In eleventh grade, I got to take auto mechanics. Somewhere I found a 1952 Studebaker Commander for twenty dollars and Dad actually let me buy it. It ran, but often put out white smoke from the tailpipe. Someone told me that if the smoke turned blue, it meant the car needed a ring job, a project far too advanced for our class. The white smoke was something with which we could live.
Oh, how I loved my Studie. I knew it had a Mallory ignition. I didn’t know what that was, but knew it was something advanced, like a transistor radio, which didn’t have to warm up but came on right away. I also was proud that Studebaker was the first car make to use safety glass, for whatever that was worth. I thought I was driving the coolest thing around. It was essentially the same car Dad had bought in Germany. Maybe that was why he let me buy it.
I’d fill up the Studie with gas at the Fitz service station, where the price was around thirty-three cents a gallon, about the same as a pack of cigarettes. But the car used oil like crazy and I had to add oil almost every other fill up. I made sure not to mention that to Dad, as I knew he’d give me a hard time for buying such a lemon. I knew by then that the white smoke was related to using too much oil. Later, Mom and Dad told me they knew about my sneaking oil into the car but thought it too funny to give me a hard time about it.
Somewhere I saw an ad for the same 1952 Studebaker Commander, but without an engine, for twenty-five dollars. Dad agreed to buy it as a parts car for the Studie that did run, but it was galling to both of us to pay more for a car without an engine than for a car with an engine. Dad tried to get the price down but the seller would not budge.
“Well,” Dad said finally, “it’s like paying twenty-two fifty for each car. That’s not too bad.”
We parked the Studie that ran in front of our apartment on the Fitz army base and the parts car in the field behind our backyard. I’m surprised we didn’t get an order to remove it from some officious MPs, but they never hassled us. Even before I began the auto mechanics class, Dad and Tom and I replaced the windshield and a fender from the parts Studie.
One night I was driving the Studie around Fitz by myself, violating one of Dad’s cardinal rules: “And don’t think you have to go somewhere, just because that car’s sitting out there!” I was listening to KIMN and the Ventures’ Walk, Don’t Run by came on. What a hot song! What a beat and melody! I couldn’t keep still. I was bouncing around, my foot bouncing on the gas pedal, and I began to accelerate like crazy right near the main hospital building. An MP spotted me but for some reason let me off with a warning.
One of our projects in auto mechanics was to bleed the brakes. I was teamed with Don Baird of “Now, you come back here, Don Baird!” fame. That’s what Mrs. Hutchinson, our Latin teacher, yelled at him when he just up and walked out of class one day. He had the potential for becoming a serious juvenile delinquent and that story traveled immediately from our class to the entire school. Don must have heard a million taunts of, “Now, you come back here, Don Baird!” I said it all the time at home but never to his face. He was a tough guy, and I was chicken.
Don was handsome and, unlike most tough guys, friendly. He never hassled me. Having been assigned to be my partner for the auto mechanics project, he treated me friendly, cracking jokes all the time. He had thick blonde hair that he combed into a ducktail with perfect rolls on the front, curling down toward the center——more Elvis than Elvis. After we finished the brake job on the Studie, he suggested we take the next day off and test out the Studie by going to the Denver Zoo. What a great idea! I would be with Don Baird, which would, I thought, make me cool like him. We went to school the next day but not to classes. Don and I met at the back lot near the auto mechanics area, where we kept the cars on which we were working. But we never made it to the zoo.
As I discovered after getting a few blocks away from school, we had messed up the bleeding of the brakes and the entire system was full of air. I had to pump the brake pedal several times for each stop sign or red light. That wasn’t too bad because I could see in advance the stop signs and lights that were already yellow or red. But if a light turned yellow suddenly, I had to pump the brakes really fast to bring the car to a stop in time. Just after we crossed the city line from Aurora into Denver, I was approaching an intersection and the light turned yellow. I pumped furiously, but the car did nothing and I sailed through the now-red light. The instant we went through the light, I saw a police car stopped in traffic going the other way. Within seconds, the officer was behind us with his red light on. The Studie had finally slowed down, and I was able to pull over with a minimum of braking.
There was no question of mercy, of being let off with a warning. We were two high school-age kids, obviously ditching school, who had blown a red light, no possible argument that there wasn’t time to stop. As the big, unemotional cop wrote the ticket and told me of the accident I might have caused, I knew it would do no good to say, “But officer, the brakes aren’t working right, and I was pumping them as fast as I could.”
The fine was huge, over $100, and there was no way I could hide it from my parents. I got the usual “What the hell were you thinking, boy?” from Dad and “Where have we failed you?” from Mom. I was grounded for months. That was also it for the Studie. They let me keep it at school so I could finish the auto mechanics course, and then it and the replacement car vanished.