Monday, September 20, 2010

More nostalgia - Colorful People

March 19, 2008
Another wave of nostalgia; colorful people and odd cars. In the early 1970s, I was working and living in Bessemer, Alabama, a small blue-collar city west of Birmingham. The outfit I worked with sold scrap wire and metal regularly to the Moore Coal Co, which sold coal, and recycled scrap metal. (still in business) I became aquainted with a guy who worked in the metal yard doing various things. Thomas (I don’t remember ever knowing his last name) was a middle-aged hippie, and a Vietnam vet with a mangled leg. He got around OK, but walked with a pronounced limp. He wore mostly jeans, hawaiian shirts, and steel-toed boots, including a jacket when the weather was cold, had long pony-tail length hair, but was always impeccably clean-shaven. I noticed him originally on a metal-selling jaunt to Moore, when he was getting out of his car after finishing his lunch - the car was a Subaru 360 sedan, a tiny little microcar, and the first model Subaru exported to the USA. I remembered the 360 being advertised as having a two-stroke engine, and asked him about it, as I rode at the time a Vespa Rally 200. Turned out that Thomas was a big fan of 2-stroke engines, and said he had a couple others. Whenever we went by the metal yard, I would spend a couple of minutes talking two-stroke with the guy, and eventually he invited me to his house to see his "fleet". The following Sunday afternoon, I followed his directions and found his house, and was amazed. The house was actual "shotgun" house, three rooms in a row; you could actually fire a shotgun in the front door, and your pellets would go out the rear door. He had no idea when it was built, but it was "pert dammed old". He apparently had inherited the little house from a great uncle, who had died while Thomas was in Vietnam. The thing that most surprised me was that the house and all its surrounds were immaculately clean and fanatically cared for. The little yard and shrubbery were cut with military-haircut precision, everything was well painted, and the little house stood proud, with no sagging or leaning. Inside, everything was the same. The little place was old enough that it had not originally included a bathroom, but an outhouse; Thomas had added a bathroom off the kitchen (rear room) in the late 1960s, and it matched the house perfectly.  Behind the house was the "garage", more of a shed really, with three sides and an open front. From outside, the shed appeared to be made of large panels, but inside, it was apparent that the walls were built of railcar doors!  The roof was a spiderweb of apparently second-hand lumber sheathed with corrugated steel roofing. Great uncle had apparently not been a high earner.
I was even more stunned by the "fleet" - a 1950-something Vespa Ape, a 1950-something Saab 93, a bulbous little sedan with a 3-cylinder 2-stroke engine.  I had heard of these, but had never seen one in the flesh; they were known in their day as the "corn popper" Saabs, and while very smooth under way, when idling they did indeed sound like a movie-theatre popcorn maker gone psycho. The Saab was his "big car" - there were two other members of the fleet! One was the Subaru 360 sedan I had seen him driving to work, and a matching Subaru 360 van, the tiniest van I have ever seen.
All of these vehicles were, of course, clean, polished, waxed, and well serviced. The model designation 360 did not come about by accident; they both had 360cc 2-stroke, 2-cylinder engines, making about 25 hp. Thomas said the 0-60 time on any of them was "probly measured in hours, if it will even do 60". Oh, and there was a 2-stroke Craftsman lawn mower which lived behind the Saab.
The house itself was similarly surprising. Walking on the floor in the house was like walking on a slab; it was that solid. I later saw that in the crawlspace under the house were a couple dozen 3" concrete pavers, each supporting a house jack, each supporting a strategic place on the subfloor, keeping the house level and sturdy. The interior walls had no drywall or plaster, but 1/2"X6" boards as wall covering. Thomas had removed all of this from the exterior walls, insulated them with fiberglass insulation, replaced the boards, and painted it all. While the wall boards were off, he had upgraded the wiring and plumbing. He had insulated the ceiling. Added a window-unit air conditioner. (the place was heated by a gas floor furnace) He said that very little money was spent, relatively; it was mostly just elbow grease. I admired him for his initiative.
A couple of his coworkers at the metal yard had some interesting vehicles, also. One was an Allstate car, a rebranded Kaiser Henry J, sold by Sears for only two years, 1952 and 1953. The other was  a 1950-something Checker Marathon, the old NYC taxi type thing, only his was a kind of British-racing-green color, also in fine condition.
I lost track of Thomas when I moved away from Bessemer, and don’t even know if he is still around, as he would be close to 70 by now. I know that his little house is not; I was in Bessemer a few years ago, and thought to just check on it, and drove by, but his old little neighborhood is all garden homes now. Shame.

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