It was incredible to be sitting in Frank Blixterís office in his Ford agency after being out of contact all these years Ė it seemed like theyíd fallen away in a flash.
"So, what happened to the MMSA?" I asked.
"That got a little complicated, too," he shrugged. "Like I said, we were really juggling things at the time. I spent most of the winter going back and forth with the guy Jerry had come up with to buy it. His name was Ron Bush. You know how that goes. Bush wanted me to just give it to him, and I needed every nickel I could get out of it. To top it off, Jerry warned me to not actually transfer anything until this guyís check cleared, if you know what I mean. We finally settled on a price that was really more than it was worth, and sure as hell I had trouble getting the check through the bank. It wasnít until after it did that I had Spud take him to the warehouse where weíd stashed the cars and stuff."
"Carnie . . . I mean, Jerry hit it right on the nose, huh?"
"Oh, yeah, he doesnít miss many tricks. Never has. Well, by that time most of the winter had gone by. Spud and I had agreed not to spend any more money on fixing up the cars than we had to since it wasnít long after we got back from the 1954 season that it was clear that we might not be going on the road again the next spring. We just kept them parked all winter. So, as it worked out, Spud and Dewey and Pepper agreed to go out on the road with this Bush to show him the ropes, so to speak. That didnít work worth a damn. Bush came up with his own drivers, all right, but they were truck drivers and like that, not a racer among them. He and Spud fought like two cats in a burlap bag, and they didnít make it a month before Spud said, ĎFuck it,í and walked away. Dewey and Pepper went right with him, and for practical purposes, that was the end of the MMSA."
"Darn shame," I shook my head. "It was a good deal while it lasted."
"That it was," he agreed. "I didnít pay any attention after that, since I was up to my ass in alligators getting my feet under me at the agency while I tried to keep up with Vivianís ideas. But I got a lot of calls from people weíd dealt with for years complaining about this Bush joker. The tracks dumped him within the first few months, but he kept it going on fair dates for a while. But well, then, you remember that Frenchman that ran his car into the crowd at Le Mans back in 1955?"
"I remember reading about it," I said.
"Iíll tell you what, when that came down I was so happy to be out from under the MMSA it wasnít funny. There were a lot of fairs that didnít want to take the risk of having race cars right in front of the spectators, or couldnít get the insurance, and well, after everything else that asshole Bush had saddled himself with, that was about the killer. I didnít find out until quite a while later that some bank showed up and repossessed the whole deal, and Bush was glad to let them have it to get out from under it. They wound up scrapping everything for pennies on the dollar. I wish Iíd known about it, I might have been tempted to buy some of that stuff back. There were some good race cars and parts there. The MMSA cars wouldnít have made frontline regular midgets, but with a little work they could have been turned into some pretty decent hobby cars for guys that just wanted to mess around."
"All gone, huh?" I shook my head. "Thatís kind of a shame. I mean, those days are in the past, but it would at least be nice to know that theyíre still around."
"Well, mostly all gone," Frank shook his head. "You remember that pile of spare parts out in my uncleís barn? Itís still there; in fact, itís a little bigger than it was, since that asshole Bush didnít want to take all of the spare parts collection. Thereís one complete car Ė well, more or less Ė out there, although pretty well banged up, and there are enough parts to get started on fixing it. Hell, there might be enough parts there to build a second car. I canít imagine why anyone would want to, though. My uncle was bothering me just the other day about getting his barn cleaned out, but I havenít figured out what to do with it. Maybe just scrap it, I guess."
"Jeez," I shook my head. "I wouldnít mind just looking at that stuff, just to remind me of the old days."
"Hell, I havenít been out there in several years myself," he shrugged. "I probably ought to take a run out there some time just to see whatís left and how much of a pain in the ass itís going to be to get it cleaned up." He glanced at the pile of paperwork on his desk. "The hell with it," he said. "This shit can wait. Itís too damn nice a day to be sitting inside. Letís take a run out there. Hell, letís take a convertible. This is a ragtop day if there ever was one. Maybe we can stop for lunch some place."
"Iíd like that," I said. "Itís good to see you again, and I have to admit to some curiosity about what happened to some of the other guys."
"Donít know myself, a lot of them," he said, reaching for the phone and hitting several numbers. "Perry, Frank," he said. "Have we got a ragtop sitting around with dealer plates on it? . . . Well, how about setting one up? . . . Yeah, thatíd do fine. See you in a few." He clicked the hook on the phone and dialed another number. "Joyce? Mel and I are going to take off running for a while. If Viv calls, tell her that Mel Austin showed up out of nowhere, weíre busy going over the old days." There was a pause. "Well, if I donít get to it today, Iíll get to it tomorrow. Weíll be leaving in a couple minutes if something absolutely canít keep."
The conversation went on for another couple minutes, mostly talking about business details. In spite of a huge change in his life, there seemed to be a lot about Frank that hadnít changed. He was still a friend, I discovered a little to my surprise; I wouldnít have bet on it. It was good to see that heíd made something of himself, not that Iíd ever figured that he wouldnít have.
After a few more moments, he was off the phone. "I swear," he said as he put the receiver in the cradle, "Most of my life consists of doing what women tell me to do. If it isnít Vivian, itís Joyce, or Alice, our bookkeeper. Iíll tell you what, Mel, there are some good things to say for just being out racing. I donít have much to do with racing anymore, except for giving small-bore sponsorships to some local short track racers, but I sure miss being out on the road and looking forward to the next race."
"There are times I miss it, too," I admitted. "Iím sorry I never thought to try to get back with you sooner, but Arlene and I had pretty well agreed that we were going to turn our backs on racing and just stay away from it, or weíd just find ourselves getting sucked in again. I really didnít want to look you up for a while for fear that I was so addicted that youíd suck me right out of a good teaching job into the seat of the 66 again."
"You made your break, and you made it at a good time, as it turned out," he sighed. "Itís a damn shame that weíve been out of touch, but thatís over with, now. So, I take it youíre not doing any racing?"
"No, not really," I said. "Thereís a kidsí go-kart league around, a pretty casual thing, I guess, but both the boys need to be a little older before I get them involved with it. I was involved as a track official at the local track for a while, but that turned sour. While I was doing it, I managed to make a few hot laps in economy stock cars, so maybe I havenít totally lost the touch."
"The bug is still there," he smiled. "You may have hidden it, but itís still there. Letís go check out this Mustang that Perryís rolling out for us."
We got up and headed out of his office, then out a side door, where we discovered the young salesman who had greeted me at the door just pulling up in a blue í64 Mustang convertible with a black top, which he put down as we stood there watching. "Boy, that is some sweet car," I shook my head. "Itís hard to believe that it was built by the same people who came up with the Edsel a few years ago."
"Yeah, no fooling," Frank replied. "We got a real hard push from the company about the Edsel, and the minute I laid my eyes on the first one I realized that it was a fire hydrant waiting for a dog to come by. But it wasnít long before Ford got on the performance bandwagon, and theyíre putting out some pretty decent cars these days. I think they got this one right. Would you like to drive?"
"Yeah, sure," I said. "I havenít had a chance to yet, although Iíve wanted to give one a try."
Frank glanced at the vehicleís description sheet. "Great, this is one of the hot ones," he said. 289 with a four barrel and a hot cam, 271 horsepower. This thing will get up and scat, probably better than one of the old midgets."
"Frank," I sighed, "Perryís already tried to sell me a car today, and now youíre trying, too."
"Good," he smiled. "Thatís his job, and itís mine, too. Boy, this is a long way from that old í37 coupe you used to have, isnít it?"
"I still have it," I grinned. "The first year I was in Bradford, I set the Auto Shop II kids to working on it. Weíve pretty well restored it to like-new condition. I donít drive it much, but it sure brings back the old days when I drove it all over the country. I think I got a pretty good deal out of it for five bucks, which is what I paid for it originally."
"Yeah, but how many times did you rebuild the engine?" he laughed. "As I recall, it was always in one of two conditions, just rebuilt and needing a rebuild real bad."
"That was all those MMSA daysí miles we put on it," I said, opening the convertibleís door and getting behind the wheel. "I seem to recall that you were involved with that."
"Yeah, we put some miles on," he agreed as he got in the other side. "Perry, Mel here is the best driver I ever had back in the old days. I imagine weíll be out a while since weíve got a lot of old days to rehash."
"I think Ďbest driverí is stretching the blanket a little bit," I told him. "Frankly, I think Squirt Chenowith was the best driver I ever saw in the old midgets, and Arlene wasnít half bad."
"Yeah, but you were with me for years and won three championships," he said. "Squirt was only with us for a couple months, but Iíll agree, he could flat drive those things."
"I wonder what ever happened to him." I observed as I started the car. It came alive with a roar; it idled rough, but you could tell just from the sound that there was a serious engine under that hood.
"Oh, heís still around the last I heard," Frank said, speaking a little louder over the engine noise. "He drove for Spud several years, and then I guess he decided to hang it up. He was running some short track in New Jersey the last I knew."
"Youíre going to have to tell me where weíre going," I told him. "I remember being out to the barn plenty of times, but things have changed so much that Iím not sure if I could find it in less than half a day."
"No problem, go right out of the driveway," he said. "Iíll keep you going."
I dropped the four-speed into first and let up on the clutch. That car was ready to go, and it was ready to go right now. I sort of pussyfooted out onto the street in front of the agency, and then giving in to the racer under my skin, I floored the Mustang.
Frank was right; that thing was hot. There was a hell of a squall as the back tires lit up Ė that thing had power to burn. I was already over the speed limit, so I just dropped it from first to fourth. "Holy shit!" I said once I had it back under control.
"Yeah, right," he said. "Believe me, you arenít the first person to light up the tires on one of these things right out of the driveway. In these days of four-hundred-horse engines, 271 doesnít seem like a whole hell of a lot, but those big side oilers are mostly in things like Galaxies that weigh a ton or so more than this thing. But this isnít hot. You want hot, we had one of those Shelby AC Cobras with the 427 in here for a while. Thatís what a sports car is supposed to be all about, except for the fact that we had cops stopping off to write speeding tickets while it was sitting on the showroom floor."
"I can believe it," I shook my head. "Thatís a lot of engine in a car that small. I havenít ever seen one in the flesh, but in the pictures thatís one hell of a sexy car. So, what happened to Spud, anyway?"
"Oh, heís around, too," Frank said. "Heís got a shop down in Indianapolis where he builds cars, mostly sprint cars and midgets, and the odd modified. He also built half a dozen Indy cars, but he said heís not going to get into all the hassles of these new rear-engine cars. Canít say as I blame him, either."
"So, did he ever get to drive the 500 like he used to talk about?"
"Oh, yeah," Frank smiled. "After he walked out on that Bush joker, he drove right down to Indy, and even took Pepper and Dewey with him. Runt and Squirt were there, and as usual they were looking for hands, so they hung around for a couple weeks. Squirt still had that old car his brother ran back in í51, and it just couldnít hack it against the more modern stuff, not that Squirt didnít give it a good try. But, he wrecked it pretty good in practice before qualification started. Spud wound up buying the wreck from him for a song, engine and all. He trailered it up here, left it at the old agency for a couple weeks while he rented some warehouse space, and went and hunted up Peewee, you remember him."
"Yeah, sure, a magician with a torch. That kid could weld!"
"Sure could," Frank smiled. It was just a little hard to talk; the engine was noisy, and there was a lot of traffic noise. But it was pleasant to ride around with the top down on that car, talking about the old days. "Anyway, after the race, Spud worked for me as a line mechanic for a while, but in the evenings and on the weekends he and Peewee put together most of a new chassis for that car. He did quite a bit of work on the suspension. He modified the Offy engine so it could run lying down, to get a lower profile, and did quite a lot of other work on it. It was a whole lot better car than Squirtís old one. We helped him out with a little bit of sponsorship, and headed down to the race in í56."
"Did he do all right?"
"Pretty well," Frank said. "He qualified into the middle of the starting field, but was about four laps back when he finished in the mid-teens. I was in the pits, of course. Well, he got out of the car and he was just plain beat to shit. ĎWell, now youíve done it,í I asked him. ĎYou going to do it again?í"
"ĎShit no, I always said once was enough,í he said. Well, Squirt was there; heíd crashed out early, and before they got out of the pits Spud and Squirt had worked out a deal for Squirt to drive it the next year. Well, right after that Spud decided to start his fab shop, and he decided to put it outside of Indianapolis, so he and Peewee have been there ever since. After last spring, Spud said he could see the handwriting on the wall with these rear-engine cars, so he says heís decided to get out of Indy racing. Besides, he says his fab shop is going so well that he decided he didnít want the aggravation. We still see each other now and then. He got married a couple years ago, to some woman that already had a couple kids, and much to my surprise heís still married to her."
I shook my head, and Frank told me to take a right at the next light. "Just out of curiosity," I asked, "Who won the season championship that last year?"
"Dewey wound up taking it," Frank smiled. "Oh, thatís a story."
"That he won it?"
"No, after you and Arlene left he pretty much had things his own way, which didnít surprise anybody. Well, anyway, after he got back from Indy in í55 he decided that he was going to go home and see his folks."
"I knew he had some, but he never talked about them much," I commented. "I always figured he was on the outs with them."
"Well, sorta," Frank laughed. "You remember that his brother was killed in Korea in the early days, and he said once that he didnít want his mother to lose any more kids to that war?"
"Yeah, I remember," I nodded. "He always said heíd go if he was called but he wasnít going to stick his hand up?"
"Well, that was what he did," Frank laughed again. "We always just thought he never got called. Turns out he was called and called and called again Ė but heíd never bothered to leave a forwarding address at home, and just decided to stay gone. I guess the local draft board was mad as hell about it, but they could never find him and his folks had no idea where to look."
"So he was a draft dodger?" I smiled. "Thatís one way to do it."
"Worked for him," Frank laughed. "So anyway, he went home, and hereís this huge stack of mail that had accumulated over the years, and right in it were several old draft notices. Well, he went down to the local draft board just as innocently as you please, and said he was sorry, heíd been on the road for several years, but he reported just as soon as he found out about it."
"So they threw the book at him, I presume?"
"No, but they sent his butt right to the reception station. Well, he didnít really mind that much, he was willing to go and there wasnít a war on right then. Then, to everybodyís surprise, most especially him, he flunked the physical. High blood pressure."
I couldnít help laughing. "All that running and hiding for years, staying away from his folks and like that, and he busts the physical," I said, shaking my head. "Iíll bet he felt about two inches tall."
"I would have figured that myself," Frank smiled. "But he said that if heíd taken the physical in í51 he probably would have passed it, so maybe it was worth the effort after all."
"Might be at that," I grinned. "So, whatís he doing now?"
"Line mechanic over at the import place, working for Jerry," Frank said. "I tried to take care of the people that stuck with me through the hard times. Iíve always been a little sorry I couldnít do that for you, but I guess things worked out all right."
"Actually, they pretty much did," I told him. "It turned out that Bradford has been a pretty good place for Arlene and me. Weíre doing all right financially, nothing spectacular like some Ford dealer I know, but weíre not hurting. Iím doing something I really like, and so is Arlene. A few years ago we bought a big old farm just outside town. I donít farm it, but the lease I get on the land goes a long way toward making all of the payments. I like working with the kids, and Iím feeling like Iím teaching them something. Iím not dissatisfied with the way things worked out, Frank. I just wish I could have been a little more plugged in to whatís happened over the years."
"Yeah, I wish you had, too, but thatís the way it worked, I guess."
Iíll have to admit to being just a little bit angry at myself. Iíd spent ten years and more barely over a hundred miles away from Frank and Vivian, and Iíd never bothered to drive over and see if I could pick up a trace of them. I guess Iíd always sort of figured that theyíd cut me loose after the crash at Bradford and just plain left me behind, not thinking or caring. I knew that was wrong at the time but I still couldnít help but think it, and that attitude had lots to do with why Arlene and I had turned our backs on racing in general. I had always feared getting sucked back into the MMSA, but after a year or two that wouldnít have been an issue, even with not knowing what Iíd found out in the last hour. But I hadnít taken the effort, and it bothered me that I hadnít.
"So what happened to some of the other guys?" I asked, trying to cover up my discomfort.
"A lot of them, I donít know. Go left at the next light. Hoss got out of panel bashing, heís an insurance claims adjuster. I see him every now and then. Rocky is still working at the Buick place; Iíve tried to hire him away, but heís the service manager there, now. He raced local short tracks for a while, got out of it for a while, and the last time I saw him he was talking about building him another Sportsman. Pepper was a line mechanic at the Ford agency for a while, but he got hurt real bad in an accident on the street and still doesnít get around too well. Vivian decided to give him a tryout as a salesman over at the import agency, and he did real well. She and Jerry decided to promote him to closer a couple years ago, and thatís worked out well, too, maybe even better. Letís see, who else did you know?"
"How about Chick?" I asked.
"Oh, jeez, that takes us back a ways," he said. "That man is a magician with automatic transmissions. Back just before Vivian and I wound up taking over the agency, he got into some kind of a shouting match with Herb and walked out the door. The next thing you know, heíd opened his own automatic transmission shop. After we took over, I tried to get him to come back, but things were going great guns with his little shop. Well, one thing led to another and after a few years he decided that he wanted to open a second location, but he needed some backing, and I agreed to help him out. Heís got six locations around the metro area now, and I still have a little piece of the action for old timeís sakes."
"Doing pretty well then, I take it?"
"Oh, yeah," he nodded. "I see him every now and then. If we have any transmission problems we canít handle I send them to him. I donít see Hattie and the kids as often, but the last time I saw Carol she was turning into a real heartbreaker. Really good looking kid, but I guess sheís driving her dad about half crazy keeping the boys away. I can see that day coming with Kathy sooner than I want myself. I can see right now sheís going to be hell on wheels with the boys."
"With Elaine being four, Iíve still got a few years to wait before that happens," I said. "I have to admit, Iím not looking forward to it. Mostly, Iím afraid sheís going to run into some kind of kid like I used to be. Well, not when I was a kid, when I was a little older and running with the MMSA."
"Right," he smiled. "Some of the honeys that got picked up in those days werenít exactly a whole hell of a lot older than Kathy is now, and that bothers me a little sometimes. But sometimes, it works out. You remember John Adorney, donít you?"
"Oh, yes." I nodded. "The last time I heard from him he was in Hawaii, in the Army. That was while I was still with the MMSA."
"You remember that girl he got fixed up with that last night he was with us, back there in Wisconsin?"
"Yeah, a good looking little blonde with hot pants, about as big as he was. They wound up spending the night together, I guess, and everybody figured that he must have had one hell of a good time."
"Thatís what I always figured," Frank smiled. "Well, it turns out that the two of them wrote back and forth to each other for most of the next two years. Then, as he was starting to run out of time in the Army, he invited her to come out to Hawaii to visit him. It turns out heíd been saving his pennies, and he bought her a plane ticket. Well, she came out to visit him, and right there on the beach at Waikiki, he offered her an engagement ring. Now, bear in mind theyíd actually seen each other for less than twelve hours before he left, although I guess there were literally hundreds of letters involved. Anyway, she took him up on it, and after he got out of the Army they got married. Theyíre still married, three kids now. Heís working at Oldsmobile in Lansing the last I heard, making good money. Heís got a Sportsman, races it around some, just to fool around."
"I sort of wondered about some of those girls," I said. "But I guess that was one that worked out."
"I guess so, too," he smiled. "Sheís still a looker, too. He got real lucky with her. Letís see. Skimp is dead, heart attack a couple years ago, right in his living room. Bud Gaborski is still around, I see him once in a while. He races up at Mt. Clemens. Iíve got a little sponsorship on his car. He doesnít do a lot of winning but he likes racing." He stopped to think for a moment, then continued. "Beyond that, I donít know much. The New Jersey guys, well, I told you about Squirt. I saw in National Speed Sport News last fall that Scotty Lombard won some sprint car championship. Buckshot runs a Grand National car in NASCAR once in a while, or at least thatís what I read. I guess heís not exactly setting the world on fire. I havenít actually talked to him since the end of the í54 season. That really is about it."
"Thatís not bad," I said. "I havenít seen anybody except Arlene since you guys left us in Bradford that time. I guess the people you know about turned out all right for the most part."
"Yeah, pretty much," he replied. "Itís been a while since Iíve seen some of them. Now that youíve come out of the woodwork, maybe Iíll have to think about organizing a reunion some time, maybe next fall after the racing season and the new model introduction is over with. Youíd drag Arlene up for that, wouldnít you?"
"Sure thing," I smiled. "Sheís going to be real sorry that she missed this trip. You let us know, weíll find a way to be here."
"Yeah," he said. "It sure would be fun to see some of that old gang again all together, rather than just one on one. Iím sure I must not be the only one to think that, either. Those days are gone, but some of them were good days, and worth remembering."