Friday, September 21, 2012

Kenneth W. Neal
"Memories of My Father"

Some time in the fall of 1951, after my 16th birthday and a driver's license, I hungered for a car of my own. Nothing fancy, of course, because I knew that there was no money for anything more than a clunker.
But like all 16-year-olds, I wanted my own wheels.
I kept an eye out for prospects. On my daily walk from 809 Cleveland Street in Sand Springs to the high school, I spotted a 33 Chevrolet coupe with a For Sale sign on it.
I'd stop and look at it every day; finally an old person came out and priced it to me at $75.

After a lot of negotiating, I finally offered him $50. He asked if it would be cash. I told him I'd have to talk to my folks.
I had managed to save $25 from my job delivering groceries ($12.50 a week) and I knew I'd have to wheedle the other $25 out of Pop (Fred Neal).
When I broached the subject, mom was dead set against it. I can still remember her position. I could drive the family car, she said. But I told her how much I wanted my own car.
I knew my best bet was with Pop because he loved cars as much as I did; I knew he'd understand me wanting the old car. He did, of course. He gave me the $25 and so we went down the street and made the deal.
The old car, naturally, had a lot wrong with it.

The clutch grabbed so badly you could hardly drive it. Once you even thought about letting it in(out) it would leap forward. Our next door neighbor, Earl Guinn, who pop always said had only "half sense" kidded me about not being able to drive and that infuriated me.

       Beyond the clutch, the old engine was badly out of tune; the carburetor, the original old Carter, was terrible. They were notorious for being hard to keep running during the warm-up period and this one was worse than most.
The radiator and cooling system was so clogged that the old car started over-heating as soon as it warmed up.
Worst of all, the connecting rods were loose. Chevrolets of that period had a poor oiling system. They relied on a "dipper" system. A dipper was installed on the cap of each connecting rod and the oil pump delivered oil to a trough aligned under each rod. As the rod rotated, the dipper picked up oil and the centrifugal force pushed the oil into the bearing. Typically, the bearing wear resulted in loose rods. Pop was an expert at hearing the faintest rod knock.
He not only could hear a rod knock, he could determine which rod was making the noise. He did this by putting a screw driver to the spark plugs and grounding the plug to the block. When the screwdriver was lifted and the cylinder fired, there would be a distinct single knock.
My '33 Chivvy was suffering from loose rods.
Dad first replaced the clutch. This was a tough job. The transmission had to be removed and the old clutch and pressure plate removed. Again, he was an expert diagnostician. And, so damned tight that he would not replace anything that didn't absolutely have to be replaced.
In this case, he determined that the clutch plate was sticky, but the pressure plate in reasonably good condition.  
       He bought a new clutch plate for $2.98 and the whole operation was a big success. The clutch worked like new.
I was of course pushing to be able to drive my "new" car, but he forbade it until everything was up in what he called "running shape."
It was in the winter time and he did not have a garage. Later, he built one on the back of the lot at 809 Cleveland.
Pop was working the afternoon shift at American Airlines and so did not have to leave for work until about 3:15 p.m.
I would almost run home for lunch every day to see if there had been any progress on the old car.
One day, there had been a light snow and it was about 20 degrees above zero; miserable conditions under which to work on an old car outside.
And this is my most cherished memory of my father, one that I have grown to appreciate every year of my advancing life:
When I came home for lunch on this particular day, the old car was jacked up on the front. Dad had built a fire beside it and was under it, adjusting the rods.
At some point, he did an ignition tune-up, probably using old points, condenser and plugs, and replaced the old model carburetor with a Rochester carburetor that he had on hand.
Once the engine was ready to run, there was still the problem of the plugged radiator. Removing the radiator so it could be cleaned and repaired involved removal of the entire hood and grille assembly, a major job.
Pop filled the cooling system with kerosene. He wouldn’t let me drive the car because there was obviously a chance of fire. Pop drove the car to operating temperature, let it cool down and repeated the process several times. Finally, he drained it and flushed it with water. It worked. The old car never heated.
The connecting rods never failed; the old car had worn connecting rod pins and they rattled, a characteristic "whattle whattle" that showed up when the engine was not under power.
Pop used to kid me that he could hear me coming home from a block away. He could mimic the sound of those rattling pins perfectly.
I have thought many times down through the years of the love that he showed me not once, but countless times, in giving not his money, but himself, to me. He was, I hasten to add, very stingy with money. He allowed me, for example, to charge two gallons of gasoline a week on his bill at Tallent's "Snappy Service," our local gasoline station. This was 52 cents a week. I could drive 54 miles on two gallons.
My uncle Jim, Pop's older brother, in talking about his own car, said that he really didn't have a car; just a "damned old crutch." The allusion, of course, was that it was barely enough to get around.
It has been 45 years since that winter day in 1951 when Pop built a fire to keep freezing fingers warm enough to adjust the rods on my old car because he knew I was dying to be able to drive it.
The other day, as I was going through the photographs and mementos that my mother had saved, I came upon the sole photograph of my old Chevy.
         It was jacked up on the front. Mom had taken the picture the day before it snowed when Pop had started the rod adjustment.
On the back of the photo, in his handwriting were these words:
"The Crutch."

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