Do you remember playing in an old car? Surely every kid had a time sitting in a Junker pretending in their own little world. One time I remember was when I was preschool or just starting in grade school. My special place was just across the street. I still appreciate it for what it meant as I developed my imagination. I think the dealership and garage was part of what was called Britton-Whitt Motors. I’m really not sure because all of that is pretty fuzzy in my memories because I was only six or seven years old at the time. Later, it was bought out by Bill Keeton, my Sunday school teacher, and renamed Keeton Motors. It was the town’s only Ford dealership. The Chevrolet dealer was located on Main Cross Street and the Pontiac dealer was on the Mayo Trail, next to the Flat Top Inn. Automotive dealers like most businesses of the day used the back-lots for the storage of cars recently traded in, or that were beyond repair. This meant that there were some older models, as well as pieces and parts that constituted a junk yard of sorts. It was a necessary ‘bone yard’ that dealerships used to keep wrecks and older cards for parts to be later cannibalized and used by their service departments.
During these formative years I was busy growing up. I therefore naturally explored my immediate neighborhood to see what I could see. I lived just across the street from this wonderland of oily and dirty contraptions. The place was the cause of my having to be forced to bathe earlier in the week and more often than it otherwise may have been. To me, it was a precursor to theme parks, a term never used at that time. Regardless, my friends and I would romp through the derelict wrecks being careful not to get cut, scratched, or crushed. I had already learned that such a thing could bring the dreaded tetanus shots.
I remember the morning that I ran out of my house slamming the screen door behind me. I’d always hear the command from one of the adults, “Don’t slam the door!” Too late! I thought as I rushed to find something to do. That’s when I discovered a young boy’s dream playground. Just there, in the bone yard, near the curb on Franklin, the remains of an old Kaiser-Frazier sat in the muck. It had no tires and had rusted fenders and faded paint, not to mention an accumulation of thick dirt. A quick test proved that the doors would still swing open to allow a chap entrance to its damp interior should he have a mind to do such a thing. I did.
This weathered gem may have sat there for months, or even years, but it was a fresh discovery for me. As I dug through the junk inside the cab I found a load of car parts. There was a discarded air filter, lots of empty cardboard boxes that had once contained Champion Spark plugs, and some discarded oily rags. There may have been a muffler or two, and perhaps a carburetor. I wouldn’t have known what they were. I did find a little part that seemed to have a metal button to push and make a satisfying clicking sound. It was very difficult to do with my hands. When I finally figured out it was a dimmer switch for high and low beam headlights, I understood that the foot would have found the job of pushing the button much easier. I’m sure there’s a physics lesson in there somewhere.
I remember a bunch of loose auto parts were laying inside so I carefully peeked in the boxes, and under mats and some old dirty rags to make some exciting finds. Once I found a light dimmer that fit on the floorboard underneath the pedals. It was stiff to make click, but it was supposed to be done with one’s foot, after all. Still, I struggled to make it function. Of course, it wasn’t hooked up to anything and the old Junker didn’t have a battery either. I also remember that back in the day the starter button was often in the floor. One had to touch the gas at the same time they held down the button. Other cars had a starter button on the dash board. It would be only the newest cars that would have a key ignition that would start the engine.
My wife, Suzie, told me that when she was a tiny girl she’d climb up on the rounded fender behind the protruding headlight and pretend to ride it like a horse. Cowgirls were the ‘in’ thing in those days, so she would wear her little fringed skirt and hat. That little girl was packing a six-shooter, too. She was the Dale Evans of her neighborhood.
The wool seat in the old broken down car was scratchy and warm to sit on, but dust would fill the air when you banged on it with your fists. Wanting to breathe just then, I decided to stop punching the seats. The neat thing was that the old jalopy still had a dashboard that was well-appointed with gauges, each with a little needle that pointed to a number or letter. I was too young to know their purpose, but they reminded me of the ones I’d seen in the movies of the airplanes that bombed Berlin, a mean place somewhere in Germany. They were our enemy, you know, and we were whipping them. That was pretty exciting for a young boy.
I took the steering wheel in hand and imagined my bomber was flying amongst the flak going off all around me. I would grab the shift but it would not budge. No matter, it had already sent the bombs out the door below to destroy yet another tank factory. Suddenly a bullet whizzed by my ear, breaking the window and allowing in the cold air. It was winter, the altitude high, and the plane had no heater. Pulling on my oxygen mask, I took the wheel and turned for home. My load had been dropped. Just ahead were some enemy fighters coming in on the attack! I called out through my intercom to my gunners “Bandits at eleven o’clock!” Rata-tat-tat, rata-tat-tat. My crew was hard at work defending our shell of a craft, then one of them was hit. It was Daren, the tail gunner. Oh, how we needed him, but now the top and belly gunners would have to do the job.
Just below me I could see Bob, my pretend nose gunner, loading yet another belt of ammunition into his sixty caliber machine guns. I called out to my radio man and told him to get some escorts here quickly before we’d have to parachute and perhaps become prisoners of war. Even before he could call we saw the American flyers bursting high out of the clouds to swoop down on the swastika blazoned fighters. We’d make it home this time, but who knows about tomorrow? I could see the channel just ahead. Some rest, repairs and a good meal and we’d be back.
This little shell of a Kaiser-Frazier fought many a battle, but was replaced one day with a Studebaker. Looking at this little car I felt it would never take the place of my wonderful bomber, but the light came on in my head when I surveyed a trunk that looked much the same as the hood. This will make a perfect tank, thought I as I pulled on the driver’s side door.
Later, a chain link fence went up and many of the junk cars were removed. My friends and I found new places to play along the river banks and up on the hills. Sometimes we dug out redoubts (forts) complete with rooms with roofs of timbers or brush. Boys are a special kind of folk, bent to play war and dream big dreams. Some have grown up to fulfill those wishes and fallen prey to the power that follows. When we think of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, or even MacArthur, or Patton, in some ways they romanticized war and strutted in their victories. There was a kind of glory in those battles, but often lives were wasted in the name of such ideas.
Just as Hollywood brought us World War II in black and white, and later in full-blazing color, we saw the glory but missed a good part of the misery. We didn’t often see the hopes of men dashed by the bullet that didn’t miss. The wives sat at home waiting for the wire that would tell her that life had changed. Babies would cry never to feel the comfort of a father’s strong embrace. War isn’t about a junk car that lifts us high over the enemy, or a ‘pillbox’ fort to protect the homeland. Many a young man lived to find out the ugly truth of a prison camp, a friend blown in half, another family lost, and the brutality of friend and foe in battle.
For those who lived through it, my salute. For those who died, my gratefulness for their service. Most of those men and women are now in their nineties. Today, I’m thinking that little boys should play safely and remember those who made it possible to dream. For wives left alone, again my gratitude and sympathy, and a promise to help where I can. On these fields of war there is always waste, but at the same time there is honor. For the victims of this new kind of war there is still waste but the enemy has no honor. A difference has arisen.
Yes, junkyards have their purpose, whether for parts, recycling, or maybe the foundation needed to restore a favorite antique car. Many farms had their own spots for storing old family vehicles, rusty cultivators and rakes, and the old tractors that once pulled them. A new generation of kids, boys and girls, will find some happy times as they inspect and finally convert the scrap pile into a fort, a play kitchen, or maybe a bomber. I wish them a safe return with a mission accomplished. mcoburn