Police sirens roar through a warm summer night in rural Joplin, Missouri. Speeding after a 1936 hot rod, the first “Hemi” powered Joplin police car chases after a young man in a black ford. Racing through the country roads, the man’s heart beats fast. The cops gain ground on every straight, but the miscreant’s skill keeps the blazing sirens at bay with every corner, gaining a little ground with each turn. Racing towards the state border, Jay knows he can’t get away like this. He has to do something before the rolling hills and dirt-road corners end. So he finds a copse at the bottom of a hill. The black Ford swerves off the road. The lights go dark; the engine noise stops. An instant of darkness. Suddenly, the police lights bursts over the hillcrest, whirring past the hidden sedan. The cruiser reaches the state border with a full blockade waiting to stop the mysterious car. No one was caught that night. It would be at least twenty years before the authorities ever find out what really happened.
My grandfather, Jay, still tells this story. He still has the car. The black paint still fades each year, but the stories stay fresh. Youthful energy pours back into him as he recalls the countless stories, touches the old fenders, kicks the tires or turns the key. The smiles and grins smooth the wrinkles on his face, lifting heavy years off his shoulders. The black shell breathes life into him, as much as his hands work life into it. It is a part of him, whether belligerently making its way onto the driveway for a wash or wasting away under a dusty sheet in a garage.
For years the big sedan wasted away under a dusty sheet. Everyone knows a story, has a friend or relative with a four-wheeled storage closet falling apart in the garage. Growing up, my grandpa Jay was that person. I remember looking at the car when I was 5. The ’36 loomed over my tiny body, a mysterious object buried under dust, sheets, old magazines, clothes, cushions, spare parts and tools in the garage.
I wasn’t old enough to understand the big black car. Humpback Fords are rare but not really sought after. They aren’t the best-looking cars either. It just looked like some prohibition-era gangsters had stashed their car in grandpa’s garage. Sometimes I would dream about Al Capone and his band of gangsters showing up at their house, poking around and looking for their ride in black suits and cool hats. I could imagine them jumping into the old car, brandishing the stereotypical Tommy gun while balancing on the huge running boards.
Despite my fantasies, I didn’t understand the faint smile Jay got from looking at it. I didn’t understand why he kept the rusting old thing around.
In the late 1950s, Jay did two things. He enlisted in the air force as an aircraft mechanic and he rebuilt the ’36.
The lithe, tall man throws a chain over a big oak tree branch. Dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, he tugs the chain once or twice, putting as much load on it as he can. The branch holds. Jay smiles and walks away from the tree, climbing into his big black sedan. He turns the key and the car springs to life. The big black beast rumbles into place beneath the tree and Jay steps out, cutting the engine for the last time. The man walks around behind the car, opening the trunk. His muscular arm reaches into the cavernous trunk, using one hand to remove a massive, heavy toolkit from the storage space. My grandfather sets a tarp next to a massive crate on the ground, lays out his tools beneath the tree and sets to work.
First, he removes the big double hinged hood from the car, exposing the eighty horsepower flathead V8 underneath, sitting just below the massive dangling chain. The engine and supporting pieces look naked under the late summer sun. Soon, Jay has the entire engine detached from the car. Now the massive, heavy block rests only on 4 engine brackets, one on each corner. My grandfather’s sweat beads down, splashing onto the cold metal. Jay reaches up and grabs the chain, pulling it down to the engine. He wraps the chain around the engine block and tugs on it a few times. He smiles again and walks to the other side of the tree.
A massive heave. Jay grunts and sweats, pulling on the heavy chain, slowly pulling it off the four mounts. The heavy engine sways back and forth as gravity takes hold. The metal block swings, coming to rest directly beneath the oak branch. He lowers the chain slowly, bringing the weighty object to the ground.
Jay breathes sigh of relief and turns his attention back to his tools. He grabs a crowbar and pries open the big crate, revealing a refurbished one hundred horsepower flathead V8 (A fast engine for the time). He wastes little time, grabbing the chain again and securing the new engine. Up it goes into the air, swinging back and forth precariously but soon it finds its way into the engine bay.
That year, he replaced more than just the engine. He replaced the steering wheel, the wheels and transmission. But when he got to the brakes, his call to service came. That winter, Jay McKinley went off to the US air force, leaving his parents with an unfinished car and a box full of parts. Jay called his friend Barry as winter set in. Barry set his back against the cold ground and replaced the entire braking system for his friend.
Who is Barry? Back in the 1950s, Jay and Barry terrorized the Midwestern countryside with their hot rod road racers. They rebuilt the cars together. Their cars, fast. Their races, illegal. Their bond, absolute.
Forty years would pass before Jay paid Barry back for his friendship. I was 10 years old and my grandma had just passed away. Jay was at a crossroad in his life, downsizing back into a bachelor’s life. Moving into a smaller home, he no longer had room to store the massive metal machine but he couldn’t bring himself to sell the car. Instead, he gave it away. To whom? His old friend, Barry.
This could have been the end, but the car came back. The car returned to Jay in 2010. He moved again and bought the car back from Barry. I, his now 20-year-old grandson, convinced him to start working on it again. So, we opened the beautiful side-hinged hood, peering into the engine compartment together. The scene was horrifying. A botched restoration job had left mechanical failures everywhere, the windshield wiper motor missing, the upholstery attached strangely, and the starter motor sometimes wouldn’t turn over.
I remember the first time he started the engine for me. On a brisk November morning, Barry puts the car on a big trailer and drives it to Saint Louis. The big car hadn’t been started for at least a year, sitting in a barn instead, waiting for the next restoration attempt. So my grandfather and I haul it into the garage and look at it. He stands next to me, dressed in faded old blue jeans, ratty white tennis shoes, an old t shirt and a leather jacket with a short crew cut atop his wrinkled face.
“Will it start?” I ask him.
“Can we try it?”
“Sure.” He replies simply.
He gets into the cabin, adjusts a few old-fashioned levers and turns the key. A monstrous sound fills the air and fire briefly bursts from the carburetor as the big flathead V8 starts. The sound oscillates back and forth from a deep rumble to a throaty bellow as Jay adjusts the choke and throttle, a smile across his old face.
That smile gave me understanding. That car is a part of my grandfather. It signifies his life’s journey, from small town terror to big city elder. It signifies the history between Jay and Barry. One day, I hope it signifies the history between Jay and me.
Soon, we are restoring it again one part at a time. I treasure every moment I can spend with the shaky handed old man. Every part, every panel on the car sings to him as he teaches me what they do, even when I screw up.
My back is slammed against the cold concrete as my face stares up at a several ton metal car threatening to crush my face. In my hands I hold a hammer and an old flathead screwdriver. Gently I press the screwdriver blade against rust and grime settled on the old fuel tank. TAP! TAP! The hammer sings out as I hit the handle of the screwdriver, chipping off forty years of rust and wear.
“Why are we doing this again?” I ask my grandfather, standing a few feet from me.
“We need to find the plug and let the old gas out. It’s bad and won’t run well.”
I stare warily at the big metal tank of gasoline above my face, praying the jacks keep holding the car up.
“Right. I knew that.” I lie, pretending I know enough about what’s going on, that I’m not mostly worried about the really heavy car above my face.
TAP! TAP! I hit the fuel tank more gingerly this time, scraping off some more grime. I start to see shiny silver metal beneath the gunk. Reinvigorated, I press on, scraping more and more crap off the tank, soon leaving just a shiny metal surface beneath.
TAP! THUD! A fountain of gasoline spurts out of the car, inches from my face. I put a hole in the rusty old tank!
“Jay, we have a problem,” I tell him, worriedly watching the bad fuel spill onto the slick new concrete.
“I think I put a hole in the tank.”
He just smiles and hands me a bucket. I rush to put the container under the fuel tank.
“It’ll be okay.” He tells me as I wriggle out from under the car.
The tank soon drained. Though not how we originally planned.
Two years later I live four hours away from home. I miss the late night talks with my grandfather about car culture, the weekly trips to the backyard garage. I miss sitting in the cars big bench seats and asking Jay stories about the past. Even today, I’ll sit in amazement, listening to his stories about chasing ghost lights in the car, about old girlfriends, and yes, about outrunning the cops. In a few days I am returning home and look forward to running a new fuel line through the car. Hopefully we can make it drivable again soon and I can see that smile every time he gets in it.