By on March 17, 2007

h04_1792222.jpgAfter 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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10 Comments on “Auto-biography 8: Childhood’s End...”

  • avatar

    Another enjoyable read, thanks for sharing Paul! My upbringing has been 80s/90s, Floridian, middle-class suburbanite, which is a shame, because it sounds like you were having a lot more fun in the heartland!

  • avatar

    Great, great article, Paul.

    My chore scooter was a mid-seventies, rusted-out Chevy pickup that I got to drive around an old field between chopping, loading, and unloading wood at my best friend’s grandpa’s farm, Savanna, Illinois. I was about 13 and my first attempt at driving stick was in this thing–driving up a wet grassy hill with a full load of chopped wood in the back. After stalling it about 50 times, I slammed the gas pedal down, side-stepped the clutch and it roared into action. I’ll never forget how fun that day was.

  • avatar

    Great stories, right up there with Peter Egan!

    Paul, what year did you move to Baltimore?

    As for a car to play with, you will need at least five to satisfy your auto ADD disorder. I know from experience.

  • avatar
    Dream 50

    “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.”

    What a great line. For me this occurred not such a long time ago after buying my first “motorbike”; actually a 50 cc repli-cafe racer. Singles are wonderful engines, aren’t they?

    In my case it pretty much closed the door on bicycles. As they were stored pretty much beside each-other, I always had the choice of which to commute on. The sound of my first bike was intoxicating, and warming it up gave me a chance to enjoy my morning cigarette.

    Scroll to the bottom left to catch a glimpse of one of the sexiest scooters ever made.


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    frontline: 1965

    Keith: OMG – what a dream bike. It’s the repro Dream 50! I read about it somewhere; what a gem.

    My firstbike was a Bridgestone 90 from the mid-late 60’s. It was so much fun, even though being as tall as I was, I must have looked ridiculous on it. (in case you don’t know, Bridgestone built motorcycles until they couldn’t keep up with the Honda-Yamaha-Suzuki-Kawasaki Big 4)

    The streets of Iowas City were buzzing with Honda 50’s (and up) in the early 60’s.

  • avatar

    I suppose the closest I come to that is when I discovered the dodge’ems the year I lived in France (age 12). Once I bought six tokens and drove that thing for a half hour. I wasn’t interested in hitting anyone; my goal was to see how long I could go without having an accident. That forced me to apply a lot of skill, but I was pretty good. It’s a lot of fun the way you can slide those things.

    Then there was the time, when my parents were building the house on the cape, where they let me play with the car on the little stretch of dirt road that goes beyond where our house is, about 1-2/10ths of a mile. Up and down and up and down, going thru the gears on the Chevy II. I was 14 at the time.

    Now my baby sister wasn’t as inhibited about doing stuff as I was. I taght her to drive the way my Dad had taught me, and at age 14 she was doing soething I NEVER would have done–my parents had instilled in me the fear of losing everything in a lawsuit, and I guess I hadn’t done the same with her–she would take the car out and visit friends when my parents were out. One time they came home early and caught her.

  • avatar

    Your auto-biographies are extremely satisfying to read. I’m always excited to start reading, and I always finish with a warm smile on my face. Thank you.

  • avatar

    For a while in tha late 60s we lived in a semi rural area of Southern Ontario.The local general store about a mile down the road was a hangout for the kids.
    At about 14 my dad would send me by myself to the store in his 62 Biscayne for smokes.
    OH! how I wished one of my buddies was hanging around so I could show him what a cool dude I was.My dad was timing me so I didn’t hang around long.
    If only I could bring back those times and my dad for just an hour or two.
    Your writing Paul brings tears to my eyes,and I mean that in good way.
    Keep it up


  • avatar

    Your list of possible project cars is almost exactly same as mine other than the CJ which I would replace with a 32 Deuce. I think I am looking for the same thing too. A simple, basic, elemental fun car. I know you can never get one car to be the best at everything. But maybe a simplified design can get you to all the fun parts well enough. Doesn’t need to be fast, or anything, just needs to feel alive and interesting to spend time driving.

    May the gods of automotive bliss smile on you during your quest.

  • avatar

    Just catching up on some old posts after finding some of Paul’s other columns. Here is a CJ-3 project idea!

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