Somehow I find myself writing two newsletters, this one, and one for the Kalamazoo Antique Bottle Club. To make the job easier, I recycle stories from this newsletter to the bottle club's news. This means that they kind of get our leftovers. This month I am printing here a story written for the bottle club. I hope you enjoy it.
I didn't need to have a car to drive on the street; it didn't even have to run! I just needed to turn some bolts, tighten some nuts, and have the joy of feeling rust particles in my eyes.
Up until that time, I spent every waking hour building and rebuilding model cars. The 5 and 10¢ Variety store located in Plainwell was called Kay's and they always kept a great selection of model cars, paint and glue.
The best kits at the time were the AMT three-in-one kits, which cost $1.50. These models were of the highest detail and each car could be built as a stock as in 'off the showroom floor,' or as a sleek custom with lots of flashy trim, or my favorite, which was 'competition.' In this format, the car would basically be cut down into a drag racing hot rod with a highly modified engine.
My big problem was that $1.50! That was a lot of money to a boy in those days. My allowance was 50¢, if I was great at cleaning my room and doing other chores, and 25¢ if I was so-so at those same duties. I was lucky to secure one model every other month!
As I look back, I see how I tortured myself by stopping and looking at the new models every week. The AMT company just kept on pumping out great stuff and I wanted them all!
One day when I was checking out the new inventory, Mr. Koester, the owner of Kay's, was back in the model section arranging the stock. That's when I presented him with my plan! It was a plan that I felt would be of mutual benefit to both of us.
I told Mr. Koester that if he would hire me, I would report to work after school each night and do whatever he needed, take out the trash, sweep the floors, dust--- whatever he needed. The only pay I told him would be one model per week!
He was a very kind man and he would do anything to avoid hurting my feelings (except hire me). He gently explained that I could have the job, and he assured me that my labor was worth far more than I was asking, but I had to wait until I was 16.
I continued to do business with Mr. Koester, and his daughter Sherry was in my class at Plainwell School. Eventually model cars and my imagination no longer satisfied me. I simply must have a car of my own.
I'll never forget the time when my best friend and I were cruising around town on our stingray bikes. It must have been around 1963(?) We loved to check out the used beaters, which were kept on the back row of the used car lots. On this day, we cruised into the Pontiac dealership in downtown Plainwell, and as we turned into the drive that leads past the body shop and into the rear of the used car section, there it was!
It was parked next to a late- model wreck that was waiting for a trip through the body shop. In our eyes, it was so beautiful! A 1949 Plymouth, 2- door, 3-seater, business coupe. It still had the original gray paint and a brown mohair-like fabric with dark herringbone striped interior. Inside, the car had that wonderful, almost sexy, smell of a musty, old, dirty car!
The tires were bald and the driver's side windshield was cracked. It was a three speed column shifter, which we called "three in the tree," as opposed to, "four on the floor."
We very carefully popped the hood and there we found a large flathead six cylinder engine. As we marveled at this power plant, the thing that really amazed us was what we saw lettered on the windshield. It was the asking price of only $25.00!
Our day dreaming was interrupted by a man's voice, which startled us! "What do you think, boys?" At first we were startled to see that the man was not talking down to us or did he desire to chase us away, like pesky flies--- which is what we had become used to. This salesman seemed actually interested in what we thought!
It only seemed that, if we were being treated with some degree of respect, we should respond to his question as one who is worthy of respect. So this would call for a whopper!
"My father sent us down to check this car over. He is thinking about picking up a project car, one that we can fix up together. We were just wondering if we could hear it run?"
"Let me get the keys, boys," said the salesman, as he turned to walk back to the office.
While the salesman was gone, Neither of us said a word to each other because we were swallowed up in a dream and, perhaps for the first time, we were in love--- with an old Plymouth Business coupe!
When he returned, he climbed behind the wheel, put the key in the ignition, pumped the gas a couple times, then stepped down on the starter button with his foot--- and the engine roared to life. We were sold! A gentle easterly breeze blew a gray cloud of smoke, that had belched from the exhaust pipe, past us, but the smell of burnt oil and stagnant unburned gas only added to the romance.
We peddled our bikes as fast as we could back to my house, shouting back and forth our plans for the car-- excitement was in the air!
We put on a hard sell to my dad, who was a salesman himself. At least he was listening, I thought! That was very hopeful in itself! But his work day wasn't over and he would not be able to take look at the old car until after 6:00.
My friend phoned home and gained permission to have supper at my house. Right after supper, we loaded into my dad's truck and were on our way to town! All the way there, we explained to my father our plan to pay him back and how important this experience could be to our education! Even though he did not respond with words, I could see in his eyes that he was going to consider this carefully, which was all that I could ever ask.
I think Dad knew that we had high hopes and, if for some reason he had to tell us no, it would require some diplomacy on his behalf. Dad was a man whose first choice was to take the route of love and respect. That is, unless he could clearly see that was not what was deserved or called for. If he thought that we were to be disappointed by his decision, he would let us down easily and find some way to not destroy our hopes.
My father was a very wise man, sensitive to people's feelings and, in this instance, I am sure he could see that there was very high emotion!
I felt reasonably certain that we would have an old car to tinker with soon!
As dad pulled into the dealership which was now closed, we directed him to the rear of the body shop where the old Plymouth was parked. She looked even better than I remembered from earlier that day. As he parked the truck and we piled out, Dad was the first to notice an orange tag behind the windshield wiper. As he lifted the tag, and straightened it out there was that awful four letter word, SOLD.
We felt like two birthday balloons that someone had just stuck pins into! Our hearts were broken, our dreams went away like morning fog in the summer sun!
Dad didn't just load us back into the truck, he continued to inspect the old coupe. "You know, boys, I had one of these cars and it was prone to problems. Those old fluid drive transmissions were very spongy and unreliable. Take a look at these pedals; see how the rubber pads are gone from the brake and the clutch. Notice that even the steel under the pads is worn thin."
Then Dad picked up three layers of old oily floor mats, as he searched for the opening that revealed the brake's master cylinder. Under the floor mats, he found three old license plates screwed together and beneath those was a hole rusted in the floor big enough to drop a cat through.
He said, "Boys, someone did us a favor by purchasing this car! I can assure you that most of this car is worn out, far beyond restoring. I think that if we are going to put our time into fixing up an old car, surely there must be something better to start with."
Dad not only let us down easily, but he gave us hope! And as we saw it, permission to search further.
The areas biggest parade of older cheap cars was at Shorty's junk yard in Otsego. Shorty McLeod had operated this old salvage yard ever since the majority of the cars he received were Ford Model T's and A's. Shorty was very fussy about who he would allow behind the corrugated fence and into the salvage yard, and I felt privileged to be one of the trusted ones. I was puzzled by his kindness because some of my friends spoke of Shorty as one who was meaner than a junk yard dog! Yes, they were downright scared of him!
For some reason, one of the boys from my class at school, was not permitted on the property at all! I never knew why he was singled out that way, and never will. However, the fact that he was forbidden, only made his desire to roam the scrap yard even stronger!
One weekend when the gates were locked, Dale snuck into the lot by crawling under the large corrugated fence. I don't know how long he wandered around the old stripped-out cars, but I found out the next day at school that he paid a high price for his exploits! Our teacher explained that Dale was in the hospital with severe facial lacerations, and then, (this was a public school in the mid 1960's) we had prayer for him!
When he returned to school he had the most morbid pictures of his face before surgery and it was monstrous! He had climbed up on an old bus or car, then slipped, falling face first into a pile of rusty, jagged scrap steel! As I recall, it took a few hundred stitches to pull the facial meat back into place.
Several years later, at my grandfather's funeral Shorty wandered up to me and did something that nobody would have ever believed that this tough as nails, tobacco chewing, tough language guy would do. He took my hand to shake it and he reached out with his other arm and gave me a reassuring and comforting hug!
Then he told me something that explained many things about the respect he had shown me down through the years.
In the late 20's and early 30's, when work was hard to find, and someone in the scrap business was at the bottom of the social ladder, it was nearly impossible to keep food on the table. Shorty had lost hope!
My grandfather had arrived in America in 1926. He had just left a much worse depression in Germany. While most in America were in deep despair, all he could see was opportunity!
Somehow he had learned that Shorty McLeod was a brilliant fabricator and welder. This was just the man that Grandpa needed! Grandpa had some great ideas in mind that would revolutionize the production of cottage cheese and other food products.
Shorty was soon put to work building cheese cookers, whey separators, butter making equipment, drainage vats, potato and macaroni
cookers, potato dicing machines and much more. As the machines were put into the production lines at the Michigan Cottage Cheese Company, the business prospered! When something didn't work as expected, Grandpa and Shorty worked together to work the bugs out!
Shorty went on to do welding and fabricating on the early cheese trucks, and he never forgot how much my grandfather had helped him through some very tough times.
After Grandpa's death, writers from the local papers met with my grandmother and my mom to pour through information about this very successful business leader. They wrote some wonderful articles, which made me so proud of Grandpa, but nothing could compare to the heart-felt testimony shared by his true friend.
You know, as I think back to the 1970's , I can see myself standing in the evening sun on a warm summer's afternoon just outside the gate leading into Shorty's scrap yard. Almost as if it were yesterday, I can see two guys walking toward the gate. They are wearing dirty clothes, carrying shovels and large plastic pails filled with old bottles which are covered with dirt. I don't know these guys, but, clearly, Shorty gave them passes to dig. And who knows-- maybe someday our paths will cross again and then I can ask them why they would care about strange looking old bottles?
Yes, as many of you know, it was Jack Short and Ernie Lawson that crossed my path--- two of my dearest friends. They were smart enough to figure out that, long before Shorty acquired his property, this was the old 1800's Otsego landfill!
Since the junk yard was cleared several years ago, the E.P.A. would not allow digging in the old dump. It has been strictly forbidden! I stopped one day and walked out into the empty lot, my eyes swelling with tears and before I could be alone with my thoughts, a city truck sped out to me and an angry driver insisted that I leave.
This last month I met a gal from Otsego, who has been digging for bottles all over the area! This young lady is Shorty's granddaughter and even though she is a pretty gal, don't be fooled by her looks. She has her grandfather's grit and she has been digging! I'm not saying where, but she has been digging!