Sunday, August 28, 2016


I was 10 years old and very much taken with building a soap box derby car and racing in our annual downhill event. My building skills came from being at my father's side with tools and materials. These were not the skills, though, to build the downhill racer with curving wood fuselage nor did we have space or a large enough garage to take on this task. But racing my own car, one that I built myself, had my full attention.

Kids around the neighborhood made make-shift downhill carts using old materials and wagon wheels. A rope was tied to the front axle so the cart could be steered down a hill. Their front feet also were positioned on the front axle to help steer. They built quick enough but did not last long on our back roads and hills. Every once and awhile, a neighbor friend would let me on a short ride of the cart he had built. One ride!

During the summer of 1955, my folks had saved up enough money to buy materials for some remodeling and building me a bedroom. I was older and it was time to find space in our small house for my own room. Mom and Dad both worked and during the summer and I would stay home alone under our neighbors watch. “Stay close to home, check in every couple of hours, lunch at noon, nap after lunch, chores and more checking in with the neighbor.” Our home was across the way from the neighbor's large kitchen window. And it worked.

The day arrived when the local lumber store delivered the materials my father ordered for the bedroom remodeling project. The 2x4s, 4x8 plywood, nails and other assorted items arrived late morning, were unloaded neatly and stacked in our driveway.

As an older man now, I believe I know what my father was thinking at work that day. He would come home, turn up our street to see a neat pile of building materials stacked in the driveway. All of his planning was over and he could now start on this project and finish it. This is a big plus for anyone who builds things. To have all the materials at hand is half the fun.

But instead of Dad driving up the driveway and seeing all of that new material waiting for him, he saw his saw horses with cut up 2x4s on them. Small scrap pieces of wood were strewn around his son's work site that afternoon. Sawdust was on the ground, hammer and nails were out on the plywood, hand saws, squares and tape measures scattered nearby. And his son was proudly standing and welcoming him home next to the completed frame of a downhill racer. Four old wagon wheels were set next to the 2x4 frame to show my dad the frame of “The Apache.” I did not know how I was going to mount those wheels, or how to make the front wheels and axle turn, but Dad would.

And to this day I do not remember what he said or what his body language was getting out of the car and looking at our driveway and the bedroom materials turned into a car manufacturing area. I do not remember him being mad or upset. He must have swallowed all of that in the few seconds he had seen his son's project and the building materials turned into the beginning of a soap box racer.

What I do remember is how dad helped me attach round axles to the 2x4 front cross member of the frame. Large bolt with spacer piece of plywood between the front axle and frame would allow simple turn left and right motion. Dad greased the two surfaces of the front axle plywood pieces. Grandpa greased all of his farm equipment. Dad greased all of his equipment. And I needed grease on my stuff. Grease keeps things running.

I remember Dad finding an old lawn mower handle and how he helped me fashion that into the steering wheel. Dad taught me how to turn rotational motion of the lawn mower handle into lateral motion of the front axle. We had to go to the store and purchase some pulleys and clothesline wire. A large spring was needed too to return the friction drag hand brake dad fashioned under my seat. I would pull the brake handle, the brake arm with small square tire tread nailed to a pad, would drop down and drag “The Apache” to a stop. The break pad would neatly retract under the car when I released the handle. Through all of this I was at his side using tools, helping hold materials, drilling, nailing, bolting and adjusting. Dad turned me into a car manufacturing apprentice and I was not about to let him down.

In a few short days the Apache was done and tested on the short slope of our street. Everything worked. An adjustment to tighten up the slop in the steering cables was all that was needed. The final touch was painting the name on each side in bright red bold letters: APACHE.

Down the back woods road the Apache ran, turned sharply left and coasted all the way to the main street. Next run the brake was tested just after the sharp turn and worked perfectly. Now the neighborhood kids were clambering around the car. I had acquired an immediate pit crew. Pushing touching and running alongside as I raced time after time. Soon though, my pit crew wanted a turn at the wheel for all the pushing and pulling they were helping me with. To the main side walk we went and they all got to run the Apache the full block and return. Then the next kid and so forth.

After a few days of this, I towed the Apache a few blocks to another neighborhood where a long, paved, winding road ran a mile or so up a hill. The kids there too came running and wanting to drive. More “miles” were put on there. With a little coaxed help, a few of us towed the Apache up a half mile of the hill road. Hardly ever any cars during the day and kids were always coasting some kind of wagon down the hill.

We turned the Apache around, I got inside and tucked myself into the aerodynamic driving position. And off I went, leaving all the other kids behind in seconds. A little brake had to be applied for speed control, but the wind whistled like never before. She rounded corners tightly and beat the wind to the bottom of the hill. We had won. Just me and the Apache. No helmet! There at the bottom of the hill, in all of our glory, we waited for the other kids to arrive. The thrill of the moment, the thrill of victory in the car Dad and I built with our very own hands. It was all good.

The summer wore on, the Apache, the kids in the neighborhood and I spent many an hour touring the sidewalks and short hills that summer. Of course, I had to do the upkeep and maintain the greased plywood turning plate. 

Grandpa greased all of his farm equipment. 

Dad greased all of his equipment. 

And I needed grease on my stuff. 

Grease keeps things running.

All of this was quite awhile ago. But a memory etched in my soul. Late this morning, I completed a portion of a new stair project on our porch. I set all the tools and remaining materials aside, got on the riding lawn mower and pulled the small yard trailer around the house to the garage. I noticed the back wheels of the little trailer squeaked. I propped up the trailer, pulled each wheel off, added a little grease and spun tested them both.  

Grease keeps things running.

UPDATE 11-4-16 

Just found this photo.