The 1937 Silver Phantom Rolls-Royce sat in an alley near the shop where my dad worked in Bishop, Calif. The big black car's cloth top, overlaid on the metal, had aged and deteriorated. All four flat tires were rotted with age. Dad spotted the car and traced the owner from the expired license plates. He wrote to the owner and arranged to buy the car for $100. I was in third grade.
I don't remember how Dad got the car home. But soon it sat in our driveway, with new tires and a new, white canvas top that Mom sewed for it and she and Dad glued onto the car.
Ours was a large family: Mom, Dad, and five kids. Dad drove the truck that pulled the troop-transport trailer he and Mom had converted into a house trailer. The trailer was 33 feet long. But put a family of seven in it, and a darkroom in the back, and you'll understand why we spent winters down south. Kids should live mostly outside anyway, and we did.
I remember riding in that Rolls-Royce through parts of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona. Probably other places, too. But I was a child, more interested in looking out the windows or playing marbles on the back floor while we cruised the highways than in remembering names of places.
The car attracted attention. People walking in towns often stopped where we parked to ask questions about it. Conversations with people we'd never seen before livened up many an afternoon and made me aware that my dad liked the limelight.
"How fast will it go?"
"You could probably get it up to a hundred if you pushed it off a tall enough cliff."
I thought that was a family joke. I thought it could do 100 m.p.h. easily. I looked that 420 cubic-inch motor over closely.
That motor was bigger than I was and made of aluminum, with sleeves in which the pistons ran. The engine was divided into three banks, two cylinders per bank.
Dad usually worked construction jobs, and we followed the work. Some kids rode in the trailer, some in the Rolls, one or two in the truck. Anybody tired of riding in the trailer?
Next stop, you made a deal: "You've been riding up there more than two hours. Share." We'd trade places, ride in the truck or in the Rolls. Who was where to ride along with made a difference. In general, up in the truck with Dad, pulling everything and everybody else across the nation, was our favorite place to ride.
We saw a lot of back country on our way to other places. We left Sierra snow behind, rambled, and explored the area around where we'd parked the trailer. We rambled about again while Dad worked awhile.
In the depths of Death Valley one early spring, one of the truck-sized tires on the trailer went flat. Dual axles meant we still had one tire on that side holding the trailer up, so we drove carefully to a side road, parked, and blocked the trailer. Dad dismounted the wheel, loaded it on the truck, and drove away, headed for the nearest town where he could get a tire.
By the time he got back, five children and Mom had explored the sand dunes around the trailer some, and we wanted more. We had our living quarters, food, and water with us, so we lived there for more than a week and used the Rolls to foray into places to explore in Death Valley.
With truck-sized tires and plenty of ground clearance, the car didn't stop for rough roads or washouts. While we lived in Death Valley, we saw sand enough for all the children in the world.
We saw Scotty's Castle (a landmark Spanish villa built in 1927). We saw steep canyons and what might have been the biggest bobcat in the world. Dad took a hundred photos of us children climbing sand dunes, jumping off sand dunes, climbing up into rocks, looking at ancient writings on rock cliffs, standing by the castle, and playing along a small stream in a brushy canyon. Weeks later, hundreds of miles away, when prints emerged from the darkroom, we would review what we had done in Death Valley.
THEN it was time to roll along on our journey to a job, or a relative who was expecting us, or to some adult thing the family needed to move on to. We gathered everything and loaded up. It was my turn in the truck. In the lowest gear, engine laboring, climbing very slowly, we hauled the trailer up and up and up the steep highway out of Death Valley.
A woman whose car had quit trotted beside the truck. Dad said, "I can't stop. I'll never get started again, and there isn't room to turn around."
The woman jumped on the running board and gave Dad numbers and instructions so that when we got to a town, we could tell people she was OK and get someone headed her way to help.
She jumped off the running board and walked back toward her car. The truck labored mightily.
By concentrating, I helped it pull the whole family and all our possessions up out of the valley on our way to our next exploration.