Wednesday, May 11, 2011
I walk at twilight through the neighborhood, past the long low houses and the tall palm trees. I make a right and the route takes me briefly past a small section of the busy highway, and I turn the corner at a nondescript electronics repair shop.
The building clearly once housed a gasoline station. It has the architectural lines of the postwar Texaco station designed by Walter Dorwin Teague. There are three doorways which once denoted service bays, and a slightly asymmetrical canopy on a mildly diagonal bias. There are four patches in the island where the gas pumps once stood.
Around the corner on the same property is a modest bungalow. It's very compact, two bedrooms at the most, and has been boarded over in the same manner as the Texaco. There is no sign of life at either of the buildings except in my memory.
I squint, and the palm trees disappear. I am in the little town of Byron, Michigan. Named for Lord Byron, few are aware of that fact outside of my Grandfather, the retired educator, who lives on a modest farm outside of town. His next door neighbor is the daughter of the local mechanic, John, who owns the Texaco station in town. He and my Grandfather are good friends. It is through this social interaction that I often found myself spending the Saturday afternoons of my childhood at the Texaco.
John returned from the war and bought a piece of land. The Texaco station, complete with two service bays, was constructed in 1946. Around the corner on an adjoining parcel he built a small house. It is simple and functional, like the Texaco, and conveniently trimmed in the same colors as the station, with a colorful flower garden to serve as a visual barrier. It's right out of "Umbrellas of Cherbourg", save the accents and Catherine Deneuve. He and his wife Majel raised their children in the house, and John walked fifty feet to work each day. The knowledge of this arrangement no doubt caused many a dinnertime to be interrupted for John, as a dead battery or a car in a ditch intervened. John would put on his coat and boots and off he would go into the night/rain/hail/snow. Such is the life of a mechanic and friend in a small town.
I seem to have been about seven or eight when we started hanging out there. Dad would ask if I wanted to go "to the farm", and off we would trundle toward Byron. Inevitably, we ended up in the Texaco station, where we were surrounded by a varying cast of the townsmen. They would come to get a tire fixed, a new battery, make a service appointment, or just get together with the guys and talk about machinery. It was the 1960's equivalent of the "man cave", or perhaps the men 's version of the beauty parlor. It was guys, gathering to discuss guy things. Most of my uncles were cast members, although some were less frequent visitors than others. Cars, farm combines, boats, motorcycles, and most of all, trucks- all forms of machinery were discussed and debated. And of course, cars to be played with- admired, repaired, tuned and tinkered with.
Looking to supplement his income, John the Entrepreneur tried many things. Once he invented a pipe expanding tool and had several hundred examples made. The clever tool filled up a giant wire display basket in the corner for years. Not a believer in obsolescence, he kept the inventory until it sold. John did not recognize expiration dates, it seemed. He acquired an International Truck franchise, which added a translucent backlit iH sign to the corner of the building. His contractual requirement was to sell one truck annually, and he would lobby his prospects until an order was procured. Apparently he was not one to stock inventory, either.
To fulfill the requirement for 1970, he ordered a heavy duty International Harvester chassis, for which my uncle Rick and he made a custom Wrecker bed. The whole thing was created on site in the Texaco service bay, and proudly bore a brass plaque bearing both of their names and the year 1970. the completed wrecker went on to serve both John and the little town for the next twenty five years. It is almost certainly still in service somewhere.
It was also that year that he took on Scorpion Snowmobiles, a cumbersome red metal-flake beast that my father bought out of loyalty knowing clearly that our family's Arctic Cats were vastly superior sleds. We tended to pawn the Scorpion off on my brother- I for one wouldn't be seen astride it- the Kawasaki-powered sleek black Arctic Cat Panther was my preferred mount. Scorpion politely went out of business before causing any irreparable family harm. We were secretly relieved-loyalty only goes so far where machinery is involved.
By now Father and I were seriously involved in Classic Cars and John was Dad's trusted mechanic and friend. Buicks, Chryslers, de Sotos, Packards, Dad's quirky Corvair ragtop, my Emerald Green Surfer-baby Lincoln Cabriolet and our prized Cord 812. He and Dad would spend happy days in the garage, and they kept the fleet humming. There is no substitute for a good mechanic.
John sold his business in the mid nineties after his energy and his acuity both decreased. I suspect it was very painful for him to have his talented hands diminish. I drove by the location once a few years later, it has morphed into an unrecognizable party store. I never returned. It's not random that dad started to sell off cars shortly after John retired from maintaining them. By now I had my own Classics to tinker with, first in Milwaukee and then in California. And while I am not the mechanic that John was, I was taught good diagnostic skills and an understanding of the machine that is the automobile.
I've played with cars all over the country, and it has taken me to places I never dreamed of. I drove a Duesenberg across the winner's ramp at Pebble Beach in tribute to a dear friend on a day I shall remember all my life. But it all came to life in a Texaco station owned by a man with an eye for machinery. A good friend and a good neighbor in a tiny farming town in southeastern lower Michigan. I remember him fondly as I walk past the converted Texaco station in Palm Springs. It is one of my favorite sights on my evening walk.