My Life on Main Street
(in Denison, Texas)
by Freddy Lessly
by Freddy Lessly
For quite some time now, I have contemplated putting my thoughts to pen and ink, telling of my experiences as a young man on Main Street USA. I tell the tale as a documentation of life as it was in the 1960's, enjoying the favorite pastime of Americas teenagers, "Cruising Main". Cruising the main drag or dragging Main as it was called in Denison, was not only the favorite teenage pastime locally but was the craze on the national scene. Every town had a main drag and Denison was no exception, in fact, Denison with it's straight up and down main street was one of the best cities for cruising, being cool and being seen by those who seemed to matter in a day that exalted hot cars, the Beach Boys, guitars and drive-ins on Friday night. I was one of those cruisers, living a life that now is only depicted in the movies. A carefree lifestyle in a different day in time, at time of respect for authority and a time when mom's apple pie lured young folks to a home built around love and discipline that has all but eluded us, to be replaced by a more success driven nucleus, that has us sparing to achieve a level of lifestyle that never seems to satisfy the soul! This is my story!
As a young high school student in the early 1960's, I longed for the day when I could get my own car and start "dragging Main"! I had ridden with older kids that had their own car and had cruised that miracle mile (six blocks up and six blocks down) a few times as a passenger but couldn't wait on that day when I could be at the wheel, giving that "all too cool" nod as I passed by peers and comrades and girls, all going nowhere, just cruisin! It was quite apparent as to who was the "coolest", the guys who had the nicest cars, no doubt! Most of these guys were the one's who had already graduated or quit high school, had full time jobs and big car payments. That's all it took.....well, with the exception of some really nice duds from Dad and Lad's or Lilly's Department Store. Both these stores had payment plans just like the car dealers, as I soon learned. As an impressionable sixteen year old sophomore in high school, I valued "dragging Main" as the epitome of success, never mind a career, dragging Main was a career! In order to climb that ladder leading to this most sacred and revered lifestyle, I knew that a job with income was pertinent. With the help of a friend who was already employed at the local Safeway Grocery Store, I managed to land a job as a "package boy", you know, the kid that carried your mother's groceries to the car. If I remember correctly, the pay was something around a buck an hour. If you could manage to get quite a few hours in, the take home pay was quite a handsome amount for a high school kid. The Safeway store in those days was located on Chestnut Street, just a block over from Main Street. As package boys, we carried groceries out to the parking lot and on Friday and Saturday evenings we could see the action beginning to develop over on Main Street. I remember one Saturday evening in particular, I saw a carload of guys cruisin in a 56 Buick convertible, with the top down. These guys were excited, yelling and laughing as they made the block on Chestnut and back over to Main. The sight of this cool car, loaded with guys having fun, left a lasting impression on me and I knew this was the type of life that I wanted to pursue! We usually worked until around eight o'clock in the evening, so the cruisin over on Main Street had already started before we got off work. In that day in time, all the businesses were still downtown. Downtown was the center of activity, whether it be day or evening. My friends and I couldn't wait to get off our jobs, get home and change clothes and get back downtown to where the action was building up.
Shortly after becoming employed at Safeway, I got my first car. It was a solid white 54 Chevy. It was a good sound car with only one dent on the rear quarter panel on the driver's side. Not a large dent, so it really didn't take away from the esthetics of the car. The Chevy had a power glide automatic transmission, still sort of a rarity in that model car. Also, something even more rare was the air conditioning unit, one of those units that hung under the dash. That AC was as cold as ice too! Overall it was a good solid little Chevy and I was proud of it. Soon I hit Main Street in it, I was off and running.......or uuhhh.....cruising!
Later on, I started to fix up the little 54, I sprayed the wheels (sans the hub caps) a flat black and fitted it with the little narrow fake whitewalls that were becoming popular. This was the "look" in those days prior to alloy and magnesium wheels. Somewhere I had acquired a tachometer, one of those race car tachs that mounted on the steering column. Made no difference that it wasn't hooked up, it was for looks anyway. As if I needed to monitor the rpm's on a six cylinder 54 Chevy with an automatic transmission! Later on a gentleman that I worked with at Safeway, painted that car for me. He worked at his house, painting cars for people for a supplemental income. I remember he told me to go and get three quarts of paint, color of my choice, and he would paint the car for thirty-five dollars. There were a couple of 62 Pontiacs around town that were a beautiful metallic blue and I had really admired that color, so I went to one of the auto supply houses and had them mix up some 62 Pontiac Bristal Blue paint, a color I chose from a General Motors color chart. The color matched the interior perfectly since it was a shade of lighter blue. With the car painted that beautiful blue and the wheels painted flat black and the narrow whitewalls sparkling, I could go downtown and feel somewhat proud. After all, there were a bunch of cars that were not as nice as mine!
In those days a car like mine with new paint and new tires and a solid engine, even though it was an older car, was pretty well "top shelf". High school kids during this era drove anything that had four wheels on it and would move in a forward motion! I've seen boys carry bulk oil, purchased by the gallon jug from Babcock Brothers Auto Supply, in the trunk of their cars. The old cars burned so much oil that they would have to stop on Main Street and add oil. The bulk oil from Babcock's was re-refined oil that sold for fifteen cents per gallon back then. I've even seen guys use a coke case for a seat! Jumper cables were always kept handy and rethreaded tires were the standard. A ball cap or hat was kept handy and would regularly be passed around from the front seat to the back, for each rider to contribute change for the gasoline fund so that they could continue their trek up and down Main. Teenagers made do and were ingenious in their ideas as to how to keep those wheels rolling! Fortunately the price of fuel was fairly inexpensive and the cars of that day in time were still simple to repair as compared to today's computerized, amenity loaded, electronic wonders! A hammer and a screwdriver, some bailing wire and some duct tape, usually kept the engines turning, keeping the driver in his element, dragging Main, having fun and being seen!
As time moved on, I was able to acquire much nicer cars, moving up to a 55 Chevy, a 63 Chevy SS, a 69 Chevy Impala Custom and a 72 Buick LeSabre, all two-door hardtop coupes. You're probably thinking, "just how long did you drag Main?" Well, I'm the one that turned the lights off! And speaking of turning lights off, I remember the light switch for the downtown Christmas lights, was installed on a light pole beside Barrett Drugs. The switch was installed high on the pole, I assumed, to keep kids from messing with it. The police had a long stick they used to flip the Christmas lights on and off. Right after we would notice the officer turn the lights on, we'd climb up and stand on a mailbox and filp them back off. For some reason, this was entertainment for us! Another little amusing game we played, was to act like we were taking a drink and then hurriedly look as if we were trying to hide whatever we were drinking. This was all done while passing by a police officer, of course. The officer would start out after us, pull us over and ask us what we were drinking. Of course, we had nothing whatsoever to drink in the car. The officer would then wipe the egg off his face and tell us to go home. Trouble with this antic, is that you nearly had to get a new officer every time. The same officer usually wouldn't fall for it twice! In those days it wasn't uncommon for the police officers to know a lot of the Main Street kids. I think most all kids respected policeman who had been fair to them. However, there were a few the kids knew to stay away from. I remember several occasions when I was pulled over and the officer found beer in my car. He'd make me get behind the car and pour every can of beer on the ground, even the unopened cans! Then he'd instruct us to go home. This was really inconvenient since we had to go look for someone else over twenty-one to buy us more beer and we couldn't go back downtown, since we were supposed to have gone home!
I spend quite a bit of time explaining about my cars and about things that happened while cruising down the main drag, mainly because back in those days, you were what you drove! The type car you jockeyed up and down Main Street was your personality, your persona, so to speak, it was who you were! Never mind if later, a girl found out that you really were a jerk, you could initially attract her with a flashy car. Guys were identified by the car they drove. Some went to the extra effort to name their car, whether it was a girlfriends name or some name that denoted how hot the car was, a name assured they had a place in Main Street history, as guys still talk about certain cars that had a name. Some of my favorites were, "Come What May", "Wooly Bully", "Slow Pok", "24 Karat" and "Pussy Cat".
Many hot summer nights were spent out on Highway 84 in front of the Sherrard home (Sherrard Motor Company). This was a straight piece of highway used for a quarter mile drag strip. When a couple of guys pulled their cars up to the line, you could almost hear "Green Onions" playing inside your head and if it came on your am radio, that was an added bonus! One guy would stand in the middle of the two cars, waving his outstretched arms and when he dropped his arms, the two cars started laying rubber like crazy as they came off the line headed for the quarter mile mark! A few guys usually migrated to the other end and of course, would be the first to declare the winner! This was serious business with guys, nobody wanted the reputation of having a losing car! I ran the quarter mile a couple of times with my 55 Chevy. I was racing a friend that had a 55 Ford. I had a standard shift and his was an automatic. Due to my standard transmission, I could lead him off the line enough that he couldn't catch me in a quarter mile. We raced another quarter mile strip though, this one in front of the Pillsbury plant on the same highway. Another quarter mile trek was out on the Ambrose Highway. We referred to this strip as the "twin bridges", since there were two bridges to cross in this quarter mile layout. Seems like later on, this was the stretch of road most used by these "would be" Mario Andretties! Strangely, in all my times at these races, I don't recall the cops coming even once! As I look back, we were all extremely fortunate that someone did not get hurt or worse yet, killed! To my knowledge no one got arrested either! I think God knew that we really meant no harm and sort of looked out for us!
As I stated earlier, dragging Main was all about the cars, the flashy cars that went up and down the street and so profoundly made a statement about who you were! However, a number of other factors went into that equation. GIRLS played a huge role as to why a guy even had a car in the first place! Girls, dating, radios (music), drive-ins, guitars, movie theaters, clothes, hair styles and late night restaurants, all played a tremendous supporting role in the Main Street lifestyle. All of these things combined to culminate and justify the efforts each made in getting their cars customized, to wear the latest style clothes, to cultivate the right hair style and to be seen on that main drag and being almost too cool to even manage a wave as they passed other "too cool" individuals. I can remember cleaning my car spotless, clean enough to eat off of and putting on some dark sunglasses and scooting down low in the seat. We used the right hand to steer and the left arm sort of rested on the door panel with the window down. The right arm was extended straight with the right hand on the top section of the steering wheel. If anybody would admit it, most guys had their own distinctive wave. I'd take my right hand off the steering wheel, palm down, fingers closed together and wave with a circular motion, just as if I were drawing the bottom side of a half moon in the air. Some would laborously lift the index finger of the left hand, with arm still resting on the window door panel. Others would lift the index finger of the right hand that was on the top of the steering wheel, never taking their hand off the wheel. The position of the driver was also somewhat unique, though not as diversified as the wave. You stooped somewhat under the steering wheel and sort of slumped more toward the middle. This made the driver appear very relaxed and almost too cool to sit up straight. Those that were in their parents car really had a rough time of it. First, they had to remove the box of Kleenex from the package shelf in the back and then hope their dads hadn't installed a compass on the dash and the mother's terry cloth steering wheel cover, at least had to be removed for the evening. Spilling beer in your parent's car wasn't even an option. I recall one Saturday morning when my Dad asked to use my car for an errand, since something was wrong with his car. He drove off and only moments later he pulled back up to our house. It seems that the first time he applied the brakes, a empty beer bottle rolled out from under the seat. He came back about half ticked and said that he didn't want to get picked up for drinking! Never mind the bottle was empty! I think he was trying to make a point!
Yeah, I got the message!
Well, I've covered the cars, the wave, the drag racing, a little about the cops and the driving styles, now let me tell you about some of the things that happened on Main Street and why and how they happened.
My best friend was from Colbert, Oklahoma, just across the river. He was a couple years older than me but I had seen him draggin Main as early as my sophomore year. He drove a brand new, bright red 1964 Plymouth Sport Fury during the time that I was a senior in high school. Cool car, big engine with a factory four speed. The car didn't even have AC, it was built for performance, not for comfort! Funny thing though, I noticed that when I first started dragging Main, guys would get together and chase any airman from Perrin Air Force Base that happened to be up on Main Street, out of town and back to Perrin. I always fancied myself a lover and not a fighter, so I never participated in one of these little frolics and besides, I wanted to have all my teeth when I got out into the world! Some of the guys would also do this to Sherman kids who came over to our Main Street. However, the guys that came over from Colbert seemed to be welcomed with open arms. They were treated as if they were Denison boys. Well, some of them were pretty tough too, that may have had something to do with their acceptance on Denison's main drag! Anyway, when I graduated from high school and started to work at the Johns-Manville plant, the guy with the Sport Fury also worked there. We soon became best friends and later put in a million miles together on Main Street. Naturally, most of my stories include this best friend as we were constant companions!
I can remember one rather cold winter evening when a bunch of us were trolling Main, we spotted about five girls riding in a big late model Pontiac. Our usual method, when it was just my friend and me, was to spot two girls who were also dragging Main, we'd motion for them to pull into a parking place and to come ride with us. To be fair, one of us would get out to hold the seat back, allowing the girls to get in as they chose, front or back. Of course, they readily could see who was driving and who was now going to have to get into the back seat. We would let them decide without ever saying a word, one would fall in the back seat and the other the front. It was just the "luck of the draw"! But this was a carload of girls! We pulled along side of them several times and flirted but to no avail. This went on for some time. Finally, my friend had a brilliant idea as we pulled up behind them at a red light. He was going to jump out of the car and run up and get in their car wlth them, for whatever reason! When he did, he jerked on their door, only to find it locked! About the same time, the light changed and off they went! There he was left standing in the middle of the street! Talk about being humiliated! The only thing that could have been worse, is if we had locked him out of our car also!
Most of us also had little codes that we used to pull girls over. If a girl was going the opposite direction on Main, you gave them the little "spin around" jesture, meaning go around the block. You'd do this with the index finger, making a circular motion. We watched to see which way they turned and headed over to that street to try swoon the young ladies into perhaps riding around with us!
I can recall one extremely late night on Main Street, almost everyone had gone home and we were yet to find a couple of girls. The only girls still draggin Main, really didn't look all that appealing. My buddy was going with a girl but somehow she was out of pocket that evening. We collectively decided that it being so late we might as well settle for the only two available. We pulled them over and they were delighted to get into the car with us! Just as soon as they settled in, we knew why! I was not the driver on that evening, so I was in the back seat with the one who had chosen me. Now, to say she was a little bit on the heavy side, wouldn't really do the situation justice! The car was leaning on our side! Leaning bad! The girl in the front seat with my buddy, wasn't fat but I held my hand over my wristwatch for fear it would stop running, should it get a glimpse of her! We headed to Eisenhower Park on the lake, thinking we needed to get them out of town and quickly. Oh yeah, it gets worse! Come to find out, my buddy's girlfriend, who was a nice upstanding girl, had been following us all along! And what's worse, we pulled up to the public restrooms out at Eisenhower Park and my friend went in. At that point, she approached the car, she was steaming! Here I was with these two girls as she commenced to question me! My buddy must have heard her out there because it was a long time before he came out! She was so mad that she had pulled off by that time. Needless to say, that relationship went south!
During that period it became quite popular to hoist the front end of your car up. I'm talking about on a permanent basis. Going down Main Street, a flashy car looked great with the nose up in the air and the rear end sitting low. I don't know what it was about that look but it really seemed to give the car a more regal appearance. Some of the guys were taking a torch and heating the back springs, until it dropped the back end to the desired level and others were putting little knob-like spacers in between the front springs, thus, raising the front end up. I got the bright idea of going out to the lake and picking up a large boulder and placing it in my trunk. This idea was pure genius, that is, until I turned the corner and it nearly took out the left quarter panel! It was going to be so handy, put it in the trunk to lower the rear-end and take it out to go back to a conventional method. That idea may not have been my most stupid idea though. My friend and I picked up a couple of girls one night and headed to the lake with them. We pulled into one of our favorite "parking" spots. It was a hot summer night, full moon, so we paired off, he took his girl over to a picnic table and I chose the top of my car. We layed there and talked (ok and necked too!) and looked up to the stars, citing our dreams! Pretty romantic huh?......Yeah, it was until the next day when I discovered that we had dented the roof of my car! So much for my brilliant ideas!
I remember one summer evening when a friend and me picked up a couple of girls on Main Street and proceeded to the lake for a swim. I had two army blankets in my car, so we stopped to get them as we were in one of the girls' car. On the trip out to the lake, the subject of "skinny dipping" came up. Everyone seemed to be all for it, so that was our plan. We got to a familiar beach, it was about 10:00 pm., it was very dark and we could only see by the light of the silvery moon! We had no more than spread our blankets on the sand and stripped our clothes off, when a car came pulling in, headlights glaring on us! We told the girls to go and hide in the bushes and me and my friend went to investigate, naked! It happened to be a man, who by this time was out of the car, using the headlights, looking for something on the ground. We could see that a female companion was with him as she was sitting in the middle of the front seat. Seems they had been there right before us and had lost some keys, a watch or something of value and had just come back to look for it. Now picture this, two guys, naked as a jay-bird, conversing with a total stranger and his girlfriend, all of us bent over looking for the lost item! The couple could not see our girls and as far as they knew, we were alone! God knows.............likely that couple has told that story a million times through the years, they're probably still telling it!
And so it was on the main drag in a little town named Denison! Friendships were forged, marriages were made and countless boy/girl love affairs flourished! It was a time of uncertainty, as the threat of military service loomed over most young men. Jobs seemed scarce and the upscale lifestyle enjoyed later in life by the Yuppie crowd, was only a dream! What was to come, was hardly a factor to be reckoned with as young men and women set their sails in a straight path up and down Main Street. One by one, they slowly dropped to the wayside as career and family responsibilities took it's presidence as a priority not to be avoided. But the excitement, the laughter, the cars, the friendships and relationships and the carefree lifestyle afforded to those who chose to be permanent figures on Main Street, will always be remembered by those of us who thought it would last forever! And it will..............as it's embedded in our hearts and in our souls!
About the Author......Freddy Lessly is the retired director of the six county wide public transit authority that serves Grayson County along with five other counties. He has written other short stories, "You Ain't Gonna Believe This", "The Porch", "It Can't Last Forever" & "Ladies and Gentlemen, As I Stand Before You Today......", to name a few. Lessly resides in Denison with his wife, Twila and daughter, Bailey. He also has a grown son, Todd. Lessly presently works as a Bail Bondsman for North Texas Bail Bonds in Sherman, Texas.