My dad reminisces: the '41 Ford
My dad has been writing down, for his grandchildren, stories about his childhood growing up as an East Texas farmboy. I just got his permission to put them on the blog, as I think they make absolutely fascinating reading.
This one tells of his first car, and those of you who have long been bemused by my willingness to drive around in cars that are, shall we say, less than pristine, may find it helpful to know this bit of family history -- especially the part about how Pop kept driving the car after the brakes went out even though he didn't have the money to fix the brakes...
The most interesting car I ever had was my first car, a 1941 Ford. When I was 16, Dee [Pop's older brother] “sold” it to me for $150 to be paid after I finished high school. When I finished high school, he said to wait until I finished college. When I finished college he said he couldn’t remember the price and wouldn’t trust my memory so we would just have to drop it. In other words, he gave me the car but let me feel like I had bought it. Dee was using a little psychology. A boy feels a little more grown up if he pays his own way. It felt like it was really my car because I thought I was buying it.
The car was only two years younger that I was, but was in pretty good shape at the start except for two things, second gear and tires. Actually second gear was all right if you shifted into it very slowly. When you are drag racing with a car with a stick shift, you have to “speed shift”. When you shift a stick shift normally, you get off the gas, push down the clutch, shift from first to second, let out on the clutch, and then get back on the gas. If you are drag racing and you do it that way, you will probably lose the race. Speed shifting is a tactic by which you shift without getting off the gas and without really losing speed. The trick is to coordinate your hand and foot so that you can push the clutch down and let it up again very fast, sort of like kicking a wall. While the clutch is down that split second, you shift from first to second with one quick move, sort of like quick drawing a gun. If your timing is off and the clutch comes out before the shift or the shift is attempting before the clutch goes down, you miss the gear and, if you are unlucky, you strip a gear and you are out a handful of money to get it fixed. It isn’t too difficult, but you seldom get it right every time. (If you are a young driver, don’t do it, especially in your parent’s car. If you get your own and want to try it, just remember the bit about missing the gear, breaking the transmission, and being out a lot of money.)
Drag racing was out for me and the ’41 because the shift from first to second had to be made very slowly. If it wasn’t done slowly, it would hang up between second and third. Then you had to stop, raise the hood, reach down on the steering column, and adjust a couple of greasy finger like items. I figured that sooner or later, those things would hang up for good, so I didn’t attempt speed shifting but once or twice.
Many years later, we had the same type of problem with “Ole Yellar.” When Yellar was in its last ten thousand miles or so, it started hanging up the same way nearly every time you put it in reverse. Like the ’41, you would have to get out, raise the hood, and adjust the greasy fingers. Now when I was a sophomore in high school dressed in faded blue jeans and a homemade shirt, getting a little grease on me wasn’t much of a problem. However, in Ole Yellar, dressed in school or church clothes, it wasn’t much fun. Of course, you could just drive wherever you were going in reverse, but the police don’t usually think much of that idea. We solved the problem by always parking so that we would not have to use reverse. At home, we cut out a road from our driveway around the garage and down the alley to the street. Occasionally, we had to reverse. If we were very gentle and Yellar was feeling very generous, we might get by with it.
Yellar was the ’64 station wagon that the Wilders’ [my mom's parents] “sold” us. Sold is in quotation marks, because it was such a good deal. We argued with them about the price. They wanted to sell it to us for about $100 or something like that and we wanted to give them $400 or something like that. We sort of split the difference and ended up with something like $250. We came out very well financially on Yellar (named for the color, not the dog). We put over 70,000 miles on it and spent very little in repair. It already had 100,000 miles and an assortment of dents, so when we had a couple of accidents that were not our fault, we took the money for repairs but didn’t do any repairs. That is perfectly legal, moral, and ethical, by the way. The money for the repairs ended up being significantly more than we paid for the car and probably covered any mechanical repairs. When we finally decided Yellar was past good use, we gave it to a friend. We didn’t even check to see if he was willing to buy it. We figured it hadn’t actually cost us anything and it would be an insult to the car to take money for it.
Back to the ’41. I had a constant battle with tires because I couldn’t afford to buy any, so I took tires and tubes that other people didn’t want anymore. I was tempted to buy one from Harry Jenkins. He brought a tire up that looked brand new. He said it came off Mr. Charlie’s car. He ran tubeless tires and for some reason this didn’t fit tightly enough on the rim and gradually leaked the air out. Of course, with a tube it would be fine, but Mr. Charlie didn’t want one tire with a tube and the other ones tubeless. Therefore, according to Harry, he had asked Harry to bring it to me and see if I wanted to buy it for $5. I did want to buy it for $5. I wanted desperately to buy it for $5. But I didn’t have $5. After deliberating several minutes over wild schemes to raise $5, I decided that none of them would work. I told Harry to give Mr. Charlie my thanks, but tell him I couldn’t buy the tire. Then Harry said, “Well, that’s all right. He told me to give it to you, but I thought I might make $5.” It was the best tire the ’41 ever wore while it was in my possession.
Back to the ’41 again. It developed a leak in the water pump that leaked only when the car wasn’t running. You could fill it up when you started it and run it all day without it leaking a drop. But if you killed it and let it set for awhile, it would empty the radiator. I couldn’t afford to fix the water pump and I couldn’t put antifreeze in it because of the leak, so during the winter I had to drain it every night to keep it from freezing and ruining the engine. Then the next morning I would drive it to the well, draw up a bucket of water and fill the radiator. I usually left the engine running during this process. One morning it was very cold and I had no gloves. By the time I started putting the water in, my fingers were numb. As I was pouring water in the top of the radiator, I suddenly realized that it was running out the bottom, meaning I hadn’t closed the drain plug. I just reached down to close it and heard the fan hitting something. It took me a moment or two to realize that it was my fingers. (I had forgotten that the engine was running and you can’t see the fan when the engine is running.) It didn’t do my fingers any damage. I can’t remember if they even got sore.
One morning I rode with Harry or Fred and left my car at home. I don’t remember the particulars, but Pauline [Dee's wife] was there without a car and needed to go to her mother’s for something, I think a sort of emergency. She forgot that my car had no water in it and got it hot enough to crack the block. This meant that water leaked out of the water channel inside the engine into the oil pan. Water and oil doesn’t mix and water doesn’t lubricate very well. I used what was called “bulk” oil. At a service station (they were “service” stations then) when an attendant put a quart of oil in a car it didn’t all come out of the can. He turned the can upside down over a barrel. The extra oil would leak out of the can until he needed to service another car. It didn’t make any difference what brand of oil, what weight of oil, or what quality of oil, all the extra oil went in that barrel. He would then sell the mixture for (I think) a dollar for five gallons. That is what I used in the ’41. I would drive it all week, and then on Saturday I would open the oil drain plug and watch what came out. Since water is heavier than oil and they don’t mix, the water was always on the bottom. I would watch until the water turned to oil, put the plug back in, and check the oil. It was usually about three quarts low. Of course, it never showed low before I drained the water because the water that leaked into the oil more than made up the amount of oil the car was using, I would add enough bulk oil to fill it up again and was ready for another week.
When Mother got some oil money ($400 I think), she threw away our kerosene (we called it “coal oil”) cook stove and put in a butane system. Anytime Mother came in to any money, she would make improvements that Daddy never thought were necessary. So it was Mother who put in the butane, running water, and an indoor bathroom. I can barely remember getting the butane system, but I think I was a sophomore in high school when we got the running water and a sophomore in college when we got the indoor bathroom. Daddy never used the bathroom. As a matter of fact, he never used the outhouse. He always “went to the barn.”
Once Daddy was digging a ditch for something, I think the water line into the kitchen, when he hit a root. He got the ax and tried to cut the root. He didn’t have any luck. I went out to see what was wrong and he said, “I can’t cut this root. The ax is dull and the root is hard as iron.” I said, “It probably is. It’s the butane pipe running from the butane tank to the kitchen.” It sort of shook him up.
A bit more about the kerosene stove. We had a 55-gallon barrel we kept kerosene in. Daddy built an X shaped wooden stand so that the barrel could lie on its side about four feet off the ground. The barrel had a spigot in the end similar to a water hydrant except it had a handle that you pushed one way to turn it on and another to turn it off. The cook stove had a two-gallon metal can. The top had a spring-loaded button in the middle. When it got empty, we took the top off, put it under the spigot on the barrel and filled it up. We replaced the top and turned it upside down in a holder built for it on the stove. That pushed the button down and let the kerosene out. The bucket fit tight enough to keep the kerosene from overflowing. We also used the kerosene to start fires in our fire place (kerosene doesn’t explode like gasoline) and later our “minute” stove. We would put some wood chips in, add some kerosene, light it, and then add kindling. (For another incident involving the kerosene barrel, see “Rats, and Rat Poison.”) A minute stove, by the way, was a small tin stove that couldn’t be regulated very well. It was called a minute stove because one minute it was too hot to get close to and the next minute it was stone cold. You could have sat on it a minute after it was glowing red, except if you sat on it, it would fall down.
For some time, it was [Pop's older sister] Sue’s job to pick up the chips from the wood pile and my job to keep the kindling box full. Sue had a slight speech impediment and called them “chits.” The chips were made when Mother chopped stove wood from the limbs that Daddy brought in to the wood pile. This was another of those strange divisions of labor that Daddy followed. It was man’s work to go into the woods, cut trees or pick up fallen limbs, and bring them to the wood pile. It was woman’s work to chop the limbs into stove wood and kid’s work to help her get everything into the house. Same way with a garden. It was man’s work to plant and plow the field corn (although a woman might need to help with some of the “smaller” field jobs such as hoeing cotton, gathering corn, picking peas, etc.) A garden, however, was woman’s work. A man might plow it in the spring to get it ready to plant, but the planting, cultivating, gathering, cleaning, and cooking its products was woman’s work.
Let’s see, I was talking about the ’41, wasn’t I. The connection is the kerosene can from the stove. When Mother got rid of the stove, she kept the can, and I confiscated it for use with the ’41. I would fill the radiator and the can before I left home. When I parked the car at school or wherever and the water leaked out of the radiator, I had the water in the can to fill it up. The first pond or stream of relatively clean water I came to, I would stop, leave the car running so it wouldn’t leak, and refill my can. Then I was ready for the next stop.
I said before that tires were always a problem. I never had any room in my trunk, especially early in the week, because I had the water can and three spare tires in it. When I had a flat, usually about two a week, I would put one of the spares on and throw the flat one in the trunk. On Saturday I would go to the store at Bradford and break down the tires, patch all the tubes, air them up, and be ready for another week. The store keeper let me use his equipment for nothing, so it only cost me the price of the patch, anywhere from 10 cents to 50 cents according to how big a patch I needed to fix the hole. Most of my tubes were covered with patches because I had to have a new patch every time I had a flat and I had lots of flats.
One year our first English class was Mrs. Johnston’s English class. If we were late to class, someone would say, “I see you came in Pierce’s car today. Did you have a flat or have to stop at a creek and fill it up with water?” Mrs. Johnston was known as a “mean” teacher. This meant that she didn’t stand for horseplay or back talk in her class, actually gave you homework, and expected you to learn something. She was the best teacher I had and was the reason I ended up teaching English instead of math. My first year college English teacher stopped me after class one day and said, “You must be from Cayuga. I can always tell a student who studied under Mrs. Johnston.” I ended up being the English tutor for about half the athletic dorm and I switched from math to English on the advice of one of my roommates because I had been such a help to him in English.
Most people would have been in trouble with Mrs. Johnston for being late to her class, but I was her best English student and sort of a pet, so she never said anything about it to me. Older women nearly always liked me. Every time I dated, the girl’s mother always liked me more than the girl and I was always a favorite among the women at church.
Back to the ’41 again. For about a year, I had no brakes. The brakes had gone out and I didn’t have the money to fix them, so I just drove without brakes. It is quite a challenge to drive a car safely when you have no brakes. You have to be constantly alert and thinking ahead as well as watching other cars, etc. To stop it or keep it from going too fast, you “geared it down.” That means if you were going pretty fast you would put it into second gear and that would slow you down. Then when to got slower, you would put it into first gear and it would gradually bring you to a stop. So you had to start stopping a long way before you got to a stop sign or you would just plow on through.
Having no brakes never caused me to have an accident. The closest I came was on the way to school. In one place you went around a blind corner, crossed a bridge and then about thirty feet farther crossed another bridge then went around another blind corner. Just as I rounded the first corner, I saw another car coming toward me from the other corner. I couldn’t stop so I had to time it. I adjusted my speed enough to cross the first bridge, pull off on the shoulder and met the car, then get back on the road to cross the other bridge. I made it, but it surely was scary.
You may wonder how I bought gas without any money and the answer is that I didn’t buy gas. I went to high school in Cayuga, 12 miles from my house. The school was surrounded by oil wells. A by-product of the wells was a raw gasoline called by several names, but I will use the simplest which was “drip gas” or just “drip”. Practically everyone in Cayuga used it. Technically they stole the drip. They went to a tank where the drip was stored, put in a siphon hose, and siphoned out gas into a can or barrel. The oil company knew that people were doing it, but the drip evidently wasn’t worth the trouble and bad publicity of prosecuting anyone.
The drip didn’t have any additives and hadn’t been processed, so it was very poor quality, but it was free. If someone turned off their ignition and the motor kept running, you knew they were burning drip. The farmers even used it in their tractors.
Nolen and I would take his truck and three 55-gallon barrels and one night sneak up to a tank. He had a two inch wide siphon hose with which we could load a barrel in two or three minutes. So it usually took us 10 or 15 minutes to get over 150 gallons of drip. Dad had a 200-gallon gasoline tank at home that he had gotten for the tractor, but the tractor was gone. I put my drip in that now unused gas tank. It had a hand pump on it so when I got low on gas I would drive up to the tank and pump it full. So, I actually got a free car, free gas, oil at one dollar for five gallons, and tires given to me because other people were afraid to drive on them anymore. That all adds up to very inexpensive transportation. It’s a good thing because that’s all I could afford. I drove it for 2 years before it finally got so worn out even I couldn’t drive it anymore.