Bullring Days Two:
Bradford Speedway

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2008, ©2012

Chapter 4

So that’s how Arlene and I wound up in Bradford.

I think that in the beginning both of us more or less thought we wouldn’t be here very long, but I guess we were wrong.

I wound up getting out of the hospital several days later. Although I was on crutches, I wasn’t getting around very well, and it just about wore me out to just ride around town to our new house. I recall that she went a little out of her way to show me the high school and around town a little, as that was the first look I’d really had at the place. My initial reaction was that it was a pretty nice place for a town its size, and I’ve rarely had reason to modify my opinion since then.

I was going to say that Bradford hadn’t changed much over the years, and then I got to thinking about it and realized that would be a lie. Bradford has actually changed quite a bit, but it came by little bits and pieces so small we hardly noticed it. It really wasn’t until I sat down to start writing this, trying to remember what it was like back then, that I realized just how much has changed since 1954.

Bradford in 1954 was very much a country town – by which I mean that one of the reasons the town existed was to serve farmers in the surrounding area. There were a few small industries, the biggest being one that built pumps and other equipment for agricultural irrigation, so even that had a farm base. There were a couple of smaller industries that made the odd part for the auto industry, but for the most part the town’s economy rested on its agricultural base. There were a lot of retail businesses, some of them on the small side, that served the farmers or the population in general. There wasn’t much you couldn’t get in Bradford so long as it was something that you used on an everyday basis. There were grocery stores, hardware stores, clothing stores, furniture stores, and other stores of about every description you can think of.

If you were a farmer who lived a few miles out of town, you might come to town once a week to do your shopping. You could get your groceries, a new pair of overalls, your animal feed and parts for your combine all in Bradford. Once in a while you might have to go to Hawthorne, the county seat, for something, but that was eighteen miles away and you didn’t make the trip unless you had to.

All of that changed slowly over the years, but change it did, and at least in this part of the country the change was pretty universal. A bigger town like Hawthorne could support bigger stores with a bigger selection of stuff than you could get in Bradford, yet the fixed costs of running the store didn’t go up as fast as the size did. This is what we called "economy of scale" in the economics classes I was to teach in later years, and the end result was that the diversity of products that you could get here in Bradford slowly diminished. We haven’t had a furniture store here for years, and the last clothing store closed about fifteen years ago when the elderly owners decided to retire.

For an example – one that I used in my classes again – when I came to Bradford we had a half dozen grocery stores. None of them were very big and were mostly storefront operations. The big one was the Kroger store; it was a two-storefront operation – the wall between the buildings had a hole knocked in it to make it one store, so it was maybe sixty by a hundred feet. That was a big store for those days and had at least a little of about everything you could want. It didn’t have, oh, eight kinds of bread, only two or three, so I guess you’d have to say that the selection was limited. The rest of the stores were smaller, single-storefront operations, so the selection was a little more limited, and they couldn’t keep as much of it in stock. Nobody worried about it because that was the way things had always been.

Now, most of these stores were downtown. The only place you had to park was on the street, where there were parking meters to keep people moving along. A couple of the small independent grocers didn’t like the way that the bigger Kroger store chain could undercut their prices. They got their heads together and put up a building on a big empty lot on the edge of the downtown area that had a little more space than the Kroger store, and a parking lot with free parking. It was the free and adequate parking as much as anything that soon brought them a big share of the grocery business in town. The story went that they took one look at the completed building and wondered how they’d fill it, but within a year were adding on. It didn’t hurt the Kroger store all that much, but the competition drove a couple of the other independent grocers under. I won’t go into the ins and outs of how it happened, but we’ve been down to one big grocery store for a good many years, now. It’s been longer than that since we’ve had a little grocery store downtown, and those buildings that housed them now have other businesses in them, or nothing at all.

The same sort of thing happened with most everything – but slowly, over time, so we barely noticed it until we looked up and wondered where everything went.

At the same time that economy-of-scale thing was working in the agricultural field. When I started teaching at Bradford, I’d imagine that a good half the boys in my classes were wearing those blue Future Farmers of America jackets with the big gold patch on the back. Most of those boys really expected to be farmers sooner or later, but darn few of them ever managed it. When I came to Bradford, the average farm was eighty or a hundred and twenty acres. There were a handful of people who leased land to be able to farm some more, but I doubt if much of anyone farmed over 240 acres. All those little farms meant that there were a lot of farm families, at least a hundred in the school district and probably more. Today, there’s only a handful of people making a living from nothing but farming in the Bradford Consolidated School District, and they’re having to work a thousand acres or more of their own land or leased land to make ends meet.

Why? That old economy-of-scale thing again. Assume that it takes two farmers a tractor apiece to each farm their eighty acres. One farmer, with a slightly larger, more expensive tractor, can farm 160 acres and get twice the income in the process. There eventually comes a point of diminishing returns, but bigger equipment, though more expensive, can keep shoving that point back.

Back in the old days when I came to Bradford, most if not all those hundred farm families kept cows – six, eight, ten, maybe a dozen but not many more. The milk was handled in those old ten-gallon milk cans you see in the antique stores today, and there were a lot of milk trucks making calls on a lot of farms because the cows had to be milked twice a day, every day. There are still people around who have beef cattle, but milking cows are just plain gone on the small farms. What we have today is a huge barn a few miles out of town where there are over two thousand milk cows. They milk around the clock getting to each cow three times a day. Granted, there are thirty people working there to do it, but that’s a lot less than the hundred to two hundred people it took to maintain half the number of cows in 1954.

Take that as an example, add it all up, and Bradford has changed a lot in all those years.

Back on that August day in 1954 when Arlene drove me home in her Studebaker for the first time, there was no way to see all of that coming. As she had said, it was a small house, but somehow it was a little bigger than I had pictured it in my mind’s eye. It had two bedrooms, a single bath, a fairly large living and dining room, and a small kitchen. It was kind of a Cape Cod style, but the roof was low enough that the attic wasn’t of much use except for storage. Not many years ago someone had dug out under the house and cemented in the walls and floor, making what we called a "Michigan basement." Except for a place to put the oil furnace and electric water heater, we didn’t use it much.

The house was pretty well furnished right from the first. Some of the stuff had been loaned to us and other stuff given to us, mostly by some of the nurses at the hospital. Not much of it was new, but most of it was in pretty good condition. I didn’t find out till after we moved in that several of the nurses and their husbands had held a work bee to clean the house and fix a few things, which I thought was pretty nice considering that neither Arlene or I knew much of anyone around town.

It was on a Wednesday when I saw the house for the first time. The following Saturday, Arlene drove me down to the nearest county seat in Indiana, where we paid five bucks for a marriage license and another five to have a local judge sign his name in the proper spot. It wasn’t much of a wedding but neither of us wanted a big ceremony, under the circumstances. Still, it wasn’t as if we didn’t have anyone there, because we did. Our guests included Beverly and a few of the nurses from the hospital, Mike and Cathy Corrigan, and Arlene’s father and mother, along with her brother, Willy, and his wife – her other brother, Joseph, was out west somewhere and couldn’t make it to the festivities, such as they were. We went out afterwards to a downtown restaurant and had lunch, and that was our wedding reception.

All of us were pretty pleased with the whole affair except for Arlene’s mother. I guess she had visions of a big, rich wedding ceremony; her dad was pleased partly because Arlene was getting a husband to keep her in line, and also that he didn’t have to pay for that big, expensive wedding ceremony his wife wanted.

After what had been a pretty rocky start, as time went on I got along better and better with Tom and Willy. In time they turned into pretty good friends. No one in my family was any closer than Nebraska, and I didn’t get along with them very well anyway, but the Pewabics went a long way toward making up for it.

Arlene’s and my honeymoon consisted of our going back home and closing the front door. We didn’t even take the phone off the hook since we didn’t have a phone yet, although it wasn’t long in coming – still one of those hand-crank party-line affairs. We got a dial phone in the next year or two, even though it was still on a party line. Although things were a little awkward on our honeymoon due to my casts and general weakness, Arlene went to extra effort to make things worthwhile. I don’t recall being bored, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

After that, things went pretty quickly. I was slowly getting around a little better, although still on crutches. A few days before school started I went back to the hospital, and Dr. Bronson put a walking cast on my leg, which made things a whole lot easier. Still, when school started I decided to drive the Ford the couple blocks to school, stupid though it might have seemed, just because I didn’t feel like hobbling that far.

The auto shop classes were in what was called the "annex building" across the street from the high school. It was fun, and a new experience to stand up in front of the class on my crutches and say, "I’m Mr. Austin, your new auto shop teacher, and these casts are here to show you what can happen when a car gets away from you." That got me a laugh right at the beginning, and got things off on a high note.

The ins and outs of teaching the class don’t matter a lot. I’d spent some time on lesson plans and some of my goals for teaching the classes; one of them was to have fun, along with teaching the kids something – and to really avoid putting kids down, no matter how much they might deserve it. Several of the kids had opted to take the class over again without credit since even though they’d gotten credit for the class the year before, they didn’t feel like they’d gotten very much out of it. All of those kids said that they learned a whole lot more about cars and working on them than they had the previous year, and everybody always seemed good natured, so that was about all the success that I could ask for.

The old high school was one of those three-story brick jobs, and there was nowhere you could go that wasn’t up or down stairs. I wasn’t handling stairs very well when I started, so we moved my one history class and the study hall over to the auto shop classroom. That meant that I didn’t have to go over to the high school building at all, so I was a little slow getting to know the rest of the staff and a lot of the kids. In a few weeks more I was totally done with the cast, and things went a lot better although it took me a while to get the rest of my strength back.

Once I got the cast off I parked my old ’37 Ford out in back of the house and just let it sit there – it had given me good service for many years, but by now it was close to old as the hills. I’d taken good care of it and it was in better shape than a seventeen-year-old car had a right to be in those days. For a while there I probably would have sold it, since we really only needed one car with me walking to school even on the bad days. It was really only worth scrap value, not much in those days, and it had some sentimental value so I was reluctant to let go of it. The Ford sat out there for several months, until one day I realized that I needed a car to use for some Auto Shop II presentations and the Ford would fill the bill nicely. Again, I won’t go into the details, but over a period of three or four years the Ford spent most of its time sitting over in the auto shop, being used as a demonstration project on a lot of things. Over the course of all that it got a pretty close to full restoration to its original 1937 condition, except that it had the larger engine.

I can’t tell you how many times over the next few years people asked me if I’d like to sell it so they could use it to make a hot rod, but I always turned them down. After another few years its value started to go back up, and I was glad I’d held onto it. Today it’s worth literally thousands of times the five dollars I paid for it back there in Chadron, Nebraska in the winter of 1947.

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To be continued . . .
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