Ever dropped an engine? Into a car, that is. I have, many times, back in the 1960s.
My first engine install was when I was 18 years old. Dad had been an airplane mechanic, and he was a very competent car mechanic. So I grew up with a wrench in my hand. I’d bought a ’57 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop on the cheap, then wrecked it. Went off the road in the early morning hours, through a fence, then end-over-end into a farmer’s field. Flattened the top almost down to the dash. My buddy and I were miraculously not injured, so we walked back to the road where there was a county sheriff waiting for us. He had some questions. Times being what they were, he told us to hop in and then gave us a ride home. “Too bad you wrecked your car, but come by tomorrow and get it out of the field. And get hold of the farmer to see about fixing his fence.”
This is almost exactly the same 1957 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop – even the same colors.
Next day, I got the Chevy home. It was totaled, but the iconic small-block 283 V8 was just fine. Word got out that I was looking for a car to put that engine in, and within days a friend towed over a ’55 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop with a blown 265 small-block V8 engine. Perfect swap.
I got hold of a couple friends and we pushed the cars under a big oak tree, attached a block and tackle to the engine in the ’55, and started loosening bolts and tearing it out. Took half a day. The shade tree mechanics spent the rest of the day pulling the good 283 from the ’57.
Now came the interesting part – dropping the ’57 engine into the ’55. In our haste to get me back on the road again, we hadn’t paid a lot of attention to what parts went where. It all seemed so straight-forward as we worked away, banging our knuckles into bare metal, mixing blood with engine grease, and ripping everything apart. Piles of parts everywhere. Now we had to put it all back together.
I was not about to learn that dropping an engine into an engine bay was a lot trickier than taking one out. We hoisted the engine and transmission on the block and tackle until it was dangling in mid air, then pushed the ’55 under it. As we started to drop the engine in, we narrowly missed dropping it right through the windshield!
We finally got it in, secured the motor and transmission mounts, and then got to work installing the parts that would make it a whole car. Connected the exhaust headers that had come with the ’55, and started on the drive shaft, wiring, gas line, radiator and cooling, and linkages – including the Hurst floor shifter.
Soon it was back together, and I was ready to turn the key and go for a spin.
It wouldn’t start. It was turning over just fine, but it was just backfiring, which brought my next door neighbor over because it sounded like gunfire. He was a veteran hot-rodder, so I immediately enlisted his expertise to find out why this pig would not grunt. He couldn’t see anything. Then he asked “the question”: did you take out the distributor and reinstall it? Well, we had because when we were dropping the engine in, we’d mashed the distributor against the firewall and had to replace it with the spare distributor from the other engine. He just smiled.
“Are you sure you got the distributor camshaft gear in exactly the right position?”
I thought we had, but there was an excellent chance we hadn’t. So I pulled the distributor out and reinstalled it one notch over. Pumped the gas, hit the key and it fired right up, sounding very sweet through those cherry bomb dual exhausts.
I was back on the road. The ’55 was a mean looking car. It had dark grey primered paint, no front bumper, and the front end was jacked up to give it the drag car look. It sounded like a dragster, and it went like hell. I drove it back and forth to college for about a half a year. Never got a ticket.
Took a little searching, but here is a photo that comes very close to my ’55 Chevy two-door hardtop. Primered paint, no bumper, mags on the front but not the rear. Ruff, ready, and willin’! See trailer at the end for a clip of “Two-Land Blacktop.”
The end came on a back road on the way home from school one afternoon. I was doing about 85 mph when there was a loud bang, the oil pressure gauge dropped to zero, and the exhaust turned to black smoke that appeared to mixed with some kind of particles.
I’d blown the engine.
I didn’t have time to swap in another engine, so I sold it cheap to a hot-rodder buddy. He took the engine apart and told me the inside was just a mangled mass of rod bearings and parts of pistons. He dropped in a 327 Corvette engine and raced it at the local drag strip.
I replaced it with a ’58 Chevy two-door hardtop – pretty blue with that venerable 283 V8. Floor shifter, headers and very mellow sounding dual exhausts. It needed a clutch, so I picked it up cheap and installed a clutch in my back yard, scooting around on my back in the dirt.
Here’s an image of the same model ’58 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop as the one I owned, except that the car was solid blue, not two-tone.
Over the next several years, I did a couple more engine swaps. Dropped a 327 into my ’65 Impala Super Sport, swapped a Mercedes OHC six cylinder into my ’62 Mercedes 220S, put a junk yard engine in a ’73 Pinto (why bother, one might ask), and even swapped a English Ford engine into a cute little ’58 English Ford Squire station wagon.
Here’s a couple minutes of one of my all-time favorite films: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” starring songwriter James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, actor/director Warren Oates and Laurie Bird. And – a primered out ’55 Chevy!
At the north western edge of the continental United States, with the Pacific Ocean at your feet, lie a handful of cabins – Iron Springs Resort. They are arranged on a bluff overlooking a vast horizon that stretches westward to the edges of what is visible, then dissolves into what is not visible to mere mortals.
As you walk at the edge of the pounding surf, the sandy shores seem to stretch to infinity from north to south. Keep walking – for hours if you like – and you’ll never reach the end. The sand, the surf and the springs and estuaries that feed into the ocean recede and dissolve until they exist only in your memory. As the tides come in and go out at the resort’s Boone Creek, where fresh water meets salt water, you can watch the fresh water rise up over the more dense salt water, while the salt water beneath pushes its way upstream along the bottom. But as you walk, beware the incoming high tide, or you may find it difficult to return to where you began.
The sounds of the savage ocean shore are primal, as if from a dream. The sea birds, screaming at your thoughtless interruption of their dining routine. The winds, from gentle to so harsh they’ll blister your skin. And the rhythmic symphony of the great ocean beast itself as it moves ever towards the shore, changing from swells to white capped waves to crashing surf, ending the cycle as a churning but ever thinner sheet of water conforming to the irregular nuance of beach, fragmenting into barely visible ripples that disappear, pulsing and absorbed into the sand, only to reform as rivulets of salt water retreating to the ocean to begin the journey again.
This is the endless world. The ocean. From the beginning of time through eternity. We have the privilege of being part of the world but for a short time, less consequential than a grain of beach sand that has existed for millions of years. In comparison, our lives are an almost impercipitible flash of energy, barely noted, lasting an immersurabley short time.
So you might as well take advantage of it. Find a place like Iron Springs Resort, with about 25 cabins perched on a bluff stained orange from the iron-filled cliffs, with ruddy cinnamon waters from the nearby Boone Creek staining the beach. In the 19th century, the area was considered to be a medicinal soaking place.
The cabins have ocean-facing decks, almost all with stunning sunset panoramas. The resort has been there for decades, but all the cabins have been extensively renovated, incorporating the original stone fireplaces, with a generous supply of firewood included. Though the cabins retain their rustic persona, they are equipped to the highest standard for your stay, whether it’s for the night or for the week. Kitchens are well equipped, with granite countertops and modern appliances, including a dishwasher. A full complement of cookware and dinnerware is in the cabinets, and there is a nice sharp set of cooking knives – a nice touch. Fresh linens and towels are included, as well as dog towels to wipe your best friend’s feet. Iron Springs Resort not only allows dogs, they love dogs. When I arrived for my first visit, I brought my German Shepherd, Jack, with me the office to check in and they spent more time talking to him than me, letting him pick out a nice tennis ball from the bucket to take to the beach. Oh yes, dog dishes are also supplied in the cabins.
The ambience at Rust Springs Resort is serene and congenial. The cabins are set apart so that privacy is ensured. Several people I met were repeat visitors, and I later found that many have used Iron Springs Resort as a touchstone for family getaways, reunions, bonfires and clam digs for generations. There seemed to be a dog or two in every cabin, with everyone respectfully keeping their buddies on the leash. The exception is the friendly resort dogs, who quite understandably are free to go where they like.
But once you take the five-minute walk to the beach, off comes the leash, and your dog will enter unrestrained cosmic canine bliss. Feel free to do so, as well! My GSD Jack takes off like a shot, with a rooster tail of flying sand behind him, until he gets to the water where he splashes around barking at the waves and chasing gulls. When he finally slows down, somewhat later, we walk and walk and walk. By the time we get back to the cabin, he’s ready for chow and a nice laydown, and so am I. Click here or photo below for video link.
There is no finer end to the day for me than sitting out on the cabin deck with a glass of wine, watching the sun slip into the ocean. Every cabin has a barbeque grill on the deck, if you’re in the mood. If it’s windy or rainy, you just move inside, prop your feet up and enjoy the same view through the expansive glass windows and door.
In addition to the Pacific Ocean beach on your front doorstep, there are hiking trails in the second growth forest behind the resort, with “wolf trees” that must get their name from the branches that look to me like wolf teeth. There’s also fishing, shell fishing, bird watching, as well as marine and rainforest parks. The razor clams are famous. The Hoh Rain Forest, a world heritage site, is not far away.
Iron Springs Resort is an easy two and half hour drive from Seattle. Head west through Olympia towards Aberdeen and then follow the road north to Ocean Shores. Ocean Shores will be your last chance for grocery and other shopping, and then you keep going north on Washington 109N about another 15 minutes. After you cross the Copalis River Bridge, keep watch for the large overturned lifeboat on the left, then turn into the parking lot. Check out of your hectic life and check into ocean time.
For more information on Iron Springs Resort, including the history of the area and resort, go to their website at http://www.ironspringsresort.com/ There, you will find out one unusual feature of the resort, which is that the beach in front is home to Copalis Beach Airport. It is the only known beach airport in the contiguous United States and the only stretch of Washington State beach where it is legal to land a plane. Timing is everything, in case you plan to fly in – the runway and airplane parking area are under water at high tide! Click here or the photo for the Washington Department of Transportation Copalis Airport link.
“Do not return to work. We have terminated your employment. Do not enter the grounds or we will have you arrested for trespassing.”
This Saturday afternoon, I was under the hood of my 1966 Chevy Impala 396 Super Sport doing some engine work by our barn when Mike pulled into our driveway in his shiny white Ford pickup truck to fire me. I worked at his cheese factory, just a few miles away, six days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day – except Saturday, which was usually a half day. If a reefer truck pulled in and needed loading, we’d be working no matter what day of the week it was.
Mike and his partner, Edgar, owned that cheese factory. When I saw them together, I often smiled to myself a little because they reminded me of a Laurel and Hardy pair. Mike was middle aged and over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and an even broader paunch. Every day, he wore a white dress shirt that never seemed to stay fully tucked in his pants, which had their own difficulty finding where his waist was located. Edgar was much older and a good foot shorter, stooped over and almost frail. His glasses were usually sliding down his nose, probably because the lenses were as thick as the end of a Coke bottle. Neither of the two was particularly cordial or pleasant to deal with. Mike seemed a bit of a bully, his face always on the verge of a snarl, and Edgar walked by you as if you weren’t in the room, on the rare occasions he left his office. Edgar did the books; Mike ran floor operations.
It was just a matter of time before they tried to get rid of me, so I wasn’t surprised at Mike’s news. I kept my mouth shut, nodded once, and turned back to working on my car. Mike backed down the drive and disappeared in a trail of dust kicked up from the dirt road that ran from our farm to the main road. I knew exactly why this happened and how I got here, and I had a plan.
Now in my early 20’s, I was an accidental union organizer. Up until a couple months ago, I’d never given a thought to that calling, and I never did again, though I have a working knowledge of unions and union organizers, from Mother Jones to Joe Hill to Eugene Debs to César Chávez. I also knew a thing or two about labor, growing up on a farm where we breathed work from early morning until late at night. When I was 13 years old, I hired out for the summer to a farmer on the other side of the county six days a week for room and board and $75 a month. My parents picked me up Saturday night and brought me back on Monday morning. This was good money for a kid in those days, and I was so busy working I had nowhere to spend it.
The next two summers I rode my bicycle several miles each day to weed, hoe and plant trees six days a week at a large tree nursery. The following autumns, I spent my weekends picking, grading and selling apples at a neighboring orchard run by an agronomy professor from the University of Minnesota. All the apples you could eat. After school and weekends, I worked maintenance at a restaurant and apartment complex, as a soda jerk at a drug store, and as a prep and line cook at a local restaurant. When I was 17, I graduated from high school, started college and worked between classes and semesters at restaurants, sod fields, gas stations, construction companies and even a destruction company, tearing down old buildings, including the school where I attended first grade as a child. I worked alternating shifts for one summer at a window factory. Graveyard shift was 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. One summer I spent hanging on for dear life on a portable scaffolding high above the ground taking down and putting up billboard advertising. Hot, hard work, particularly in the blazing sun holding a blow torch and burning off the old paper posters. I guess you could call me a poster boy.
Yes, I knew something about work and labor relations.
My goal now was to break the work and school cycle to travel Europe and Africa until whatever money I’d saved for the trip was spent. That’s why I moved from Minneapolis to my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin to keep expenses low and save every penny I could. I first worked at a feed mill, then took a job at the cheese factory. Terrible pay, even by Wisconsin welfare belt standards, but working 60 to 80 hours a week – no overtime pay – still added up. I also bought cars, fixed them up and resold them at a profit. My trip to Europe was on track.
The cheese factory was a dump, an old industrial building with rickety, tacked-on stick additions outfitted with cheese making equipment and storage. It was freezing in the winter and a sweat shop in the summer. We made two cheeses: mozzarella and provolone. The factory bought milk locally and dumped the excess whey in a stream that ran alongside the building. EPA had just been founded a few years earlier, so there was little environmental oversight. Some farmers, including my grandfather, fed it to their hogs. We loaded the cheese on trucks bound for Italian food and pizza factories in Milwaukee and Chicago.
There were two professional cheese makers, but the rest of the work force were people like me – local men and a few women, doing what was necessary, going home at night smelling like whey and brine. We pressed the cheese curds into 12 pound blocks, then moved them from one brine vat to another to age and firm up the cheese quickly. After that, we vacuum packed it with industrial Cryovac machines.
Many of the crew had families, and all were just getting by, one miss-step away from the dole and the welfare roll. You made friends in a place like that, mainly because you could not afford to make enemies. We spent most of our waking day together. There was a small group of young men, some married, some not, who got together on Saturday night, drank beer and bar hopped. That was the high point of the week, and the only entertainment available in that part of Wisconsin. Arnie was my best cheese hound buddy. He was a competition level talker, wiry and tireless. He could drink twice as much beer as I could, and it never showed. Wisconsin boy.
Arnie lived a couple miles the opposite direction from our farm and the cheese factory in a modest mobile home on his father-in-law’s farm. His wife, Betts, was an all-American Wisconsin farm girl. Arnie met her when she was the county 4-H Queen. A sturdy gal, she was bubbly, pretty, and always friendly, with a bright smile. They’d been married about three months, and she was six months pregnant. There may have been a shotgun involved in the wedding arrangements.
It was Arnie and Betts who turned me into a union organizer. Not that they ever knew that, either then or now.
Arnie called me one night.
“Steve, I can’t make it to work tomorrow. Tell Mike that I’ll get hold of him later in the day.”
“What’s up, buddy,” I said. “Anything I can help with?”
“I have to take Betts to the hospital tonight. Something’s not right with the baby. I’ll let you know.”
When I got to work the next morning in the dark at 0600, I passed on the information. Mike grunted something under his breath and walked away. This was the first day I knew of that Arnie had ever missed work since I’d been there. He couldn’t afford to. There was no sick leave, family leave, paid time off – if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid. And you might get fired.
Arnie stopped by the farm that evening. Betts was back home, and both she and the baby were fine. But the doctor told them that this was likely going to be an eventful pregnancy that would require more trips to the hospital and maybe a longer hospital stay closer to the time of birth. Arnie’s voice was trembling and his hands were trembling.
“I’m not sure how we’re going to do this without going into debt.”
I went in the house and got a couple beers, and we sat out on the porch and talked. Arnie was already in debt. He was my age, and he owed for the mobile home, a new septic he’d just put in, and his economical little Chevy Vega station wagon. Betts’ parents were farmers – they were comfortable, but cash poor, as anyone who’s run a small farm will understand. Arnie’s job paid poorly and provided absolutely no benefits. No paid leave and no medical insurance. Then, as now, private health insurance was costly.
All of us who worked at the cheese factory were in the same spot. Yet, 15 miles away there was another cheese factory where they had those benefits. It was a union shop. They had decent living wages, overtime, holidays and vacation time, retirement benefits, and medical insurance. They also had no job openings. It was considered to be one of the best places in the county to work.
The following day, I got the name of that cheese factory’s union steward and called him to explain the situation.
“I know all about your cheese factory,” he told me. “You’re not the first person to call me.”
He gave me the telephone number of the union’s regional office in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, about an hour and a half away. The International Brotherhood of the Teamsters. That night, the Teamsters representative called me back, and we talked.
“Yea, it’s the same all over,” he said. “First step is that you have to find out if there are enough workers interested in being part of our union. Many don’t because they’re scared of the owner. Ask around, but don’t use work time to discuss it. If you do, they’ll fire you and there’s not much we can do about it. If they vote the union in and they try to fire you, the Teamsters and Wisconsin’s Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations (DILHR) will sue them, and we’ll win.”
That’s what I did. That Saturday night when we got together for our traditional Wisconsin social event, bar hopping, I brought it up. There was guarded interest. They all knew people who worked at the union cheese factory, and any one of them would have taken a job there instantly. So I told them to ask around, and if there was enough interest, the Teamsters representative would meet with us, answer questions, and if we were ready, set us up for the next step, which was a formal vote under Wisconsin labor laws and guidance.
It didn’t take long to discover that there was overwhelming interest. I arranged for the Teamsters representative to meet with all those interested at the party room at a local bar. Almost the entire work force, about 30 people, showed up. Yes, hell yes – let’s do it!
The Teamsters and the Wisconsin labor office contacted the cheese factory and set up the vote, monitored by all parties.
The results: Yes. Unanimous.
The cheese factory owners: mad as wasps who’d just had their hive knocked down. They were out for blood. When they found out who the instigator was – who the organizer was – it was my blood they were after. That’s when Mike came to my home to fire me.
Big mistake, Mike. Monday morning, I called the Teamsters office and reported what had transpired.
“Sorry to hear that, Steve, but that often happens. Here’s what we’ll do.”
They explained that it was illegal to fire me for organizing union representation, and doubly illegal to come onto my property at my home and do so. I had an excellent work record, was never late for work, and never missed a day. The Teamsters attorney sent a letter to the owners instructing them to immediately reinstate me with full back pay. They were to send me a registered letter and not call me or set foot on my property until I’d formally accepted the reinstatement by return registered mail. If they didn’t, they would be sued. On my part, I was not to have any contact with them until I had received and formally replied to their letter of reinstatement. If a factory representative came on my property, I was to call the sheriff.
Within a couple weeks, my comrades in arms welcomed me back to work. There wasn’t really any hugging; we shook hands and patted each other on the shoulder. From a safe distance. I didn’t have to buy my own beer for several weeks. That’s how it was in Wisconsin back then.
The owners glared daggers at me when I walked by. They watched me from across the brine tubs and looked out their office window when I left work. A couple times, I saw their trucks drive slowly by the house. Then I started seeing occasional, unfamiliar cars driving slowly by. Later, I found out that the owners were suspected of having mob connections in Chicago. The Mozzarella Connection. The Provolone Connection. The Pizza Mob.
Grandpa assured me that his rifles and shotguns were loaded, just in case any intruder should get past the dogs, which was unlikely.
The union was soon in place. Wages gradually increased, daily hours decreased and people had more time with their families, overtime was paid, and everyone had access to inexpensive health insurance. It became a sought-after place to work in this northwestern Wisconsin county, which had large pockets of abject poverty.
Betts did have a difficult pregnancy, but she came through it in good health, as did their baby boy. Last I heard, just before I left the area, they were working on a second baby. Arnie always needed to keep busy doing something, and Betts didn’t seem to object. Arnie was able to spend more time helping his father-in-law on the family farm, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually took it over.
The Teamsters asked me to be the union steward, but I was already busy on my exit plan.
At the end of the year, Theresa and I set out with our Irish Setter “Erin” on a nonstop, 24-hour drive from Wisconsin to New York City in a 1963 Oldsmobile station wagon that one of Theresa’s neighbors in Eau Claire had given us when we told him about the trip. After spending a couple days enjoying Manhattan and Times Square, I gave the car to the valet at the Manhattan Holiday Inn garage on the condition that he drive us the next morning to the New York Port Authority Passenger Ship Terminal in Hell’s Kitchen. We’d booked passage on an Italian ocean liner, the SS Michelangelo, sailing from New York Harbor and bound for Cannes, France. It was the experience of a lifetime to sail down the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty on one side and Battery Park on the other, into the Lower Bay, and out through the New York Bight into the Atlantic Ocean.
The end of this story is just the beginning of another. My May 4 post on this blog, “Travels With Erin,” ended almost exactly where the story you’ve just read ends. The next installment will pick up where “Travels with Erin” ends, and I’ll tell you about our extraordinary ocean liner transit – and its cast of characters – from New York City to Cannes, then our journey to Rennes, France, where we bought a purple 1957 Citroën 2CV that we drove from Brittany in Northwestern France through Spain to North Africa and back to Vannes, at the entrance to the beautiful and historic Gulf of Morbihan in southern Brittany.
With that, Dick and I walked away from our girlfriends and our high school picnic and onto two lanes of blacktop just outside of Lakeville, Minnesota. We were 14 years old, had about $50 between us, and were leaving our boring lives attending a Lutheran high school in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the open road and eventually Mexico. We were running away.
We made a clean getaway. No one knew our plans except our girlfriends, Bonnie and Donna. They’d been sworn to secrecy. As the busses loaded to take the school’s students back to campus after the yearend picnic, the teachers neglected to take a head count. So it wasn’t until the busses arrived back at the school a couple hours later that they found out we were missing.
By then, Dick and I had hitched rides down miles of country roads, and the scent was dead. We were getting close to Northfield, Minnesota, following our plans to take the back roads south, staying off Interstate 35, but crisscrossing it so we’d stay headed the right direction. Our backpacks held a map of the United States, a compass, and copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that I’d checked out from my hometown public library in Stillwater, Minnesota, with no intention of returning it.
What turned a farm kid from a small town – me – and a city kid from a big city – Dick – into cohorts on a teen runaway adventure? I had my reasons. I’d been bounced around schools for the past three years as my parents tried to find a place where my attraction to turmoil, truancy, and trouble might be mitigated. I insisted that I didn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble always found me. They didn’t buy it.
First stop after eighth grade at Stillwater Junior High was ninth grade at a Lutheran school in Maplewood, Minnesota. Going from a class of hundreds to a ninth grade class of 20 was a jolt. Though hardly a religious soul, I found new comfort in the daily meditations, studying biblical history, and the ubiquitous Lutheran fellowship that included hayrides, roller skating parties, and music. Lutherans I grew up with were always singing and playing instruments. I played piano for the choir and trumpet in the small, but award-winning school band. If Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon comes to mind, you’re not far off.
As this school only went to ninth grade, however, my parents arranged for me to attend tenth grade with our pastor’s son and daughter at a Lutheran high school in St. Paul, a rather long daily commute from our farm in Stillwater. My 14-year-old persona turned going from the top of the pile in ninth grade to bottom of the heap in the tenth into a provocation. I discovered that many of the students at this small school were there for the same reason I was: they had a penchant for insubordination, incorrigibility, and disdain for authority. We troublemakers found each other immediately. To boot, this Lutheran school was part of an evangelical synod, which just begged resistance and rebellion.
I was in trouble from my first day, when a teacher pulled me aside in the hallway and told me to go immediately to the bathroom and tuck in my shirt. I had the audacity to ask “why.” It was downhill from there, and the stage was set for another trouble maker, Dick, and me to thumb our noses and go on the run. The final straw was when the school principal called me into his office and slapped me across the face because I wouldn’t “wipe that smile off your face.”
Now here we were, on the road, and committed to the run. As night was falling, we were getting hungry and thinking about where we were going to sleep. Hadn’t really factored that into our planning, but runaways are resourceful. Our last ride of the day dropped us in the small town of Cannon City, just outside Faribault, Minnesota. It was early June, so the days were long and the weather was fine. We stopped at a small grocery store and bought a loaf of bread and some summer sausage for dinner. We dined en plein air in a park by the side of the town’s lake, then walked to the edge of town where under cover of darkness, we appropriated the front and back seats of a large old car in the back row of a used car lot. We slept well, in spacious comfort, and woke early. We finished the last of the bread and sausage for breakfast and put our feet on the road once again.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” – Robert Frost.
Our first ride was with a farmer in a beat-up pickup truck.
“Where you boys headed?”
We smiled at each other. Now began the fun. We had just been given license to lie through our teeth! We couldn’t let on what our plans really were, so we lied, and lied, and lied. We made up everything. We made up our names. We made up where we were from. We made up where we were going. We made up why we had left where we were from and why we were going to our fictitious destination, always just beyond where our driver would drop us off. We told each of our rides completely different stories. Sickly aunts, uncles who’d just died, parents who’d dropped us off and were meeting us later, life stories that were pure fantasy, stories of lost family wealth, stories of heartache and sorrow. We faked our accents. Dick could do a great British accent, so he was from London. Or Ireland. Thanks to my aunt and uncle, I did a mean Texas drawl. We really were incredible liars.
I don’t know if anyone believed us. It didn’t matter. That day one of our rides shared his lunch with us, and another bought us more bread and sausage for supper at a small store. We’d bypassed Faribault and Owatonna on the back roads, and we were now just north of Albert Lea. Our last ride dropped us near a freeway entrance. There was no town nearby, so we started walking down an adjacent country road. It was getting dark, and there were no towns, or even houses or farms. We came across a deserted portion of the freeway that was under construction and decided to take shelter for the night under a partially completed overpass.
As we settled into our concrete cave, it grew increasingly colder. We curled up in our jackets and pulled some of the few clothes we brought along for warmth and insulation from the ground. We had packed our bags for Mexico, not Minnesota.
Eventually, we both fell into a troubled sleep. Then we woke to a sound. It seemed to be coming from directly over us on the overpass bridge. Then we heard it again. Could it be someone walking around up there? Was it the police? Had they found us? Or was it…what? A criminal escaped from prison? A wild animal? A werewolf? An ax murderer?
We froze in stillness, afraid to move lest we give away our position. We conversed in whispers. We remained wide awake until morning. The sound was still there. Summoning up courage from the depth of our souls and using extreme stealth, we crawled on our bellies to gain a vantage point and see what the hell was up there. As we slowly, slowly peered over the side of the bridge we saw it.
An empty paper concrete bag flapping in the breeze.
We smiled, then we started laughing. We laughed so hard tears were running down our grimy faces. We had been held down all night by a paper bag!
We got back on the road and started walking, thumbs out. Almost immediately a car stopped to pick us up. The driver opened the door and took a long look at us.
“What on earth are you boys doing out in the middle of nowhere this morning?”
Now we woke up. Time to do our best improv duo for the nice man in the car. We did “lost boys.”
“We’re on our way to visit our grandparents in Albert Lea. I’m Bob and this is my brother Brian. Our parents let us off just down the road because mom felt sick so dad was going to bring her to the doctor. We didn’t want to wait, so dad said we could go ahead. Well, we musta’ took a wrong turn back there, but if you could drop us off at the next town, we’ll call our grandparents and they can come pick us up.”
“Why sure, boys, there’s a little town just ahead. Do you want me to call your grandparents for you from the pay phone there?”
“Oh, no sir. I have a dime for the phone. We’ll be just fine.”
We washed up at a gas station and bought more bread and sausage at the grocery store. A loaf of Wonder Bread was about 20 cents, so our meals were costing us about a dollar a day. We put a couple candy bars in our pockets as we walked out the door. We figured we’d be good until we got to Mexico, where we could just eat the fruit off the trees. That afternoon we crossed into Iowa at Emmons. Our last ride brought us into the sleepy little town of Lake Mills. Just four states to go.
It was still early in the evening, so we decided to see if we could get one more ride. We were getting pretty crafty. We watched to see if oncoming cars might be police cars. We hadn’t seen any so far. But when we looked closer, we could see a car with those bubblegum machines on top coming down the road. We jumped off the shoulder and ran into the bushes. As soon as the police car passed, we got back on the road.
Well, two boys jumping into the bushes at the sight of a police car roused the officer’s curiosity, so he’d turned around and come up from the other side when our backs were turned.
“Hello, boys. You’re not from here. What are you doing in Lake Mills today? Come on over and hop in the car so we can talk.”
I was pretty sure we weren’t going to be able to lie our way out of this, but that didn’t prevent us from giving our best effort. We started with false names, relatives in the next town, etc. The officer wasn’t having any of it.
“Let’s see. Those names don’t ring a bell. How about these names?”
He already had our names. Should have known.
If there was a flaw in our plan, it was that Dick’s father was the chief of detectives at the St. Paul Police Department. So when our little adventure was discovered, every police department in the five-state area was notified. If you remember Car 54, it was an APB – an All-Points Bulletin. Two runaway boys. One’s dad is a St. Paul police detective. Find them.
“We’re notifying your father, Dick, and he’s going to come down to pick you up. He’s been expecting the call. Congratulations! You made it quite a ways. As you are both a flight risk, we’re going bring you to our jail and lock you up. We don’t have anyone in jail right now except Carl, our town drunk, so you’ll have the place to yourself. We’ll get you supper, and there’s a shower. Then you’re going home.”
My first thought: please leave us in jail. When we get home we are going to be in so much trouble. When we get back to school, we are going to be in so much trouble. We are in trouble, right now.
It was a comfortable jail. There were two officers on duty. They brought us a hot Midwestern supper with generous portions from a local restaurant – thankfully, not sausage – and they sent Carl out to buy us a six-pack of Coca-Cola. It was about midnight when Dick’s parents arrived. They were very calm. I’m sure they were mad, but they were more relieved than anything. They’d brought snacks for the long drive back to St. Paul. Dick’s dad drove a big white Chrysler Imperial sedan, so we were both asleep in the back seat almost instantly. We woke up at Dick’s house, where they fed us breakfast and we all had a little, ahem, talk. My parents arrived an hour or so later. I could tell my mother was seething, but my Dad just smiled and said, “Well, Steven, how was your little journey.” My little journey. As I was likely to be grounded for the next year, it was going to be my last one for a while.
We were back at school the next day. More long conversations. The teachers stared daggers into our hearts. The principal of the school asked me if I was planning on attending this school the next year. Nope. No way. He said that would make it simple because he would not then have to go to the trouble of denying a request for my return.
When they let us lose into the halls for our classes, we found that we had become legends in our own time. Upper classmen came up to us and said: You two have balls of steel! Our girlfriends hung on our arms, and the other girls were all smiles, with come hither looks. We retold our story over and over, enhancing it as we went. We got a ride with a race car driver who was going 100 mph, the bag flapping on the bridge became an old man with a shotgun firing at us as we ran away in the dark of night, and the police officers in that little town in Iowa told us they were locking us up for good and throwing away the keys. Or something like that.
The next year I was back at Stillwater High School, as a junior. Four schools in four years. I was on a first name basis with every school counselor.
That would be the end of the story, but several years later when I was attending the University of Minnesota, I ran into Dick on campus. He looked exactly the same. He was majoring in criminal justice – going to be a detective just like his dad. We went out for beers several times and remained good friends until our paths once again parted.
One of the last times I saw him, Dick said, “Hey, Steve – let’s run away again. I’ve never had so much fun!”
This is the name of an Internet group made up of Jaguar enthusiasts from all over the world: Jag Lovers. By and large, the name is an accurate representation of the membership. I’m in. A Jag lover and a Jag Lover. For over 20 years, I’ve had the Jag pictured – a 1956 Jaguar 2.4 saloon, otherwise known as a Mark I. It was my father’s car before me. It’s been in the family now over 50 years. That is my cherished German Shepherd “Nikki” alongside me, now passed on after 13 years.
I can’t say I really knew my father well. Not that we didn’t get along. We did, but more or less by virtue of both coming under the iron fist with which my mother ruled the household. We could sympathize and, certainly, empathize, with each other. The oldest born, my mother would berate me: You’re just like your father. It was not meant as a compliment.
No, we just didn’t know each other very well, in most respects. We didn’t do the sports, hunting, or fishing thing together. By the time I was coming into the age when a father would have been handy to have available, to talk about those confusing issues that the early teen years bring to the forefront, he was working two jobs and took about any excuse he could to get away from the house and the wife. He moved into a space in the basement and came and went with the shadows. I ran into him in the basement stair well one morning about 4 a.m. I was sneaking in late as he was heading out to work. He put his finger to his lips beseeching me to keep quiet for fear of awakening the dragon who lay snoring fitfully above. Some years later, to the great relief of all concerned, my parents divorced, and I didn’t see him for a very long time.
My father loved cars. He loved the B-24’s that he’d worked on during the war. He loved clocks and guns and all mechanical mechanisms with machined surfaces and gears and bearings. But he loved cars most of all. I guess I learned to love cars from him. Or maybe it’s in my genetic code. His best stories, the ones I remember, were about his cars. His first car – a Model T Ford with a hot magneto, shaved head, and high-speed rear end that would let it approach speeds of over 70 mph. The time he broke his wrist when he forgot to retard the spark before hand cranking it to start. His 1932 Model B roadster with the rumble seat, fitted with Ford’s first flathead V8. His 1938 straight-eight Buick that would top 100 miles an hour. His 1936 Chevy Master Deluxe with the worn-out knee-action front suspension that made the front end of the car bob up and down as he drove down the road. His 1949 flathead Ford Coupe that ran for a year with absolutely no oil pressure. And many more. His cars were alive to him, each with its own personality and distinguishing traits.
When I was very young – four or five – he had a Ford Model A Tudor. As first-born, I was the only child at that point – pure bliss. He let me climb into and through the car as he worked on this and that. I sat in the driver’s seat, trying to peer between the spokes of the steering wheel and the dash, imaging what it must be like to drive. I had no idea what he was working on. Sometimes he’d be under the car, other times he was leaning into the engine compartment, the hood folded over. Then he’d fold the hood back, latch it down, smile, and we’d take the Model A for a drive, up the country road onto the highway to stretch her legs, or back down the dirt road where the crazy old bachelor lived in a hut with bizarre yard ornaments. Then back. Sometimes I sat in his lap, with my hands on the steering wheel, just below his, feeling the road, feeling the strength and power that came from driving, driving, driving. He pushed the clutch in and I shifted from second to third, which involved taking both my hands off the steering wheel. But Dad had the wheel so we stayed between the ditches.
So while we weren’t close in the sharing of words, we shared cars. He taught me how to drive at 10 years old, propping me on a cushion on the seat of the 1951 Dodge Coronet, telling me that as long as I kept the leaping ram ornament on the hood lined up with the right side of the road, I’d always be exactly in my lane. It worked. He helped me buy my first car when I was 12, a 1952 Chevy Deluxe sedan for $12, to drive around the yard and work on. With his help, I took that car apart and put it back together. Later, when my mother’s car broke, she drove that old Chevy for about a year.
Dad never did mention anything about Jaguars. He seemed to basically cherish American cars – straight eight Pontiacs, Buicks, and Packards were his favorites. He liked the odd-balls and unique marques, too, like Kaisers, Studebakers and Hudsons. If there was something unusual about a car, that recommended it to him. But he never talked about any foreign manufactured car. He said the best car in the world was the Duesenberg, a name he revered.
He basically left town after the divorce, and I didn’t see him for about 15 years. I more or less left the family, as well, except for my grandparents, who were my rock. Dad didn’t try to get hold of any of us kids, and we didn’t try to get hold of him. No communication, don’t know why. I guess we all just wanted to let it all go. I suppose I thought he was just tired of the whole thing. I heard of him through my uncle a couple times. He retired from the Minneapolis Post Office garage, collected cars, opened an antique store in Minneapolis, and traveled to San Diego where he’d worked on B-24’s during the war, and to Mexico to buy antiques.
One summer day, he returned. There was a note pinned to my door when I returned to my rural home: “Your father has returned. You weren’t home. I’ll stop back later.” And he did. He came up the driveway in a right-hand drive early 60’s Rambler that had been a postal vehicle, still painted the postal color scheme – that unusual characteristic that he favored. He got out of the car, shook my hand, and asked me how things were going. I made some coffee, then we sat and talked all afternoon and into the evening. He wouldn’t stay for supper. As he was getting up to leave, he asked if any of the other kids might like to see him. I said, yes, I’d imagine so. I think it took a lot of guts to do what he did. He was our father, and he wanted to make right those years of absence. He’d had a calling.
We saw him fairly frequently after that. I went to his house, which was stacked to the ceiling with antique clocks and collectible firearms of all sorts. He showed me his collection of cars. He had about a dozen at that time. Among them, a 1951 Studebaker Commander, 1954 Hudson Hornet, 1949 and 1954 Packards, a 1956 Cadillac that had been converted into a large camper, and a 1956 Jaguar 2.4 saloon.
I’d owned many British cars by this time, including a 1959 Jaguar XK150 drophead. So I took an immediate shine to the Jaguar. It was in very nice condition, a California car with low mileage. He rarely drove it. He rarely drove any of his cars. He kept them in garages all over town, going to work on them, clean them, run them, drive them around a bit, park them, and go on to the next. He had a couple cars he drove regularly – a behemoth of a 1983 Chevy Caprice wagon with the entire rear end loaded with stuff, and a pristine 1963 Chrysler New Yorker 4-door hardtop with a white leather interior and white exterior.
Then I moved. To California, then to Europe for 10 years. We kept in touch with the very occasional letter. He was busy with his antique business and old cars, buying and selling, buying and selling. On one visit, we went to look at Jaguar again. He’d just had it repainted in the original Burgundy paint it had come with from the factory. He noted my admiration and told me that the Jaguar would be mine when he passed on. He said he’d keep it for me. And he did.
We moved back to the US, first to Monterrey, then to Seattle. I invited him to visit, but he never did – too busy, he said. Didn’t like plane travel, either. He saw his granddaughter once, when we went back to Minnesota for a visit. A couple pictures are all we have.
Then his health started to deteriorate rapidly. All of a sudden, he didn’t care about his cars, his guns, or his antiques anymore. He started to give them away. My sister called and said that I’d better contact him about the Jaguar. I did. He said that now was the time to get it, as he didn’t think he’d live much longer. I tried to reassure him, but he knew better than I. He thought about committing suicide, and almost was successful at doing so. Maybe it would have been better, because a few months later he was in the nursing home, and then a month after that, dead. The autopsy showed that he had cancer throughout his body.
Before he went into the nursing home, he helped make arrangements to have the car shipped to me on the island I live on in the Puget Sound. It was a cold November night after midnight when it arrived. The driver had been stuck in a snow storm in the Cascades, and when the passes opened, he drove straight through until he got to my house. We unloaded the Jag from the enclosed car carrier. I watched as the driver backed it down. I’d never heard it run – it sounded beautiful, the throaty song of the legendary twin cam XK engine. The car looked just as I’d seen it many years ago right after the restoration. New paint, new chrome, and interior of burled walnut and bisque leather.
As the transport driver and I completed the paperwork, the car warmed up in the chilly Pacific Northwest fog, and I told him the story of how this pretty red Jaguar sedan happened to be sitting by the side of a wooded road on an island in the Puget Sound. I eased off on the choke to bring the idle down from a growl to a pulsating purr, like the cat the car is named for.
“That’s one beautiful old Jaguar you’ve got there. Your Dad must have been a real Jaguar lover,” he said.