Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Pop" - Part 3
by Kenneth W. Neal

Fred, Fannie & Ken Neal with the 1939 Chevrolet - Sand Springs, OK (1946)
     Pop grew up with automobiles, unlike his own father who was a “mule man” and never comfortable with autos. Radford Neal was born in 1880 and so was 40 years old in 1920 when cars came along in earnest.
     I know how bad it sounds (there’s a phrase right out of my dad’s mouth) to brag, but, as he would say, let me tell you a little story or rather several stories about pop and autos. 
     The earliest were of course told me by Pop.
     He told me that when he was about 13, which would have been about 1927, that he jacked up a Model T and pulled the oil pan on the engine. Then he fired the T up, got back under it to look at the engine while it was running to see how the engine worked.
     He knew enough to do this for only a minute because the engine was running without oil.
     By this time he was the family chauffeur
     It was about this time that a relative came to visit. I can’t remember whether it was an aunt or a grandma, but his father, busy in the fields as usual, sent pop into town to pick the woman up at the train station.
    At first she refused to ride with pop because he was so little, but she relented.
    My Uncle Virgil remembers that he and pop were in a Model T and the rest of the family in another vehicle in one of those nomadic moves from one farm to another.
    They were fording a river, probably one of the Canadian rivers. Once started across, it would have been disastrous to have stopped, so pop was “flogging” the T. In the jouncing and bouncing, some mattress springs slid forward from the top of the load in the touring car.
    “It was my job to hold up the springs,” Virgil told me some 75 years later.
     I get the many moves mixed up, but I remember the automobile stories.
    Another might have happened on this move. When moving time came on this instance, the family and its possessions were loaded into the Model T and a Durant. I think the Durant was about a 1924 model.
     I think Radford was driving the Durant and dad the Model T of the fording incident.
    At any rate, it had been raining and the Durant slid off the road into a borrow ditch. After much tugging and trying, the Durant was still stuck and Radford was getting angrier by the minute.
    Finally, he cussed the Durant, revved the engine and had the wheels spinning. He treated the hunk of metal like he would have treated Mules. He would have whipped the mules into trying harder. But it didn’t work with the Durant.
    Dad was watching this when all of a sudden “all hell broke loose,” and the engine “died the death of a rag doll.”
    He said he raised the hood to see that a connecting rod had broken through the engine block at about the point where the oil pan was attached.
    He later explained to me what happened. The old Durant didn’t have a “positive” oiling system. The connecting rods had dippers that scooped oil up from a trough in the oil pan.
    With its back wheels in the borrow ditch, the car was at a steep angle. That meant the front connecting rods were not getting oil and the inevitable happened.
    “It was really hare-lipped,” pop said.
    Finally, a farmer came along with a team of horses to pull them out of the ditch.
    The next town was a few miles ahead and they pulled the lifeless Durant to it. In those early years of automobiles, blacksmiths had begun moving into the auto age.
    Dad said the blacksmith heated the cracked block and pounded it back into its original shape as nearly as he could.
    “He didn’t have a bearing for the Durant, so we looked through his stock, found one that was as close as we could get and buttoned it up.
    The oil pan had been knocked out of shape and the block was warped.
    “I could get only a few screws aligned for the pan,” dad said.
    They started the car and headed for the next town. I can’t remember if it was Chickasha or Anadarko, but there was a Ford garage there.
    My pop always bragged about what a good horse and mule trader my grandpa was. He had a lot of brass; wasn’t shy and made friends wherever he went.
    I know that the story-telling ability my dad had came from his father. I don’t have any accurate information further back than Radford Andrew, who was born on Magazine Mountain in Western Arkansas. His father’s name was John Henry Neal and he was born at Morrillton, Arkansas and his father was also John Henry Neal and was born about 1848 in Little Rock. The family tree is sawed off at this point.
    The Neal caravan pulled in to the Ford garage and grandpa loudly asked “have you got anything to trade around here?”
    The Durant was a more expensive car than a Model T, but it after all had a cracked block, a not minor defect.
    “We messed around there and some guy said he was interested and had a mechanic check out the Durant. The man said he could fix the engine.”
    “Pop managed to trade that Durant for a nearly new T,” Dad told me.
    “We made the deal and pop turned and said, ‘kids, get busy unloading.’ We drove out of there with a Model T in great shape.”
     More about Rad and his horse and mule dealings later.
    But here’s another car story, but we have to get the cast of characters in line first.
    Radford, my grandpa, had two half-sisters, Vera and Stella.
    One of them had a husband named Garland, who dad naturally called Uncle Garland.
    Garland had 1924 or 1925 model Chevrolet. The Chevie was missing on one cylinder and when you’ve only got four to start with, and an engine that was not too powerful when everything’s working, the old car (new then) was hardly moving.
    By this time, Rad knew that his son had a knack for autos and after everyone had weighed in on what was wrong with Uncle Garland’s car, he took Pop aside:
    “Can you fix this thing?”
    Then grandpa got his trading clothes on. He traded Uncle Garland a mule for the car. Now in those days mules were valuable, so the trade wasn’t as bad as it seems now.
    The trade made, Fred set to work on the Chevy and he was lucky. He pulled the cylinder head (the engine was a four-cylinder, overhead valve design) and spotted the trouble. A valve was broken, so there was a dead “miss” on that cylinder.
    “We went to town and bought a valve and I lapped it into the head. When we put it together, the old Chevie perked up its ears and ran like a striped-assed ape,” Dad said.
    Those phrases were among Dad’s repertoire. He assigned animal like qualities to automobiles. A freshly repaired or tuned auto would “perk up its ears.” It ran like a “stripped-assed” ape. I still wonder how a stripped-assed ape runs. Fast, I guess.
    He had terms picked up from his own experiences with mules on the farm that he liked to use.
    When a car was performing well, he would say, “We got the hair burning now.” That comes from whipping the mules rearends so hard you could smell hair burning. I think that was a slight exaggeration.
    Or when we getting into a car, he would demand to know: “Do you want to skin?” That refers to mule drivers, or skinners.
    This kind of language, in which one thing stands for something else I guess has a literary name.
    But these and other expressions allowed Dad and me to talk in a code that very few, except maybe the Neal brothers, would understand.
    Then there was the time that Dad made a deal with an adjoining farmer to hoe his cotton. He and his sisters, May and Evie, did the hoeing. When it came time to collect, Dad did the honors.
    But he didn’t give the girls their share. He went to town and bought a part he needed to get the family car running.
    I heard this story from the aunts a few more times than one.
    I don’t know if this story is linked to another one.
    Pop told me that he had the differential (the rear end was our slang term for it) torn down and needed a “ring gear” for it. He went to a salvage and they didn’t have one but told him to look around.
   “I did and I spied a ring gear peeping out of a dirt pile. I dug it out and cleaned it up and it was the part I needed,” he said.
    Another one that might be part of the same story.
    “I put the rear end back together, but I didn’t have enough gear lube to fill it. I drove it to town and it sounded like a streetcar. But you know, it quieted down as soon as I put some lube in it.”
     There will be many more automobile stories as they come to mind. Meanwhile, back to childhood memories.
     We moved to Sand Springs in 1937. My first memories were of a house on a hill near 4th street and Wilson Avenue. I remember when a rock building at that corner was built. I was watching the guys dig the foundation that later became a store operated by Herman Broadwater.
     I couldn’t have been more than four because we moved from there to 209 N. Cleveland St., when I was five.
    Mom would send me to the Broadwater store for small items, since we lived next door to the store in a house long since torn down.
    Once, I decided to go to the store myself, and for some reason picked out a big box of pepper. I took it home and put it on the front porch.
    After that, mom told Herman not to let me buy anything without a note from her. I caught on pretty quick and decided to write my own note for Herman. It didn’t work.
    Part of the time we lived on Wilson, we still had the Model A. I remember mom had a hard time driving it, because the rim around the spokes of the steering wheel would come off. I don’t know when we got rid of the Model A, but I vividly remember our next car.
    Dad took me with him to find a car. We rode the streetcar to downtown Tulsa and walked out east Third street, where there were a number of used car lots.
    This was sometime in 1939, so I must have been four. Dad carried me a lot, I remember. I wonder if I would have gone to the trouble to carry a four-year-old with me if I had been looking for a car. But he did.
    We bought a 1934 Oldsmobile coupe. It was tan. I know that dad gave $125 for the old Olds. He paid $25 down and borrowed $100 from Bankers Finance. We made monthly payments of $11, I think, to Bankers, which had an office at the point where Cheyenne Avenue deadends at 10th Street in Tulsa.
    One time, pop broke an axle in the Olds when we lived at 209. Broken axles in those days were not uncommon. I guess the axles of that day were made of castings instead of the much stronger forgings of today. Dad jacked up the car and pulled the wheel and the piece of the axle connected to the wheel assembly. That left a piece still in the differential. I don’t really remember if the Olds had an inspection plate on the back of the differential, but I remember that pop tied a loop on the end of a piece of baling wire and fished the piece out.
    Then he hustled to a salvage in Tulsa, found an axle, hurried home and put the Olds back together. He did all this in time to get to Tulsa to make a payment at Bankers on the old car. Funny how you remember something like this. But I do.
    Not long after, pop decided to paint the old Olds. He bought just enough paint and set out to paint the car with a brush. I was of course hanging around in the way and fooled around and turned his paint over about the time he was finished. He barely had enough paint. Then he painted the wheels red. The old car had whitewall tires. It must have been quite a sight. I have black and white pictures of the old car with pop and me posing with it. Actually, the paint job was better than you’d expect.
    Pop was a good mechanic and he had the Olds running like a top. It was our car for several years.
But pop traded it. There was a fellow in Sand Springs named Bud Roop. He had a 1935 Plymouth Tudor. He had tried to overhaul the engine and completely messed it up. Pop traded Bud the Olds for the Plymouth and as I remember, got $50 to boot. He then disassembled the Plymouth engine and put it back together correctly. I remember him telling me that Bud had installed the piston rings upside down.
    Mom was mad at pop for trading the Olds. She thought it was a good car (it was) and saw no reason to trade. As long as he lived, when dad was upset with mom, he would complain that if she had her way, he would still be driving the Olds.
    Anyway, we had the Plymouth. I think the reason mom didn’t like it was because the passenger seat was a bucket seat that someone (Bud?) had failed to bolt down. Every time Pop goosed the Plymouth, it would dump mom backwards. I suspect he did a little of that on purpose because he wanted to trade cars.
    And we did. We went back to the same used car lot where we bought the Olds. Dad liked the old guy who ran it. His name was Pash or something that sounded like that.
    Dad traded the Plymouth in on a 1939 Chevrolet. I think this was in about 1941 or so. The Chevy was a dark green two-door sedan. It had about 45,000 miles on it. Pop gave $695 for it, but I don’t remember how much he got for the Plymouth in trade. I bet he made a little money on the Olds-Plymouth swap. The brakes on the Chevy were defective, which was one reason pop made a good deal on it. I remember him reworking the wheel cylinders, the master cylinder and putting the brakes in working order.
    At some point, he did a “ring job” on the Chevy. We had that car throughout the war. The automakers quit making cars after turning out a few 1942 models because of World War II, so the entire nation got through four years of war without any new cars. The ‘39 Chevy grew in value and because it was “slick” Dad was tempted to sell it. I remember a guy coming to our house one night to beg pop to take $895 for it. Dad decided not to sell.
    When the war started, everyone was urged to turn in all the old tires lying around because the Japanese had cut off the supply of rubber from southeast Asia and “synthetic” rubber had not yet been invented.
    Dad patriotically rounded up about 10 tires that had sound carcasses but were slick.
    The government recapped the best tires, those that had no holes in them and used them as needed for the war effort. Tires that were rotten or had big holes in them were “booted” and recapped. These were “thirds” that could be sold to civilians. Gasoline was rationed, not because there was a shortage of it, but because there were not enough tires and because the government wanted everyone to know that the country was at war. Naturally, the tires dad kept began to wear out. As I recall, pop bought 10 recapped tires at $10.95 each. None of them lasted long, of course. I remember that we were driving along once when we had a tremendous blowout. We looked up in time to see a “boot” sailing through the air in front of the car.
    I learned a few new “Sunday school words” in those years.
    Finally, Grandpa Ingalls ran onto a pair of nearly new tires. The old Chevy used 600x16 tires and the ones grandpa found were 5:50x16s. Pop put them on the front. They looked a little small, but they didn’t blow out.
    I got to know a man named Al Tillman sometime about then. I mention him now because he had married a woman named Rosalynn Yarbrough, who had a small service station before they were married. Dad used to call her gasoline “Rosewater” and traded there to help a widow out. Al had a way to vulcanize tires and tubes. He would take half of a tube or a tire that didn’t have a hole in it and match with a half from another tube or tire. He would vulcanize, or rubberweld, them together. Hey, it beat nothing.
Al also was one of my dad’s fiddling buddies, but more about that later.

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