A dead car was a part of the fun

LABOR DAY WEEKEND was a time of a certain end-of-summer sadness on my family's annual calendar.

Five of the six Kelly siblings had spent nearly every day once school was out working at hotels, 10-cent stores and restaurants in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Come September, another grand summer at the beach was wrapped up. There were goodbyes to boyfriends and girlfriends. Our third-floor apartment had to be cleaned out and its contents shoehorned into cars for the return trip to Baltimore, where another school year faced my younger siblings.


There was one Labor Day that started off much like the others, but ended with an unforgettable trip home.

We had stayed as late as we could, not wanting to waste one bit of that precious summer. Our attic apartment overflowed with a season's worth of bathing suits, beach towels and factory-outlet buys for the winter. It also had a heavy inventory of people -- the Kellys and several guests.


It seems to me that this one Labor Day my father sensibly announced that he and my mother would be beating the traffic and leaving early, maybe even on the Sunday before that first Monday in September.

My brother Eddie, ever generous, offered to chauffeur home all the foolhardy stragglers who wanted to tough out the Labor Day traffic bound for points west.

That was the year my sister Ellen's friend Mary Dalton decided to buy a new car to replace her '64 Chevy Impala SuperSport. In an act of generosity that is still recalled in our family storytelling, she donated the car she was replacing to my brother Eddie.

The Chevrolet made the two-block trip from the Daltons' home in the 2600 block of Guilford Avenue to the Kellys' in the 2800 block. It became the first car owned by any of my siblings. The car immediately acquired a name, christened the Daltonmobile in honor of its donor.

Eddie got a lot of mileage out of that car. It went everywhere, and come summer, it had traveled from Guilford Avenue to Rehoboth without incident. Going to and leaving the beach was more than an ordeal. If you added all the great-aunts and bachelor uncles, the family numbered 10; the Daltonmobile measured up well to the task of being the bulk carrier it was.

The Chevy was not the only car in the family. My father had a 1968 baby-blue Checker Marathon, specially fitted with two extra jump seats. Despite what people thought, this vehicle had never seen service as a taxicab. It was ordered new from Kalamazoo, Mich., and merely looked like a big cab painted a pastel color. The Checker had the cargo capacity of a dump truck.

We knew there would be delays and backups Labor Day Monday. We had a full car of extremely happy campers. A good time at the beach is directly proportional to the number of people along for the ride.

I don't remember the number of passengers in the Daltonmobile as it left Rehoboth Beach. I'm sure the deep Impala trunk was at capacity and its rear bumper not far from the asphalt.


As predicted, the traffic was dense. In those days, we didn't fear crossing the Bay Bridge as much as we hated the unpredictable habits of the old Kent Narrows Bridge, the most hated span in the state. It was a drawbridge a few miles east of the Bay Bridge. By maritime law, boaters had the right of way over autos, even if boaters were pleasure craft out for a good time. An open drawbridge on U.S. 50 could put kinks in holiday traffic that lasted for hours.

The Daltonmobile was actually on a raised part of the highway that led to the span when its engine conked out in one of the many backups we encountered that day. A breakdown on the Kent Narrows Bridge was considered one of those unspeakable Maryland traffic horrors, second only to engine failure on the Bay Bridge itself.

Eddie got the Chevy onto the shoulder and pronounced the thing dead. At least five of us piled out. One of our passengers was Mary Louise Boniface, a Harford County friend of my parents. Her first suggestion was that the radiator needed water. She spotted a pair of chained German shepherds with drinking bowls full of water nearby. Why not use that water? she asked. The four of us said that wouldn't be a good idea.

She surveyed the situation again and said, "Look, there's a sign for fresh seafood. We'll get home somehow. I'm going to go over there and buy some soft crabs for dinner."

Off she went. She returned with a cardboard tray filled with ice, seaweed and a half-dozen cleaned but uncooked soft crabs.

At this point the shadows were growing longer and the traffic was getting meaner.


Soon, a Samaritan stopped, yet another guest from our apartment, who had left after we did. It was young Tommy D'Alesandro, the son of Baltimore's then mayor, who had a classic 1960s yellow Mustang.

My brother decided to have his car towed across the Bay Bridge, and every one of us, including the soft crabs, wedged our bodies into Tommy's little Ford.

We got back to Baltimore crushed but happy. The incident wiped out the Labor Day melancholia. The Daltonmobile was fixed (a broken water pump cost $60). It ran for another four years. Mary Boniface said the soft crabs were the best she'd ever had.

Pub Date: 9/01/96