Auto-biography 8: Childhood's End
After five years living in the quiet, sheltered and nurturing environment of Iowa City, Iowa, my family moved to Baltimore, Maryland. I was twelve– that pinnacle year of childhood. I was blissfully ignorant of the long dark tunnel of adolescence just ahead. And in those very last days of innocence in the heartland, I was graced with a peak automotive experience.
It was during my final summer spent with the Mennonites. The preacher and I were working at their neighbor’s farm, helping with an old-fashioned barn-raising. For two hot days, I nailed down endless floor boards, while the men prepared the rafters for the final assembly. Towards the end of that second day, putting away nails in a shed, I had a genuine “barn find”: the chore scooter.
The short, squat creation is best described as a mini-me version of Henry Ford’s 1903 “999” racer. A tall one-cylinder air-cooled industrial engine sat in the front of its stubby bare frame. Two back-to-back three-speed stick shifts converted its thumping torque into nine speeds. Their output fed directly into a narrowed automotive rear axle, on which an old tractor seat was mounted, facing a junk-yard steering wheel.
The chore scooter’s pre-ATV mission: scoot the farmers around their large spread. To my eyes, this proto-auto, the archetype of all four-wheeled automotive vehicles, was perfection. It was the ideal blank slate, the veritable automotive white canvas upon which to express fully the range of my childhood auto-imagination. That afternoon, as I tooled around the farm on its bare bones, the chore scooter eagerly metamorphosed into every vehicle of my childhood dreams.
With a twitch of the wheel on a graveled curve, I was heading sideways for Monte Carlo in a Saab 96. In low-low gear, playing those split rear brakes, I crawled up the steepest banks in a Dellow trials special. Pounding across the rough field, I caught air in my CJ-3 Jeep. And cutting a circle in the packed dirt of the steer yard, I let her fly, like the “Mad Russian” Bill Vukovich in his Kurtis dirtrack roadster.
I revved up the beleaguered old Wisconsin, leaned back, popped the clutch and lifted a wheel (or two?) pulling a hole-shot in my G/Altered at the Summer Nationals. I cruised down the lane in my vintage Mercer Raceabout. Out on the road, I shifted both trannies into top gear and opened her up. Hunched down, I flew down the Mulsanne at Le Mans in my Jag D-Type at somewhere between 40 and 180mph.
That glorious summer day, every automotive thrill was mine for the taking. When I sheepishly returned to the farmyard low on gas, Mr. S grinned, told me to fill’er up and go have some more fun. This was unexpected, as joy riding is not part of the Mennonite ethos. But unlike my stern preacher host, this round middle-aged man had a ready smile and wink. He knew a little fun wasn’t going to take me and the chore scooter straight to hell.
So I made the most of my opportunity. I knew it might be a long time, if ever, before I’d have another chance to drive such a perfect set of wheels. When I reluctantly swung shut the shed door on the crackling-hot scooter, I somehow knew that I was closing other doors of my life.
The men raised the barn the very next day. I felt privileged to watch the well-orchestrated spectacle, knowing I was a witness to an increasingly rare event. Well over a hundred church members and neighbors showed up in their cars and horse drawn buggies. The women cooked dinner and set out long tables under the trees. Using block and tackle, the men lifted and assembled the huge rafters, posts and beams. I mostly watched– too young to work with the men, too old to play with the children.
At day’s end, when a fully-framed enormous barn stood in front of me, I felt as if I’d been witness to a farewell performance, a final lesson designed to instill a lasting insight into the value of self-reliance, and the power of community.
In recent years, I’ve been entertaining thoughts about a “project” car. I’ve had visions of a four-port-head Model T Speedster, a Triumph TR-3, a Bugatti Type 35 replica, a Caterham 7, a 1930’s dirt-tracker, and a CJ-3 Jeep, among others. They’ve been received, contemplated and, thus far, rejected.
In my quixotic search, I’ve been looking for that one elusive vehicle that encompasses all of their qualities, and more. So I’ve been struggling to go deeper and locate the well-spring, the proto-type of my visions. In the middle of writing this article, awash in the memories of that magical late-summer afternoon, I’ve finally realized the fount of my unresolved automotive yearnings: the chore scooter.
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