In Praise of Arm Hanging

One of my favorite things to do in summer is to drive with the windows down, the music cranked and my arm hanging out the window – the crook of my elbow on the sill and my hand extended straight down.

Red Sheffer exhibiting Air Force cool

I got this from my dad, who looked super cool driving around our hometown, Hudson, NY, with his left arm hanging out the window of his white Pontiac. Dad, known to everyone as Red, had long, sun-freckled arms and a shock of red hair that warned everyone he was ready for a good time. The editors of his high school yearbook recognized his capacity for fun, writing that whenever there was a party, "Red's around." He was not deterred from this perspective by military service or getting married and having four children. Even the corporate chill of his employer IBM could not cool Red.

Cars were very important to him. As a young father, he bought the cars Detroit made during its glory days – long, sleek and muscular. When he grabbed his keys and asked if anyone wanted to go to the store with him to buy cigarettes, the Sheffer kids would put up our hands. We knew there was the possibility of candy, including my favorite, red rope licorice.

Dad would light up a cigarette as we drove to resupply his habit. He’d cup the cigarette in his hand, which hung all the way down to the middle of his door.  I watched his cigarette carefully from the back seat and wondered to myself if the wind was smoking it as he held it outside the car. One time he tossed a finished butt out the window and, to our horror, it was blown by the wind into the back seat. We all scrambled to find the small torch and disposed of it out the window as Dad watched calmly in the rear-view mirror.

My cars and my arms are shorter than Dad’s and I don’t smoke but I still mimic him when driving around Hudson. I know "10 and 2" driver's ed teachers are anti-arm hangers -- and rightfully so -- but there are advantages, including the ability to do a quick, lukewarm wave when you see someone you know, but not that well. Don't make eye contact, just flip your hand casually.

Arm hanging says I'm local, I know where I'm going and there's no hurry. There’s also the trucker’s tan but more importantly, you get to inflict your great taste in music on others. The three best songs for automotive arm hanging are: Hey Jude by The Beatles; No One to Run With by The Allman Brothers Band; and, Travelin’ Man, by Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band. There will be no arguments on this.

Admittedly, there are times when arm hanging is a bad idea, such as in heavy traffic, the months of November to March in the Northeast, after you’ve waxed your car, as you pull into the driveway of your prospective in-laws for the first time, and when following a truck carrying loose stone and gravel.

Some say the art of arm hanging reached its peak in the 1950s as portrayed in the movie, American Graffiti. I say its zenith was the 1960s on the streets of Hudson and its Picasso was my dad, Red Sheffer.