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A Chicago Childhood

1950-1957

Planting the seeds of lifelong passions

Although my life began in mid-20th century Chicago, my family’s Orthodox Jewish traditions were holdovers from their Eastern European roots. As a result, I attended kindergarten and 2nd grade in a parochial school, learning Hebrew in the mornings, and conventional English subjects in the afternoon. I think this photo was taken in the cloakroom at that school, and given the bowtie and cufflinks, I’m dressed up for some holiday.

I didn’t like this school and much preferred to think about cars. I studied the automobile dealer pages in the phone book until I had memorized every model. I was proud to be able to precisely identify the make, model, and year of almost any car on the road, just from seeing its taillight or bumper shape.

My parents also felt I needed music lessons. But why accordion? The only music studio close by? At any rate, I learned to read music and play some accordion standards. Any requests for Lady of Spain — anyone…anyone…anyone?

Following a rather traumatic hospitalization for asthma, I also became interested in doctors and medicine — I liked their white coats, stethoscopes, and the respect they commanded. Young boys were frequently asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I quickly learned that “doctor” was the correct answer to that question.

In 1957 our family moved to Tucson, Arizona, where the climate was believed to be more healthful for my asthma. There, these three seeds — cars, music, and medicine — would later sprout into lifelong passions.

You never forget your first kiss car

1960 Chrysler 300F

1965-1969

1960 Chrysler 300F

Through my teenage years, there was no date I anticipated more than October 16, 1965. It wasn’t a birthday, but the day I’d become eligible for an Arizona driver’s learning permit. I started shopping for cars months in advance, and I wanted a unique car that nobody else at school would have.

A few weeks before the magic date, I spotted a Chrysler 300F, incongruously parked in a British sports car dealer’s used lot. I knew this model, a limited production series Chrysler had been building with the goal of winning some races. With a 413 cubic inch V-8, long “cross-ram” intake manifolds that gave a supercharging effect, and dual 4-barrel carburetors, it had won the Daytona speed record in 1960. Inside were swiveling bucket seats and a hemispheric instrument panel that glowed like a spaceship. At only $600, I wanted it more than anything in the world, even though I couldn’t yet drive it home myself.

Naturally, I had to customize it further. It didn’t need more power or speed, so I focused on the interior and electronics. Of course it needed a 2-way radio, and for music a cartridge tape player and a reverb box. The reverb gave an auditorium ambience to the music, but as a side effect it injected a large “sproinggg” sound if you hit a big bump. There was also a minor mishap when I removed the stock radio. Wrestling it out from behind the dash, it shorted out a fuse block and set the wiring on fire. The car was still drivable, but when you stepped on the brake, the horn blew. It was an embarrassing trip to the dealer to get all that repaired.

As other students started adding sound systems to their cars, I had to kick things up a notch: add a bar! Well, sort of. I added a plastic tank in the trunk and ran a hose to a Sears sink spigot mounted on the center console. Turn the faucet, out could come water, soda, whatever I had loaded in the tank. I added a Dixie cup dispenser to the seatback and the decadent ambience was complete.

Saab Story

1976-1977

Like many parents with a new baby, we thought it was time for a safer, roomier car, and what could be safer than a Saab from Sweden? Front wheel drive for snowy traction, forward-hinged hood that wouldn’t fly up in a crash, ignition key down on the transmission tunnel where it couldn’t injure your knee, door panels with hip protectors, and an impossible-to-ignore chartreuse color that outshone even school-bus yellow.

That clever ignition key that locked the transmission in reverse, well, it couldn’t be unlocked on the slightest hill. So I yanked the whole ignition key assembly and built a cipher-lock with a telephone keypad, some digital logic, and relays. Punch in the sequence and press a button to start.

For the cross-country trip to med school in Miami with Susie and Amy, I added a hitch and cargo trailer. But halfway through California, the car quit in a town hundreds of miles from any Saab dealer. I was able to locate and fix a bad fuel pump ground, but no longer trusted the car for a cross-country trip with a wife and infant.

Instead, I dropped off Susie and Amy in Tucson, to stay with my mother. Then my father and I would complete the drive together to Miami. Finally, Susie and Amy would fly to Miami and Dad would fly back. Besides enjoying a father/son road trip, Dad would get to see his long lost brother Hilly in Coral Gables, FL.

The drive went fine, and Dad and Hilly had a joyful reunion. As I prepared to start medical school at the University of Miami, Hilly took Dad sightseeing down the Florida Keys. One night they stayed up late playing poker, and my father — who according to Hilly had just drawn a royal flush — suddenly keeled over in cardiac arrest.

Now I had to fly back to Tucson to inform and comfort my mother while arranging my father’s funeral. Med school classes had already started when I got back to Miami to begin the next phase of my life.