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August 11, 1998

They say a man never forgets his first kiss or his first car. I am a little hazy about the former but I sure do remember the first real automobile I ever owned. It was a dark blue two-seater Chevrolet coupe formerly owned by Ralph (Honk) Mossman, a local barber and juke box entrepreneur. I bought it in 1946 from the local Chevrolet dealership shortly after returning to Perry following the end of World War II. Cars had not been made in the U.S. for several years because of the massive defense effort and the new post-war models had not yet started trickling down to the smaller markets, like Perry. Mr. Mossman's car was clean, lean and ready to roll. It was available. I loved it.

The most distinctive feature about the interior was the gasoline heater beneath the dashboard. Heaters were still not standard equipment in automobiles, so having one was something to brag about. Normal forced-air auto heaters draw their warmth from the engines so the car has to be operating for a few minutes before you realize any benefit from them, but that's not true of gasoline heaters. They operate on a different principle. They become very hot in very short order. I understand they are no longer made. Not surprising.

One chilly Saturday night I escorted a local young lady to a marvelous double feature at the Perry Theatre on Sixth street. We emerged from the cinema to find that snow was falling and the temperature was hovering around the freezing level. "Never fear," I advised. "This heater works swell!" I proudly flipped it on after starting the engine. It was the first time I had tried to use it. All the air deflectors were aimed at my lady friend, as a courtesy to make sure she had the benefit of the first warmth produced by the heater. A sudden feminine shriek made me aware that something was seriously wrong. Yes, it was instantly H-O-T in the car and my date's lower legs were being barbecued. I had purposely set the thermostat at the highest level to produce rapid heating. The heater was responding by enveloping the compact interior of the coupe with suffocating, super-hot air. That's what gasoline heaters do. Those scorching waves were being produced unbelievably fast. Lowering the thermostat did not help. The only solution was to switch the heater off, which made us quickly aware of the cold weather outside. The rest of the evening was none too pleasant.

When I described the problem the next day to the dealer who sold me the car, he was surprised to learn that I didn't know about gasoline heaters. I think that was the last model that came so equipped. My next car, a brand-new 1949 dark blue Chevy with white sidewall tires, removable fender skirts and a built-in radio, had a standard heater. That was the first thing I asked about when I started looking for something to replace Mr. Mossman's car. At that stage of life, everything was a learning experience. Come to think of it, that's still pretty much the case.