, sedan.
The licence plate number was J1380. It seemed that everybody knew it. If memory serves me correctly, it was my father’s first car, which he bought, brand new. There are family photos of my brother and I posed beside it as babies, and of others with various members of the household through the years. It was a part of our family for many years before my father sold it, without my mother’s knowledge, I believe, as she had grown quite attached to it. She had learned to drive in it. The Prefect had a special place in our hearts as it felt like one of the family. And so, when we had returned home on that fateful day, not seeing it parked in the yard, the feeling was close to the one people tended to feel upon hearing news of the death of someone close.
Though I introduced the Prefect at the beginning in terms of family outings, I will get back to that theme later. Why? Because the car was much more than for family outings. It was used for all the purposes that one can imagine for a family’s needs. Perhaps one of its main uses, an unintended one, was being part and parcel of helping to create fun memories. Who could forget, for example, my mother taking us to school with Aunt Elaine seated in the passenger seat. (She was not our real aunt, but she was as good as any blood relation). Just let another motorist commit some minor infraction and Aunt Elaine would, angrily, roll down her glass and shout to the offender, “Yuh buy yuh licence?!” If the pace of traffic allowed, she would proceed to “trace off” the person. The irony is that Aunt Elaine, at the time, was not a licensed driver. During such tracing matches my mother wished that she could disappear from behind the steering wheel due to sheer embarrassment.
Another thing about the Prefect was that it was an early warning system with respect to the impending approach of my mother. She tended to drive it hard, in a more “rip roaring” fashion than did my father, who had a softer touch. We lived in the hills of Saint Andrew, and the way she drove that car while ascending Old Stony Hill Road, all the “trained ears” in the house could hear the engine coming from miles away.
There was nothing that my brother and I hated more than having to get up early on a Saturday morning, especially when we had done so, all week long, to get ready for school. If the saying “The early bird catches the worm” is true, then my mother had acquired enough worms, not just for domestic use, but also for export. The following outlines our issue and how the car helped us to deal with or get around it.
We had no problems doing the chores which were assigned to us — whether working in the house or in the yard — but, dear Lord, what was it with that woman? And, many times, when she drove out to go to the market, or to the hairdresser, or to wherever, we teenagers, would just lay on the carpet or find a nice corner, fully dressed, to try and finish off what the sergeant had so jarringly interrupted. Or my brother might have used the time to catch up on more pressing work with some project surrounding his hobby at the time.
But, at the sound of the deep humming and whining of the engine, like Ben Hur groaning under oars on a Roman war ship, we would all “snap to”! If we, whether due to sleep or heavy distraction, did not hear the warning, then our beloved housekeeper would help the Prefect by amplifying what was being transmitted, as if by Morse Code. And so, how many times did we fool our dear mother when she arrived to see us posed — with an air of industriousness — with mop, broom, duster, or rake in hand, praising us for the fine work that we were doing?
How about someone sitting comfortably on the back seat shelling pods of gungo peas into a basin? How many beef patty crumbs were shed abroad on the back and front seats, much to the chagrin of my father who wanted its decor to be spotless? How he rebuked my mother for the soda drink and ice-cream stains, and for discarded paper wrappings that he discovered within? What was worse was when my mother, with her two little boys in short pants, teamed up with one of our dear neighbour’s wife and her three little boys on excursions, multiplying the mess. The car, whether by the standards of that day or of today, was a small one, but we five boys, seated on the back seat (with seatbelts and car seats not yet in vogue), had a ball.
Some of the special times that my brother and I had included just laying on the floor, between the front and back seats, especially at nights, with my father driving, and just gazing up and out as the streetlights went zipping by. How many times did my brother and I scurry, desperately, to the windows, gasping for air, due to some noxious fumes that my father, laughingly, ascribed to something which emanated from without? How often did my brother hear the whistle of peanut vendors’ carts and peered through the windows at them longingly? We always felt safe within it — always. It was our home away from home.
On one occasion, when I was a wee boy, my father, who was, at one time, a superintendent of a reform school for juvenile delinquent boys, drove a few of them off campus, with me in my pajamas in the car, as he tried to help them resolve an issue that they were having. The Prefect was also a counselling room.
My, brother, who was bolder and more adventurous than I, began his driving lessons in the Prefect before I did. My foray into learning to drive also started there. However, my lessons were suspended not only until my confidence grew, but because of the head-on collision that I almost had with a large, sturdy wooden box in front of the garage wall. I managed to avert disaster by moving my foot, awkwardly, but feverishly away from the “gas pedal” to the brake pedal, in the nick of time, with just a few inches from the box to spare. I have driven other cars since that incident, but never the Prefect as a licensed driver. And, of course, when I did get my permit it was gone — sold to a gentleman due to a crack which was discovered in its engine block.
It was a tough little car. I don’t remember ever hearing the word “rust” used in respect to its body. It had a re-do with “Duco”, after years of weathering with respect to the paint, but that was about it. My father, who was good at “auto mechanics”, did a major engine overhaul on it, at least once, that I can remember. My brother said that he had helped him on another overhaul many years later.
There were three notable events involving the Prefect where loss of life was averted, perhaps more so by the hand of providence than due to the car itself. I remember not having been picked up from school by my father one afternoon. A family friend came for me in his stead. The Prefect was hit hard by another vehicle out by Dunrobin Avenue, in St Andrew, which put it out of action for a short time. With no seatbelts back then, my father was thrown upwards, bumping his head, perhaps hitting the roof or the windscreen, resulting in a big gash on his head. I still remember seeing the cloth that he had used to stop the bleeding.
On the other occasion, my brother, while on a journey heading home to Kingston from visiting my maternal grandparents in Clarendon, almost lost his life. He had, mistakenly, handled the lock on the back door instead of the lever used to roll the window up and down, behind the front passenger seat where my mother was. The door opened, and he started falling, headfirst, into the road. He could see the back wheel churning along. My mother, who was using her cosmetic compact mirror at the time, saw what was happening behind her and reached around quickly to grab him, as he held on to the door for dear life. The only casualty was a broken manicured nail or two of hers.
The last incident was one involving me, when my mother contemplated murdering me for “kissing my teeth” at her one morning (a sign of disrespect), as she dropped me off at primary school.
The Prefect was also our Star Ship, Enterprise, going places where none in the family had gone before. I do recall on one “drive out” when my father made a turn on to a quiet, lonely road. My mother, overcome by the flowers that she had seen on the side of the road, urged him to stop so that she could get some pickings to plant in her garden, or to help spruce up her flower vases. In the course of this activity a car drove up with a stern looking man enquiring what we were doing. It turned out that the road was a long driveway, on the man’s property, one on the way up to his house! I do not know what my mother did with the items of her praedial larceny, but she, sheepishly, got back into the car and we motored off. I saw no policeman on motorcycle behind us, and so I could only assume that the owner viewed what she had done as an innocent misdemeanour.
With my father, at the helm, the Prefect took us all over Jamaica. There were excursions, for example, to the Palisadoes Airport (now Norman Manley International), Port Royal, Gunboat Beach, Fern Gully, Holland Bamboo, Castleton Gardens, Robins Bay, Dunn’s River Falls, Milk River Bath, Hope Gardens, Hope Zoo, the J.D.F. at Up-Park Camp and Newcastle, the Police Training School in Port Royal, the Ward Theatre, the Little Theatre, Odean Theatre, National Heroes Park, Boulevard Drive-In, Harbour View Drive-In, the Carib Theatre, Brooks Shoppers Fair, Woolworth, Denbigh Agricultural Show, Constant Spring Market and Coronation Market. The Prefect was there throughout the various events on our yearly calendar, including trips to summer festival and Christmas street parades.
Though the world was ablaze with controversies, troubles, assassinations and war, the Prefect was able, via providence, to help us gather many great memories against the backdrop of such unpleasantness.
During this festive season, perhaps this op-ed will serve as a touchstone for all of its readers to reach into the inner recesses of their minds and hearts to unearth, to relive and to enjoy fond memories which were long forgotten. Perhaps it will serve to prompt the creation of new ones in a world that is currently awash with so much jarring and heartrending events. If this is the case, then, the purpose behind it has reached its objective.