Every Sunday night was Luther League, the youth group at Ascension Lutheran Church in Chicago. And after each week’s meeting, the four of us officers – my best friend, Fred, who was the vice president; and his girl friend, Georgeanna, the treasurer; my girl friend, Leora, the secretary; and me, the president – would drive to Montrose Harbor parking lot at Lake Michigan and find a place to park so we could make out -- necking in our 1960s parlance. We called it “watching the submarine races” when our parents asked where we had been, but they knew what was transpiring. Usually Fred drove his family’s Opel Cadet, so he and George would be in the front seat, but on occasion I was allowed to use our family Ford Fairlane, so Lee and I would occupy the front.
The problem was the 40 minutes wasted for the round trip drive. The girls had to be home by 10:30 pm and we hated wasting valuable necking time by driving. One evening – which would prove to be our last one at the lakefront – we were parked far away from all operational light fixtures, with windows open because of the warmth, and suddenly an intense spotlight was bathing us in blinding brightness. A police car had coasted up to us with its engine off and startled us, and we later fantasized how disappointed the officers must have been to discover two young couples, fully clothed, just talking and kissing. They looked at our drivers licenses, made a show of authority, returned our IDs, warned us of various dangers we were courting with our parking in such a dark, secluded, vulnerable area, and ordered us to leave. We did, and realizing they were correct about the dangers, we never returned.
Instead, we found a better haunt at nearby Horner Park at California and Irving Park Road. It provided somewhat private parking, was a far safer neighborhood, and saved 25 minutes of driving, thus affording us extra necking time. Obviously we couldn’t watch submarine races anymore since the park was a large expanse of hills and grass, so we labeled it watching chariot races --- and they were just as exciting!
Things went swimmingly for many sessions until one chilly evening when I had driven. When it was time to make the dash home to get the gals in by curfew, I started the engine, but I couldn’t get the stick shift lever into reverse so I could back out of the parking space. We tried everything but the damn shift just wouldn’t shift!
I walked to the pay phone booth by the park building and made the embarrassing call home, but as I expected, Dad wasn’t home. Nearly every evening found him at Lou’s Liquors on Addison Street near Damen Avenue, his local hangout where he was as regular as Norm on Cheers and where everyone knew his name. I got the number from Mom and called the bar.
After a brief discussion with the bar's owner who answered, I heard Dad's voice.
“Hello,” Dad said.
I briefly explained I needed his help.
“You’re where,” he asked. “Horner Park? What are you doing there after dark?” he queried, though he was well aware of what we were doing. A bit of parent humor, I suppose.
“The car won’t shift into reverse, Dad, and we’re parked pointing to the curb.”
“What?” he asked.
“I can’t get the car to shift into reverse!”
Silence blared from the phone in the form of beer-induced background babble as Dad contemplated a solution.
After a minute or so, Dad's voice returned and said, “The guy next to me, Bill, is a mechanic. We’ll be there in 10 minutes.”
And they were, though the ten minutes seemed an eternity to petrified teenagers.
Bill’s headlights shattered the darkness as they turned off California Avenue into the large parking lot. We were the only vehicle there so they easily located us. The two smirking men got out and approached four red-faced teens and did not bother to feign happiness at having been uprooted from their beers. Without a word, Bill popped the hood, professionally reached into the engine’s innards, wiggled something metallic, and directed me to depress the clutch and shift the car into reverse gear. I did, and the Ford did. And that was that!
I got out out to see what he had done in case it happened again, and he showed me. It had been that simple, if not uneventful. In ten seconds, he had fixed the catastrophic situation. My dumbfounded look bespoke my double embarrassment and the two adults smiled, shook their heads, chuckled, winked, and left, as we four befuddled teens drove home.
The chariot races continued weekly, further instances of frozen transmission linkage were easily remedied with judicious wiggling by me, and no more curfew transgressions occurred. But the mortification and chagrin over the awkward evening persisted for years. And believe me, it's a lot more humorous in the retelling than it was in the original happening!