A Boy, a Dog, and a Model A Ford

A Boy, a Dog, and a Model A Ford
by Jim Riggs

I celebrated my sixteenth birthday in November, a few months earlier than many of my Parkersburg High School classmates.  That was the semester I passed driver’s education.  Becoming a licensed driver would have been easy, but I lacked motivation.

Our family vehicle was Dad’s pickup, the vehicle he used to earn our family income in his refrigeration repair business.  When I wasn’t in school or playing whatever sport was in season, I was his chief helper.  As we drove on service calls, Dad handed me the keys and said, “Drive.”

He never had to ask twice.

I knew that borrowing the pickup to cruise Main Street or taking some girl on a date was not going to happen, so graduating from a learner’s permit to a driver’s license seemed to have little reward for the effort.

That spring, Dad and I had some car talk.  He thought I should have a car, so that I could learn some principles of auto mechanics.  He found a boxy, 1931 Model A Ford at Kyhl Chevrolet, a car built with the idea that any owner could take care of his own car and keep it running.  A previous owner had converted this car to a pickup by cutting out the back end and building a wooden box sticking out the back.  My first car cost me $25.

I bought a gallon of cheap paint at the John Deere Dealer, sanded the rusty finish, and brushed on a coat of John Deere yellow trim paint.  Two large headlights came from a bar across the front of the radiator.

I got around to getting my license.  Soon, I was driving around town in a bright yellow Model A Ford, with my dog, Squirt, in the passenger seat.  Squirt was half Brittany spaniel and half Labrador retriever.  He had a bit of the heft and aggressive personality of a Lab with the coloration and pointing ability of a Brittany.  The companionship and the loyalty that flowed between the sixteen year old boy and his dog was omnipotent.  I felt proud sitting in the driver’s seat of the oldest car on the streets of our little farming town, with my liver and white Lab-Brittany hunting dog.  Squirt was equally proud of riding shotgun.  Neither of us could know the trouble that would surround us and that Model A before winter came.

I had fun with the car, but it was never the lesson in mechanics for me that Dad had hoped it would be.  In fact the old car taught me that mechanical tasks were not my forte.  When something went wrong with the old car, I lifted the hood which opened on both the left and right sides, and attacked the problem with a Crescent wrench.  This rounded almost every one of the bolt heads, making them impossible for anyone to remove.  Dad’s dream of getting me a car to help me learn to be a mechanic had the opposite affect.  It nudged me in the direction of becoming a teacher.

The windshield wiper was connected to a lever inside the windshield that the driver moved back and forth by hand as needed.  Starting my Model A was always an adventure.  There were three ways to start this Ford.

First, I tried the battery powered starter.  I shifted to neutral and adjusted the spark advance lever beside the steering wheel.  Then I reached up with one foot and stepped on the starter button while pressing the throttle with other foot.  I never had the money for a good battery, so usually the battery was dead and using the starter was not an option.

The second method of starting a Model A was with a crank.  The crank was a squared off Z-shaped metal bar with a connection in one end that fit into a hole in the front of the engine.  I understood the theory.  I set the spark and hand throttle levers beside the steering wheel, shifted to neutral, turned on the ignition, and spun the crank as fast as I could spin it.  In theory the engine would spin, the pistons would compress the gasoline in the cylinders, the spark plug would fire at just the right instant, the gasoline would explode, pushing the piston and the engine would continue to run on its own.  I was a strong kid, but I never was man enough to get my Model A running by cranking it.

The third technique was the one that was successful for me most often.  I shifted to neutral, set the spark lever and the hand throttle, turned on the ignition switch, and pushed the car down the hill past Adel Wiegman’s house.  As it gathered speed, I jumped on the running board, climbed into the moving car, pushed in on the clutch.  Shifted to second, I popped the clutch, and, if I was lucky, the engine burst into life.  It was great when it worked.  When the car wouldn’t run, I left it sitting at the bottom of the hill until Dad came home and he and I figured out how to get it running.  Usually, he just hooked a chain to the front bumper and pulled it with his pickup until it started.

I had a terrible time repairing my Model A.  The only bolts that were removable by me were the ones that held the wheels on the car.  On regular occasions I jacked it up, removed the wheels, and changed flat tires.  New tires almost never found a place on my Ford.

No tubeless tires for my Ford.  Tires and tubes were hoarded like hard candy.  I scoured the countryside for used tires, learning how to change and repair them.   Old pieces of tire could be cut with a sharp knife and beveled with a file to form “boots” to cover cracks in a tire that might force a hole in my tube.  I patched holes in tubes just as I had on my bicycle tires, but often the roughness of the boot would wear a hole in my carefully patched tube by the time the car had traveled a mile.

My spare tires were almost never alone in my wooden pickup box.  I acquired a couple of extra rims and kept them mounted with air-filled tires.  When a tire failed me, I jacked up the Ford, removed the wheel, and bolted a spare tire on the hub.  These tires were very narrow and much larger in diameter than a modern car tire.  Driving through deep mud was their purpose.  Often my spare failed me quickly.  When the last of my spare tires lost its air, I removed the wheel, gathered up a couple of big screw drivers, removed and patched the tube, adjusted the boot, reinserted the tube, rolled the wheel to the filling station for air and then back to my antique automobile.  I always celebrated when I made it home without using all of my spare tires.

Henry Ford’s great idea of a Model A with big narrow nineteen inch tires that would give a lot of clearance on mud roads of America was a wonderful plan, but for me, I could not get those big narrow tires to hold air.

The Model A’s bad starting caused a tragedy during the middle of that summer.  The battery failed.  The crank was too much for me.  The push down the hill, past my friend, Adel Wiegman’s, house, with Squirt running beside the car was not successful.  I continued to push and jump in the car for more attempts at making the machine run until I got almost to the intersection with Highway 20.  That’s when I missed my dog.

As I hollered, I heard a screech of brakes.  I saw Squirt came running out from under the dual wheels on the back of a gravel truck traveling down highway 20.  I ran to the highway and my whimpering dog limped to meet me.  Thank goodness, he didn’t look badly hurt.  Then, I saw the wound.  He was bleeding from the left shoulder.  I picked him up and carried him the three blocks up the hill to our house.  I set him down in the kitchen, covering the wound with a towel, pressing on the shoulder.  The front of my white sweat shirt was solid red, saturated with the blood of my dog.  I called the vet.

“Bring him out,” he said.

A dozen calls around town, located my dad.  He was home in five minutes and we drove to Dr. Sipes office.

He sewed Squirt back together, but was not optimistic about his chances.  I spent the night on a blanket beside my dog comforting him in his pain; encouraging him to live.  Morning found him better.  Squirt got stronger.  His strength began to return.  In two weeks, he was running around on three legs.  In a month, his shoulder was still swollen, but otherwise he was back to normal.

Squirt still exhibited pride as we cruised the streets of Parkersburg on the days my Yellow Ford was running.

The last day in the life of my Model A Ford was almost the last day of my life.  After school, I loaded Squirt into the Model A and headed toward the dam to do a bit of fishing.  We drove down Main Street and then a block east and then back north to the railroad tracks.  The Illinois Central and the Northwestern tracks ran parallel to each other on the north edge of Parkersburg.  I slowed down for the Illinois Central tracks and accelerated toward the Northwestern tracks.  I glanced to my right.  From behind the railroad station, I saw the biggest, meanest looking train engine I had ever seen.  The big black engine steamed for the crossing.  It looked like a tie race.

I’m dead, I thought.

The spongy brakes on my old car crossed my mind as my foot left the accelerator.

I’ll never stop in time.

I hit the brakes; the car skidded sideways, and stopped at an oblique angle.  The left part of my bumper was almost over the tracks.  Squirt summersaulted to the floor along with my tackle box and fish bait.  The cowcatcher on the front of the engine struck a glancing blow to my left front bumper, knocking me backwards, tearing off the air horn mounted on the fender.  I shifted to reverse and backed away from the tracks.  The train stopped several blocks up the tracks.  The engineer walked back and surveyed the damage.

“You are a lucky lad, son.  I am really happy to see you alive.  Three people died in the car we hit yesterday.”

I helped him fill out the report for the railroad.  Then we tied my chain from the train to my bent bumper.  I backed up the Model A to pull the bumper away from the wheel.  A half-hour later, the train headed on it’s way, west out of Parkersburg.  I looked both ways and crossed the tracks, driving down to the dam to tell my fishing buddy, John Cleary, about my brush with death.  Then I headed home.  My desire for fishing seemed to have dissipated.

I drove as far as the Methodist Church when the car quit running for the last time.  My yellow Model A Ford had had enough.  We diagnosed its problem as a broken timing chain.  Eventually, we bought the new parts.  Dad wanted me to tear down the engine and overhaul it.  I tried.  Once again, the rusty bolts on the engine slipped on every wrench I tried on them.  Rust held all parts of that yellow car firmly in place.  Penetrating oil seemed unable to permeate its rusty bolts.  Henry Ford’s great car was advertised as fixable by any common man, but mine was never fixable by me.

How do real mechanics ever remove those bolts?  I wondered.  I never succeeded in removing the rusty bolts and the encounter with the train turned out to be the last trip I took in my Ford.

So far, the encounter with the train was my last as well.

A year later, my Ford was gone and my dog began to be more troubled by his injury.  After a stay at the veterinary hospital in Waterloo, Squirt became very ill.  One night he wanted out.  He walked out in the tall grass behind our house.  He wouldn’t come to me.  Later, I thought he was looking for a place to die.  The vet suggested Pepto Bismo.  I woke the druggist at Midnight.  His anger turned to concern as he heard my story.

In the morning we took the dog back to Waterloo to see the vet.  As we neared the city, Squirt went limp in my lap.  My dog was dead.  He got limp and he was dead.  Later that morning, I called the vet.  My speech was broken.  Tears streamed down my face as I told the lady on the phone, “We won’t be in today.  My dog died this morning.”

In the fall we traded my yellow Model A Ford for a 37 Chevy .  The Chevy usually started when I stepped on the starter.  The black, four door sedan became one of my most loved cars.  I didn’t miss the Model A at all.

I still miss Squirt.
Jim Riggs

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