The Seventies were a decade of avocado-green kitchen appliances and harvest-gold shag carpeting, ten years of wild apparel and garish colors. It was also a great time to be a teenager before the American economy took a nosedive following the oil crises of 1973 and 1979.
Cruising endlessly up and down the streets seems like an odd pastime, but teenagers in other cultures do the same thing. For example, in Spanish-speaking countries there used to be a tradition of walking around and around the village square on foot. One must be seen, you know.
People in my age bracket have long lists of stories from those days and nights. Most revolve around the practice of driving up and down the main drag in New Bethlehem for hours. After all, gas was 29 cents a gallon.
When I first got my driver’s license, muscle cars were all the rage. They also drank gasoline at an alarming rate. Ten to 15 miles per gallon was pretty average.
Me, I was happy tootling around in a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. It got about 23 miles to the gallon and I could cruise around town all night for about a buck. You could also fit six people and several suitcases in it if you had to.
As a sidenote to any local gendarmes reading this column, we only did that once after picking up some friends from the bus station. Most of the time, we were good kids who obeyed the traffic laws.
Darla Adams Hinderliter mentioned the other week that she put 67 miles on her family’s sedan one night, and her father was not at all pleased by that. While my own parents never said a word, I’m sure they wondered where we went and what we did.
The answer is simple. We mostly stayed in town and just drove around, honking and waving at friends. If we felt like it, we might drive as far as the park in Alcola to go rollerskating or attend a night swim at the pool during the summer.
“American Graffiti” hit the screens in 1973. George Lucas would have had a hard time finding that kind of cinematic material in Western Pennsylvania small towns. On the whole, we were a pretty tame bunch.
Former patrolman Larry Fenstermaker might disagree with me on this. He has half-shared some stories about local bad boys, shaking his head and laughing during the telling of them. I wasn’t interesting enough to hang out with those guys, so I’ll take Larry’s word for it.
Most of us were pretty innocent. The wildest thing I remember happening was Donny McCauley performing a three-point turn in the middle of Broad Street. I was not a passenger and only heard the story afterward.
After performing the cruising ritual for a while, you became intimately acquainted with all the potholes in town. Asphalt would crumble in a few spots in the wintertime, revealing the original brick paving in a few spots. To this day, I can’t drive up Wood Street between Water and Broad without looking in vain for a certain brick-bottom crater beside Broadwood Tower.
My first winter after coming back to New Bethlehem was a chance to meet the new crop of holes and dips. Winnie Barrett warned me against putting my Honda Element through its paces on Cardiac Hill, that near-vertical stretch of pavement that goes up the hill across from the high school. I laughed at her because I came close to putting the VW in the railroad ditch once or twice on a winter’s night when the roads were snowy.
Volkswagens were interesting cars because German engineers put things in odd places. The trunk was in the front and the motor in the back. Once upon a time, I hit a rain-filled pothole in French’s ice cream-stand parking lot, and that is the night I found out that you had to remove the rear seat to find the battery.
Sorry, Mom. I wasn’t horsing around. And the guys working at the Gulf station next door laughed and helped me out of my fix for free.
I think that was the same summer that I found that I had left most of my cash at home one night and needed gas. Between my friend and me, we scraped together fifty cents and stopped at Drayer’s on Route 66 just outside town. John Drayer was working that night at his dad’s station and had the honor of putting exactly half a dollar’s worth in my tank.
On other nights, we would cruise up to Alcola to bug Jack Gareis if he was manning his dad’s station. Terry McGarrity was his sworn henchman and could usually be found keeping him company. I don’t know that we bought a lot of gas, but I’m sure we produced a lot of hot air.
For some reason, I just remembered America’s “Horse With No Name” playing on the radio when we pulled out from the pumps one night. Whenever I hear that song, I always have this mental image of headlights shining on the embankment on the other side of the road.
It’s funny how details of the biggest moments of your life get fuzzy after 40 or 50 years, but you can still remember who you were with and what you were doing when you were 17 or so.
That was a good time to be a kid.
[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]