Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Property Deal

Around ’60 Dad got involved in a property deal with P.O. Swanson and Paul’s friend Gerke (gerkee). Margaret was never in favor of this escapade, but Dad was convinced it was a way to make some serious money. Gerke had a summer cabin dating from the late ‘40’s on some relatively high bank waterfront out past Kingston. He had sold or given some lots to friends and relatives, and soon there was a bit of a community of people enjoying the beach access. It was quite a commute to Seattle – of course times have changed and now people think nothing of an hour and a half drive. Paul Swanson, my Uncle Paul, had thought of getting a plot out there. Picturing a life with Armida, his wife, and Beverly, his daughter (my cousin). However about the time he started to get serious about this endeavor, a rather extensive batch of quite high bank view property was suddenly for sale. It had been a stump farm for a family for a couple generations, but the old man had died and the kids were off into the new world. The farm house at the near end of the lot was habitable but quite run down, There was a small orchard with the fruit trees gone wild, and some of the acreage overgrown with waist thick trunked trees – which was called 2nd growth, but which was in reality 3rd or 4th growth. All that forest had been stripped in the 1880’s and again in the 20’s and once again during WWII when every standing stick of wood was cut down for the war. Waist thick trees would have been growing since WWII.

Gerke and Swanson decided to make some bucks on this, and tried to piece together enough money in loans to buy it. They were a bit short and Dad stepped in and I suspect he mortgaged the Suquamish place to become a partner. Margaret never approved of this venture. The development went on for years – instead of a quick turnaround, they had endless platting, and a water well, and an access road to resolve. The access road suddenly had to meet county and state specifications – a bulldozer track wasn’t going to be ok. And then, of course the housing/property market fell apart as they were pouring money into this get rich quick scheme. All the while, my mother had gone back to work as a teacher full time, and I was heading off to college.

Gerke was viewed as rather wealthy at the time, though by today’s standards he was just a middle class businessman. He had inherited a family music store business in Ballard. As far as I know, he was not musical. The store sold pianos, organs, rental band instruments, a few guitars and drums. I remember delivering a big console hi-fi to the store in ’58. The music business at that time revolved around selling pianos and organs, a few accordions, and an occasional guitar or PA. When I was there I was introduced to ‘Dave’ the stringed instrument guy. Dave had affected vaguely Elvis hair, upturned collar and a Bob Dylan ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ cap. Dave played electric guitar in a band –the name escapes me, but they had a couple regional hits, one of which was ‘Cool Penguin’ (locally pressed on 45’s). The band played at places like the Spanish Castle, and school gyms etc. Dave was in his late twenties, small and cocky. He was to play a key role in Gerke’s fortunes. As the folk music boom hit in ’58-’60, the piano-accordion sales plummeted, but Dave ran the guitar department and suddenly there were dozens of spruce topped acoustic guitars and as the Beatles arrived, a plethora of distinctive electric guitars and amps. The store was briefly headquarters for cool gear, and high profits. By the mid-‘60’s every dime store and loan shop was selling schlocky Japanese guitars, but Gerke’s had a brief lock on Fender/Gibson/Gretsch. As a result of this cultural change, Gerke was significantly better off for a while.

My Uncle Paul is a bit of a mystery to me. He was married to Armida, my father’s older sister, and Beverly was their daughter. Thinking about it now, it seems an odd little family unit. Beverly was treated like a princess, and many a tale was told about how wonderfully bright she was and how perfect her homework was and so on. She is 3 or 4 years older than me. She had been born hairless (through Caesarean, I think) and had, for a long time only a wisp of extremely thin blond hair, which was a constantly retold tale. In adolescence and in college she was quite a striking and attractive young lady. She had one wandering eye, a bit cross-eyed, which had been operated on a couple of times. I recall her wearing an eye patch for a while. She was involved in the Lutheran Church to a much greater extent than Paul or Armida. The retold tale of Paul in church was one Easter after the service, there is a bit of a crowd milling around slowly making an exit. Everyone has to shake hands with the Pastor, so it is slow going. And Paul loudly says, “Who the hell is holding up the line? I’ve got to pee!”

I don’t know much about Uncle Paul’s history. He bragged once about his job in a large hardware store in the ‘30’s. He had been one of hundreds of applicants and managed to talk and bluff his way into the job. He would have been in his early-twenties. In a photo of him at about that time, he was a quite good looking stocky young Swede, the son of immigrants, just like Dad and Armida et al. Somewhere during WWII he became a bit skilled in electronics. In my acquaintance with him, he was an eager tube swapper and back-of-the-set twiddler to little effect.

Some time in the ‘40’s he had started his own business. He became a ‘distributor’ and wholesale source for Packard Bell televisions, radios, and related merchandise, such as TV set stands, and antennas, and also some record players, and tube checking devices that were for TV repairmen. TV sales were just beginning to take off. Average working class people were beginning to consider the purchase of a TV set. This was a major appliance purchase. A TV cost as much as a stove or refrigerator. Packard Bell was highly regarded for quality radios and started the manufacture of TV sets in ’48. As sole distributor in Seattle, Paul began to prosper.

When I came down from Alaska in about ’51 I walked into the Grandparents home, and neighbors were all clustered around watching the TV. That moment is etched in my memory; on the screen were dancing cigarette packages. Cigarette-package Costumes worn by lady dancers with only the legs showing, tap dancing in unison across the stage to a catchy tune. The Packard Bell in their living room was a ‘gift’ from Uncle Paul. The screen was perhaps 9” across, the grainy image in shades of grey.  TV’s in those times were in consoles, large pieces of furniture with closing doors, generally mahogany, with decorative styling such as Spanish Mediterranean. The sets were very heavy, more than one man could lift. The console was full of transformers, tubes, steel chassis, lots of wire, and the TV tube itself was thick and heavy.

The P.O. Swanson Company was a wholesale outlet, which means that truck loads of TV sets, hi-fi record players, stands, antennas etc were delivered at the rear, and these were parceled out into orders to be delivered to various retail stores. Paul made his money on whatever the percentage was on the deal – probably something like 10%. When I worked there in 58, the preparation of orders was an occasional afternoon’s heavy labor, building the order piles and calling various freight outfits to pick up. Large orders were often shipped direct to the retail stores.

My Dad worked for Paul as a salesman. My Dad didn’t like Paul much, and from time to time let loose a stream of invective about that lying cheating conniving son of a bitch etc. Nevertheless Dad was out on the road all over the Seattle/Tacoma area. He worked for Paul for a long time, a bit over 10 years before he finally had enough. He had heard about the Snap-On Tool opportunity. He was so sick of Paul’s wheeling and dealing him out of the commissions that he was willing to bolt out of Suquamish and start a whole new life, in business for himself.

As rock and roll took over the country, there was a huge demand for record players. Paul was distributor for the Symphonic line of hi-fi players, many of which featured Garrard record changers. This was considered a great technological advance. There was a speed setting to select, 78, 45 or 33 for LP’s. Many of these units also had radios as well. Most of the Symphonics sold were of the suitcase variety, with decorative tweed or two-tone styling, with hatch tops. These units were relatively inexpensive tube powered players with what would now be considered awesomely trashy sound. Symphonic also built some large console units with ‘lovely’ furniture styling, but basically the same amplifier units. The big ones were no better or louder than the small ones. Packard Bell also produced TV’s with record players in the cabinets, but the younger people wanted to be able to carry the players around with them from room to room, or off to a party. Paul sold thousands of these units, and I bundled thousands of them into orders.

About ’58 or ‘59 Stereo became a big feature (distinct from Hi-Fi). And at the warehouse, Paul reveled in demonstrating the Stereo phenomenon. There was a special LP in which a train went by and you could hear the Doppler effect as it went from left to right, and a ping-pong game sound track, and a sales recitation with the lady on the left and the guy on the right. And people’s heads would swivel from side to side. There was also a stereo LP of Oklahoma and another of Porgy and Bess, both of which I have hated ever since.

In the mid ‘50’s there was the sales pitch about the latest thing – FM radio. In Seattle there were about 3 stations broadcasting FM as part of their regular extended programming. One station played nothing but light classical on their FM frequency, and another had show tunes and jazz – like Brubeck. FM was considered to be a bit classy and exotic. In the late ‘60’s FM was the place to hear hippie music  – there were several stations devoted to Janis, Hendrix, and so on. Anyway, Paul was immediately one of the sources for units that had FM capacity, even though most people in this area weren’t asking for it.

Paul had a bit of a showroom out front, and a back office set up as a demonstration room for the stereo effect, but this was not a retail outlet, and everything was makeshift and a bit run down and shabby. I would go out and dust the tops of the units, and broom up the cobwebs and dust bunnies every now and then. If a customer came in wanting a deal, cash would talk, but aside from favors to friends, this was rare. Briefly in ’59 he suddenly got on someone’s list – over a period of a couple of months we had several jockeys show up wanting to buy. It was odd, these tiny, thin, frail looking guys in their 30’s coming in wanting to buy a big stereo and expecting a deal. And they would have a roll of cash, some hot chick along with a couple of bruisers to load the unit into a van. As far as I know, Paul didn’t play the horses, but one of the salesmen did.

It is a bit odd to reflect back on those entertainment units. We have a very different sort of attitude now. Virtually all of the Packard Bell and Symphonic units, the TV antennas, the stands – everything in the warehouse, was American made. There was also a thriving small industry of kits for stereos, TV’s, ham radio gear; Heathkit, for instance. My brother, Don, assembled a major stereo set up, with tubes, stamped steel chassis, etc in about ’64. It took hours of soldering and the instructions were a small booklet. It was a wonderful, loud, mellow sounding unit, and weighed 50# all together. It was all-American made bits and pieces. In the same decade it was also possible to build computers, Apple started out selling kits for computers that amounted to little more than adding machines.

Customers didn’t regard TV’s and stereos as temporary disposable distractions. These were serious and major acquisitions. The assumption was that the units would last for decades, that one’s tastes in décor would be constant. Karen’s parents, for instance, still have their original stereo console, complete with 8 track and AM-FM tuner. Their entertainment needs were permanently met with a handful of records, a tape of the Carpenters, and the tuner set on a religious station. A huge console TV set in the rec room was another lifetime investment. Only recently has the antenna come off the roof.

Beverly went on to PLU, graduated with honors, and became engaged to a Canadian medical student, who went on to become an eye surgeon. He was/is very active in the church and plays the organ. They have had what appears to be a wonderful life dedicated to their dozen kids, medical work, and travel. They have done good and prospered. I hardly know these people, I last saw him when I was in college, and have seen her a couple times in the past 20 years. I recall she and her pastor son attended my retirement gathering, but it was not an occasion to sit and chat. Life doesn’t seem to provide opportunities to maintain family offshoot relationships. Each person wanders off into the capitalist underbrush looking for a clear shot at opportunity, and thus we are scattered all over the country. Not just scattered physically, but separated by educational background, political and religious beliefs. Distance, and the travails of travel and the dubious pleasure of visiting people of significantly different self selected life styles, makes it all just too much trouble; we are too busy to maintain connections. Historically a short time ago, such family connections as cousins, step children, aunts and so forth were all part of the family unit and individuals were unlikely to be much different or very far away. We might not like them all that much, but interaction was expected and anticipated. Now it is almost impossible to remember when familial community was of importance.

My cousin, Connie, I haven’t seen since the late ‘70’s. She and her son suddenly visited, Margaret in tow. We had just finished the garage/studio. I think that perhaps Doris (my aunt) had just died. All I recall of the trip was that Connie was anxious to leave, and her strapping son – about 15 or so – saw my crude weight set, and had to show me how strong a football player he was, and wore a blister on his hand during some enthusiastic curls. He was strong, but not a match for me at the time.

Back to the property deal:

Jan and I married in the spring of ’66. I had just been accepted in grad school, but had no idea how we were going to stay afloat. I decided to go back to work in machine shops, and went to inquire at my former employer. In the couple of years that I had been gone, one co-worker had been promoted to shop supervisor. He and I had probably not exchanged 20 words in the past – the machine shop was shriekingly noisy – but he remembered me as steady and on time. “Can you start tonight?”

Minutes after he hired me, he went back and fired two guys that were ‘problem children’. I was to pick up the slack, which wasn’t all that hard. I worked there nights on a sort of whenever basis all through grad school. It was a good deal, low pay, plenty to do and welcomed when I did show up. Seattle was booming for those two years.

Jan immediately got pregnant despite prescriptions for birth control, which was the first of hundreds of episodes in which we learned the hard way that she could not be trusted to take pills with any regularity. Suddenly life took on a more serious aspect. We were living in a horrid little apartment that I had found upon arrival in Seattle. I had been living on savings from a year and a half of sawmill work when I moved to Seattle. We had an opportunity to move downstairs to a larger but equally horrid apartment. Through the family grapevine I got word that Paul and Armida had a house for rent, and that it was in our price range.

It was odd to walk into the house in Ballard. I had stayed there several times shortly after we came down from Nome – 15 or so years earlier. Paul and Armida and Beverly were living there, and I slept on the couch. At that time the situation in Uncle Arnold’s place in Suquamish was a shambles, with Mother supervising the errant and misfit ‘contractors’ tearing the place apart. Mother was fit to be tied at the uproar and the outrage of living in the ‘boy’s’ house with a tiny trash burner for heat and cooking while these local oafs shredded the wiring and kitchen etc in the main house.

As Jan and I were packing to move to Ballard I got a phone call. I had been awarded a TA position for two years. The professor that had suggested that I apply had gone to some trouble to get me the TA – I was the only TA applicant with a teaching degree, and that weighted the decision. I didn’t realize until I was well into the TA program what a lucky fluke it was that I got the job. Suddenly the whole MFA course seemed manageable. And as an employee of the UW we had medical for the baby.

We didn’t feel like it, but in retrospect we were prospering. We had savings, and had been able to pay rent in advance. There was some money to keep the Harley, and Model A and ’52 Chevy running. We also were able to spend some money on Jan’s attempt at being in a rock band. I had a downtown studio; we could hire local kids as baby sitters, and sponsored some parties etc.

Shortly after Jeff was born, Jan’s father died suddenly. I had not gotten along with her parents, particularly with her father. The image of him having a brain aneurism in some customer’s yard after delivering a B-3 Hammond organ seemed a suitable way to go. He had considerable insurance due to patronizing a high school acquaintance/insurance salesman for decades. Everything was paid for. Opal was devastated, but quickly adapted to not having that tyrant stalking around the house.

Jan had become increasing flighty and having panic episodes during the pregnancy, and after Jeff was born she fell into what is today called post-natal depression. She was full of stories, fears, dreams, shadowy voices and so on.  And then her father Bob died and she plummeted into long crying jags and endlessly replaying Judy Collins, Merilee, Joanie Mitchell, etc. Through some acquaintances, she began to perform with a loose batch of students that hashed together a band playing music of the time. The band became known as George Arliss, and had a couple dozen gigs over a year or so. She was keeping it all together with improvised lyrics and spacey music, but once home the crying and uproar continued. Looking back on this, I have come to believe that she was having some sort of affair with the bass player, but that is just my hunch based on later behavior. At the time it didn’t occur to me.

In the same year, Uncle Paul died. He survived a heart attack several years previously, and was supposed to be on a special low-cholesterol, low salt, reduced calorie diet. He was in his early 60’s and vigorous up until the massive stroke. He too had major life insurance and left Armida ‘quite a wad’. She attempted to run the business, but she was not a boss, and the business quietly folded. She was spending time at the golf club knocking back martinis.

I’m at a loss to explain the love for drink that Armida, George, and Doris exhibited. I used to really enjoy having a couple-three drinks, but that generation could really suck down the alcohol. It was amazement. No one got hurt, but it was quite a display. Armida would call us at the house and talk on the phone for hours. First one hand and then the other would go numb. We were living in her house, we were months ahead on the rent, and felt obligated to listen to her endless talk. She was having Bloody Marys for breakfast, and screwdrivers for lunch. When she and Jan got going on the phone I could just leave the house for a couple hours, neither of them were making any sense and they just fed anxieties and dreams to each other.

Shortly after Paul’s death all of his clothes were delivered to our place. Cartons of clothes appeared which fit no one. We took some to a campus rummage sale, and the rest went to Goodwill. I got an oddly checked sweater that was a bit short, and a WWII blue-green nylon bomber jacket that I wore at work in machine shops and the aluminum plant for years. At this point I wonder what became of his cars. He was a Packard man. No car was as good as a Packard. He bought one of the last frog-mouthed hard top Packard sedans, complete with Paxton supercharger. These were enormous and homely cars, not very reliable and softly sprung. Not prized today, but scarce as hens teeth because only a few were made.

Gerke died shortly thereafter, leaving his family in chaos. He was also heavily insured. Life was not calm in that family, and his son quickly descended into drug use and went to the Federal penitentiary a year or so after Gerke’s death. This left my Dad with the still unresolved property deal. They were almost ready to start selling lots, one at a time as clearance and permits were obtained.

A local realtor had been given exclusive listing. I don’t know what the details were, but evidently he got a bigger slice than usual when or if he sold something. His name was Huffnagle. I met Huff several times. He was an old school style character. He was about 6’4” and in an athletic trim but aging body. He had been, back in the 30’s and 40’s a professional fist fighter. He had toured the west as part of traveling show of fighters. The crew of fighters included boxers and wrestlers, and often a strongman. Wives, or girlfriends, or a local barmaid would serve as ‘ring girls’. The fights were organized by weight class. They would put up a fight ring in a stable or school gym, and offer like $100 if any member of the audience could beat Huff or one of the other fighters. There would be local guys in preliminary bouts, the winners could then move up to battle the pros. Betting in the audience led to informal heated arguments and fights in the assembled crowds. So the show would pull into Tucson, Bakersfield, or Yakima, set up the ring, and plaster the town with posters. He fondly remembered fighting in the Coullee dam sites, shanty towns full of workers – part of the WPA and other government programs. Those guys were very hard workers, pouring millions of gallons of cement, working 1″ rebar and so on. He said they were damned tough, but luckily for the fight crew, these yokels didn’t know how to fight. They were tough, but losers. The local guys would pay $5 to get in the ring and Huff and the other pros would pound them into the ground. This was ‘thin glove’ fighting, not the ‘pillows’ they wear today.

Huff had been in thousands of fights and his face was a mass of lumps and cartilage. His forehead and cheekbones looked like knuckles. His ears were puffy, and his nose was obviously smashed. He was gravelly voiced and ponderously aching when he walked. I recall him dropping a pen on the ground and saying, “Well, the damned thing belongs down there anyway.” He was not about to bend over or get down on his aching knees to pick it up. At 70 I can certainly agree with him. What kind of a merciful god was it that put the ground so damned far away?

Dad and I would meet Huff at his house, a tidy little place on the waterfront near Kingston. I’m not sure why I was along except to witness the excuses and swindles Huff was trying to pull on each lot deal. I liked Huff. He was a creaky and cranky giant that was soon to fall. He had a tiny wife – maybe 5’1”, grey haired, wiry, slim, stylish and busy. Her name, as far as I know, was Toots. So it was “Hey Toots! How bout some coffee?” “Hey Toots! Has it started to rain yet?” Hey Toots! We are going up to the lots, be back in an hour.” Huff was a ‘secret’ drinker. So we would sit at the table strewn with lot maps, contracts, and paper work with cups of coffee, and little shot glasses of peppermint schnapps for medicinal purposes. He would assure Toots that Schnapps was just what a man needed for what ails him. And 10 in the morning was just as good a time as any for a man to take his medicine. And we would proceed to sit there and have 3 or 4 or 5 shots of schnapps to lubricate the business at hand. Sometimes the schnapps of the day was single malt scotch.

When Dad bolted from Suquamish he was in double trouble on property. The Suquamish place just couldn’t be sold and was rented for several years. Property was simply not moving. And the Kingston development was also sitting partially sold. The folks were long in Longview before all that was finally sold, for far less than they had hoped. Now, of course, it is prime waterfront and was until recently worth millions.

As the Kingston property sold, he got his share –some went to the Swanson and Gerke estate. Huff, of course, got his slice. It was not the windfall that was hoped for. The Suquamish ‘farm’ eventually sold, again not for the price hoped for. The house they bought in Longview during his prime Snap On years was a modest home with a small lot, detached garage. Mother was teaching 3rd grade near by, and Dad was doing quite well with the tool business. He didn’t know doodly about tools or how to repair machinery, but his gift of gab, and the liquor bottle in the glove box lubricated many sales. I rode along with him several times and watched him in action. I think he harbored the dream that I would step in to the sales business, but I was too shy and my mind was on escape. Don tried it very briefly – to fill in for a salesperson that was sick for a few months. Don didn’t prosper at it.

Jimmy John – Racer

In the Spring of ‘64 I had just finished my BA in Art Education. I had done my supervised teaching at Garfield High School in Seattle, which was considered hazardous duty. I routinely showed up with my rummage sale suit, shirt, tie and slacks covered by my leathers and parked my Harley in the teacher’s lot. The school was predominantly Black. While the students tended to be a bit unruly, they were energetic and witty. Overall I thought they were great. Unfortunately I was supervised by a dour potter, and I knew next to nothing about ceramics, and my ignorance was on display, to everyone’s mutual amusement, but I got through it.

The teaching certificate was revealed to be a hoax. There was zero demand for teachers, particularly liberal arts teachers. I managed to get a couple interviews, but the list of interviewees was several pages long. I started scrounging around for any type of job, but couldn’t find anything. The savings I had accumulated from previous employment was evaporating very rapidly, and eventually I drifted back down to the folk’s place in Longview. Don was off in the Marines, Claire was off to Wazzoo, as I recall. I went down to the Sawmill again and got another entry-level job on the clean-up crew.

My father was doing quite well on his Snap-On Tool franchise, and through my interest in Model A Fords and Harleys he introduced me to several mechanics. My interests paralleled theirs in some way and my vehicles gave him a bit of standing, I guess. He sold tools but knew nothing about them. One day, a mild evening, a gent was at the door after dinner to pick up an order, some specific tool he needed for the weekend’s race.

Jimmy John

Jimmy John

It was the guy I came to know as Jimmy John. Just to prove that it is quite a small world, we had seen each other at a distance at the sawmill. He was a ‘floater’ and was occasionally on the clean-up crew. At the mill there were frequently problems with the conveyor belt system and tons of chips would suddenly cascade over the side and this pile would have to be loaded into a dump truck, often with nothing more than several of us with big flat shovels; a good sweaty workout for a few hours. If it weren’t for occasional emergencies the clean-up job was boring and simple minded. Sometimes hours were spent just standing around. I occasionally would take a nap up at the end of one of the conveyor sheds. I was drinking a bit in those days, and one time the foreman had to wake me up to hand me my paycheck.

Jimmy John was about 6’ tall and weighed maybe 160. Tall, thin, and agitated, and a chain smoker – but at the mill he had to chew Copenhagen. He was incapable of holding still, and once he started talking it would go on for a long time, the story line scattered and tangled. I suspected he was on speed, but he was probably just naturally wound up. In ‘64 drugs were still relatively unknown, by ‘66 or ‘68 there were drugs everywhere.

Within minutes of meeting, he was telling tales of his abilities as a race car driver. He was a stock car racer, also did a bit of sprint car driving. Longview/Kelso/Castle Rock had several racetracks. Stock car racing by unfunded individuals used to be quite popular, and was a regional sport, with local heroes. At the time, the hot cars to drive were ‘55 Chev’s , 52 – 54 Mercury’s, similar vintage Old’s, Pontiacs, and Buicks. These were all overhead valve V-8’s which were the hot ticket at the time. The cars were inexpensive and no longer in fashion. Since the car could be demolished in the next race, there was no point in spending a lot of money. In order to race, the upholstery would be stripped out, and a rudimentary roll bar installed, the windows removed, the springs torched to angle the car for the left turns, etc.

'55 Chev stock car similar to Jimmy John's

’55 Chev stock car similar to Jimmy John’s

Jimmy John had been racing stock cars since his teens. He and his wife were from the South, and while he didn’t have much of an accent, she had a charming accent. I suspected that he was ‘up North’ because of some outstanding warrant, perhaps. Before computers invaded law enforcement it was possible to simply move to some other state to avoid bail, or warrants and arrest. This was common among the bikers I briefly associated with – they would often brag of their exploits; suitably embellished, I’m sure.

Jimmy John earned his name early in his racing exploits. He started out racing Chevy coupes manufactured in the ‘40’s. These cars were all equipped with straight 6 engines that could be competitive with a bit of tinkering. The engines were referred to as ‘stove bolt sixes’, which described the head bolts used in assembly. One trick in the racing crowd was to swap the Chevy 6 with a GMC 6. I don’t know that there was any significant difference in power or durability, but this was a much discussed modification. Jimmy John always finagled a Jimmy engine in his race cars, the engine was often one of the few salvageable pieces when the coupes were destroyed in the stock car arena.

He had recently upgraded to a V-8 ‘55 Chev. When the family came west he towed his prized ‘55 Chevy Tudor all the way on a homemade trailer. He was quite proud of the car, which had seen many a race. It looked ok from 50 feet, but it was creased, and dented, and caved in a bit, and it sat at an odd angle because the suspension had been rudely modified to make nothing but left turns. There were no windows, and the doors were tack welded shut. Entry was feet first through the driver’s side window hole. The instrumentation was an oil and temperature gauge. The shell of the car had been painted many times with spray cans to cover scars. It had a straight pipe exhaust and was very loud, and since all the insulation had been removed the modified motor sounded like a threshing machine as well.



As we got acquainted, I was invited over to his place to go to the races. Longview/Kelso has some awful rental housing. He and I were earning a very similar wage, a bit above minimum: maybe he was getting two-bits an hour more than me. They were certainly not living high on the hog, and his racing expenses kept them in poverty. He had the family of 4 tucked into what seemed to have been originally a two-car garage or storage shed. The ‘55 was in the street on the trailer covered with a tarp. The house was filthy, the furniture was probably salvaged from Goodwill. There were broken kids toys scattered about. They had two kids, the young man was in grade school, the young lady was in kindergarten. The kids were unkempt and poorly dressed. A middle-aged neighbor lady came over to sit the kids, and we loaded into Jimmy John’s beat up Chevy pickup and towed the race-car to the track.

Going to the races with him and Sally was a mistake. I thought it would be an amusing afternoon, but when they went to the races they didn’t come home till 3 am; not until they were flat broke and had exhausted everyone’s hospitality. His races were over in minutes – he was in two events. A very aggressive driver, he managed to finish 3rd in one and then went off the course in the 2nd. Standing on the infield with 100 pit crew observers, I couldn’t tell what had happened. Once back in the pits and reloaded on the trailer, the drinking began in earnest. The universal lubricant was cheap beer, Rheinlander, as I recall. There were coolers and iced tubs full of canned beer. It was two cans for a dollar. If memory serves, a six-pack was $2.50 in the stores.

As dusk settled into night, and the races were done, the pit crew and losers were all getting a good coat of shellac. No one seemed to pay attention to the trophies and awards. The winners were winners only in their own minds, no one in the pits gave a damn. There were some portable radios (this is pre-boombox, pre-cassette tape) and there was hours of endless guy talk about motors, cars, racing mishaps and so on. The bathroom situation was execrable, over beneath the rudimentary bleachers was concrete floored shed with a 4 hole crapper and a slit water-heater tank for a piss trough. It had no door and was unlit, so once it was dusk, the guys pissed beer anywhere a few feet from a conversation. There were only a few women in attendance, perhaps 12 or 15 amongst the 100 or so racer guys. The ladies would wander over to their designated 4 holer, using Zippoes for illumination.

available under the bleachers

available under the bleachers

The women were attending with their men, and were sort of in the role of trophy wives, although they may not have been formally married. Sally was a rather well endowed young woman, clad in tight jeans, and a checkered flag sleeveless, scoop necked blouse. She was getting quite a bit of attention – men wanting to look down her blouse or check out her tightly wrapped butt. She was the recipient of quite a few free beers, for which she would thank graciously, but then discretely pass the sampled can on to Jimmy John, or even me. Every now and then a lady would decide to dance to the music racket, gratuitously and usually without male company. The display was just to remind the men that they were there. Overall it was a man’s world. As the evening dragged along, one small foxy woman was wandering about, and on two occasions she passed by me and said something like: “I’ll get to you in a few minutes” or “Later, dear”. I was a bit bored in my non-member observer role, and watched her for a bit. What was her deal? Evidently she was available for brief encounters under the bleachers, performing blowjobs for $5 for any and all takers.

Jimmy John was quite drunk by dark, totally fried or blitzed by late evening. There were ‘Texas Fifths’ of Jack Daniels rotating through the clusters of men and many were getting quite tanked. Jimmy John was in the sliding down and falling over stage as the party began to break up after midnight. He was our driver, but by the time Sally was ready to go – after repeated chats amongst the ladies about surgical procedures, the extraordinary pangs of childbirth etc – there was little we could do but load Jimmy John into the back of the pickup. Sally was somewhat tanked but she managed to drive home with little incident aside from running the trailer up over the curb on right hand turns. After an early start, I had been monitoring my alcohol intake during the proceedings and while probably technically over the legal limit I was able to drive home and fall asleep on the bed with my shoes on.

I went to 3 or 4 races. I found the whole scene to be depressing. It was loud and low, vulgar and dumb. One of the feature races was often a Destruction Derby or a Figure 8 Race, which inevitably continued until there was only one survivor car still running. The teams would raid a wrecking yard or rummage the want ads looking for some hapless car – cheap but running, and perhaps a bit distinctive such as an old ambulance, an ice cream van, a ‘36 Buick sedan, a ‘52 Packard convertible, etc. In one event someone had resurrected a Model A coupe – it was obviously a farmyard salvage, with moss on the roof. To me, as an owner of a somewhat prized Model A pickup, it was sad to see it totaled within minutes. The crowd loved to watch all these high impact wrecks, and they would root for the last few cars that were blowing steam or smoking and limping and scraping for the final hit.

I didn’t get to know Jimmy John well. I would occasionally work with him on the cleanup crew and hear his latest exploits, and his guy talk swagger, and tales of his driving prowess, and his miraculous and prized ‘55. I’m not sure how the family was getting by. He seemed to be constantly spending money on the car and racing. He wanted others to ‘sponsor’ his efforts, but it looked like money down the drain to me. I attended 4 or 5 races, driving myself to Castle Rock or Battleground tracks. He would drag the car up to Renton and Bremerton and down to Portland occasionally. A very local circuit for him, while the big boys, the national figures, traveled all over the country in relative luxury. This was Jimmy John’s aspiration, but it seemed far from clear how this cocky loudmouth was going to get from squalor to whatever the next step might be in a hotly contested field.

I didn’t get a chance to chat with Sally frequently. She seemed little more than a breeder. She was a pleasant looking young woman in snug clothes with nothing much to say about anything. Her southern accent coupled with little education and no interest in much beyond the kids and shopping minimized any extended conversation. She was employed part-time, afternoons, at a local Lumber Yard. She was a clerk at the Order Desk. When a customer wandered in, he would be met at the Order Desk by two or three ladies, or the one guy (expert). A ‘picking order’ would be hand written on a 3 part carbonless form. The small orders could be filled quickly by the warehousemen. Large orders from building contractors would be phoned in, and the materials delivered to the construction site. Her job required a bit of product knowledge and basic math skills for determining and billing the number of board feet etc on the smaller orders. The large phone orders were billed by an accountant because those orders often had special bid pricing schedules. When there was something wrong with an order – wrong materials, incorrect billing – a customer had to start the complaint at the Order Desk. The company had found that it was advantageous to staff the order desk with attractive young women because customers (men) would be somewhat defused explaining the problem to a pleasant lady that had her blouse unbuttoned a few inches.

In olden times, before outlets such as Home Depot, there were Hardware Stores and Lumber Yards. These were local businesses. If a project or a contractor needed plywood or lumber, the materials would be bought at the Lumber Yard. If tools were needed, were available at the Hardware Store – quite often a storefront operation with shelves to the ceiling and relatively knowledgeable clerks. Often the clerks walked with a limp or had missing fingers. That was the badge of authority; they had been injured in the construction trades. If the project required paint there was a Paint Store, although by the 60’s some Hardware Stores had begun to stock common paints.

I visited Longview a couple years later and I heard that Jimmy John had died. A mutual acquaintance explained that Jimmy John was attempting to demonstrate his self-proclaimed vast knowledge of racecar tuning and was assisting in dialing in a recalcitrant engine. He was head under the hood pouring nitro or ether down the carb while blipping the throttle by fiddling with the linkage. The engine suddenly backfired and the carb throat was full of ether.  The fireball engulfed his head and he reared back, banging his head into the hood of the car and suddenly inhaling. The flaming hot gases instantly destroyed his lungs. He was probably dead before he hit the ground, although he flailed and twitched in the back of the pickup truck that hauled him to the emergency room that was less than a mile away.

I have no idea what became of Sally and the kids or the mighty awesome ‘55.