Ol’ Blue was in the early stages of Plumb Wore Out. At thirteen years old and a hundred thousand miles, my ’63 Ford Fairlane had faithfully hauled me hither and yon, from Iowa to Texas, Colorado, California, and everywhere else Uncle Sam sent me, without a whimper. But having recently expanded our family by its first increment, we finally broke down and bought a 1972 Mercury Montego, which was only four years old and therefore sparkly new in comparison, to carry the family around with a tad more dependability.
Ol’ Blue was now relegated to second place in the transportation hierarchy and occasionally got a bit cantankerous in retaliation. The first significant thing to go was the linkage between the gearshift and transmission. This became more significant when I realized new parts like that weren’t being made for cars that old.
The Air Force had recently promoted me from Airman First Class to Sergeant and I was now bringing in the astronomical base pay of $459.30 a month, which made me believe I could manage payments on a used Montego. It did NOT make me giddy enough to go flinging dollar bills about with wild abandon, such as fixing Ol’ Blue by converting my three-speed-on-the-column to a floor-shifter with that cool conversion kit down at Checker Auto Parts. As you can imagine, that was the recommendation by the counter guy at Checker.
But forty bucks was forty bucks.
Luckily for my wallet, there was an automotive parts reclamation facility east of Colorado Springs on Highway 94, several miles out past Peterson Air Force Base. Back in the 70s, though, we got away with calling it a junkyard. I should be able to find the appropriate linkage there, and cheap.
I pulled up in front of the shack that served as the office and paused a moment to read the small, faded, hand-painted sign next to the steps in front of the door: WATCH FOR RATTLESNAKES!
I paused a little longer. But I was cool and sauntered into the ramshackle building quite nonchalantly, I thought, after surreptitiously scanning the ground in all directions. It wasn’t like there were venomous serpents slithering everywhere, right? And they’d rattle if I got too close, to warn me, right? The sign was probably just there for liability purposes and most likely the critters were pretty rare.
I was a country boy, raised in the fields and barnyards of Missouri and Iowa, spending my youth wrestling hay bales, scooping soybeans, shelling corn, wrangling pigs, hunting, fishing, and camping. I was well acquainted with garter, bull, king, and rat snakes…I never liked ‘em, but I was familiar with ‘em. And they didn’t kill people, generally speaking.
But rattlers, now…they were something new. Something to make you exercise a little extra…healthy wariness. I didn’t want to be taken for a greenhorn, so I tried to walk the fine line between laid-back and eagle-eye. I think I was pulling it off.
Inside, I was told to just go out and find what I needed, remove it with my own tools, and bring it back to the office so the guy at the desk could tell me how much to pay him for it. I had been hoping it would be a little less work on my part, but at least he gave me a few possible areas to search. I decided to locate a good donor of parts and then fetch whatever tools I’d need.
At least there were wide lanes between double rows of old junkers that were mostly laid out side-by-side in a neat and orderly fashion, and I could walk down between them while judiciously scanning the arid landscape. It was mostly bare dirt and rock, except right around the vehicles themselves, where it was a little harder to keep the weeds trimmed back.
In the older section I was focusing on, things were a bit more random and disheveled. Tall, dry weeds sprouted in clumps around casual piles of tires or sheet metal pieces, and the wind had wedged tumbleweeds into a lot of the nooks and crannies. And there was a beat-up ‘63, splotched with rust, wedged in haphazardly, sideways between two rows of cars and surrounded by old tires and a couple of wayward bumpers.
I exercised healthy wariness for a minute or so.
I couldn’t get to the car in question without either wading through thick weeds and piles of car parts or climbing on top of other cars. I had second thoughts about this method of car repair, out here in the desert wastelands, confronted by sidewinding assassins.
But, well, forty bucks was forty bucks.
So climb on top I did, from the bumper of a heap bordering the bare dirt pathway, over the roof to the trunk, to a neighboring hood, to the top of a pile of fenders, and onward.
Arriving next to the ’63, squatting cautiously on a stack of tires, I peered through the broken driver’s window and discovered that this one wouldn’t work out because it was an automatic. I was turning to pick out a route to head for the next potential area of perusal when something caught my eye.
Hanging by two wires, underneath the steering wheel, was a small plastic contraption I recognized immediately. It normally sits underneath the horn ring on the steering wheel and controls the turn signals. My car’s controller had a piece broken off and I’d been manually cancelling my signals for a while, but here was a chance to get it working right, and cheaply. This one looked intact, and was already unscrewed and ready to unplug and remove. Bonus! I figured I’d better grab this one while I had the chance and then go look for the shifter linkage.
I was still exercising healthy wariness. I scanned the ground under the edge of the car, the seats, what I could see of the floor…nothing. I eased in the door handle button and slowly creaked the door open as far as it would go.
Scanned some more. Looked for movement. Listened for stealthy slithers. Nothing.
I leaned in through the doorway, still balanced precariously on the stack of tires, one hand on the door, one on the door frame. I reached out with my right hand, little by little, until I could grasp the controller…but the two little electrical plugs wouldn’t pull loose. I needed a firmer grip.
I leaned a little farther and slowly moved my right knee to the edge of the seat cushion to brace myself for one quick jerk on the wires, and as I lowered my weight onto the seat…
HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Like a thousand tea kettles! Like a steam engine on steroids!! The loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life, amplified and echoing inside the confines of the old wreck…AND IT WAS COMING FROM RIGHT UNDER THE SEAT!!!!
Up until that time I’d never really believed in levitation, but within half a microsecond I was about thirty feet in the air and gaining speed. I don’t know where I touched down, or how, but I was out in the middle of that wide, packed-dirt lane, moving purposefully and as outwardly nonchalant as I could be, under the circumstances, exercising an impressive outpouring of healthy wariness as I went, around the shack out front, out to the Montego, and rocketing toward town before my pulse slowed down below heart attack range.
In close succession, I learned two important things. One: I proudly own one of the finest sets of reflexes on the planet. And two: it took a whole day and lots of cussing to make modifications and install that conversion kit, but Ol’ Blue ran great and looked awesome for the rest of his natural days with that Checker Auto Parts floor shifter.
Best forty bucks I ever spent.