My Life Part Eight: Hot Rod Road

As I mentioned previously, on moving to Ohio my family lived for a while with “Uncle Denny”.  Uncle Denny was a serious car guy.  I mean really serious.  He had a Ford Model A in his garage that he was restoring.  At the time the car was little more than a shell with an engine (not original–a Chevrolet engine I think–and transmission.  No drive shaft or differential.  The driver’s seat and steering column were installed I think (if I’m not conflating with another project).

Denny had a pretty thorough setup in his garage.  He had an oxy-acetylene welding and an arc welder of the stick type (MIG welding hadn’t really come into its own yet and was not yet commercially available).  He had an air compressor, which I mostly remember for his use with a paint sprayer.

Denny's Garage

Denny could always be found working on his project or on other cars either in his garage or in the yard between it and the house.  Garage was not attached.  The garage is still there (picture above) although the yard is now fenced in.  Frequently back then folk would come over, pull their cars up into the yard, and then and Denny would work on them.

I could often be found hanging out with Denny in the garage or in the yard watching as he was working on cars and eventually “helping” by passing tools to the folk working on the cars.  I got pretty good at selecting the right wrench from looking and visually estimating the size of the bolt head.

About that same time I got what was the first actual “novel” that I distinctly remember reading.  “Novel” as distinct from the very short picture books of my earlier childhood.  I may have read others before this, I don’t know, but none of them have stuck with me enough to distinctly recall.  The book was “Hot Rod Road” (picture at the beginning of this post–and the pic is a clickable link to Amazon if anyone is interested).  The book centered around Steve Barker, a 16 year old car and drag racing enthusiast.  Coming in on top of my exposure to Uncle Denny it made a great impression on me.  Recently someone asked the question of what was the first novel we remembered reading and that one popped up in my head.  Just for nostalgia value I found a copy of it and found that it held up surprisingly well.  Oh, sure, it’s very much a period piece, describing an America that has changed much, but the story was still quite enjoyable.  A coming of age story of sorts centering around drag racing–legal drag racing not illegal street races.  Nostalgia factor aside, I can still read it with enjoyment today.

In that period I was still a big reader of comic books (and would be until the mid to late eighties).  Among the comics I read then were a few “anthology” comics on automotive and racing themes.  I remember one story about some kid who got a Model T and “restored” it.  They largely skimmed over the “restoration” except to have the main character say that he was installing a Chevrolet engine and transmission and that he’d have to beef up the drive shaft and rear end for that.  Then the story had someone next to them at a stoplight laughing at their old car.  They race.  The Model T wins (because, of course, it had a modern for then drivetrain).  The a pic of them driving around the street with the caption “they loved the roomy old Model T.”

At about this time there were two cartoons I tended to follow:  Skyhawks, a series centered around a family who ran an air transport and rescue operation (I was infatuated with all things related to flying) and Hot Wheels, which helped cement my interest in cars and racing.

Based on that, I wanted to be a race car driver.  Bruce was highly disdainful of the idea.  Yeah, you might win a few but then spend all the prize money and then some on rebuilding the car for the next race. While this is, in fact, pretty much true–as the old saw goes, “How do you make a small fortune in racing?  Start with a large one”–I was in no danger of squandering money on race cars (not at 10 years old) and my interests would likely (and, in fact, did) change.  He could have handled that better.

Have I made clear how much I’ve come to despise that man?  Oh, it gets worse.  Trust me.

Denny was very much into actual restoration.  He was quite disdainful of what he called “Hot Rods” where someone would take as a base an antique car, cut off the top, remove the hood and fenders (or leave little fenders mounted on the suspension that just barely cover the tops of the tires)–cars that lose all practicality usable just for show and possibly racing (and generally illegal racing at that since they’ll hardly be competitive in sanctioned events).  And all that on top of having now depleted the limited supply of actual antique and classic cars.  But he didn’t let his personal disdain get in the way of working on cars since while I was there someone brought over such a rod for…something.  I don’t really know what it was.

We only lived with him a short time (and in the house next door for a bit longer) Uncle Denny had a pretty big influence on me.  With him sparking an interest in things mechanical and Bruce inspiring an interest in things electronic it’s no great surprise that I developed and maintained (to the present day) an interest in “gadgets” of all types.

During this time school and my social interactions were something of a mixed bag.  I made a few friends in the local area (including one who actually had Hot Wheels toys and race sets, including the then-new chargeable motorized cars, “Sizzlers”!).  Changing schools, however, did not end the bullying I experienced from my previous schools.  Oh, it was almost never actual fights (which would generally not really be fights so much as me being beat up).  No, it was verbal abuse and social ostracism.  I may also have started what would be a lifelong battle with depression about this time.  I say “may” because I really don’t recall much along that line although within a few more years I definitely would be well into it.

One day, while we were staying with Denny, my mother collapsed.  She was on the phone and she just…sank to the floor.  Things are a bit of a blur after that.  I don’t recall how we got help for her.  I think I may have called the operator (this was before 911 was available in that area, or if it was I didn’t know about it) and we got an ambulance for her.  She spent some time in the hospital and ended up having a hysterectomy including removing one of her ovaries (she ended up needing to take hormone supplements for years afterward to avoid things like growing a very obvious mustache).  I came to find out later that apparently Bruce had picked up a sexually transmitted disease from a “working girl” (as the euphemism was) and got himself “fixed up” but said nothing to my mother with the result that she was not only infected but the infection had time to progress to the point of irreversible damage.

Yes, he was a real piece of work.  I told you it got worse.  And we’re not done yet.  Despite that my mother stayed with him. (Or perhaps not considering…well, I’ll get to those events in due time.)

I think it was in the summer between third and fourth grade when we moved out of Denny’s house and into the house next door.  We’ll pick up there next time.

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