There is an old car key interred in a green resin tomb sitting on the bookshelf behind my writing space. It’s a cherished gift from my dad, given to me not long after he had my first car towed to the junk yard. It’s not an ordinary looking key — metallic gray, well worn, and with an oddly serrated edge on the back of the bow. The key graced my key chain from 1966 until its master’s demise in 1970.
I turned 15½ toward the end of the summer of 1966, about to enter my junior year of high school. Dad had arranged for me to work that summer as a “gofer” at a wire-extrusion plant he managed. The plant was in East Los Angeles near Watts, where there had been six days of racial rioting the previous year.
My duties consisted mainly of sweeping floors, cleaning up, painting, and generally doing what was asked of me by big burly men who worked with gigantic rolls of aluminum, steel, brass, and copper wire. Those rolls were constantly moving about — into and out of annealing ovens, onto powerful machines that pulled coarse wire through precisely-sized dies, and finally loaded onto delivery trucks. As I recall, the plant’s customers were mostly screw manufacturers.
The job turned out to be one of my coming-of-age experiences. I worked alongside men with limited educations and of various ethnicities who, as they say, put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. They didn’t seem to mind eating lunch with the boss’ kid. I made good money. Mom and Dad (but not the IRS) let me keep all of it. By the end of the summer, I was rich!
At 15½ , I could get a learner’s permit that also allowed me to drive a motorcycle solo. With wads of cash in the bank, I began making plans with a buddy to buy motorcycles for a cross-country road trip the following year. Mom was not keen on the plan.
Recollections of events from fifty-plus years ago are always suspect. But I don’t recall Dad ever weighing in on this subject. No doubt he supported Mom, and probably didn’t approve as well. Having been a 15½-year-old male himself not so many years before (he was 19 when I was born), he probably knew better than to object and possibly inflame a rebellion. He was the kid who, after all, crashed his dad’s car into the front of the family garage while covertly practicing how to drive a stick shift (he thought he’d put the gears into reverse).
But then a miracle happened. At the end of that lucrative summer, Mom’s brother decided to sell one of their family cars. Not only was the timing miraculous, but he was selling it for a price ($500) that I could afford!
I never got around to asking Mom and Dad nor my aunt and uncle whether the sale of the vehicle was divinely inspired, or whether I might have been the victim of a secret collusion between Mom and her brother. I guess I always preferred the miracle explanation.
No one is around any longer who can tell me whether that car came into my possession as a result of divine intervention or secret conspiracy. But by that fall I owned a car — a 1956 green Opel Rekord in good condition — and was taking drivers ed. It was a small German-made two-door family car with a four-cylinder engine and standard transmission … quickly nicknamed the Green Hornet.
The car, as might be expected, required more than its share of work — oil changes, tune-ups, and sundry repairs. Dad was never much help. Working on cars was not his thing. But lucky for me I had my own personal automotive consultant, Papaw … Mom’s dad.
When they lived in the little town of Ansted, WV, Papaw always had part-time work, among other things, working in an automotive garage. When I was pre-school age and we lived next door, Papaw had a bicycle repair shop in the basement of their house. His shop was a place of wonder, smelling of grease and tools and bike parts arranged in custom-made wooden boxes and drawers. Before I learned to work on the Green Hornet, I learned to work on bikes.
Papaw taught me much about cars — how to change the oil , use a timing light, diagnose which of three things was causing it not to run (air, fuel, spark), and figuring out how to remove a cracked oil pan (by loosening the engine mounts and jacking up the engine, silly). Papaw was the one who introduced me to the virtually pornographic JC Whitney car parts catalog.
What I don’t ever remember, though, was Papaw ever putting a wrench in his hand or getting under the car. He was always just there, patiently advising me (sometimes for hours) on how to fix my car, and in retrospect, showing me how to be a good grandfather.
I took my driver’s test in the middle of my junior year, on the very day of my 16th birthday. I often toted friends around after school or to school events. If I was running low on cash for gas, we could always manage to round up enough change from passengers’ pockets to buy a gallon or two. The Green Hornet made more than a few trips to the beach and spent many memorable evenings at drive-in theaters — providing a time and place for initiations into the mysteries of the feminine.
I miss that car. I miss, even more, the man who taught me how to work on it. But I’m Papaw now. My oldest grandson is about to turn 15. I’m not sure if he’ll like to work on his first car as much as I liked working on mine. There will probably be something else he’ll like to do. I suppose my job will be to just be there — patiently advising him (perhaps for hours) and showing him how to be a good grandfather.