Right about the time I-67 was going in, a local guy by the name of Harvey Wohlstadt got a bright idea. He figured that there would be a lot of traffic coming by on the Interstate, and he also figured that people might like to get off the highway for a bite to eat. He thought people werenít likely to go all the way into town if they could get off the Interstate and eat right there in sight of the entrance ramp, and being the first one in line might bring him a pretty good business. Well before the freeway opened, he was constructing what would be the largest restaurant in town.
Looking back on it, Harveyís thinking was pretty good. Iím not clear on why he named it "The Chicago Inn," but it may have been because he was a huge Cubs fan. Considering the Cubís track record over the decades, he must have been using his heart, rather than his mind to want to risk the jinx of having the kind of success the ball team has had over the years. Nevertheless, it was a pretty decent restaurant if not super high class. It was built of cinder block, and wasnít exactly the most beautiful building in the world, but it was adequate for what he wanted. There was a huge sign in front that helped to draw business.
Arlene and I went into the Chicago Inn for the first time in the first few days it was open in late 1963, not long after Iíd walked away from the track, and a few days before the freeway actually opened. The food was pretty good, and the place was moderately busy, so I figured that Iíd be in the place again in the future. That was well over forty years ago, and I canít imagine how many thousands of times I must have been in there over the years.
Although the Chicago Inn was intended to be a travelerís stop, it soon became the busiest local restaurant. One of the things that made it seem friendly to the locals was a big table in the back, where a more-or-less-regular gang gathered for breakfast every morning. I really wasnít one of the regulars for a long time, but still, I seemed to make it down there for breakfast about once every other week back in those days.
I was a little bit more of a regular in the summer of í64, when I was once again riding with the driverís education kids. I had a big group of kids who wanted to get their driving in real early in the morning, so once again Iíd go get in a couple hours of driverís ed, then break for breakfast until the next session rolled around. One morning along in June, I was sitting in a booth by myself, nursing a cup of coffee and thinking about nothing in particular, when I happened to glance up and see Smoky Kern coming in the door.
Smoky and I hadnít had much reason to talk to each other since our little set-to out at the track the year before. Since Bradford was a small town weíd probably run into each other a few times over the course of the year, but "Morning, Smoky." Ė "Morning, Mel," was probably about the limit of what we had to say to each other. In fact, if I had to get the odd auto part for whatever project I was working on at school or at my shop at home, Iíd hang on until I had reason to run into Hawthorne to get it. Frankly, I didnít want to talk to him, mostly because I didnít want him apologizing to me. If he did Ė which didnít seem all that likely Ė I would just about have to accept his apology, and I figured the next thing I knew he was going to be twisting my arm to try to straighten out the mess that had resulted when he ran me off. Iíd already pretty much done it once at the expense of a lot of effort, all for nothing, and I didnít feel like doing it again.
In any case, I didnít want him to see me just sitting there staring out into space, looking like I obviously had nothing to do. I didnít have a lot of options open to me, but just then one of the waitresses walked by carrying a newspaper that sheíd found abandoned in some other booth. "Hey," I said to get her attention, and relieved her of the paper. That would probably serve about as well as anything. Quickly I opened it up and buried myself in it. I glanced up, to see that Smoky had sat down a ways away from me, but was looking in my direction, so I figured Iíd just better hide myself behind the paper.
I was just a little disappointed to discover that what I held in my hand was a copy of the Detroit Free Press. I had never been much of one to read the Free Press, since I was a lot more oriented toward Chicago than I was to Detroit, even though Bradford was in Michigan. After all, Iíd spent years in the Chicago and Milwaukee area, and Arlene being from Schererville just added to the Chicago orientation. It had been several years since Iíd been in the Detroit area at all, and I just had never gone back to Livonia since Iíd left the MMSA ten years before.
The front page held my interest for a little while, even though a lot of it was Detroit news that I didnít care about. The sports section was all about the Detroit Tigers, and I couldnít have cared less. I flipped around to the comic section, and that was pretty good although I thought the comics in the Chicago Tribune were better. I finished the comics, and flipped a page, to discover it full of classifieds. There was nothing there that I was interested in, so I flipped one page and then another, until all of a sudden I realized that Iíd seen something that caught my eye on the previous page. I flipped back, to discover that there was reason for something to catch my eye Ė a three-column ad announcing great deals on new cars at Frank Blixter Ford in Livonia!
"Well, son of a bitch!" I said out loud.
If it was the same Frank Blixter Ė and considering everything, that seemed pretty likely Ė then it was the first Iíd heard of him since the MMSA left me behind in Bradford back in 1954.
If Frank owned the Ford agency in Livonia, it seemed pretty likely to me that it was the one that Herb Kralick had owned, and I couldnít help but wonder how Vivian fit into the picture. That, of course, opened the floodgate of a lot of memories of the years Iíd spent with the MMSA.
Back when Iíd been lying in a hospital bed in the old hospital in Bradford that had since been replaced and converted into a nursing home, Arlene and I had pretty well made up our minds to turn our backs on the MMSA. It was something we had done, and weíd had fun at it, but it was addictive, and it wasnít something that would work out very well with the lives weíd wanted to build. Although weíd often wondered what had happened to Frank and Spud and the rest of the guys, as well as the MMSA, weíd never lifted a finger to find out. I might as well admit that there was a time that I was a little sour about the fact that Frank or Spud never appeared to have taken any interest in getting in touch with us Ė after all, we hadnít gone anywhere in all that time.
I sat there, looked at that ad, and let my mind roll back. If my dealings with the Bradford Speedway the year before had taught me anything, it had taught me that a lot of the old racer addiction had burnt out of me, and just seeing that name in that location got me curious about a lot of things. What had happened to those people that my life had once been built around? Would it be a good idea to find out if it was the same Frank Blixter?
And just how damn stupid would I feel if I didnít try to find out?
I glanced at my watch. I had plenty of time before I had to get back over to the school to get the next session of kids going. I grabbed my check and that section of the paper, and headed for the cash register.
It didnít take me long to drive over to Doc Bronsonís office, where Arlene was working in those days Ė sheíd taken a few years off when the boys were little, and after she went back to work she decided she didnít want to work at the hospital. Working for Doc Bronson meant that she had a regular schedule on days, rather than any old time of the day or night that sheíd had to deal with when sheíd worked at the old hospital. It would have been just as bad at the new hospital, which had been completed a couple years before. The old hospital had been inadequate and something of a fire trap, and the town went to a lot of effort over the years to come up with the cash to build a new one. It was one of the real points of pride in Bradford.
Things were still pretty casual around Doc Bronsonís office in those days, and it only took a couple minutes waiting to see Arlene while she finished up with whatever it was she was doing. "Whatís up, Mel?" she asked.
"Take a look at this," I said, showing her the paper and pointing out the ad for Frank Blixter Ford.
"Iíll be darned," she said after a couple seconds. "You donít suppose itís him, do you?"
"Blixter isnít a very common name, and itís in Livonia," I said. "Iím darn tempted to fiddle around the driving schedule for the rest of the week and take a run up there tomorrow. Would you like to come along if you can get off?"
"Itíd be interesting," she said. "But I canít get off, and Iím not sure how bad I want to go up there and hear you two yarn about Okinawa and the old days."
"You donít mind if I go by myself?" I asked.
"No, suit yourself," she smiled. "Boys will be boys."
With that, I headed over to the school, thinking about what I could do to my schedule to free up a day. A lot of people think that teachers have it soft, what with being off all summer, but it really didnít apply in my case, what with the driverís education. It ate up a lot of time, and with the size of the classes increasing as the Baby Boomers hit driving age, it had started to get out of hand. I wasnít getting the free time in the summer that I would have liked. Fortunately, after the summer of 1964 when I realized things were getting out of hand, I went to the school superintendent, Ralph Olmstead since Mike Corrigan had moved on, and talked them into putting on a second instructor. That got me back to a little more reasonable schedule where I could get a day off once in a while and not have to work weekends. It turned out to not be a big deal to get the schedule worked around with the kids so I had tomorrow off.
That evening, Arlene and I got talking about the old days and the MMSA a lot, much more than we normally did, and I realized that she was about as curious about what had happened as I was. Once again I made the offer for her to come along with me, and once again she refused. She made one suggestion, though: "If you get Frank feeling real softhearted, why donít you see what kind of deal heíd give you on trading in the Olds?"
"Might not be a bad idea at that," I agreed. The Olds was paid for and four years old, now; weíd gotten rid of the í55 Chevy a couple years before, and I had sort of inherited the F-85 as my go-to-school car. The Chevy had really been showing its age, and it was to the point where I had to either give it a major rebuild or just limit myself to driving it around town. For once I hadnít felt like giving a car a major rebuild, especially since Iíd been in the middle of the Bradford Speedway hassles when it had become clear that it was time for it to go. Weíd pretty well decided that it was going to have to get traded sooner or later, probably for a smallish car since we had a big Pontiac station wagon for Arlene to drive, big enough to haul all the kids without feeling cramped like we did in the Olds.
The next morning, I got in the F-85, stopped off at the Chicago Inn for breakfast, then headed up the I-67 on-ramp toward the north and I-94. It felt a little strange; I rarely drove the Olds much farther than Hawthorne, but then, I rarely had reason to go much farther than Hawthorne without the family anyway. It was strange how much of a homebody I had become. I hardly ever got more than thirty miles or so from home, especially by myself. It had been years since we had been farther than Schererville. In the back of my head I realized that we were long overdue for a real family vacation, but Elaine might still be a little young for something like that. On the other hand, if we went to the right place it might work out all right.
It seemed a long ways away from the way it had been in the old days, when I drove the old í37 Ford all over the Midwest while Iíd been with the MMSA. How I used to enjoy being on the road, to see what might lay beyond the next hill, to see sights I hadnít seen before, go places that most people would never see. Those had been the good old days, I thought. Iíd turned my back on a lot when the MMSA had left me behind in Bradford.
I couldnít help but wonder if this was a foolís errand. The MMSA was a long time ago; I wouldnít have wanted to bet if Frank would even remember me. On the other hand, there were a lot of unfinished stories Iíd often been curious about, and if nothing else I might be able to get answers to some of those questions.
Weíd never had I-94 back in the MMSA days, although it wasnít long coming. US-112, the road I would have taken ten years before, was a crooked, slow road that brought back a good feeling of all those slow two-lane roads and small towns weíd so often gone through. This time I avoided it for the sake of getting there more quickly; it couldnít have been more than two hours from Bradford to Livonia using I-67 and I-94.
It had been over ten years since Iíd been in Livonia; eleven, in fact. Things had changed, and changed a lot. The traffic was a lot heavier than I remembered it, the roads had changed around some, and the landmarks had, too. It took me a while to stumble around the town I used to live in, half lost, before I figured out where I was and drove over to the Ford agency. Except, it wasnít Herb Kralick Ford like I remembered Ė it was all gone, and it was now only a parking lot for a large supermarket. I was sure I was in the right place, except that the right place wasnít right any longer.
I found a gas station and asked the kid pumping gas Ė they still had them in those days Ė how I could find Frank Blixter Ford. It turned out that Iíd gotten off I-94 at the wrong exit Ė it was at the next exit up the pike, right off the Interstate. The kid told me how to cut across town to get there, and I managed to find it without too much difficulty. I was a little surprised Ė this was a big agency, with probably two or three hundred cars in the lots around it, at least.
I found a place to park and headed inside. I was met right at the door by a clean-cut, eager young man who had obviously spotted a possible mark coming in the door: "Can I help you with a new car, sir?" he asked politely, but with the impression that he was ready to deal right now.
"Not today," I said. "Iím looking for Frank Blixter. Itís a personal deal."
"Heís around somewhere," the salesman replied. "If you head back down that hall to the left, youíll find his secretary; she probably knows where he is."
"All right, thanks," I smiled.
"Weíve got some great deals going right now," he added. "Iíd sure like to sell you a new Ford today."
Iíll just bet you would, I thought while I said, "Not today, I think. But thanks, anyway." I turned and headed back toward the office. It was clear that I was going to have to watch my step Ė this was a high-pressure sales agency, not the casual little place Herb had run back there in what was now a supermarket parking lot.
The secretary was a blonde girl in her mid twenties, all dressed up nice in a short skirt and looking like she meant business. "Hi," I said. "Iíd like to speak to Frank Blixter."
"Heís very busy today," she replied politely. "Who may I say is calling?"
"Mel Austin," I told her. "He should remember me."
"Very well, sir," she said picking up the phone. She hit a couple numbers and said, "Sir, thereís a Mel Austin here to see you . . . sir?"
Just then the back door to her office burst open and Frank rushed in. "Jesus Christ, it is you, Mel!" he beamed excitedly. "How the hell are you, anyway?"
"Older," I grinned. He looked older himself Ė and with good reason, I guess. Heíd have had to have been in his early fifties by then. Heíd been in his early thirties when weíd met on Okinawa, and, somehow, that had now been almost twenty years ago. Where did the time go?
"Arenít we all?" he shook his head, throwing his arms around me. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Right where you left me," I told him. "Turned out they needed an auto shop teacher, so Arlene and I stayed there."
"Arlene, too?" he grinned. "I donít know why, but somehow I thought that might happen. That was where, some little town down near South Bend or Fort Wayne or something, wasnít it?"
"Bradford, Michigan" I replied. "Just north of the Indiana line."
"Oh, yeah, I remember, now," he smiled. "That was about the ugliest wreck I ever saw back in the old days." He turned to the secretary. "Joyce, this is Mel Austin," he told her. "He was about the best driver I had back in the old days."
"And Iíll bet you hear about the old days quite a bit," I grinned.
"Well, yes," she said shyly. "Frank always seems to be able to find some story about them."
"You up for some coffee, Mel?" Frank asked. "We need to sit back, chew the fat and catch up a little."
"I donít have to today if youíre busy," I offered. "We could put it off for another time."
"What, and let another decade go by? Not on your life. I donít have anything that canít be put off for a while. Joyce, get Mel and me some coffee. Come on back to the office, Mel, take a load off. Jesus, itís good to see you after all these years."
I followed Frank back to his office, which proved to be large and comfortable, with pictures and plaques and whatnot all around the walls. A good number of the pictures were from the MMSA days Ė one of them, a little to my surprise, was one of a much younger me standing next to the 66 car Iíd driven so much. "Looks like youíve turned successful on us," I commented.
"Yeah, things have changed a lot," he replied, plopping down in his chair behind his desk. "I donít even believe how much theyíve changed." He shook his head and continued, "This is really something, to have you pop up out of nowhere. Jerry and I were just talking about you the other day. I lost track of you years ago, right after the crash, when things went crazy on us. I had no idea what happened to you, but Bradford probably would have been the last place I thought to look. I tried, but I never had a home address for either you or Arlene. Howís she doing, anyway?"
"Oh, pretty good," I told him. "I had no idea what happened to you until I saw your ad in the Free Press yesterday. I donít see that paper much. She would have liked to have come along, but she had to work."
"Nursing, I expect?"
"Yeah, a doctorís assistant," I told him. "She decided she didnít like working in hospitals all that much."
"Canít say as I blame her," he replied. "You got any kids?"
"Three," I told him. "The boys are seven and six, Elaine just turned four. How about you?"
"Vivian and I only have two. Kathy is nine and Herb just turned eight."
"Howís Vivian doing, anyway?" I asked.
"Oh, pretty good," he replied. "Running everything with her usual iron fist. Sheís not here today, sheís over at the other place, negotiating about getting in another line."
"You have another place?" I asked.
"Iíve got a piece of the action, but itís her business," he said. "Itís just a little bit complicated. Ford is a little bit snippy about foreign cars being sold out of the same agency, so back before we moved here, we set up another operation to just sell foreign cars. British Motors, Simca, and Fiat. The new line is a Japanese outfit, Toyota. It sounds pretty promising."
"A lot of those foreign cars around these days, arenít there?"
"Darn straight," he replied. "Back when we took over the agency, I tried for a Volkswagen dealership, but we were just stretched too many ways at once. Iím still sorry we couldnít follow through on it."
"So, what happened to the MMSA, anyway?"
"Thatís a long story," Frank sighed. "And a sad one. The short version is that it outlived its time and died, and we were more lucky than smart to get out of it when we did."
"So what happened?"
"Jeez, where to begin?" he shook his head. "Donít get me wrong, I never lost money on the MMSA, but our best year was 1952. I donít know if you noticed, but our gate was down some on the weekday events in 1953, and it was even worse in the spring of 1954, before your crash."
"I remember thinking that the crowds were sparse in some places," I said. "I had a track owner tell me one time that people would rather sit home and watch Ed Sullivan or something on TV rather than come out to the track and buy tickets."
"That probably sums it up as well as anything," Frank nodded. "The fair dates were still bringing in good money, but the track dates and the solos were falling off, thereís no other way to say it. By the time you had your crash Iíd pretty well come to realize that the best years were probably in the past, but hell, you know as well as I do that itís hard to quit doing something you enjoy. Anyway, after you crashed and you and Arlene had to leave us, well, it just wasnít as much fun as it had been. We did pretty well with the fair dates, but, Iíll be honest, without you and Arlene my heart wasnít in it quite as much as it once had been."
"Yeah, that last year or so wasnít quite as much fun as the earlier years had been," I admitted. "I mean, even though we had Arlene with us, I was thinking a lot about how I had to get out and start having a real life."
"Thatís a pretty fair statement of the way I felt, too," he replied. "Well, to make a long story short, along in the fall I brought the idea up to both Spud and Jerry, and both of them admitted that it was wearing a little thin for them, too."
"Jerry?" I asked.
"Carnie," he explained. "We still called him that back then, but after he became a salesman for us we decided that it wasnít a good idea to use the nickname anymore."
"Heís still around?" I asked.
"Yeah, he runs Livonia Import Autos, thatís Vivianís other agency," he explained. "Does pretty well with it, too. Anyway, like I said, the fair dates were still solid even though everything else was getting a little thin, so I guess he did some nosing around some of the carnival people he knew. The next thing I knew, heíd come up with an offer from a carnival owner he knew to purchase the whole operation, with the idea of running just fair dates and a few good track dates with it. It wasnít all that good of an offer, really, but when we got back to Livonia after the end of the season the shit hit the fan when Vivian announced she was pregnant."
"Oops," I grinned.
"Yeah, oops," he shook his head. "Well, needless to say, that set a lot of things on their ears. Weíd been kicking around the idea of getting married for a couple years, but she wasnít happy about me being gone half the year, neither was her mother, and for that matter Herb wasnít all that crazy about it. But, both Herb and her mother had been leaving some pretty broad hints for a couple years about our getting married, so I guess thatís what it took. What did you know about the deal with Vivian and her folks?"
"Not much," I said. "You guys kept it about as close to the chest as a typical brassiere."
"Yeah, well, it was a little awkward," he said. "The simple way to tell the story is that Vivian wanted to take the agency over from her dad, and he was getting ready to retire, anyway. He wasnít too crazy about her being in the car business, and her mother just absolutely hated the idea. Not ladylike, you know."
"I sort of knew about that," I admitted. "Never in quite that many words, though."
"That much of it wasnít any big secret," he nodded. "The thing is that the agency, or at least the money from the agency, was going to wind up being left to Vivian. The big thing was that she wanted the agency sooner, rather than later, and her mother was twisting her fatherís arm not to let her have it. I mean, she wanted it on her own, straight ahead, and thatís what had gummed up things for years. Well, having Kathy in her belly changed a lot of things. Now, her dad and I always got along thick as thieves, and he wasnít opposed to the idea of me buying him out, even if some of Vivianís money was involved. I think he and her mother figured that if Vivian was home working at being a mommy she wouldnít be at the agency peddling Fords. That was never Vivianís idea, but at least she was willing to buy off on me sort of fronting for her if it was the only way in for her. Of course, Iíd have to put up some money, too. I had some in the bank, but I needed more, and selling the MMSA was the easiest way to get it since I wanted out anyway."
"But it all worked out?" I smiled.
"Well, yeah," he shrugged. "It was a lot more complicated than that, and the banks were involved every which way. There were any number of times the whole damn deal could have fallen apart if someone had sneezed at the wrong time. When everything came out in the wash, we wound up naming the agency Frank Blixter Ford to keep Vivianís mother from going off the handle too much, but what doesnít show on the sign out front is that the agency is owned by Blixter Holdings, and Vivian is the majority shareholder in that."
"So she wound up getting her way?" I grinned.
"Pretty much," he smiled. "Iím the general manager here, but sheís Chairman of the Board and CEO of the holding company. She actually managed to lie low for a little after she had Kathy, but she didnít waste any time. She was leveraging everything to set up the import agency at the same time. Actually, itís all pretty much fine with me. I get to wheel and deal like a car dealer and let her play the high-finance game. Sheís better suited to it than I am, anyway."