We Were Soldiers

On dirt floors and mighty dreams we wrenched. It was not easy. Some of us were just working on John Deere’s or Model T’s before the big break spilled upon us like a gorgeous sunrise over the valley.
We were brothers. Cousins. Friends. But the heat of competition placed us all apart. Each in our own regime. Clawing away at the hardened earth of our self proclaimed trenches to wring out secrets of speed.
Weight. Combustion. Aluminum. 
It was the dawn of Hot Rodding. A term we would not know for two more decades. 
Regardless. 
It is what we did.
We were soldiers.
We saw the torment as racers skipped meals to gain horsepower. 
One single digit.
We witnessed the pain of a failed tire. 
The hard lick of a failed rim. 
The pain and loss of chrome smoke and fire.
Fire. 
The worst.
We were soldiers.
Gasoline, oil. steel and iron. Rubber, grit and hope. Leather, combustion
speed, death.
Glory.
We were soldiers.

TIME TO PAY RENT: September 19th, 1934

Pa had succumbed to the bottle and had passed four years ago, leaving Ma to care for me and my younger kin. At 11. I knew what I had to do. As the oldest, I would badger for odd jobs and always at 4:30 P.M. would be on the corner peddling the evening news to passers by. As a paper boy, I had nailed down this territory years ago on this prime corner and sold The Picayune to passers by to earn my keep.

As the month drew to a close, me, Emery knew that many in the city would be scrambling to make rent. A busy intersection would attract many types. Grifters, Hobos, and scofflaws. But recently, amongst them was a young man in a Ford Model T. But it was unlike any that I had ever seen. Gone were the fenders and splash guards. The top was real low, like a giant had stood upon it a spell. The wheels were tall and spindly, and by gosh, it was noisy! It had a clattering and banging that sounded like it was ready to explode!

He attracted the attention really. Yassir. He would just roll up to the curb and park right near me. He always bought a paper and would tell me about his T. Why it was so loud and all. But what I loved was why he was there. 
We had this depression on, you know? I was not educated about that word, but I knew that living was hard and this stranger in his old car made my end of month routine so much more enjoyable.

Let’s see, right, okay. So Clem was his name and he was a mechanic of sorts. He rented a space and did tune ups and lube jobs as his job. From Thursday night til the early light of Sunday he was a race car driver. Midgets and sprints mostly he told me. But his real money came when he would race the Jack.

As the evening was nigh and my pile of papers was down to a few, here he would come, and boy, I tell you, that flivver would growl! He’d pull up, toss me a coin and smile and say, “What do ya think, kid, V8? Lincoln? Buick tonight?” 
And I would watch. High collared men would show up in their cars. Gosh, I tell you! Lincolns, Cadillacs, One time a real Duesie!

I would watch.  A handshake. Then the exhaust plumes as they would drive out of sight. 
Clem always came back with a grin.

Rent money was his and he would disappear into the city then reappear at the end of the month. 
In these times, well, life is hard. But it sure feels great having a busted knuckled hero in a Model T as a hero.

– inspired by Mr. Model T’s Gow Job –

 

 

The car that inspired this short story, pictured here has been built and built again in 2006-2008 and 2011-2012. Some cool stuff: 1918 Cadillac type 57 headlights, 1912 Cadillac 30 frame horns. 1922 Nash ignition switch. 1932 Sun-Aero Tach. 1913 Waltham 8-day clock. 1924 Willys-Knight steering gear. 1915 Locomobile Headlight forks. 1927 Hupmobile 19” Split-rim Wire Wheels. It’s been all over the US, mostly under its own power. Been to California twice. Was on the Jay Leno Show. Been to TROG, twice and made the 1,700 mile round trip to Bonneville under its own power across 4 states. The mods/specs required to build the engine and drive train is extensive. Maybe a “Car of the Month Feature” should be in the future?

Red Racer

This is a story of a toy. Not just any toy, mind you but a Cox Thimbledrome named Sebastian. Sebastian was made the day after Thanksgiving, 1946.

Now days every toy is manufactured the same way, it seems. A design is agreed upon, it is then passed on to a committee, it is voted on, the designated a name. The is appointed to a group. The group’s design is then voted upon and then the board of director’s votes and either approves the idea, decides to study the idea further, pass it on to another group or kill the idea all together. If approved the idea is passed onto the manufacturing process where the computer program is set forth. The assembled by someone pushing buttons.

Back in 1946, toys were assembled mostly by hand by workers hoping to pass a good product into the hands of another person. Sebastian rolled off the assembly line surrounded by others who had just been built. Mostly, a real engine powered the other toys. Real racers, headed for the hands of older kids and young adults who would race the cars at parks or other such venues. Sebastian was a “push car.” He had no engine but, looked the part. Bright Red paint, a cast side pipe and hand brake were attached to his flanks. Up front, a cast aluminum grille and on his blazing red paint job, a gold #2. He rolled on aluminum wheels with real rubber ribbed front tires and knobby style dirt track rear tires. Sebastian was assembled to look like a real Kurtis Kraft Midget racer.

The toys were all very excited. It was the season they had been told that soon they would be in the hands of real humans who would play with them and love them. The toys were gathered up and packed up into boxes and shipped from Santa Ana, California to the far corners of America. Sebastian ended up in a place called Denver, Colorado. His shipping box was jostled about and then suddenly filled with light as the shipping box was broken open.

He and four other racers were pulled out of the boxes quickly polished and set out in the store’s front window. Sebastian was beside the other Thimbledromes which all had motors. They were on a shelf that over looked an American Flyer train set that would chug its way through a tunnel and then come out of a far wall as a whistle sounded. There were other things which surrounded him that he did not have a clue what they were. Outside the big area in front of him he could see things happening that he had no idea what they were. The outside which had a steady flow of things going back and forth slowed down and finally stopped as it became dark and something was falling from the sky.

A big voice was heard behind him. “Hello new toys and welcome. I am Grandfather Time and you are in the front window of Daniels and Fishers Department Store. The other things around you are other toys. The fellow below us is “Hermy.” He is an American Flyer train, the best on the market! With that the train blew two short blasts from his whistle. “We have Shirley Temple dolls and Charlie McCarthy dolls here as well,” said the old clock. “Above us are a pair of airplane toys and a spaceship toy.”
The grand old clock paused, all the toys were hanging on his every word. “You are to go and be adopted by a child, a human. This is a toys purpose, to make those who own you, happy. The things you see walking past the front window, that is the big ‘thing’ separating us from the world outside, are humans. You will never fully live until you find a home.” Sebastian let the words of the old clock sink in and let it imprint itself on his memory. A Home, he thought. This is what I want to find. He watched outside the window and waited for the darkness to subside and the light to return.

The night gave way to day and the people began to stroll past the window. Some were in a jury and the smaller ones would stop and fog the glass staring and pointing at the different toys. Each had a wish and would focus on the toy that caught their fancy. And, it all began to happen as the clock said it would. The toys were picked up by humans and others were placed in their spots in the front window. Sebastian did his best to earn the respect of the little humans hoping to get a home. He made sure he was in the best light, (only when he could, after hours when no one was around) to show off his bright red paint. But still he sat as his siblings were purchased, leaving him alone. The pace of the humans out front grew to a maddening pace and then it slowed. There was a sound in the air the day no humans came to the store. Great bells were sounding outside and a distant sound of singing.
The Grandfather Clock told him that maybe it was not his season, maybe next year. Sebastian did not understand and still tried to look his best for the humans that may happen to walk by. Then it happened. He was picked up and he was grateful. Could a home be in his future? Was this the day to revel in? But it was just a store employee moving him from the front window to make room for a winter apparel display. Sebastian was placed in a box with decorations and moved to the back of the department store and put in storage. It must have been the wrong box for the darkness, for the little red racer seemed to last a long time. What had actually happened was the box that Sebastian had been put in had been inadvertently placed on a cart for store records and that box had been rolled into ‘long term’ storage.

Daniels and Fisher merged with the May Company and the big building in which Sebastian had first discovered the outside world was closed and set for demolition. Workers were assigned to go through the store and salvage any merchandise that could in return, turn a profit. Some remaining toys were donated to a local hospital. A last-minute opening of an old box revealed Sebastian. He looked like new and the worker who found him smiled. His first thought was to pack the racer into his back pack and take the old relic home, but he decided to send it off to the hospital. The was put into a box and was jostled about while he rolled across town to Mercy Hospital. This was to be his new home.

The box was opened, Sebastian was placed on and rolled across the floor. What a feeling! He felt like screaming with joy as his wheels created a unique shirring noise on the hard, waxed linoleum floor. Sebastian felt the still air turn to wind as his speed picked up. Then as quickly as it had been there it was gone. He wanted to feel that again! Free and Fast he felt! But the worker picked him up and placed him into a box in which other toys had been placed.

Sebastian waited and then saw the blazing light pierce the darkness as the lid of the box was opened. He was lifted out and placed on the floor. The hand gripping him felt different than that of an adult. It was smaller and seemed filled with care. A child held the racer up and made some inaudible noises-bbbbbbbbbbbb-and raced him across the floor. Again, that feeling of bliss. Sebastian felt like this was his home now. He was going to be loved and things would be good from now on.

Many different children played with him. He lost his side pipe with an incident involving a chair leg, but no matter. He loved his new life. His paint was chipped in places and he thought nothing of it. One day a new boy arrived. He could barely make the noises the other kids made, but really attached himself to the toy car. In fact, this child was able to take the car to his room when it was deemed rest time for the boy. One day, a larger pair of humans came to visit the boy. Sebastian heard the larger say to the little boy. “Son, what do you have there?’ “Wow.” Sebastian was lifted out of the child’s hands and the adult looked at the little red racer carefully. “Now that is a really neat toy! Man, I have not seen one of these since I was a kid!” The adult smiled as he held the racer and then returned it to his son’s hands.

Sebastian felt special. Was this what it felt like to be loved? The boy was gentle with the racer and seldom let it fly across the room. He and his Dan would play with Sebastian rolling him back and forth, always careful not to bounce him off the furniture. Then, as things seemed normal, the boy went away. He was better, and it was his time to go home. He cried for the red racer. “I want to take it home!” He cried, but the boy’s Mother gently explained how other kids needed special toys to play with. That the little racer was a great toy and would be best left here in the hospital where other kids could enjoy it. The little boy subdued his crying, but claimed he would never forget the red racer! Never!

Sebastian remained in the hospital playroom, again experiencing the hands of new kids and adults alike. He would love it when a new kid would pick him up and cart him off to their room. A temporary home away from the other toys. As time slipped by the other toys came and went more frequently. Most were more pliable than he. “Plastic” is what one toy Mustang claimed he was made of. Sebastian wondered where the other toys like him were. It had been a long time since he had seen another racer like himself. Were they happy in their homes, he wondered one day as a concerned mother lifted Sebastian and took him to a nurse. “Excuse me, just how is it that this dangerous toy is amongst our poor sick children?” The nurse gave the concerned mother a blank look. “Let me explain, this toy is made of metal!” Another blank stare, “Our children could be hurt on this toy!’ “Does the term LAWSUIT mean anything to you?” This, the nurse understood and took the racer from the concerned mother. That night a couple of workers rounded up any toys that could be ‘dangerous’ and placed them in a box.

The box was closed. Sebastian’s world was in darkness again. The darkness was long lasting this time. Sebastian did not know if he were still together or maybe disposed of. What if this was the end? He had heard about ‘The End’ one night while in the department store window. The Grandfather Clock had been answering questions from the toys when a Raggedy Ann Doll asked, “Grandfather, is there and end?” A strange quiet fell around the room. The wind howled outside, and a swirling of snow flashed by the window. Grandfather sighed. This question he had answered to many times and each time it was never easier. He spoke.
“Yes, yes there is. Some toys will be loved so much they have but no chance of survival. Be it a doll losing her stuffing or a train’s motor failing to pull a load, the End for toys is sometimes inevitable. Many here will meet an end. Cast off to the side and forgotten. This is not the time for you to know of The End. Revel in life and enjoy what is ahead of you.”

Sebastian had taken these words to heart and feared The End. He wished for so much more, but began to think about his existence. The department store window, the smiles of children looking at him through the glass. The hospital years and especially the little boy who wanted to take him home. Home, a word that was larger than life itself. Sebastian wished for a Home. That was what he had always wanted. So, he rested in the dark. Him and a collection of other toys deemed dangerous for sick or recovering children in a hospital play room. And as before, the box was jostled one day and was suddenly being transferred across town, a Tonka Dune Buggy next to him screamed in the dark, “It’s the End. I know it.”

Sebastian was startled to hear this. The other toys remained silent. Each awaiting their own fate quietly, remembering happy days outside of the lonely box. Then as before, the box opened. Sebastian was removed from the box and tough it was an adult who carried him, he was handled with the greatest of care. The adult paused at the big workbench and proceeded to clean the old racer. He used a tooth brush and wax to bring the shine back to the red paint. Carefully he polished the aluminum parts and used some cleaner on the red racer’s tires. The adult gave Sebastian a final polish and gently set him on a very old wooden floor and gave the racer a push. Sebastian’s old wheels carried him a short distance and he stopped. Frowning, the adult lifted the racer and sprayed something on the axles.

Again, he set the racer down and gave a push. Sebastian felt the still air turn to wind as he sailed across the floor. The adult gave a great whoop and chased after the little red racer. Sebastian felt like he may have a second chance. A chance to find a home after all.

The adult picked up the racer and placed Sebastian in a small wooden case. He was next to an old baseball card, Joe DiMaggio, 1953, a set of Aviator glasses with the case and a Buddy L Corvair Pick-up truck. Across from him on the other side of the room was a big old grandfather clock. Sebastian wondered if it was the same one from the department store, but knew better because this one was still and the pendulum was not swinging.

After dark, conversations were exchanged, and everyone spoke of their value and where they were from. Sebastian only knew the plat where he was made, the department store and the hospital. The term “value” meant nothing to him. A doll stood up and exclaimed how she was a first edition Barbie and had all her accessories. She told the room she was very valuable and that she was most likely to sell for a huge amount. A stuffed bear told the room he was a very rare ‘Beanie’ and that being handed out at the All Stars Game made him worth thousands.

The whole night went like this. Sebastian finally asked if anyone was just interested in find a home. The room erupted with laughter. The red racer thought about this ‘til dawn. He did not want to know his “value.” Just to find a home.

The next day. The store opened with a flurry of business. There was a flood of the people coming in and out. The faces were of older people and a few children wafted in and out. But none stopped to stare longingly at the toys. A woman stopped in front of the racers display case and soon was holding Sebastian. She carried him to the front of the store and Sebastian sighed as was put into a box again. Be he had his hopes this time. The woman had spoken excitedly about how her husband played with a car like this as a child and had been searching for one since. Maybe, thought Sebastian, just maybe he would find a home this year.

He sat in the darkness and waited. And waited. Until that fateful day when he was passed around and placed next to some other boxes. He hoped he would be opened and not set to the side this like the other times in his past. His box was opened and the eyes looking at him were much older, but familiar. The face was the same, save for the years that had ticked by. The man smiled the same smile as the boy who had played with him so many years earlier. It was Christmas 1996. 50 years of waiting, finally, Sebastian, the Red Racer had found a home.