Cousin Al

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

Roadmaster 521 (photo credit: Improbcat/Wikimedia Commons)
Roadmaster 521
(photo credit: Improbcat/Wikimedia Commons)
One of my most enduring boyhood memories concerns my father’s cousin Al, a man who had a lot of reasons to be grumpy but never was. He was the son of my grandmother’s older sister, who was widowed young and died soon after. Grandma took in Al, still in his teens, and his younger sister Ceil.
When I was a boy Al was already in his 40s. He was balding and bespectacled, and sported a prominent paunch. He worked in the stockroom at a local department store and rented a small attic room in a rundown section of town. He was very quiet (although he muttered a lot), and when he actually made conversation it was usually about the weather or “those Red Sox.”
He married later in life, and just for a brief time, so he had no children. He spent the holidays at Ceil’s, who was bringing up three lively kids. He tagged along, too, when grandma had all of us over for one of her extended-table Sunday night dinners, where I spent a lot of time with Ceil’s middle child, Stuart, huddled under the cellar hatchway telling dirty jokes and trying to light up Grandpa’s pipes.
The enduring boyhood memory about Cousin Al concerns his arrival.
Al drove a beige 1949 Buick Roadmaster, which Ceil’s car-salesman husband, Charlie, got for him cheap. In its day the Roadmaster was one of the ocean liners of the American road. Besides its size, the most outstanding feature was its huge front grille, where the horizontal line of thick, vertical chrome protrusions resembled a toothy Soviet-era mouth after long, painful visits to the dentist.
Al’s Roadmaster was by now a rust bucket that exhaled billows of smoke. (This was in the early 1960s, before the first environmentalist had been spawned.) It backfired with frequent regularity and also clanked and rattled as if its hubcaps were full of old bolts. You positively knew this car was coming long before you saw it, and the advance warning, heard in back of the house, all the way down under the hatchway among the jokes, giggles and calls for a match, would elicit cries of glee from both Stuart and me.
Al was not the most confident driver – he never, to my knowledge, ran that Buick past 50 kilometers per hour. He looked in all directions at least a hundred times before attempting a maneuver as intricate as a left turn. And he was not particularly adept when it came to parking – especially if it involved slipping into a curbside space between two other vehicles.
So with the rusty beige Roadmaster cresting the hill where Hartford’s West Euclid Street crossed Palm, Stuart and I would run headlong for Grandma’s front stoop and settle down to watch as Al, leaning wideeyed and white-knuckled over the Buick’s huge steering wheel, headed for his inevitable confrontation with the mysteries of parallel parking.
COUSIN AL’S efforts always began head-first, but after about four or five minutes of battling the huge wheel and slipping the noisy, worn-out Powerglide in and out of gear, he’d figure out that no matter how hard he tried, the Buick would never get closer to the curb than two meters. Only then would he do it the way he was supposed to, namely by pulling slightly ahead and then backing in.
With each one of Al’s Powerglide crunches and grunting tugs on the wheel, Stuart and I would elbow each other and erupt into squeals of delight. Watching Al park was, after all, the best Sunday afternoon entertainment there was, this being prior to cable TV and before our prepubescent bodies had begun turning out the really important hormones.
Usually, though, after another four or five minutes, Al was able to nudge the Buick into what passed for quasi-reasonable parking – meaning Roadmaster as hypotenuse, its front end sometimes extending far into the street, and sometimes its rear.
The ocean liner might have been docked but the show was not over, for Al had yet to walk around it several times to make sure all was properly battened down. He’d study that Buick like he was buying it all over again, making sure, for all I knew, that the front end was facing forward (well, reasonably forward) and the roof was facing up. He did everything but kick the tires (which probably was a good thing because, considering the rest of the car, chances are he’d have wound up with a flat).
It was during these walk-arounds that Stuart and I finally exploded into spasms of laughter. We’d seen the show dozens of times, but it was like The Three Stooges, where you’d laugh until you cried even though every double-eye poke and vertical roundhouse head clunk was exactly where you knew it would be.
When our guffaws finally caused him to look up, Al would just as invariably smile and ask to hear the joke one of us had surely just told. Passing us on the way through Grandma’s front door, he’d pat our heads and ask what we “monkeys” had been up to of late. I never knew where that description came from, but somehow it fit.
Years later I found out that Cousin Al had been staging the whole parking shtick (well, most of it) just to entertain us, feigning ignorance of our presence. I guess this gentle, befuddled man liked a good laugh, too, even at his own expense.
He recently died at 94. In all the years I knew him, I never heard a discouraging word or the slightest complaint about adversity. He probably would have made a fun dad. He certainly would have been a wonderful role model, choice of car notwithstanding.