My Reading, March 21, 2012
By Don Welsher
OMETIME AROUND AGE 13 or so, deep in the loins of every boy, a floodgate bursts and a torrent of testosterone is unleashed. It rages uncontrolled into every pore and extremity. (into one extremity more than others). We discover sex. We are suddenly out of control. Newly obsessed, we scheme, we fantasize; yet we have no idea what we are doing. All else pales; we are completely single-minded. From this day forward we will spend every waking moment trying to penetrate the tantalizing mysteries of the opposite sex. Like a swollen river, mad desire sweeps us away. All reason fails. No other urge comes close.
Then, one day deep in another part of our being, other genes stir. The Mechanical Bug starts talking to the Mobility Bug. They in turn awaken the Power Bug and the Freedom Bug. Then, about a year or two before one reaches the legal driving age, they all magically synthesize into The Car Bug, and again our lives are changed forever. The Car Bug is the only thing known that can compete with testosterone for the attention of adolescent young men. And like a cancer, once the Car Bug comes forth, it is in the body forever. It may sleep, but it will never leave. Simply driving past a car dealership will sometimes rouse it. Having a vintage Jaguar pass you on the road can start it gnawing feverishly at your insides.
My Car Bug came from Vermont in June of 1952. It arrived in the form of a 1938 Chevrolet convertible that my brother, Doug drove home to Haddonfield from Northfield , Vermont , where he was attending Norwich University . I say he drove it home. Well, almost. With only ten miles to go, it threw a connecting rod and the engine was ruined. Dad reluctantly towed Doug and the car, such as it was, home. In 1950s hot rod fashion, Doug had stripped off the hood and front fenders. There was no top. The tires were bald. Everything was loose and worn. The paint was colorless—it had aged into a flat, chalky finish that tended to hide its many dents and dings. And yes, somehow they let it on the road that way.
It was gorgeous. I absolutely loved it.
The next day, Doug announced with conviction that he was going to rebuild the engine and put the car back on the road. Somehow, Mom and Dad agreed to give over the driveway to this undertaking. I was immediately fascinated and Doug was glad for company and an extra pair of hands, inexperienced though they were. Doug did indeed completely rebuild the engine. He installed new connecting rods, piston rings, valves, carburetor and more. Where he learned how is a mystery, except it was clear that he’d spent a lot of time at Norwich fooling around with cars. I learned a lot watching and listening to him; things like reading micrometers, reaming and honing cylinder walls, lapping in valves, shimming the fit of connecting rods, and torqueing cylinder head studs. I loved it. I developed an insatiable desire to have a car of my own.
Doug and I spent the whole summer laboring over that old Chevy, but sadly, it never ran. It was set up way too tight and could hardly be turned over, let alone started. It’s probably just as well; I can’t imagine the rest of the car having much life left in it. I learned a lot, though, and it was a great summer.
In the beginning of 1954 I turned 17 and got my driver's license. My brother Doug was now in the Army, stationed at Fort Monmouth , New Jersey , and often got home on weekends. One Friday night, he arrived with the news that a buddy of his had a 1937 Chevrolet for sale. It needs a few things, but it’s only $50.00. I had about $40.00, so I said, “Let’s go see it.”
We found the car in Northeast Philadelphia , parked illegally next to a fireplug. Someone had once used a whiskbroom to paint it broccoli green. The hubcaps, as I recall, were also green. The chrome that remained on the bumpers had acquired a raging case of acne. In a random act of kindness, Mr. Whiskbroom had slathered both bumpers with a thick coat of Rust-o-leum. The two front wheels were pointed in distinctly different directions. The safety glass had yellowed to a milky sepia tone with bubbles and blisters around the edge. Under the car was a large, wet, dark stain, into which someone had mixed sawdust. It was absolutely beautiful. “Let’s crank her up.”, I said.
A couple dozen pumps of the gas pedal, a little jiggling of the choke, and we started to crank. Before long, there were a few coughs and finally, we had ignition, or so the smoke out the back would suggest. It ran. Actually, not bad. A bit noisy, a bit rough, but it was making a uniform, repetitious sound. I listened. “Youwantme, youwantme, youwantme, youwantme,” it kept saying. A bond was developing between us. I could feel it.
“I understand the transmission needs some work, “ I said.
“It’s not too good but you can try it.”
I depressed the clutch and eased it into first gear. So far, so good. I began to ease out the clutch. Expletive!!! A dozen scalded wildcats could not have made a noise as awful as what came screeching up from the floorboards. My scrotum contracted. My whole body cringed and shook. It was as if a thousand fingernails were scratching on a thousand blackboards. My ears hurt. Even my eyes hurt. While the ungodly screech continued, the car fought its way forward a few feet, then lurched to a stop as the transmission froze forever. Neighbors flung open their doors and stared. A woman snatched her child from the sidewalk.
“You may want to replace the transmission,” said the Good Buddy, ”You can get one at a junk yard a few blocks from here. Your choice; a used one for $8.00 or a rebuilt one for $15.00. With the clutch disengaged, The Green Hornet, as I had already begun to call her, (or him, or it), had fallen back on the old “youwantme, youwantme, youwantme” chant.
I was in love. I gave the guy $25.00 and a promise of the other $25.00 in a month. This left me eight dollars for a used transmission and seven bucks to face the brave new world that awaited me. I sat ten feet tall behind the wheel while Doug tied a long rope to the bumper. With his 1948 Pontiac , he somehow managed to tow us home through northeast Philly and over the Tacony Palmyra Bridge , the rope sagging and popping all the way and both of us praying it wouldn’t break. It was March 27, 1954.
In the days that followed, I got some advice and managed to replace the transmission. It was still early spring and I’d lie on the cold driveway for hours, tugging and pulling on things. Finally, I figured out how to get the old tranny out, and from there the job was fairly easy. Once together again, the old crate ran pretty well. More quietly, at any rate.
To this day, few experiences have produced the feeling I got when I first drove my very own car. It’s no wonder America has a love affair with its automobiles.