Back there in August of 1954 it was hard to get my head around it all as I lay there in my hospital bed trying to make sense of everything.
When I could think halfway clearly, which wasnít often, strange images flooded my mind, starting with Sandyís race car getting sideways in front of mine. I know I tried stomping on the brakes a thousand times, but my leg wouldnít move. I kept seeing my car Ė number 66 Ė sliding up over his, seeing the crowd, seeing the dirt, and then seeing nothing.
Along in there I had a few other dim impressions. At one time I thought I heard Frank and Spud talking to me, but I couldnít make out what they were saying, ícause they werenít making any sense at all. A couple times I was sure Iíd seen Arlene, all dressed in white. That didnít make any sense. What would she be doing dressed in white unless she was an angel? If she was an angel this must be heaven, so why did my head hurt so much? No idea; it didnít make sense. Nothing much made sense at all. But slowly, things began to come into focus, and I began to become aware of where I was and what had happened, though a lot of things still hadnít started making sense yet.
Iíd had some good years and memorable years driving for the Midwest Midget Sportsman Association, but this was halfway through my fifth year, and Iíd been feeling for some time that it was getting to be time to grow up and get on with my life. Iíd seen a lot of country roads and tank towns driving those little oddball midget cars Ė it was really more of a show than it was a racing circuit, but we really did race, and I was pretty good at it. In fact, I was good enough at it to win the MMSA championship three years running.
It had all started back when I met Frank Blixter and Spud McElroy back on Okinawa just before the end of World War II. Both of them were pre-war midget racers, and often after a dayís work in the motor pool the rest of us would sit around and listen to Frank and Spud tell stories of racing in the bullrings of the thirties and early forties. Frank was mostly an Upper Midwest racer while Spud was an East Coaster, mostly running in New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania. After the war they went back to racing while I went to college to get a teaching certificate, but one day in early 1950 I ran into Frank in Milwaukee. He talked me into driving for the racing show for the summer, and, well, the summer turned to fall, and one year turned into the next. I couldnít quite give it up until forced to. As I finally found out, a tie rod end broke on Sandyís car that evening at a dirty, little beat-up dirt track in Bradford, Michigan, which was why I was lying in this hospital bed trying to figure out what was going on.
Along the way, about a year before, the MMSA was racing in Schererville, Indiana, where we met Arlene Pewabic. She was only weeks back from being a surgical nurse in Korea Ė the war was still going on Ė and she wanted to get it out of her system. She was a pretty good driver, and we were short on drivers at the time, so somehow she wound up traveling with the show. She and I had started on a pretty good romance, but when thereís just one woman among a bunch of guys, well, tensions arise, so weíd pulled back from each other a lot. It was only when I came to in that hospital bed with her hovering over me in a bad-fitting white nurseís uniform that a few things started to make sense. I somehow began to realize that our romance wasnít over at all. The kiss she laid on me the first time I was awake enough to appreciate one wasnít far short of rape, not that I wouldnít have been willing, even if not physically able with that catheter I had in a necessary spot. Sheíd stuck with me rather than go on racing, which was a bit of a surprise. At least to me.
I mean, I had gone the last couple months figuring that any hope of setting anything up with Arlene was gone, and I had just totally missed the signals. Maybe Iíd missed them for a reason, since sheíd been laying low herself, and it wasnít exactly as if I had been sending any to her. Now it seemed like there was a chance to get something going. Maybe more than a chance Ė in fact, it looked pretty likely. There was no telling how it would come out, but right about then I figured Iíd put the Midwest Midget Sportsman Association behind me for most purposes. At least we wouldnít have that standing between us anymore. She made it clear to me she was planning on us staying together.
There were still plenty of other problems to solve, but as Arlene was with me for at least a while, a good many of them seemed manageable. It was clear that I couldnít stay in the hospital until I was all the way better, even though I was clearly going to be here for a while yet. I hadnít gotten all that good of a look at the tourist court out north of town where weíd been staying, but as I recalled it wasnít a bad place. I supposed I could survive there for a month or six weeks if I had to, especially with Arlene around to help out. Even if she was working, if I had a radio and something to read Iíd probably be all right, even if I was likely to get bored to tears. And at least Arlene would be working, so weíd be able to pay for the place. After that things were a little hazy, but at least Iíd be on my feet and be able to do something useful.
It wasnít as if I was totally broke, either; Iíd always been careful with my money, and over the last several years Iíd managed to put some money back at the end of the season each year. It wasnít a whole lot, maybe fifteen hundred dollars, which was a lot of money in the í50s. The only problem was that weíd have to go up to the MMSAís home base in Livonia to get it, and I wouldnít be able to do that for a while. Maybe, I thought, I could call up Vivian, the MMSA business manager, and maybe there would be something she could do.
But there was more than just the room and eating money. Hospitals and doctor bills were expensive, even in those days. I had no idea how much this was going to cost me, but I suspected that I could blow through that fifteen hundred and still have a lot of bills left over. There was no question that Iíd pay them, but it might take years.
I was still stewing over the money when Arlene came back into the room, carrying a tray. "Dr. Bronson said itís time to try to get you back to eating something," she said. "Youíve been on IVs all this time, but youíve had time to heal in your belly some. This isnít very much but itíll be a start."
"I donít think Iím going to mind," I said. "But you know, until now I havenít really even thought about eating. Now I guess it sounds a little interesting."
"I thought so," she smiled. "Your body is usually pretty good about telling you when youíre ready for something. This is lime gelatin, nothing special. Do you think you can handle it or do you want me to feed you?"
The cast was on my right arm and I hadnít tried to do much with it. I fumbled around for a little then said that I thought sheíd better be the one to do the honors. Right then, I didnít mind, so long as it was Arlene doing the feeding. In fact, it felt pretty good. In fact, it was just about the best lime gelatin that I ever ate.
* * *
I didnít get around to talking about the money with Arlene that afternoon. I guess I knew I was still not in very good shape or thinking very clearly. Besides, there was no rush and no point in worrying about it just then; I could worry about it all I wanted to in the future. I guess I must have slept most of the afternoon, anyway.
The next morning I was feeling quite a bit better, and was surprised to discover that I had a visitor. He was a guy about medium height, thick black hair and a face that must have been chiseled out of a pine knot with a dull knife. He seemed to be around fifty, give or take, and had on shop pants and a pinstriped gray shop shirt. He had the look about him that heíd know what to do if someone stuck a wrench in his hands. He seemed familiar, but I couldnít put a name with him.
"Smoky Kern," he introduced himself. "Iím the owner and promoter of the track here." That made him swim into focus a little. Iíd seen him talking with Frank, but I hadnít actually spoken with him. "I hear tell youíre getting better," he continued.
"Iím alive and awake," I said. "That counts for something."
"Beats hell out of the alternative," he smiled. "Sometimes you have to take what you can get and like it. Anyway, they told me you were up to having visitors, so I thought I might as well drop by."
"Itís good to see someone," I told him. "The only people dropping by have been hospital people. Guess thatís not surprising, since Iím a stranger here and all."
"Yeah, your guy Frank told me that he hated like hell to have to move on without you. He said it was going to be rough to leave his best driver behind, but I guess thatís the nature of the business, isnít it?"
"Yeah, itís part of the risk you take," I told him. "I always wondered what would happen if I had to get left behind in a strange town like this. Iím not quite alone, Iíve got Arlene here with me, that counts for a lot."
"Arlene?" he frowned, then brightened. "Oh, the gal that was driving the car behind you. Strange to see a woman driving a race car, especially something like one of those midgets. I tell you what, when that crash happened she stood on the brakes, did a bootlegger turn in the middle of the track, and was out of that car next to you just about as soon as you stopped moving. Darndest thing I ever saw. Then she really gave everybody hell when they wanted to move you, she was afraid your neck was broken. Canít say that it didnít look like it, either."
"I can imagine," I told him. "Iíve seen her in action. Thatís how I met her the first time, except that I wasnít the guy driving the car that got wrecked."
"Is she really a good driver, or was she just along for the show?"
"Sheís a darn good driver," I said. "Frank may have said I was his best driver but Iím of the opinion that she was. That number 2 car she drove never was all that great until she sat down in it, and right from the beginning she was better in it than anyone else Iíd ever seen driving it."
"Darndest thing," he shook his head. "You think of women drivers, you think they drive like, well, women drivers."
"Lot of people thought that," I told him. "I think it sold a few tickets."
"I can understand that," he nodded. "Me, Iím always one for selling tickets when I can. Itís getting harder and harder these days, since people are buying those darn TV sets and staying home with them on Saturday nights, rather than coming out to the races where they can buy some tickets and have some fun. We were down a little bit last year and I didnít think it a big deal, but so far this year weíre down again, and those damn things are the only thing I can think of to account for it."
"I guess theyíre really taking over," I replied. "I havenít seen all that much of them. Out on the road like we are thereís not much chance, except in a bar sometimes."
He shook his head. "Itís getting so youíre not up to date if you donít have one taking up space in the living room, and itís pretty much junk thatís on it," he sighed. "Thereís no telling what itís going to do to racing. You canít hardly open the Speed Sport News without hearing of another track going belly up, and I donít think weíve seen the worst of it yet. But I think Iíll manage to hang on for a while yet. But anyway, this is all getting away from the reason I come up to see you. I wanted to do this last Saturday night but we took a rain out. So when we raced last night, I announced to the crowd that the midget driver that was almost killed two weeks ago was still in the hospital here, and I had the buckets passed around." He held up a paper sack. "I counted out the change and turned it to bills, but we took up $578 for you."
"Damn," I said. "I really appreciate that. Iím like any driver, I guess, next to broke. I was starting to wonder what I was going to live on when they let me out of this place. Thatíll go a long way toward helping get me started. Next time you have a race, tell the people that I appreciate every penny of it."
"I sure will," he said. "If youíre still around when you get to feeling better, come on out to the track and Iíll introduce you around. Iím sure thereíll be folks showiní up that would like to meet you."
"Weíll have to see," I told him. "Arlene and I donít have any plans yet, but we may be going back to stay with her family. If thatís the case Iíll at least try to get back here before the season ends."
"Weíll be glad to see you," he smiled. "Weíve had some spectacular wrecks and yours was one of them, but we ainít never had nobody killed yet, thank the good Lord. So, you going to go back to racing them midgets?"
"Probably not," I told him. "The season will be just about ending before Iím ready to drive. Iím hoping to find a job someplace before then. Iíve just about made up my mind to pretty much turn my back on racing and concentrate on getting on with my life."
"I sort of know how that works," he said. "I decided to quit driving a few years ago myself. But getting away from the driving is one thing, getting away from the smoke and the dust and the sound and the smell is another thing, and I found it was a whole hell of a lot harder. So, what kind of work are you looking for, anyway? You a mechanic?"
"A fair one," I told him. "But Iím actually a high school teacher, certified here in Michigan as a matter of fact, though Iíve only been a substitute. Social studies and auto shop, mostly."
He shook his head. "Well, donít that beat all," he said. "You donít hear of many teachers driving race cars, thatís for sure. High school dropouts, yeah, but not school teachers."
"It was one of those things that just happened," I told him. "I met Frank back on Okinawa during the war, we got to be friends, then I didnít see him for years. You know how it is. When I met up with him again he already had the MMSA going, and the next thing you knew I was driving. It was fun, so I stayed with it for a while."
Well, that got us going on the racing stories. I had a few from over the years, of course, and he had a few as well, dating back to driving big cars back in the thirties. He said he remembered Frank from before the war, just a kid driving around in an old sprint car heíd built himself. From what I picked up from Smoky, those days were just about as wild as the stories that Frank and Spud had told over the years, so they had the ring of truth to them. While Iíd seen an awful lot and had some fun driving for the MMSA, that was a pretty controlled thing by comparison. It would have been a lot wilder if it was a case of having my own car and trying to make ends meet driving it, like Frank and Spud had done. In a way I was a little sorry Iíd missed some of those wild and wooly days, but I couldnít complain about what Iíd done.
I donít remember how long Smoky was there but it wasnít a short time, a couple hours, anyway, and it could have been more. His showing up and being friendly sure brightened the whole day. In fact, the only thing that made me feel better than Smoky coming around was finding out that Arlene and I werenít on the outs after all.
When Smoky finally left, promising to come back and shoot the bull some other time, Arlene came into the room. "Sorry to have to stay gone," she said. "But I had some other stuff that had to get done. I heard the two of you bench racing in here pretty good, though. It sounds like heís a real character, doesnít he?"
"Yeah, he does," I agreed. "Iíve met a few track owners and promoters over the years, and he seems like he fits right in with them. A nice enough guy, up to a point, but with a temper. He said they passed the buckets around last night, and took in five hundred and seventy some dollars for me. I guess that means that we wonít be totally broke when I get out of here, but how the hell Iím ever going to pay the hospital bill is beyond me."
"Youíre not going to have to pay it," she said. "I guess I didnít tell you. When Frank and Spud were here the other day, they told the hospital administrator to ship all your bills up to Vivian and sheíd take care of them."
"What?" I said in surprise. "How could he do that? I donít believe you."
"Iím not fooling," she said. "Frank wrote out a check for a thousand dollars right on the spot as a sort of a down payment. You think you were surprised! The hospital administrator just about had a heart attack on the spot. Iím sure he thought he was going to be eating your whole bill."
"Well, I will be damned," I shook my head. "Hell, I never figured Frank for that."
"Why not?" she said. "He did the same thing for Hap and Junie, and you mean a heck of a lot more to him than they ever did."
"I will be double damned," he said. "I never knew that, not a bit of it. Frank always acted like he was right on the edge. I mean, he always said that weíd had a pretty good year, but I never knew the details. I always thought he meant that he broke even."
She shook her head. "I really doubt that the MMSA has made Frank a millionaire, but heís made out all right with it, and partly because he watches every dime. Or, having met Vivian, I expect she does it for him."
"Yeah, I think I know her better than you do, but youíre probably right. I guess I never thought about it too much from a business standpoint."
"Probably because youíre a man and a racer, so you think everything can be solved by stomping your foot on the gas," she charged. "And, if you get right down to it I expect Frank thinks pretty much the same way, but Vivian looks after him. Iíll give Frank credit, though Ė he takes care of his people. When he and Spud were down here the other day, they brought the clothes and stuff youíd left with Vivian. She sent along a cashierís check for what was in your bank account, too. Frank left the pay you had on the books with me, along with a thousand dollar bonus, so we shouldnít have to worry about money for a while."
"Well, thank God," I said. "I was worrying about that."
"I probably should have said something to you about it before, but we got to talking about other things," she said. "Now, you donít have to worry about money. All you have to worry about is healing up, then you can worry about what comes next."
"That takes a load off my mind," I shook my head. "Iím just sorry I was out like a light when Frank and Spud were here. Iíd have liked to see them."
"Like I said, they hated to lose you," she smiled. "They said youíve been the guy they depended on most for years, and theyíre going to miss that."
"I just tried to do my fair share," I said, a little surprised at what sheíd told me. "You know, just drive the car and keep things moving."
"You did a fine job of it," she said. "Plus, you did the biggest part of training all the new guys who came on board. I know, because you taught me most of what I really know about driving a race car."
"I wouldnít have accomplished anything if you hadnít been pretty good at it anyway," I told her. "But speaking of cars, how bad was the 66 car torn up?"
"Amazingly enough, not all that bad," she replied. "Oh, it looked pretty bad from the skin being bent up. I didnít take a good look since I was more concerned about you. I recall thinking that the 69 car actually looked worse. Spud said they had both of them back running. He said that if you have to tear up a race car, two days out of Livonia is the place to do it. Apparently your friends up there worked a couple of small miracles. Now, Iíve got to get back to Mrs. Mayfield, Iím afraid Iíve been gone too long as it is. You just relax. You must be exhausted after your visitor, anyway. Maybe you ought to think about taking a nap."
"For once, Iím not particularly sleepy," I told her. "In fact, after that I think Iím going to be a little bit bored without someone to talk to. Is there something to read around here? A magazine, or something?"
"Iíll see what I can do," she replied. "It may be a while. Try to sleep if you can."
The idea of sleep sounded good, but it wasnít anything that appealed to me just then. A great deal of what I had been worrying about had been taken care of in fairly short order. I tried to add the money up in my head, then realized that I didnít know all the numbers. Whatever it was, it had to be over three thousand dollars, which was a heck of a lot of money in those days, especially not having to pay the hospital bill. Whatever else happened, once I could get out of the hospital it would buy Arlene and me a good bit of time to look for a place to settle down, to look for a place to work.