Region was my uncle. He was more a brother than an uncle, only ten
years older than me. He spent his life working for himself buying
and selling cars. He’d buy them, fix them up and sell them.
He had a very small garage, “The Shop,” he called it,
but he worked miracles in there. It was so small, when he painted
a car he’d paint the front half, back it out, turn it around,
back it in and paint the rest of it. I spent a lot of time in the
shop working with him, listening. He was a good teacher. The lessons
I learned about inventiveness and imagination, about common sense
and responsibility, live within me to this day.
One cold late November afternoon, a couple days before my sixteenth
birthday, I went with my uncle out to Jim Otto’s farm. Otto
was a friend of my uncle’s and had a Triumph motorcycle Jim
wanted to buy. We met up with Otto out in his shop, a converted
old barn with a smooth poured concrete floor. While Jim looked over
the motorcycle, I inspected a 1940 Ford coupe I found parked over
in a dark corner.
The hood was removed, a large triangular canoe-shaped wing leaning
against the wall. The ’40 Ford was a hot rod. Otto put a Chevy
transmission and rear end in it, but the Chevy V-8 engine sat waiting
on the barn floor. I ran my hand over the rounded front fender and
fell in love.
“Aw, come on Jim,” Otto’s voice argued, “Gimmie
an extra fifty bucks and take the Ford, too. Get it outta here I’m
tired of working’ on it.”
“Ya got a chain?” I heard Jim ask.
“I’ll bring it back tomorrow when we come to pick up
the motor and the bike,” Jim laid the cash on the motorcycle
It was dark by the time we pushed the Ford outside and hooked up
the tow chain.
I’d towed a lot of cars with Jim. I usually drove the back
car, the one being towed. It was my job to do the braking, keeping
tension on the chain and stopping both cars. I climbed behind the
wheel of the Ford and held down the brake pedal. Jim inched forward
until the chain was jerked taut, he signaled, I released the brake
and off we went into the night.
As we reached the shop, Jim made a downward motion with his arm
out the driver’s side window, I applied the brakes and both
cars slowed to a stop. He unhooked the chain and we pushed the Ford
into the driveway.
We stood there on the frozen gravel just looking at that 1940 Ford
Coupe. “What do you think?” Jim asked after several
“She’s beautiful,” I replied. It began to snow
lightly. The corner street lamp bathed and accented the compound
curved fenders, the sloping roofline and trunk with a soft yellow
glow. “A lot of work, but it'll be great when you finish it.
You’ve brought ‘em home in worse shape than this,”
“Happy Birthday, kid. It’s yours,” Jim’s
words were simple, without embellishment, “You can keep it
here, use the shop to work on it, but you can't drive it until it's
licensed and insured.”
We didn’t hug or anything like that, we just stood there in
the middle of that hushed November night staring at the ’40
I worked on that car for months, after school, after work, any free
minute I had I was there working on it. The task was enormous, but
what I learned exceeded the work volume. I taught myself everything
and when I was stumped Jim would help me out. I had no money so
I learned to make do, to adapt what parts I had or could scrounge
up somewhere. My buddies McInturf and Hardersen often stopped by
trying to lure me into knocking off and chasing women with them,
but I refused.
What I remember most was the magic, the excitement the first time
I turned the key and the engine started, the glowing satisfaction
of commitment to the work you love.
Recently, I built a web site. I didn’t know how, so I taught
myself and just did it. I guess that sort of makes it a hot rod.
It was a lot of work, but the first night I signed on the internet
and the home page appeared, my first thought was of that cold February
night in that little town in Illinois in “The Shop,”
when I turned the ignition key and that Chevy engine roared to life.
It’s funny how some things never leave you.
This web site affords you the reader, additional access to this
column and a complete archive of those Road columns that
have come before. So, if you’d like to take a gander some
of the previous columns just click on the Road Back link
below and have fun.
We’ll talk next time
From The Road.