Selected published Stories

by Chuck Klein


THE PICK-UP, November 2001

LAST KNIGHT, December 2001

THE VETTE, January 2002

TRAIN RUN, March 2002

AMERICA, April 2002







The young man, in his late teens, pulled into the driveway, eager to show his father and great grandfather his latest acquisition, a '32 Ford. Almost at the same time a delivery man arrived with a package. Taking the carefully wrapped box, with the word "FRAGILE" stamped in red on all sides, into the library of the ancient tudor style house, he approached a much older man seated in a leather wingback.


 Pop." Then a little louder, "Grandpa, come outside for a minute I want to show you my new car. It's got all the extras."

 The old timer knew cars. He had studied, and in some cases rubbed shoulders with, the best of the early engineers, customizers and racers.  Men with the immortalized names of Iskenderian, Duntov, Barris, Fangio, Vukovich....
 After the ritualistic inspection of the male bonding medium the two men returned to the den where the younger remembered the package. "I almost forgot, Pop, this came for you a little while ago."

 "What is it Sonny?" the old man asked, settling into his overstuffed chair.

 "I don't know Pop. It's from some law office back east and it sounds like it has liquid in it. You getting your Geritol by mail now?" The great grandson joked.

 Staring at the proffered package the old man pushed back further into the cushions of the chair as if trying to distance himself from it. His mouth dropped open... "oh my God", escaped in an barely audible, raspy whisper.

 "Grandpa, what's wrong? Are you okay?" The young gentleman crossed the room to take this ancient man's hand and search his frightened stare. "What is it, Pop?"

 As recollections of events, forever melded to the sentimental portions of his mind, were forced to the present, the great grandfather's eyes soon began refocusing to a new intensity. "Get a couple of glasses and some ice, Sonny - and call your Dad in here. I've got a story to tell you."

 A man with graying hair and his teenage son watched the great grandfather, in his 96th year, carefully and ceremoniously unwrap the package. Inside, sealed and encased in a solid wood box with a glass front panel, was a bottle of whisky. Attached to the outside of this shrine was a small brass hammer and a pouch. From this pouch he pulled a sheet of paper containing a list of names - names that had lines drawn through each, save one.
 It was a very long time ago that they had met for the last time - a sort of reunion and farewell to one of the members who had but a short time to live.

 Pretensions and pressures were checked at the door that night. Whatever problems they faced outside seemed far away and not important. Maybe it was seeing a "best" friend for the first time in two or three decades or just that deep feeling that only comes from the knowledge that to this group each truly belonged. They all knew that this assembly was just this night only and never again would they all be together. Maybe it came with the understanding that these were their roots and the distinct sensation of having come home again. Perhaps it was the familiarity and companionship of old friends, whose dues were also paid in full. It was a most memorable occasion.
 It wasn't a large gathering, but 21 men out of a possible 36 wasn't too bad for an informal reunion. Some had died, some couldn't be found, most were graying and pot bellied, but all had, at one time, belonged to the KNIGHTS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Born so many years ago in a back alley garage of a Midwestern American city, The KNIGHTS hot rod club was not unlike other clubs of guys of that era. Back when rock & roll was in its infancy and fast cars had to be built by hand, the members bonded together to learn, help each other and talk engines, cars and speed. It was exciting being the center of attention during this era of historic automotive and musical upheaval.

...Big Bopper and Ben E. King

 "Here, you do it Sonny," the old man said handing the brass hammer to his great grandson.

Uncapping the bottle, which had been freed by breaking the glass front and without lifting his eyes from the list, the old man in his articulate way, began to pour forth a tale as if he had been rehearsing it all his life.

 "Moonie, that's what they called me because I was the first to have Moon wheel covers on my rod, a '34 roadster that I had stuffed a Caddy engine into. It had a dropped front axle, chopped windshield and sported three-duces on the engine. Though I never got it completely finished it ran one-oh-three point six in the quarter mile. Not that this was the fastest in the club, but still very respectable. I didn't drive the roadster on the street much because something was always breaking so I kept a stock '39 Ford as my everyday car. The '39 was battered and shabby and second gear was stripped but, it ran quite reliably - those old flatheads would just run forever. The only thing I hated about that old relic was the hot, scratchy mohair seats. I got my share of carpet burns on my elbow trying to put my arm around a girl.

 "Ah...the girls. It seems that we built and raced the cars to impress the girls and then whenever one of the guys had made enough of an impression she'd up and marry him and that would be the end of his hot rodding. Brides and all the 'comes-with' things associated with marriage probably contributed more to the demise of hot rodders and their clubs than anything else.

 "You boys should have seen my bride! She was just about the prettiest thing that ever rode shotgun in an open roadster. I met her at a club dance - a sock hop we called it. She wore dungarees with the cuffs rolled up, in giant folds, almost to her knees. Her oversized shirt must have been her daddy's white dress button-down which also had huge folds of the sleeves all the way up her arm. The shirt tails were tied in a knot at her tiny waist, the slightest view of smooth soft skin barely visible. She wore her hair in a flip and she just had that fresh scrubbed look about her. Quite the opposite of me with my axle greased ducktails and form-fitted pink shirt with string tie and pleated slacks of charcoal gray. We rocked and rolled to the likes of Fat's Domino, Dale Wright, Buddy Holly and Larry Williams and when she put her head under my chin to 'Sixteen Candles' I knew it was something special. It was. Last week it would have been our 72nd anniversary...if she were still alive."

 "Grandpa," the impatient teenager interrupted, "What about the bottle?"

 "I'm comin' to that, Sonny. Don't rush me. Like I was sayin', it was at this gathering when we all got together for that one last time to say goodbye to Freddie. Now, nothing lasts forever, and by age 50 Freddie had developed a terminal case of cancer. Knowing that he was a short timer he kept himself busy hunting us down and planning this assembly to unite us for one last time and to establish his gift as a tontine - the bottle from which we are drinking at this very moment. He said he won the fifth at a club dance and being a teetotaler, just put it away. Freddie was Jewish and for that solemn affair he gave us a little insight into these ancient teachings. It was such a somber and commemorative occasion that I still remember his final words to us. Here was this dying compatriot, frail and weak, who looked each one of us in the eye as he decreed: 'In our faith it is believed that on Rosh Hashana, the New Year, it is written; on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, it is sealed:

How many shall pass on,
How many shall come to be,
Who shall live to see ripe age,
And who shall not,
Who shall live,
And who shall die;

 and so it must be, that only the last surviving member of THE KNIGHTS, the KNIGHTS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, may toast his fellow members with - and savor the nectar of this - this last man bottle.'"

 With a sigh of finality his still steady hand, rough, dried and cracked like a cheap paint job that had crystallized, picked up the small doubles glass. Using both hands, and not unlike how one would make an offering, raised the glass to just slightly above his head whispering, "I'll see you soon fellahs, keep 'em tuned up."

 Warmed by the energy of the aged whiskey the old man rose from the security of his wingback and shuffled to the leaded windows overlooking the springtime embraced driveway. Just for an instant he was sure he saw Freddie waving from his NINETEEN thirty-two Ford, the one with the hopped-up Chevy engine and the plaque that said KNIGHTS, dangling from the back bumper. But, a deliberate wipe of the hand across his tear filling eyes revealed it was only his great grandson's...brand new TWENTY thirty-two Ford.

Author’s Note: The story is true inasmuch as there is a KNIGHTS of the 20th CENTURY hot rod club (est. 1955), we did have a reunion and we do have a tontine.




 As it got closer his suspicions were confirmed - it was a vintage Corvette. Too bad he wasn't driving his old Vette. It could be a fun run over these delightfully twisty and hilly country roads in the outback of the great state of Indiana. Within minutes, on a long straight stretch, the silver, with white inset, fifty-nine/sixty two-seater made its bid to pass.
 The familiar rumble of the twin-pipes only made the longing, the recollections, even stronger. What surprised him was that the driver was a lady, a smart looking young lady with long, flame-red hair that trailed out over the rear deck of her open roadster.

 Memories of another redhead in a Corvette, back when the Vette was new, quickened his pulse and flooded his mind. She gave a quick look and a smile at midpoint, just as she smacked third gear and dumped a set of quads. And with a chirp of rubber she was gone.

 A glance at his speedometer told him that the little excitement had caused him to push his seventy-two El Camino to well above the legal limit. Ah, there was a time when he would have relished a high speed run, but at fifty-three years of age and driving a "stocker," Jack Cambry knew better.

 Twenty miles on down the road he still couldn't shake the memory of Natalie. It came back in a rush overwhelming his mind - everything from her in-bred sophistication, to the time in the back seat of her fifty-five Bel-Air; strains of "their song," the Crew Cuts, Angels in the Sky, playing softly over the radio. He hadn't thought of her in a long time and was confused as to why her familiarity - the longing - was so strong. Perhaps it was the guilt that ground the spider gears of his mind.

 She had a long pony tail the first time they met. He had just transferred to a new school and she had come over to him during that first recess. He was lonely and scared but she flipped her pony tail and just said, "Hi, I'm Natalie and I hope you like it here," or something to that effect. Her hair was a soothing deep auburn not the fire red of a Rita Hayworth. They were standing under the pavilion watching the sixth graders in a game of kickball.

 She was nice and very pretty but he never let on that he thought so...must have been afraid of getting teased or just too young or something. Funny how some recollections are crystal clear and others are hazy. Their first date hadn't been for four more years until they were sixteen and he had wheels. Now that he thought about it she was his first real date. Oh, he'd met girls at the Saturday matinee and even kissed a few at games of post office or spin the bottle. But Natalie was the first real date. He couldn't remember how they came to go out; maybe it was when a gang of kids were all standing around the soda fountain at Richter's Pharmacy talking about the up-coming sock hop. Yeah, that was it. She said to nobody in particular, but she was looking at him, that she wanted to go but didn't have a ride.

 He laughed to himself remembering that first date. Why she ever went out with him again after he made a total fool of himself was a mystery. He had tried to ace some cat in a '52 Olds at a stop light, but stalled by dumping the clutch on an under revved engine. Not very cool on a first date. But, the car was cool, as only a Corvette could be.

In conversations oblivious to others
twice his hand she did touch.
That caused a quickened heart
which he liked very much.

 She was some dish. Not only was she tom-boyish good-looking, but she had a `55 Chev. She had removed the hood and trunk ornaments in preparation for a nose and deck job on this Power-pack stick and had installed spinner hubcaps and a chrome air cleaner herself. She knew more about cars than most guys. She was perfect. Even at sixteen and until they parted at eighteen they fit together, like a valve to a keeper or a connecting rod to a wrist pin.

 They had such fun together, he, Natalie and the Vette. They almost never missed a Sunday at the drag strip. He'd be stuck in "B" Sports Car against a lot of usually faster machines and she'd run his Corvette in the Powder Puff class and pull trophy most every time.


 How'd it happen? They'd dated - gone steady actually - broken up, then got back together just before his car club's annual dance.  Yeah, it was the evening of the Knights' big dance when he got pulled by Herb's '57 Fury that everyone had said was a dog. It was no stocker. To this day he was sure Herb had an Isky Five-Cycle cam and maybe more cubes than came from the factory.

 He was angry all evening and when they all stopped at Spooner's drive-in for an after-dance Coke he had tried to put the make on Herb's date. That was also the night Natalie had picked to tell him her Dad had been transferred out of state. He had only meant to get back at Herb for goading him into a race that was a set-up in the first place.

 Though they saw each other a few more times before he left for college and she for Chicago, he never really got a chance to apologize or anything. The next year was a little hazy. He had gotten involved with some chick at OSU, rushed a fraternity and flunked out of school. Next thing he knew he was in the Navy.

 Wow, the parade of memories from just seeing an old car - an old Corvette - driven by a red headed honey! Oh, he'd thought about her, especially when the loneliness of military life had almost consumed him and again when he committed himself to marriage.

 He believed he had really been in love with Sue Ellen, but, Natalie was always somewhere deep in the reserve fuel tank of his mind. When Sue Ellen left him (maybe he never was completely committed to her) he had hunted for Natalie. The search only lasted until he learned she was married.


 The yellow diamond shaped sign indicated a right followed by a left, both with a suggested safe speed of forty. He knew he wasn't in a Corvette and he wasn't a teen-ager, but the urge was too great as he set the classic pick-up into the first bend at a little over 70. He rode it through on rails pretending it was a four wheel drift, getting hard on the gas at the apex of each turn. It felt good; engine, speed, noise and...memories.

 Daydreaming sure does help while the miles away. Already he was over halfway to Chicago. It had been such a beautiful day that he had driven the old way through the countryside of farm belt America, the route before the Interstate.

 Slowing for a small burg he noticed the silver and white Vette parked at the side of a Shell station. Well, he needed gas anyway, and Shell was one of the cards he carried. It sure wouldn't hurt to take a few minutes to look at the vehicle of the past hour's recollections.

 A cursory exam of the sports car yielded the knowledge that it was a 1959 model and had a 6500 RPM red line on the tach which indicated it came with a factory 270 or 290 horsepower engine. Absorbed in a world of automobilia he didn't see her until she was standing right next to him.

  "Excuse me, sir. I'd like to get into my car."

 She couldn't have been much more than twenty-five and could have passed as Natalie's twin if it were thirty plus years ago.

 "I'm sorry. I was just admiring your Vette. Had it long?"

 "Well, we've owned it for about five years but it was only in the last six months that we've had the time and money to get it into running shape," she said with a smile that showed a slight over bite.

 "You are a credit to Corvette owners of old by the way you handled it back there on the open road. Drove like a pro or your daddy owns the road," he joked, trying to expand the moment.

 "Wrong on both counts, mister. I'm not a professional and my daddy died last year. So if you'll excuse me...."

 "I'm sorry for intruding. It's just that this car stirred thoughts of another Corvette and another red head too many years ago. The car got traded and the red head...I guess she's lost forever."

 She reached for the door handle, stopped, turned toward him and said, "No, I'm the one who should be sorry. I'm not in a good mood. I just broke up with my boyfriend. I know you old timers get all twisted out of shape at the sight of machines like this. Uh, the car has the original two-eighty-three engine, bored sixty thousandths over, twin four barrels and an oh-two-seven, solid-lifter, Duntov cam powered through a four-speed transmission and three-seventy rear axle.

 "Say, you do know your stuff. Learn it from your dad?  He asked, trying not to sound conciliatory.

 "I learned mostly from my mom. It's her car and we made a project of rebuilding it. We had the mechanical work done at a shop in Louisville, that's where my mom's from. We did the interior and all the body work ourselves, except the final paint," the red haired beauty stated proudly.

 At the mention of Louisville and a widow who knew cars, a chill with the speed of a small-block Chevy, swept over him. An intense smile exposed a face full of age lines as his clear hazel eyes studied her features - red hair, the slightly up-turned nose, the high cheek bones and that slight overbite with very small teeth....

 "Why are you looking at me like that? Are you going to hit on me, pal? Come on, let me get into my car I've got places to go," she scolded, brushing past him to vault into the driver’s seat.

 "I'm, I'm sorry," he stammered. " you mother's name, Wilson?"

 "No, Her name's Minderman. Now please let me go." She twisted the key firing up all eight cylinders with the unmistakably familiar throaty roar of the short-stroke Chevy.

 With a rap of the accelerator that sent the little engine revving past three grand she lifted the "T" handle and slapped the lever into reverse. He stepped back, smarting from the false and brash accusation, still overwhelmed by the memories and similarities. He looked at his shoes waiting for her to back away.

 The Vette, engine loping at seven-fifty RPM, didn't move. He snuck a glance. Maybe he was still in her way. Boy was he embarrassed. The girl with Rita Hayworth hair and the features of a teenage lost love was staring at him, mouth agape.
 Barely audible, over the rumble of the two-seventy, he heard her say, "Yes. You mean my mother's maiden name? Yeah, it was Wilson. Did you know her?" She turned her head as if checking the rear view mirror then turned back again, eyes wide. "Oh wow! If your name's Jack then my mom's been looking for you."




 From some quarry deep in Wisconsin, via cavernous ships, came the iron ore. Compounded, mixed and incorporated with other raw ingredients from mines as far away as the continent of Africa; the River Rouge's open hearth furnaces formed the very heart of America's rolling stock. But it took the conscientious and loving care of the meticulous assembly line workers to collate these unique organs and create the real soul of each vehicle.

 Early in January, 1937, number 3846, a pick-up truck, received its "soul". She came down the line and under the tender guardianship of the day shift, was bestowed the larger 85 horsepower V8 engine, Vermillion Red paint with black stripe and black "solid" wheels.


 I felt good and rode proud and tall on the train to St. Louis where an elderly gentleman gently drove me to the show room at the Ford dealership just west of downtown. I didn't have to wait long, like the plainer coupes and sedans, some of which had to remain out in the rain and cold. On January 22, Number 3846, that's me, became the property of Mr. Silas T. Wentworth, a lanky and muscular farmer from up-state Missouri.

 Silas T., his wife, Priscilla, and their son, Jamie, took pride in their first "new" car. The depression had been difficult but through hard work and very austere living they prospered. I heard Silas T. talking about how I, as their new addition to the family, would enable him to increase his market deliveries three fold over the horse and wagon.

 Even hauling hogs to market was no strain for my powerful flathead engine, and return trips, empty except for a few supplies, made life easy and enjoyable. Mr. Wentworth. changed my oil and greased me on a very regular basis and Jamie kept me clean. The missus even made seat covers for me.

 Things changed in 1940. Jamie turned 16 and began driving me to school and other places. Silas T. bought a heavy duty, dual-rear-wheel truck that soon became the pride of the family. Jamie was hard on me with all his quick starts and fast driving, but I knew I was having a better life than some of the others I'd see stuck by the roadway or - in junk yards! Once, when we went to town, I saw a sedan that had been right behind me on the assembly line. That sedan was now a police car with a spot light and a two-tone paint job. And, even though she was just a sedan, she turned up her nose at common pick-ups.

 Jamie had a special girl and they often went out for rides together, only they spent more time parking than actually riding. They talked of marriage and how he was sure his dad would give him the pick-up and sign on a note so as he could buy the old Potter place.

 We had a lot of fun, the three of us. Jamie and I once raced a Chevrolet out on the East River Road. We sprayed gravel all over that snooty looking Chevy, and doing almost 90, beat him by a country mile! Mabel, that's his girl, made him promise never to do that again because they would need me for farm use.

 It was in my bed, on blanket covered straw, during the summer of 1942, they got engaged. Mabel was scared but Jamie promised to love her forever. They talked about the kids they wanted and how they would fix up the old Potter place, even a stall in the barn for me, when he got back.

 It all seemed so perfect except that I was getting tired and one of my springs was starting to sag a little. Jamie sure looked sharp in that uniform with all those shiny buttons. I don't know why everyone was crying, even Mabel. The two men drove me to town. They shook hands, hugged, and Jamie patted me on my fender before he got into a bus. Silas T. brought me back, parked me in the lean-to where the surrey used to be, and disconnected my battery.

 It was a long time before anyone opened that barn door again. Silas T. Wentworth, on that cold and windy day, looked gaunt and sad. A plump pimply faced kid, Mr. Wentworth called him Butch, kicked my tires, shook my fenders and looked me over then handed my first master a check. The next day Butch returned, winched me onto a trailer, and took me back into the big city.

 Much to my surprise Butch began cleaning me and showing me off to his friends who came to visit the garage. It seems the garage is the headquarters for the Piston Busters Car Club. It wasn't long before Butch and friends had yanked my old and tired engine and with a little drilling, grinding and welding - the welding hurt - installed an almost new Corvette engine! Wow! Butch sanded off the old faded paint and applied a bright yellow primer, converted to hydraulic brakes and added fancy chrome wheels with new white-wall tires. Boy, if only my old assembly line mates could see me now! I'll bet even the police car would be envious.

 Every time we went to the Big Boy drive-in all the other guys would gather around and admire me. Sundays, we'd go to the drag strip, and though it pained me to have that much pressure put on my rails, I loved it. Sometimes we even brought home a trophy! The speeds we reached were far more than Jamie and I had ever dreamed. Things weren't all that great though. A few of my body mounts were wearing out and the high output V8 engine, twisting against my rusty frame, gave me a lot of twinges. I was sure that someday I wouldn't be able to keep it together.

 Other than that, life was pretty good - at least I didn't have to haul any smelly ol' hogs or dusty hay. But I did carry a few kegs of beer and a bunch of club members more than once. Butch always kept me in a garage and never let anyone else drive me, 'cept Carrie, his girl, and that was only on one occasion.

 Late in the spring of '60 we were coming out of a high speed turn on the new subdivision road when one of my shock mounts broke. It caused me to lose control and we slammed into a stone wall bending my front axle and crumpling one fender. Butch broke my windshield with his head and leaked a sticky red oil all over my cowl and hood. He lay there for a long time before one of those stuck-up police cars and a shiny new ambulance arrived. Then things happened pretty fast and next thing I know they tow me to, of all places, a junk yard!

 With a half century's worth of the formerly new and proud modes of transportation to trade stories with, I was never lonely. And though I was not happy with my situation at least I had had a more complete and exciting life than most of the other "junkers". But, I still had a lot of life left in me and I didn't want to spend forever with these rusty heaps.

 Oh, sometimes somebody would come and look me over - shake me or kick my now flat tires, but mostly they just wanted my parts. As the years rolled by I lost my steering wheel, the good front fender, my radiator, engine - it was only a Chevy - and other items. My interior rotted away and the faded yellow primer - Butch never did get around to that metal flake paint job he had promised - rusted through in many places. At least I had the other cars to keep me company not like being shut in the Wentworth barn all alone. A once majestic LaSalle, the leader of the yard, because of the shade from a Maple tree that grew out of his trunk, became my best friend. He loved to tell of the times he chauffeured the Mayor and his important guests and friends around.

 Sometimes you get lucky. I had never resigned myself to the junk yard mentality of my fellow prisoners as I always believed I'd be rescued. It was hot, late in the fall of 1989, when I winked a goodbye to the huge LaSalle. Norm, a jovial man who looked to be almost as old as Silas T. had looked the last time I saw him, carefully loaded me onto a trailer.
 My next home was, well, better than the factory. It was clean, brightly lighted and had some very sophisticated tools and machinery. I just knew Norm and I were going be the best of friends. It took over two years, but in that time I was reborn! Even my assembly line mates would hardly recognize me. Normie  - that's what his wife calls him - took me all apart, I mean every nut, bolt, flange, bushing - everything. He stripped my metal bare and then what he didn't primer and paint he chromed. I also received new fiberglass fenders, a new dropped front axle, a chopped top - it only hurt a little - rolled & pleated Naugahyde interior and - ugh - another Chevy engine, but complete with supercharger. I loved it. I wanted to go by the junk yard and show-off.

 In no time at all Normie sold me to a man who I'm ashamed to identify. A man whose smile never reaches his eyes. Almost every weekend he loads me into a closed trailer and tows me to a car show. He ropes me off so none of the countless admirers can caress my 27 hand-rubbed coats of lacquer or fondle my cute little stainless and wood steering wheel. Ah, this should be the life, no more hauling of any kind, frame stressing races or even getting rained on. Only trouble is I hate it. My engine, even though it's not a Ford, has never been started. Once when he had me sitting in his driveway a few of his friends came by in "real" hot-rods with engines that worked - I was so embarrassed. I long for just sitting at a Big Boy and maybe a few wheel spins in the lot, the wind at 100 per or the pleasure of a master who knows how to handle a street rod.

 Say...if you see me at one of those frilly, trailer-queen, car shows, make my owner an offer he can't refuse, put some guts in my mill and let’s do it! I won't let you down.




He drove a hot rod Ford
That could lay a fat black patch.
That punk was a fool
Whose daring had no match.

 Bonnie Sue knew, deep down, that he wasn't a "bad kid," but some of her friends and especially her mom didn't see it that way. Tommy, she felt, was just frustrated, though she wasn't sure what it was that he was so antsy about. He didn't do well in school, but he was very smart. He had, after all, figured out, without any help, how to take his car motor all apart and put it back together again. Besides, he had said he loved her. True, it was only once and in a fit of passion. It was on a Friday night, last month, at the drive-in. It was one of those Francis the Talking Mule flicks. The movie was boring so they just made out. Tommy kept trying to touch her where she didn't think he should. They fought, she cried, and Tommy said, "I really love you, Bonnie Sue, I mean it."

 Bonnie Sue was sure that if only they could both finish school, get married (and Tommy in a good job) she'd be able to change his fast driving ways and other things that might need adjustments. Right now all she wanted was for her man to be here.

 Tommy, at 16 and a half, was one of the more dedicated and speed crazed hot rodders in his sophomore class. Though he had never applied to one of the hot rod clubs for membership he was always thinking about joining - if they would take him. That was the rub. He'd already had two tickets for speeding and he had a reputation for fast driving on city streets. Hot rod clubs frowned on "squirrels," as they called them. He had never shied away from a traffic light race even when Bonnie Sue pouted about his high speed drags. Trouble was, he couldn't figure her out. She was pretty enough but she was always talking about love and all that mushy stuff and she only sometimes seemed to enjoy the drag racing - legal or otherwise. On their first few dates she had been all excited about his races even going so far as to taunt one of her girlfriends because this friend's steady drove a stocker.

 But he was really burned up that she had so little regard for the fact that he held the record for the Train Run and now must defend that honor. Johnny Medford, with his daddy's brand new '55 Olds 88, had bested Tommy's record by at least 50 yards. For Tommy to let this go unchallenged would be like wearing your sister's bloomers or something equally unthinkable.

 The troubles with Bonnie Sue culminated last night as they sat sipping Cokes in the lot of the West Chester Pike Bun Boy. Removing his arm from her shoulders to light a Lucky, Tommy asked, while trying to make it sound like a casual mention, "You want to ride with me when I go for the Train Run record tomorrow night?"

 "Oh, Tommy, you're not going to do that again are you?" Not waiting for an answer she continued while tossing her pony tailed head in a dignified affront, "Tommy, I swear you're going to kill yourself one of these days with all this crazy...."

 "Come on Baby I just have ta do it, ya dig. I'm not gonna to be no chicken hearted punk. I'll be the coolest cat in town if I beat that harry-high-schooler in his daddy's stocker."

 "Oh Tommy, it's so dangerous I just worry that you'll be killed and I won't have you. I think you're the coolest guy at North Anderson anyway. Winning The Run can't make you any better in my eyes. Please, just for me don't do it," Bonnie Sue pleaded, all pouty faced.

 "Aw, don't cry honey. I know you dig me and all, but this is something I just have to do. Besides it should be a snap. The last time I ended up backing off before the tracks, I had so much reserve power. And since then I've added dual points.  And, hey, I'll put in new plugs in the morning to be extra safe! Don't worry," Tommy boasted, flicking his butt out the window of his faded black-topped '51 Ford with custom wheel covers.

 The object of his non-romantic desires, the '51, sported two-deuces with chrome racing air cleaners and glass-packed dual exhaust. It was not only fast but it sounded cool. In addition to the Mallory distributor he had recently added, he was planning to install Offenhauser high compression heads and maybe a Clay-Smith cam. His after school job at Wylie's Pure Oil Station didn't allow for many luxuries even though he was the highest paid of all the part-timers at $1.10 per hour.

  The rest of the evening was like, no-wheres-ville. They ended up, as they always did after a date, parked at the old abandoned army base down near the feed mill. Every time he tried to put the move on Bonnie Sue she'd scrunch up closer to her door and whimper about how she just wasn't in the mood. Chicks! Who could understand them? What kind of mood could she be in parked in a lover's lane? He took her straight home, not even walking her to the door. Then he pealed out because he knew it would make her angry.

 Saturday, Train Run day, was chilly for September in Texas. Tommy had managed to install the new plugs between pumping gas and oil changes at Wylie's service station. The powerful flathead was running cherry and sounding very sweet. The soon-to-be nosed and decked rod had even gotten a wax job, compliments of the kids who hung out at the station. Kids, of course, meant anyone who wasn't old enough to have a driver’s license. These youngsters, in hopes of being able to get a ride to the race area, would do almost anything for the privilege of seeing one of their idols in a run against death.

 Just before quitting time, Johnny, riding in Delbert's straight eight Pontiac because his dad had stripped him of his driving rights upon finding out about the Train Run, stopped in at Wylie's.

 "Hey Mr. Cool, I hear tell that you're gonna try to beat my record tonight?" Johnny sneered.

 "Yeah, that's right sonny and I'll do it in a rod I built myself, not in my daddy’s stocker," Tommy shot right back in a menacing tone.

 "Why, I ought to climb out of here and...."

 "Okay, Okay, punks. Enough of this tough-guy talk. Do you guys wanna belly-ache or race," Delbert demanded, taking control of the pre-race details. "Now listen up: me and Harry as witnesses, plus about a dozen kids, watched Johnny here, beat the train from the no passing sign through the intersection. Now if you want to beat this record you must start at the end of the guard rail. Ya dig, Tommy?"

 "Well, I was thinking about starting halfway between the sign and the rail and...."

 "No, no that won't do. You have to use a permanent fixture, dig. Otherwise cats would be claiming to have started at all kinds of locations and the record would be muddied. We talked about it and that's the way it has to be. So, unless you're yellow we'll see ya five minutes before the eight-three-eight," Delbert stated.

 Curling his lip, Tommy spat, "I ain't yella - I'll be there."

 He didn't have time to be nervous only time to shower, change clothes and chow down with his mom and sister before heading for Bonnie Sue's.

 She wouldn't get into the car unless Tommy promised not to race the train, almost tearfully pleading - promising anything if he wouldn't make The Run. Too late. Even the thought of anything with Bonnie Sue didn't change his mind, though for a moment or two he had his doubts.

Tires squealing and defiance in his eyes
With his girl he had a fight
he cut out for the showdown as she cried,
"I know I'll grieve if you race this race tonight"

 They were waiting for him, a dozen or so classmates, buddies and kids all lined up on the grass strip that lay between the road and the tracks of the mainline. Some of the kids, seeing the empty passenger seat, offered or begged to ride shotgun for this run for the record.

 By 8:47 no sound akin to a train had been heard - the eight-three-eight was late! However, all was well and tension was relieved within a few minutes as the sound of number eight-three-eight, out of Wichita Falls, pierced the cool evening air. Without any discussion two of the spectator cars pulled onto the concrete blocking the highway so that no other vehicles could get in the way. Tommy moved the '51 to the point adjacent with the end of the guard rail, rapped the accelerator a few times and stared down the straight-away.

 A little over a mile away the slightly curving tracks met and crossed the highway. All he had to do was beat the train to this point and he would again be top rodder at North Anderson High and surely Bonnie Sue's faith in his abilities would be returned.

 The plume of thick gray smoke could be seen superimposed on the clear twilight sky from over a mile away and long before the west bound express itself was visible. Tommy raced the engine again and again wishing he had a tach to more accurately gauge the speed of his mill. Some of the kids were jumping up and down with excitement. Delbert stood slack jawed and Johnny sat, wide eyed, glad it wasn't him this time.

 The importance of the lateness of the eight-three-eight didn't register with Tommy as he readied himself for a good clean start. Glancing over his shoulder to the tracks he timed the dumping of the clutch to the exact moment the locomotive was even with him and the guard rail. The huge 4-6-4 iron monster, oblivious to its place in the destiny of that night, overshadowed the gathering of children playing with their toys.

 Tires spinning, the little flathead strained in first gear, as the train roared by. A speed shift to second brought a chirp of rubber and Tommy felt a twinge of pride as the force of acceleration pushed him into the seat back. Just when it seemed that the engine was about to explode he power shifted into third. Now topping 70 miles per hour he dared a glance at the rushing sound to his right - the sound of a death knell?

 Tommy was horrified to see that he was just now beginning to pass the speeding train. He was sure he should have been equal to the engine by now, but he was at least one car plus the tender behind. He pushed harder on the gas pedal and strained to hear if his engine had a miss or something. Ninety, 95, the needle swept past the 100 MPH mark and still he was not in front. The convergence, the intersection of death, was dead ahead. Where was the miscalculation? Did someone move the guard rail? Was the train running faster than its usual 60 MPH? Yeah! that's it. The train was late so they're running faster to make up for lost time. Flashing through his jumbled mind were thoughts of clamping on the binders and turning into the double barbed wire fence to his left - taunts of chicken - yellow - Bonnie Sue....

He slammed the massive locomotive
that was doin' better than 70 per
and when they pulled him from the carnage
his last thoughts were of her.





 Those few words, on the corn dust colored telegram, informing Bucky of his cancelled liberty, had just about ruined all plans for his fourth-of-July weekend celebration. Bucky, a nickname earned for staying on a not-to-tame horse at age six, and not for his slight overbite, was all set to spend the four-day weekend with Katy. Man, it just wasn't fair!
 He knew the possibility of a shortened furlough and had taken the chance when a hop had become available to Chicago. It had been only a few days since he had thumbed from O'Hare to his parents’ home in Emporia. Now all he had left was one day - one day in which to spend more time with his girl, ready his '55 and catch a few hours of shut-eye. Then it was 30 hours to the base, if he pushed it. He had decided on his last liberty that he wanted his car on base with him.

 Also parked in the detached garage behind the white frame house was a gift from his Uncle Bill, a partially disassembled '34 Chevy Town Coach. Uncle Bill abandoned it to him when the clutch went out. Uncle Bill was really his Great Uncle who preferred his horsepower one or two at a time - as in front of a carriage. The clutch gave out because first gear was stripped and Uncle Bill thought it wouldn't hurt to just forgo first and start slowly in second gear. But drive train didn't matter because he planned to use the engine and transmission he had salvaged from his Dad's wrecked Caddy. Just as soon as his tour was complete he was going to transform that rusty old trunkless Chevy into the coolest hot rod Emporia would ever see.

 The '55 Chev had been the first thing he attended to upon arriving home. He had hoped to have time to install a Corvette solid lifter cam to compliment the two-fours he had bolted on last year. He already had the 097 cam, so if he took it with him maybe he could find a place to work on it during off time while on shore duty.
 It only took a jump start and air in two of the tires to put the mildly customized rod back into action. The second thing he had done was to visit Katy. She had been his girl since junior high when he had fought Stevie Bilkus after Stevie called her a stuck up old maid. He hadn't really wanted to win her over then; it was more a matter of exercising an excuse to whip Stevie.

 Katy had gotten a job with the telephone exchange after graduation and had promised to wait for his enlistment to end so they could get married. Buck, that's what he called himself, though no one else did, except Katy, wasn't sure he wanted to get married so soon. Not that Katy wouldn't make a fine wife, its just that, well, he still had cars to build, places to go, wild oats to sow and you know, other stuff to do. Of course, if he let her get away she'd be hard to replace - she could have been a Breck girl. Katy had volumes of smooth silky blond hair that wound around her head and neck in giant curls like the chrome bumper on a '57 Olds. Besides her cover-girl good looks, she could cook! Meat loaf stuffed with hardboiled egg and mashed potatoes with thick gravy were her specialty - and his favorite.
 The first set of fireworks, those put on by the local Chamber of Commerce at the high school ball field (the field where he had played two years as second string linebacker and Katy had been a cheerleader) was the best he'd seen the town do. It was fun, and comforting too, squeezing into the packed bleachers with so many long time familiar old classmates, neighbors and friends.

 The second set of "fireworks" topped the first set by a mile. Katy had wrapped herself around him the minute the '55 had settled in at the local passion pit. Her softness and passion was only tempered by her tenacious reluctance to "go all the way". He thought that since a war was always possible and he could get killed she should show her love and devotion. No soap. He had tried that line before joining the Navy, but she was just as adamant now as then - not before marriage - period! Not that he was a virgin or anything, his shipmates had taken care of that at a brothel at Subic Bay.
 Thoughts of "fireworks" filled his mind as he nosed Black Beauty, the five-five, onto the highway at dawn's sparkling glow. He inhaled deeply, completely filling his lungs, like a carburetor sucking air at peak RPM. His mental capacity flooded with patriotic thoughts as his mind’s eye superimposed last night's fireworks on the clear Kansas sky.

OH BEAUTIFUL FOR SPACIOUS SKIES.  This canopy, so immense, it expands as high as the heavens and as broad as needed, not unlike a blanket of freedom, to cover Americans wherever they might be. The courageous blue makes up the bed for the stars of our flag and the blood red sunsets remind us, daily, of lives surrendered to protect the men, women and children of this vast beauty.  

 Winding second gear to 80 he dusted off a string of six cars, slammed into third and didn't back off until the needle crested 100. It felt good being an American, serving his country and protecting the ones he loved. The farm-fresh scented air of America's cereal bowl, forced through fully cranked opened cozy wings, fortified his euphoric pride.

FOR AMBER WAVES OF GRAIN. Gold nuggets of life sustaining sustenance on whose shoulders all of those who seek the protection of the spacious skies depend.

 The twin quads, allowing the little two-sixty-five - V8 to loaf along at 80+ in the speed-limitless flats of eastern Colorado, got him to within sight of the magnificent Rockies well before sunset. Buck was again stirred to his deep love of God and country.

FOR PURPLE MOUNTAIN MAJESTIES: Forging straight up from the great plains of gilded grain, like a church spire paying homage to the heavens, these rugged resplendent pinnacles symbolize the strength and tenacity of the spacious sky people.

 Turning South to catch U.S. 66 he marveled at the abundance of good will in each town he passed as other drivers and pedestrians alike waved or tipped a cap to him.

ABOVE THE FRUITED PLAIN: Scattered among the violet mountains and meadows of wheat are the bounteous production yards of the fruits of American ingenuity and manufacturing. In the history of the world these plains and majestic plateaus have yielded the highest standards of excellence and an excellent people.

 Spending tens of hours alone on America's highways after a night of pitching woo and witnessing aerial displays of "bombs bursting in air" can sober even the most dedicated of hot rodders. Somewhere between Santa Fe and Flagstaff, Buck realized that some dreams were meant to be just that and if he was going to sow any wild oats he'd better do it in a hurry. If the Navy keeps its promise he'll be 21 when he's released and old enough to stop playing and start earning his way in this wonderful country.

 Last night Katy had told him that she couldn't, or did she say wouldn't, wait forever. One thing sure, the Town Coach could wait, forever if necessary. He'd had his fun with cars. All through high school he had belonged to a car club and had helped build some of the fastest rods between the Rockies and the Mississippi.

 Say, maybe he could use some of his machinist skills he was learning, courtesy of his Uncle Sam, and his automobile savvy to start a little business of his own. Yeah, that's it, a custom rod shop. No wait, a new car dealership that sponsored race cars. The possibilities were endless - only in America.

AMERICA - AMERICA: Saying it once isn't enough. To be an American is to be strong and fair, and honest and wise, and humanistic and realistic, and all the other virtuous attributes of those under the protection of the spacious skies.

 He could see it all quite clearly now. Katy waiting behind a picket fence, two or three future rodders tugging at her apron strings, as he arrived home nightly in the latest model car from his prosperous agency. They would sit in rocking chairs on the porch every night after dinner and nod hellos to passing neighbors. Each Sunday they'd walk their children to the church where the minister would always point out some good deed he or Katy had done for the little town.

GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE: The Lord truly has blessed us with his benevolence, a covenant with all Americans, to do right by thee and thou and you and me.

 Behind the cottage they called home would be his personal experimental garage where some of the hottest rods in the world would be built. He would open the shop to high school kids so they too could learn hot rodding.

AND CROWN THY GOOD WITH BROTHERHOOD: As we keep the compact with God so shall he continue to bestow the munificence that comes from loving and understanding, and helping our brothers and sisters.

 Thump, thump, wump...flap, flap.... The reality of a flat tire brought Buck down from his supercharged castles in the clouds. It was almost 06:00 Saturday. His daydreaming had caused him to slow his pace and now he was at least three hours from the station.

 With the flat tire riding shotgun, because he didn't want to take the time to repack the trunk, he brought the nosed and decked, two door hardtop to peak RPM in first and second as he struggled to set his mind to the business at hand.

 Arriving with only a piston stroke or two to spare he vowed to write Katy that night and tell of his dreams and how much of a part he hoped she'd play in them. The view of the fleet, back-dropped by the morning glow of the Pacific, further cemented Buck's faith in himself, his country and the future.

FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA: Not just from Maine to Hawaii or Alaska to Florida, but to wherever those whose roots stem from the fruited plains, the fields of grain or the majestic mountains. For it is the duty of all Americans, an obligation that evolves from a pact with God, to stay the course and expand the spacious skies of brotherhood and freedom.