Boy meets girl, aaah, love at first sight! But what happens when a real flesh and blood girl steps in between the boy and his first car? Any of a million different things can happen, but what actually happens depends on the car, and the times. Orofino Wheels tells the stories of five different couples and their cars, each story set in a different time- the Roaring Twenties, the Depression Thirties, the Postwar Forties, the Rock-and-Roll fifties, and the Vietnam Sixties – and each with a car of the times. The cars evolve, the times change, but true love is timeless.
The first time he saw her, she was in the way. He had to edge around her, making sure he wouldn’t touch her somewhere he shouldn’t, and then he had to find what he was after in her shadow. But, she smelled good. He would never forget that smell. Somehow, she was the only one that ever smelled that way. When he asked his dad about it, he just said, “Boys will be boys, it just happens.”
In the following few days, whenever he brought up her name, his friends made fun of her. No style, they said. Too big, not fast, and never would be. It wasn’t always that way. He looked it up in the old newspaper in the library. The day she arrived on the train from Spokane, she drew a crowd at the station. When she first went down Main Street, at least a dozen men followed her. A few said it was just because she was black, but most thought she was the best thing that ever hit town.
Bjorn Bergstrom, everyone called him BB, was sixteen that summer of 1926. His father, Sven, brought BB, and the rest of his family, to Orofino two years before. Sven came to manage sector three for the Camas Prairie Railroad. The company provided a house on the still unpaved corner of Fourth and Main, gave them passes to Lewiston, Kamiah, Weippe, and Grangeville, and expected Sven to grow the road’s lumber and grain shipping business. For BB, it all meant that he never knew a day he wasn’t around machines, usually with a wrench in his hands.
* * * * *
The next time he saw her, he was following his uncle Ollie, and pulling a battery charger behind him. “Make sure you disconnect that battery before you start charging it,” Ollie said. “No telling what might be draining it.”
BB and Ollie sat on the driver’s side running board waiting while the battery charged. “You know, son,” Ollie began, “Your grandma quit driving almost two years ago. Don’t know why. Maybe she just got too old. Maybe the car broke.”
“You think the car’s broke?”
“Maybe not broke. Maybe just sick. These old nail-head sixes have this funny rocker arm lube system. Works great when it’s clean, but will ruin the valves when it’s not. Around here, going up and down the mountains and all, you can easily burn the oil and turn her into a hayburner. Yeah, you gotta change the oil and clean the wicks every five-hundred miles or so.”
BB stared at his uncle.
“If you’re gonna drive this beast, you gotta learn how to do all the maintenance it needs. She’s not like today’s cars.”
“Gee, Uncle Ollie, Grandma gave it to me. I’ll take good care of it. I swear.”
BB took a rag out of his back pocket and started to brush the dust off of a fender.
“Let me tell you something, BB. If you go around in something that looks good, but doesn’t perform like it should, everybody will know you’re a fake, a con-man, or a show-off. That’s a bad reputation. Better your machine runs good, and you can fix anything that goes wrong. Then you get a reputation as a real man.”
“That’s what I want.”
“Well then, son, when you drive this old car, you better know exactly how she’s doing by how she feels, and how she sounds. Take your time. And, get it right.”
BB reached under the front seat, and pulled out the manual. Just reading the title on the cover made him smile. ‘1920 Buick Model K-Six-50 Seven Passenger Sedan.’ It was his, sick or not.
Ollie got the old Buick started, and nursed it the three blocks from Grandma Ingrid’s shed to the back of Sven’s covered side yard. BB and Ollie managed to get all four wheels off the ground by jacking her up, and then resting each axle on a Lodgepole Pine round. When they finished, Ollie brushed his hands together, and said, “There you go. It’s yours to get running right. Good luck.”
BB started by taking the wheels off, removing the inner tubes, and patching them so that they would reliably hold air. He put an emergency patch kit in the drawer under the rear seat. The manual showed twelve grease fittings. Ten were easy to find. BB searched for over an hour to find the other two. He gave a sigh of relief when he discovered the last one was a half inch from the log holding up a rear axle. It took the grease.
BB lay in the dust of the side yard, wiping the grease gun clean, when he heard a young voice behind him say, “Hi, BB.”
“Well hello, Dennis. How’s my favorite six-year-old neighbor kid?”
“You’re all dirty. Whatcha doin’?”
“I’m working on my car. I’m making it run right.”
Dennis lay down next to BB, and scooted under the Buick. “You doin’ somethin’ under here?”
“Yeah. I put grease in all the nipples. Can you see any?”
Dennis reached up and wiped the excess grease off of one of them. “Yeah,” he said. “This stuff is yucky.”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Wait ‘til I drain the oil,” BB said.
“Can I help?” “Nah. You’re too small. You can watch, though, if you promise to stay out of the way.”
BB slid a large pan under the crankcase, put a wrench on the drain plug, and slowly began turning. At first, nothing happened. After another turn, a few drops came out. Then, all at once, the plug dropped into the pan, and oil gushed out of the drain hole.
“Whee! Look at that,” Dennis cried.
BB snatched the rag out of his pocket, and wiped the oil off of his hand, arm and the wrench. The two boys lay under the car, waiting for the last drop of oil to dribble out of the crankcase, and looking at the underneath of the Buick. Dennis pointed to a bulge in the rear axle. “What’s this?” he asked.
“That’s called a differential. It makes sure the rear wheels roll right when you go around a corner. One has to roll faster than the other, you know.”
Dennis pointed to a long rod. “What’s this?”
“That’s the drive shaft. It sends the power from the front of the car to the back. It’s got U-Joints.”
Dennis pointed at the large metal cone near BB’s head. “What’s that?”
“That’s the transmission. It chooses what gear to be in. This car has four different ones.”
With that, Dennis scooted out from under the car and said, “Bye,” and ran off toward his house.
“Someday, he’ll understand and not get bored,” BB said to the last drop of oil plopping into the pan.
Next, BB tried to remove the valve cover without ruining the gasket. He failed. But he did manage to get all six wicks out of their sleeves, clean them with kerosene, and get them reassembled.
BB jumped when he heard is father say, “How’s it going?”
“Okay, except for this gasket. It’s ruined. It was really stuck. Sven looked at the valve cover, and the top of the engine block. “You gotta get those surfaces clean, or it’ll leak like the dickens. Use a wire brush and lots of kerosene.”
“Did you look under the backseat, or maybe in Grandma’s shed for a new one? Maybe there are some spares somewhere.”
“If you can’t find any, go down to Triple-A Auto Parts. They sell rolls of gasket material. You make an outline of what you need with butcher paper, then you trace onto the gasket stock, cut it out, and by jiminy, you’ve got yourself a gasket. Just make sure you cut very carefully. Any slip or hole, and it’s ruined.”
“Thanks, Pa, I’ll do it
.” * * * * *
BB couldn’t wait for Saturday to arrive. He’d shown his dad how well the old car ran on Tuesday, but had to wait until Sven had a day off to try it out on the road. Saturday morning the sun shown at dawn for the first time all spring. BB thought it a really good omen.
Before they took the Buick off the blocks, Sven sat BB behind the wheel. “We start by working the pedals. Let me see how you do the clutch. It’s pretty heavy. You need a lot of strength.”
BB pushed the clutch pedal down with his left foot.
“Not so fast,” Sven said. Let me see you let it up slow. You’ve got to feel the clutch engage. That’s important.”
BB pushed the clutch in, and gradually let it up. About halfway he stopped, and held it. “I think it feels different right about here.”
“We’ll see. Now, start her up.”
BB set the spark advance to the cold start position, pulled the choke, turned the key, pushed in the clutch, and pressed the starter button. The engine belched once, blew a puff of smoke out of the tailpipe, and roared to life. Sven gave the thumbs-up sign. BB waited a few seconds, and then moved the spark advance. The engine settled into a smooth idle.
“Nice work, son. She sounds really good.”
A big grin lit up BB’s face.
“Okay, now let’s see you work the gears. Put her in first, and let out the clutch.”
BB jammed the clutch pedal all the way to the floorboard, and moved the floor mounted shift lever into the lower left position of the shifter’s H-pattern.
Sven said, “Don’t forget to give her a little gas when you feel the clutch take hold.”
BB nodded, took a deep breath, and began to let the clutch pedal come up off of the floorboard. A couple of seconds later, the car lurched, the engine coughed but kept running, and the rear wheels began to spin. Sven broke into a loud laugh. “Not too smooth there BB,” he said when he got control of himself. “Now try second.”
BB pushed in the clutch, moved the shifter to the second position and gunned the engine when he felt the clutch take hold. “Easy there, easy. You rev that engine too much before the clutch is fully engaged, and you’ll burn her up in no time.”
A red blush crawled over BB’s face.
“Try third.” BB shifted.
“That’s better. Now brake with your right foot and try it again.”
After ten times through the transmission sequence, Sven said, “Okay, BB, let’s get her down and try her out in the street.”
Ten minutes later, the Buick Six-50 sat on its wheels, idling smoothly, BB behind the wheel, and Sven in the front passenger seat. “Okay BB, put her in first, slowly steer her straight to the street, and then stop.”
Two lurches later the car slowly rolled through the Bergstrom’s side yard. She stopped, and stalled, at the curb. “Not bad, BB,” Sven said. “Just remember, driving means doing lots of things at once. You work the pedals with your feet, the steering wheel and gearshift with your hands, the road front, back and both sides with your eyes, all the while listening to everything going on around you. And, you do all that at the same time, understand?”
“Good. Now take her out onto Main, and head for the station.”
He smelled it long before he saw it. Somehow, the low, gray, winter mist that hung in the Clearwater River Valley softened the sounds, but spread the aromas. The ground covered with snow seemed to exaggerate the intensity. Not that the distinctive smell of rye based moonshine could be mistaken for anything else. The odor in the alley behind the house made him guess at least a case must have fallen off of a truck close by.
Dennis saw it when he reached the side of his house, or at least he saw enough through the crowd of people, to figure out what happened. He couldn’t remember such a crowd since BB and Helga drove off after their wedding reception. He saw the front end of a logging truck resting in the back seat of a Model-18 Ford. The truck didn’t look hurt at all. The Ford would never roll down a road again.
The people mulled around the crash site waiting for Doctor Morgan to arrive. When he did, he had his young son in tow. “My car, oh my God, look what happened to my car.”
The uniformed police officer said, “You reported it missing three days ago. Looks like somebody wanted it to run shine.”
“That’s what I get for buying that V-8 engine. I figured I needed the speed to rush to my patients in emergencies. Now look.”
The doctor let go of his son’s hand to pry open a door and look inside his ruined car. The boy immediately made a bee-line for the snow piled up by the roadside. When he stepped past it, and headed for the railroad tracks, Dennis went after him. He scooped the boy up from between the rails, and said, “Hey, little guy, where you goin’? What’s your name?”
“My name is Galen, and I’m going swimming.”
“Not today, there’s ice in the river, but I’ll bet I know something even better. Wanna try?”
Dennis carried his charge across the street, up his driveway, and into the garage where a 1930 Ford Fordor Sedan with a blown engine, sat parked. He snatched the inner tube that leaned against her, hiked up Canada Hill to the alley, turned right past the Bergstrom’s house, and stopped at the vacant lot. He put the tube on the snow, held it while he settled on to it, and then set Galen on his lap.
“Ready, Galen? Hold on.”
Dennis pushed off with both hands, got the tube started down the steep part of the hill, and wrapped his arms around the boy.
“Whee!” Galen screamed until the tube came to rest at the snow pile at the edge of Main Street.
“Faster, faster, faster.”
“Okay little fella, up the hill, get going.”
This time they took a flight of stairs up from the alley, and climbed a little higher, before they stopped. Dennis himself positioned himself, had Galen pile on, and then started the tube sliding down the snow. They picked up speed, flew off of the cliff above the alley, bounced once, flew onto the lower hill, and didn’t stop until they hit the snow pile.
“Faster, faster, faster, more, faster,” Galen yelled at the top of his lungs.
“Okay up the hill.”
They went past where they’d started before, and climbed until they came to a low hanging tree branch. When ready, Dennis grabbed the branch, swung on it, and launched the tube, the boy, and himself down the hill. They flew off of the cliff, almost cleared the alley, but hit the far edge. The tube flipped sideways, threw Dennis face first down one side of the track, and rolled Galen down the other.
The doctor rushed to pick up his son. “Oh, tiger, are you all right?”
“Whee, faster, faster, more, faster.”
“No, you’re all wet and covered with snow.”
Dennis retrieved the tube from across the street, and went to join Galen and his father. The doctor looked at him, and said, “I know you, you’re Dennis Petty, the banker’s son.”
“Yes, sir. I live next door there.”
“More, faster, faster.”
“He liked it,” the doctor said.
“It’s fun.” Dennis paused. “Uh, sir, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course.” “What are you going to do with your car?”
“Junk it, I suppose. Why?”
“I was wondering if I could have it.”
The doctor furrowed his brow. “I don’t know why not. Why?”
“I’d like the engine, and maybe the transmission if it still works. It’s to go into the old Model-A we’ve got. Her engine’s blown. I’d take care of junking the rest.”
“Uh, sure, if the insurance company doesn’t care. They’ve got to get me a new car, but I can’t imagine them wanting the old one for any reason.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You go over there and tell the tow truck guy where to put it.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
* * * * *
Dennis waited until after supper to put on his coat, and walk through the gently falling snow to the Bergstroms house. Sven answered the knock. “Hello, Dennis, come on in.”
Sven closed the door behind them, and said, “What brings you over here on a night like this?”
“I’d like to ask a favor, sir.”
“I’d like your permission to borrow some of your tools. I plan to replace the engine in my old Model-A, and you know my Pa, he doesn’t have many tools.”
Sven smiled. “Sure, Dennis. Hardly anyone’s used them since BB left. Help Yourself.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll take good care of them.”
“I don’t have the engine hoist here. There’s one down at the yard though. You tell Jock I told you that you could borrow it. He’s slowed down some, and only works afternoons, but he’ll give you a hand with it.”
“I’ll do it. Thank you again, sir.”
” * * * * *
Saturday morning the sun shone, the snow had all melted, and the late March air gave the hint of an early spring. Dennis, in just his T-shirt and jeans, sprawled across the fender of the half-wrecked Model-18, socket wrench in hand, struggling to loosen the engine mount bolts. He’d easily disconnected the hoses, belts, and electrical connections. Just the engine mounts slowed him down.
The unexpected female voice made him twitch, and bump his head on the hood. He turned to see his classmate, black haired, dark eyed Carolynn, standing behind him.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t expect anyone. Especially you.”
“I won’t stay long.”
“No, it’s okay, I need a break anyway. These bolts are stubborn. I guess the kerosene needs more time to soak in. What’s up?”
“My brother left something in the car. He asked me to come and get it.”
“Your brother stole Doc’s car?”
“No, nothing like that. He’s just the driver.”
“Oh. You know the police checked it pretty carefully.” She looked down at her feet. “It’s pretty personal. Could I look?”
“No. I will. Where is it?”
Carolynn hesitated. Finally she said, “Okay. It’s behind the vanity mirror. You know, on the passenger side visor.”
Dennis climbed in through the driver’s side, flipped down the visor, and said, “It’s all sewn together.”
“Look carefully, on the right side.”
“Oh, I see it now.” He pushed the fabric slightly away from the mirror, and extracted a small piece of paper. On it, he read,
I Love You
425 Mountain View
He handed the slip of paper through the broken passenger side window.
“Thanks. Whatcha doin’?”
Dennis climbed back out before answering. “I’m puttin’ this flat-head into my Model-A. It’s pretty easy. Ford made it so all the engine mounts match up. Say, could you give me a hand for a minute?”
“One’s stuck. I need more muscle.”
He picked up a three-foot piece of pipe, slipped it over the handle of the socket wrench, and said, “This’ll give me more leverage. Here, I’ll pull, and you push. On three, ready?”
On the count of three they both grunted, the bolt came loose, Dennis fell back against the fender, and Carolynn fell on top of him. She stayed that way for a few seconds. Dennis thought, “She’s warm.”
When they got themselves sorted out, she said, “You make sure you put the Model-18’s radiator in your A, and use anti-freeze, it’s a better heat conductor than water, and if you ever take the engine apart, polish the exhaust channels. These early flat-heads overheat real easy, so do what you can to keep them cool.”
“The exhaust channels?”
“Yeah. The block’s casting is rough. You polish them, and it’ll help make the exhaust flow smoother, and that will help keep the temperature down.”
Dennis stared at her. “How do you know all this stuff?”
“My brother, he talks about it.” She smiled. “Bye, Dennis, thanks. When you get that old A runnin’, let me know. I’d like to see how you did.”
He watched her walk away, down the driveway, and up Main Street. All the while he couldn’t help thinking about overheating.