The Wheels of Freedom
Of all the cars I ever owned, I guess I both loved and hated my car in high school the most. Most people have fond stories of finding that first car they couldn't live without and working hard and saving money to buy it. The car was usually a little run-down, and their parents really didn't want them to buy it but they got it anyway. My first car was a little different. I didn't have to buy it, I kind of inherited it.
My first car started out as the family car. Mother bought it and drove it first and then my brother started to drive. He joined the Navy and left town, my mother remarried and moved to Memphis, and my grandmother couldn't drive. One morning I woke up and found that I was the only one left in the house who could drive, so I got the car. And what a car it was.
"The Red Bomb," later shorted to just "The Bomb" was my car. It was a 1953 two-door Customline Ford V-8, painted red of course. At least it started out as a red car, but the sun faded it so badly that it was almost orange. The Bomb was a perfect name for this collection of classic auto parts. Mother had bought a different 1953 Ford in 1960. One Friday night, about a week before the first payment was due, Don was coming home from a date and ran off the road into a field and hit a two-foot ditch. It was totaled. The front end was smashed and the frame was bent, but the engine and Don survived. Don went to the hospital and the car was towed home.
It sat in the driveway for a long time and finally Don found a friend, Gene Bales, who had another 1953 Ford with a bad engine. Our engine was good, so we bought the body from Gene for $75 and towed it home. With the help of some of Don's friends, we took the engine out of the wrecked one and put it in the other body. I remember my part of the transfer was to remove and replace the battery box. I was proud of that and bragged for many years to come that I helped change out the engines. That was when it was cool for boys to know how to work on cars. I even remember getting some grease on my hands. Don filled the old car's gas tank with water to add weight, and sold it for scrap. I think he got seventeen dollars for it.
With the engine implant, the new car ran okay and didn't give us too much trouble, even with the work having been done by amateurs. The next problem happened one morning as I was on the way Dianne Hughey's house to pick her up for school. It was raining and a lady ran a stop sign and darted out in front of me. I hit my brakes but the streets were wet so I slid and hit her broadside. She was a very lucky person, for she had all six of her children in the car and none were hurt. I too escaped injury, but not the Bomb. Its hood was crunched in as were both front fenders, but the engine survived that assault too.
The lady I hit did not have insurance, and even though it was her fault, we didn't get any money out of the accident. I didn't have any insurance either. Even the thought of that these days scare me to death. She paid for her car and we paid for ours. After several weeks of looking, we finally found a new front end and got it installed for $75. The new front end was white and not red like the rest of the car. We couldn't afford to have it painted, and it was years later when I came up with the idea I should have just bought a half-dozen cans of spray paint and do it myself. It could not have looked any worse.
Another problem was that the garage made one little mistake when putting the two parts together. The one little mistake they made was with the entire wiring bundle, I think. The first time I drove it after getting it out of the garage, when I pressed on the horn button in the center of the steering wheel, the bright lights came on. The parking light switch blew the horn, unless I stepped on the dimmer switch, and then the regular lights came on. I'm not sure where the parking light controls were, and I was afraid to try the windshield wipers. It made for some interesting driving for about a week. After a short while, the thrill was gone and we took it back to the garage got the wiring fixed. It remained white on the front end and red on the back for the rest of the time I had the car.
It was not much to look at, and as the days and months passed, it ran worse and worse. It didn't really matter, The Bomb was mine and I loved it. It has always held a special place in my heart, maybe because it was the first car I soloed. I remember one weekend when I was fifteen, and before I had my driver's license, Mother went to a conference in Florida for dental assistants and Grandmother was at work. There was a girl I wanted to see and she lived about five miles from the house, so I took the car and drove over there. I just got in it and went. Until this confession, no one has ever been the wiser. The Bomb was neat.
My brother Don was my driving instructor. Some afternoons after school he took me out into a new housing development being built in Jones Valley and let me drive. There were lots of streets but only one or two houses had been erected. The initial encounter with a clutch was eye opening, and we bounced back and forth up the street for the first couple of session. One night when my mother was out of town and my grandmother was working, I ventured out to see my girlfriend in the Bomb, even though I only had a learner's permit. It was a risk, but I really wanted to see her. Eventually I got better, and even though I felt confident, I did not want to drive the straight-stick Bomb for my road test when I went to get my license. Don decided that I would do better in an automatic, so he borrowed Gene's red 1960 Chevy automatic for me to use. I went down to the old Elks' Theater and took my test. I remember the last words of my inspector were "Pull up over there, and be careful." I had passed.
That was the last time I drove the automatic '60 Chevy. From then on I drove the straight-stick Bomb. Less than two hours after I received my license, I tried to take the Bomb up a rather steep hill going up to the court square from the water department. Stopping at the top was no problem, but trying to let out on the clutch and take my foot off the brake at the same time was more of a task that I was capable of accomplishing, having been a driver for only two hours. As I let off the brake, I rolled backwards before I could let out the clutch, so I slammed on the brake. I tried again only to make another advance to the rear. Lucky for me and for all, there was no one behind me. When I found myself at the bottom of the hill, I decided that fate did not want me to go up that hill. The hill had won that day. But I knew that in the days to come, the hill would never get any steeper. I would get better and I would win the war with hills in later battles.
Throughout "A Million Tomorrows...Memories of the Class of '64" (my journal of memories of my senior year at Lee) I documented all the times it would not start and had to be pushed off to get it going, or had a flat tire. I never changed oil in it, didn't really even check the oil very often, unless the oil pressure gauge was sitting on zero, and had to drain the radiator every night when the temperature was forecast to drop below freezing. The muffler had long ago busted and it sounded like a hot rod, but didn't really have the power to be one. But it had a bench seat, and my girlfriend could snuggle up close to me - something teenagers of today probably would love as well. She either had her hand on my leg, or mine was on her's, or wrapped around her shoulder as I drove with one hand. Some boys even taught their girlfriends to shift gears so they could keep their arm behind her without having to move it to shift. Of course it did not have seat belts or air conditioning back then. It had no radio, and the heater did not work - probably because of a bad thermostat. I used cans of Sterno one night to try to keep it warm on a date to Woody's Drive-In in December of 1963 and today am amazed I did not kill myself and my date from carbon monoxide poisoning. No one would have found us until the windows un-fogged I am sure.
I think my longest trip in it was to the church creek at Anderson Creek, near Rogersville, Alabama. I made that trip with a few of my friends from Central Presbyterian Church. I don't remember going much farther out of town than that. Mostly it was my transportation to and from school, and of course on the Parkway cruise between Big Boy's and Jerry's.
When I graduated from Lee and moved to Memphis, the Bomb was left in front of my grandmother's apartment with what I thought was a cracked block. A few week's later, one of my second cousins hauled it off to work on it, and I never knew what became of it after that.
Still, of all the cars I owned, I will always best remember the Bomb with my greatest memories. Perhaps it was the era, perhaps it was the age and time, or perhaps it was just the car and it was my first one.
Memphis, TN - Well, the first week of March Madness is behind us. I have done worse in years past on my brackets, but I have also done better. I do not remember ever watching a NCAA game, let alone a tournament, when I was in high school. I really didn't get excited about basketball until I retired from the Air Force and moved back to Memphis.
I do remember going to the Lee games, but it was more to see the cheerleaders and the girls in the bleachers than it was the skinny-legged players on the court. The only away game I really remember attending was one at Butler, and I only remember that one because a bunch of Butler thugs tried to pick a fight with me and the group I was with when we were exiting the parking lot after the game.
My brother Don (back), my mother, and me and our TV on East Clinton Street.
The Vintage Television
1966 TV Intros - Part II
From Our Mailbox
Subject: Mike Griffith's Story
I really enjoyed Mike's story about his military service and college degree. He and I were 'run around buddies' early on at Lee then when I started playing with The IN we lost touch. We had many fun times.
Subject: Mike's Story
What a great story by Mike Griffith. Talk about perseverance! Probably many of our classmates had similar choices in which direction our lives would take.