Hot Rod Richard came a-roaring around the bend
In a souped-up streeter with a sleeked rear end.
Into the straightaway, around a curve again.
He sure does move that mess of tin.
Hot Rod Richard, his car decked and stripped-down,
Going along the road really covering ground.
Fastest wheel-riding cat in all rural Pottstown,
Riding with a loud glass pipe sound.
He is the hot rodder the coolest girls all chase,
For this cat wins in every dragging flat race.
As the hot rodding king, Richard is no disgrace;
He holds the hand with every ace
Summer brought a new season of drag races for Richard Wilson and me. We were doing tracks in Perkasie and Lancaster, not to mention the streets of Pottstown, but we also were taking in custom auto shows. There were two places I remember going more than others, probably because one had a giant bowling pen outside and the other had a giant cow. The bowling pin was at a bowling alley in Stowe and the show was in the parking lot. The giant cow was in front of a large building along Route 30 as you get up around Paradise, Pennsylvania. The cow place had something to do with farming and I believe held weekly cattle auctions.
I don’t know if you have ever been to a cattle auction. My grandfather took me to an auction ring a few times when I was a young boy. It was just off of Whitford Road. You sat above this pit in a semi-circle, sort of like a miniature bullring. A door would open on one side and men with canes would force a cow or bull into the ring. The auctioneer sat in a booth on the other side of the pit. He would call the bids as farmers seated around the pit would try to buy the animal. They used hand singles, which made it hard to catch who was bidding at any given time.
This place near Paradise wasn’t auctioning anything when Richard and I were there. This large building had a display floor full of customized cars that day. I think Richard had two compartments in his brain that summer, one for girls and one for cars. Cars may have been the bigger.
He still had a while to go before he could get his own driver’s license, not because of his age; he was old enough. His parents wouldn’t give the approval. That didn’t stop him buying a car.
Pebbles pinged against my bedroom window early one morning and looking out there was Richard standing in the back drive. He motioned for me to come down. I hurriedly dressed and met him out back. He asked if I could get my dad’s pickup.
My dad had an old Dodge pickup at the time. It was red with black fenders (pictured left). He was on the road and mom wouldn’t drive it, so no one minded if I did. So after picking up Tommy, the three of us drove out to a comunity somewhere north of Pottsgrove. Pottsgrove and Stowe were two communities to the west side of Pottstown.
There was a 1949 Plymouth Coupe sitting in the front yard of a small, dilapidated house.
A man came out to meet us. He was old, lean and bearded. He resembled the old man with the shovel in “Home Alone”. Roberts Blossom (pictured right) was that actor and he was also in the horror flick, “Stephen King’s Christine”. I think he may have played the character that sold the kid the haunted car.
Hmmm! Bad omen.
Richard and the old guy walked around the car several times talking in low voices.
It didn’t look like much. It wasn’t even one color. Someone had done some work on the body and left it with three different painted patches and some primer gray. It did have four wheels with four inflated tires, I will say that for it; although much couldn’t be said for the tread or lack thereof. The wear on the interior wasn’t too bad.
It wouldn’t start.
Richard paid the man $40 cash for it. I felt the guy should have paid us $40 to haul it off his lawn.
Richard had tossed a thick chain in the truck bed and he got it out now. He hooked the front end of the Plymouth to the back bumper of the Pickup. Tommy and I got in the pickup and Rich got in the Plymouth. I towed him a few miles down some back road, peering behind occasionally in the rearview mirror. As we went a ways I noticed a fog developing around the back end of the Plymouth. The further we drove, the thicker it got. Sticking my hand out the window, I singled him to stop. I pulled onto the shoulder.
Tommy and I got out and walked back to Rich. The Plymouth now stood hidden in a pillar of smoke. Rich forgot to release the emergency brake and we burned out that hand brake towing the thing. Well, at least we knew one thing on the car worked; not so much anymore, though.
(Pictured left is what the Plymouth should have looked like in perfect condition.)
Richard released the hand brake, not that it mattered much anymore and I towed the car to the foot of his driveway. We started the pull up that steep hill. Halfway up the Plymouth cut loose and Rich stopped just short of the highway.
“Chain musta broke,” said Tommy.
We got out of the truck. That Plymouth was a heavy car, but it didn’t snap the chain. Oh no, it simply pulled the rear bumper off the truck. Oh, yeah, dad’s gonna love this.
We tossed the bumper into the truck bed and hitched the chain to the frame. This time we got the beast up the hill and into the Wilson’s parking area. We unhitched and managed to push it into the garage. Rich and I practically lived in that garage for the next few months. I don’t doubt Richard slept in there sometimes.
I give Richard a lot of credit. He did know his mechanics. He tore that engine apart and put it back together. In the meantime, we visited a lot of Chester County junkyards and some in Montgomery scavenging parts. Everything that worked on the old engine we washed in a bucket and kept; everything else we scrounged up somewhere. He actually got it to start after a few weeks. We backed it out of the garage and drove it across the field next to his house, bouncing over the ruts, cutting tight circles around the orchard trees and scaring up rabbits and squirrels right and left.
Richard had an off-and-on motley crew helping him. His brother Tommy occasionally, but he did little more than lean on the workbench and eat anything we brought to snack on during the day, often heckling his brother through a mouthful of foodstuffs. Rich didn’t call on me to do much except run back and forth fetching tools or lending a hand lifting heavy objects. Otherwise my job was to keep out of the way. Jim Whitlach came by somethings and he did some minor repairs, though he did more cursing and complaining than actual work. Tom Frame was the real helper. He really knew mechanics and would jump right in on any tricky problem. It was Tom Frame and Richard more than anyone else that got that car running again. (Pictured Right with the Plymouth from l. to r. Me, Tom Frame and Jim Whitlach.)
Rich bought another transmission for the car at a junk dealer. We used my dad’s pickup to retrieve it. We didn’t bust anything this time. It wasn’t a Plymouth transmission. Rich got it because it was supposed to be better for dragging. Tom Frame had his hands full helping on this one. He had to retrofit the transmission to the Plymouth, which took some doing, but he did it.
When Richard was satisfied we had all the mechanical bugs worked out, he began improving the body. He took off the chrome and smoothed down the metal, removed the trunk lock and ran a cable like we did in the Ford and put in lowering blocks. He primed the whole car to a uniform gray. He left most of it just primer, but he painted the front end to look like flames were shooting back across the fenders and hood. He didn’t think to get heat resistant paint. After we ran it around his field a few times the paint cracked, bubbled and peeled.
And of course it had red wheels with no caps.
Richard was having a rivalry with a kid at school named Bob (pictured left). Bob was the type of hood Richard pretended to be. He was as big as Rich, maybe a bit heavier. They had gotten into words over a girl (isn’t it always). I am pretty sure it was not Lenore. The war didn’t heat up until Rich had his license, so Lenore was out of the picture by then. Rich used up girls rather quickly, although Lenore stuck with him longer than most. I think the breakup was in the fall, so this was most certainly over some new girl he was interested in.
Bob came around a couple times with his little posse (although we didn’t use that term back then). They always stood by the garage door and hurled a bunch of insults aimed at the car. It was a piece of junk, it’d never run, it was a dog, Richard didn’t know anything about cars, etc.
It nearly came to blows right there in the garage one day, but Bob pulled back and left before we got into it. He did challenge Richard to a race if he ever got the thing to work. They went at each other for months, but the race never came off. I think Richard just lost interest in that particular girl and Bob went away feeling victorious.
This was all good for me. I got a short story out of this little dustup called “Moon Was Cloudy”. My story didn’t end because of competitor disinterest as it did in real life. No, in my tale they not only did do the challenge race, they ended up in a knife fight at the end. I was still writing my Evan Hunter Jungle Kids and Blackboard Jungle influenced stuff along with my horror tales.
Yes, Richard’s automobile adventures proved a literary treasure trove. Besides the short story, I also wrote a novel based on Richard’s getting that Plymouth, but I wrote in as a comedy with only the car coming to a bad end, not any of the characters. In other words, like reality, no knife fight, no blood, no deaths.The novel was Forty-Dollar Car.
When Richard finally got his driver’s license he couldn’t wait to show off his car. He picked me up for school instead of the other way around.
Actually, I seldom drove to school because at this point I only lived a quarter mile away. I still had a bus stop, but it wasn’t at the top of our lane any more. It was across from the entrance of Cadmus Road. Cadmus Road intersected Route 100 an eighth of a mile south of my house. If I took the school bus I would walk an eighth of a mile to ride another eighth of a mile. How dumb is that? I generally just walked to school my final year by cutting straight across Bishop’s field. Before they hadn’t built the new high school and we still went to NORCO I would have picked Richard up and doive us the five miles.
So that morning, the official launching of the rebuilt Plymouth, we drove up the winding drive to the school parking lot. As we passed one corner of the building Richard spied three girls walking toward it. He blew his horn to attract their attention. He then hit his brake hard and immediately stomped back down on the throttle to make his tires squeal. His attempt to impress the girls by laying rubber might have worked except for something he forgot. All the time we worked on the car he had the hood removed and leaning against a side of the garage. It made for more room when fiddling with the engine. He was so anxious to show off his car once he got his license we simply dropped the hood back in place. He didn’t want to take the time to fasten the bolts.
So, when Richard hit his brakes hard his Plymouth stopped, but his hood didn’t. When he stomped the gas the hood was suspended midair directly in front of the car. He had the distinction of a head on collision with himself.
He impressed those girls, but not the way he intended. The loud crash attracted the attention of every other kid in earshot, too. They were all looking over to see what happened and having a good laugh.
Richard and I spend days searching wrecking yards for a replacement hood. He finally took one off an old Ford. It fit width wise, but was too long for the Plymouth. He bolted it on anyway, because what else could he do? It gave his car a nice overbite-look.
That summer they elected me President of Methodist Youth Fellowship at Bethel. I took my office seriously as an opportunity. The problem was I wasn’t a True Believer. I was a skeptic. I never had formed a firm foundation of faith. I had went to Sunday school as a child because my parents made me. I was at Bethel’s MYF because it was more fun than Sunday school or church service and it gave me an hour or so alone on Sunday mornings to pursue my carnal pleasures.
Ingraining Scriptural knowledge, then, was not the opportunity I saw. I took it upon myself to increase attendance at MYF. I succeeded.
Mr. and Mrs. Keene were the advisors for MYF. They were very nice people. I remember when they had us all to their place for a Halloween hayride and cookout. The cookout was hot dogs on a stick over an open fire, but they are good cooked that way. They had a son, Lane Keene (pictured left). He was a great guy. He had been President before me, but he was two years older and had graduated and left MYF for college.
Lane had suffered a tragic accident the year before. He was a hunter. He had gone up into the woods outside Pottstown to hunt with a bow and arrow. Somehow the string either broke or slipped the notch. The recoil when the tension was released send the string at him like a whip and it cut his one eyeball in half. He was out alone. He had to hike back to his car and drive himself several miles to the Pottstown hospital all the while holding his eyeball in place with one hand. Lane had a glass eye after that.
The Keene's were excited at how MYF grew that year. They never caught on to what I was doing. I had changed the meeting format from lectures to a discussion group. This was supposed to engross the teens more in Scripture by allowing the group to dissect the chapters we read each week. I told them I would play Devil’s Advocate, just to stir up the conversation. They did not catch my real purpose. I was ridiculing the Bible in the guise of leading a study of it.
Kids never heard this kind of hard questioning in a church. They came to join the arguments. It could get quite lively and that only drew more kids to the Sunday night meetings. I was an agnostic as a teen. I didn’t disbelieve in the possibility of God; I just questioned everything people said about Him. My skepticism would get even worse when I reached my twenties.
I was also learning through this experience that I could lead and manipulate people.
Let’s make an observation about diversity issues. Downingtown had seethed with prejudices underneath its small town peacefulness. Social convention had put Blacks in a separate classroom until fifth grade, sat them in the balcony at the movie theaters and forced them to live in separate enclaves. The greater population looked down on Italians and this ethnic group also lived in a separate section called Johnsontown. In fact, a number of the people around my home took a dim view of any Roman Catholic group. There was one Jewish family, my friend Stuart’s family, and their son was hassled by students and teachers alike. People seldom discussed sex and never mentioned Homosexuality, and friends like Ronald kept such desires secret.
We did not have these problems at NORCO or Owen J. or in this northern district of Chester County. Was it that we were more enlightened? No, it was because so few inhabitants fell into those categories. People may have accepted Italians without any bias as far as I saw, since I seldom saw any Italians. Most of us lived in small villages or farms scattered about the countryside. There weren’t any enclaves, just individual families. I don’t know if there were any Jews. There weren’t any racial problems because there was only one race. There was some whispering going about during my senior year because one new student in the Freshman class was half White and half Black. That was the extent of our Black population. There was still no mention of Homosexuality. I guess we didn’t have any. That last statement was tongue-in-cheek by the way. My French grade was going to make an amazing comeback in Twelfth Grade.
EXCERPT FROM "MOON WAS CLOUDY
Collected in Sins of the Fathers (1962)
Walking through the night air, he kept a hand in his right coat pocket. A fierce determination commanded his steps. He turned down the next block toward the center of Wilmillar. The courthouse clock was chiming eleven times on the west side of town.
His heart thumped in his chest echoing the striking clock. A small drop of perspiration rolled down his cheek. It paused at his chin as if confused where to go.
The clock struck and the drop splashed to the sidewalk.
Mike lived alone, adrift from his parents, in a small alley apartment just off the main street. The apartment was a room over the grocery store where he worked after school. The town was dark. There were no houses in this area, only stores and a couple of gas stations, all of which were now closed.
Eric was sweating so freely his skin was slick. The evaporating moisture turned the sweat to a chill. All the while the clock struck its countdown. At a booth on the corner he made a phone call. His soft voice slid through the narrow wire and curled around the middle ear of Mike. Eric told him to be outside in ten minutes by the fruit stand. Mike slammed the receiver down, walked out the door and down the steps to the street. “Why wait?” he muttered.
Mike stood in front of the fruit stand to the right of steps leading down to the sub-ground shop. Walking around the corner a block away came Eric. He saw Mike.
Amused, Mike watched him come until Eric stopped just short of him. They stared at each other.
The end of chiming brought a dead silence. Eric leaped at Mike, who stood ready for a charge. His arms encircled Eric’s waist, lifting the smaller boy off the ground with a bear hug.
“I’ll kill you!” Eric shouted.
Mike snorted. Was this all the guy had, this weak oath? “Yeah, right, punk.” Mike squeezed harder and laughed.
He didn’t notice Eric’s hand sunk deep in his right coat pocket. The hand came out and five inches of thin steel went into Mike.
The arms went limp. Mike dropped to the sidewalk. Eric watched his foe crawl on his stomach with the knife handle protruding as a long slash of blood trailed beneath him. Mike crawled to the curb, where his head dropped over and his body quivered. Everything became still.
Eric was silent for a second, and then laughed a sick, high chuckle, which turned to moans and his moans became noiseless tears. He looked at the dead boy halfway in the street. Eric felt weak. He had an upset stomach. He reached back and leaned on the wooden rail along the steps to the basement shop. His legs shook. He let his weight fall against the wood for support.