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.
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.
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.
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.