My Dad only bought one new car when my brother and I were coming of age in the 1950s in southeastern Oklahoma. He went to the Chevrolet dealership in Hugo and bought a top-of-the-line 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air 4-door sedan. I’ll never forget the “new car smell’ inside it the day he drove it home. I was 10 years old.
My Dad ran the local wrecker service and auto salvage yard. Since he was constantly surrounded by wrecked cars, having a brand new factory fresh automobile was a significant milestone for him, a former high school-only educated child of the Great Depression. I always said I got my love of cars from him. Regrettably, he didn’t live to see the collection of Corvettes I put together many years later. (www.hookedonvettes.com)
Within six weeks of Dad’s buying that Chevy, we were off on a classic American family two-week vacation. Our destination: Los Angeles, California.
We drove the new Chevrolet westward and a significant part of the trip followed the “Mother Road’”immortalized, internationally and forever, by John Steinbeck — Route 66. I clearly remember the new Chevy’s odometer turning 1,000 miles in far west Texas.
We were soon crossing the great deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and portions of California. The scenery was a heat-scorched horizon of cactus as I’d never seen before and the new Bel Air did not have air conditioning. But who cared? Few people had air in their cars then. My brother and I rolled the windows down and faced a blast furnace in the back seat, but hey, we were on vacation.
For us, seeing the USA in our Chevrolet was what Dinah Shore had beseeched us to do on TV. When Dad bought the Chevy, we’d already had our first television for a year. And during much of that year, I’d been watching Walt Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color.”
I had to take his word on the color part, because our TV was black and white. But I idolized Walt Disney and the dreams he seemingly made come to life.
Because of that, I made sure that one of our days in the new Chevy would be spent driving to Disneyland amusement park. That day came. We parked the Bel Air and walked to the front gate. A fantasy world opened before us.
We had not been on the grounds 15 minutes and I could scarcely take it all in when my eyes locked on a man about 20 yards ahead of us. It was Walt Disney himself! Dressed in his classic business suit, he was walking with a purpose but was alone and unnoticed by the thousands already in the park.
I broke away from the family and ran to him as fast as I could. I knew it was him… I’d seen him on TV for months. As I breathlessly asked him for his autograph, an adult woman had suddenly shared my discovery and simultaneously asked him for a signature. In a kind, courteous but resolute voice, Walt Disney said to us both, “I’m sorry folks… I’m late for a meeting and if I stop to sign, I’m afraid it will draw a crowd and I’ll be even later.”
The woman gave him an understanding smile and turned to walk away. As I started to do the same thing an instant later, Walt put his arm around my shoulder and with his other hand, retrieved a small piece of paper from his coat pocket. Handing it to me, he said, “Here son, don’t tell anyone I did this.” And with that, he walked away.
When my now-awed family caught up to me, I unfolded the small paper square. At the top, a typeset message said “From The Desk of Walt Disney.” But underneath, he had pre-signed his actual signature with a ballpoint pen!
The rest of the day at Disneyland was a blur of fun and excitement, but nothing could top the way the day had started.
Later, back in Oklahoma, my mother took the autograph and put it away in the family cedar chest. It remained there for 40 years. Sometime back, before she died at age 92, my mother retrieved the small piece of paper bearing Disney’s signature and gave it to me. It’s likely worth several thousand dollars to a collector, but I wouldn’t take a million for it.
And to this day, no car has taken me on a more meaningful and memorable adventure than the 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air that took me to Disneyland, where I met the man himself.
— Michael Brown, Arlington TX