Three Modern Cowboys And a '39 Ford

HOUSE cleaning is a chore, but sooner or later it must get done. Sometimes a person finds an article from childhood that is tough to discard. Mothers keep baby rattles years after children are grown. Fathers keep a crayon picture a son or daughter created in the first grade. Recently, as I was cleaning my "hope chest" - a polite word for junk box - I came across a rearview mirror. This auto rearview mirror had been in the box for 30 years. Looking at it brought back memories of my two teenage friends, Rudy and Floyd. The three of us were farm workers in western Connecticut in the summer of '59. We were a rambunctious trio, similar to Herman Raucher's "Summer of '42," except we were in love with automobiles.

Rudy was the oldest, 15. He had man's hands, a football-player body. He wore a red jacket, same as James Dean wore in the film "Rebel Without A Cause." The collar was always up, and there was a black letter "R" sewn on the back. Rudy combed his hair like the Everly Brothers, wet and wavy. He was tough, and no one doubted it. In school he wore jeans and black loafers with a nickel in each one. On the heels were steel plates, so when he roamed the cement hallways there was a scraping click that announced Rudy was coming.

Floyd was shorter, skinnier, and was part Mohawk Indian. He could comb his coal black hair to look like Elvis Presley in the movie "King Creole," a very popular picture then. Floyd had the sullen face and mouth of Elvis. He could strum a few chords on the guitar, and sing "Love Me Tender." Girls loved him.

The three of us worked on Rudy's farm. Everyday we went haying. We collected hay bales in the spring and cut corn in the summer. At $1 an hour, our employers got their money's worth. The burns on my hands from lifting bales onto a hay wagon are well remembered.

RUDY'S family was thrifty. They never spent a dime they didn't have to. The farm needed a new pickup truck and they got a bargain on a '39 Ford "wooden" station wagon with a tar-paper roof. But the wood body and roof had been removed, leaving a flat car with fenders, hood, and a bench seat. There were 800 acres on the farm, and when our chores were done, the three of us and the '39 Ford went hot rodding.

Learning to drive a year or two early was a fantasy that became reality. We would roar across pasture land at 45 miles an hour, and it was amazing that we didn't turn over. We would try to drive this half-station-wagon across a shallow river and often ended up getting stuck in the mud. We would draw sticks to see who'd walk a mile back to the barnyard and tell Rudy's father to bring the tractor and tow chain. Rudy often got the short stick, and his father was never happy with our predicament.

Floyd may have looked like Elvis, but he didn't live at any Graceland. He lived in an old trailer out in some cleared pasture and was embarrassed by it. He had a goal to one day live in a real house with a garage.

Floyd's trailer was cozy, though. In winter they put hay bales around the base, the best insulation there was. There were such good times there. On TV we watched "77 Sunset Strip," "Peter Gunn," and "M Squad," all our favorite cop shows. We loved "Highway Patrol" and would imitate Broderick Crawford's bluster over the microphone: "Twenty-one fifty to headquarters...."

Floyd was not afraid to make mistakes, unlike Rudy, who was the tough guy, Mister Cool. He had a sense of humor only when it was a practical joke he directed at someone else. Rudy's little sister had a hoola hoop. They were 98 cents then, and there wasn't a boy or girl that didn't own one. Rudy's sister tried to teach him how to twirl the hoop, and he never mastered it. His failure angered him.

Looking back, we were all impersonators. Even unconsciously, we all tried to be somebody else, Elvis, James Dean, Marlon Brando, and girls had their images, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe. Still, long hair and rebellion weren't allowed in my circle.

RUDY had a girlfriend named Cynthia for a short while, a slender brunette who wore a ponytail. She wore his ring on a chain around her neck for about three weeks. But Rudy didn't have her for long. Girls wanted boys who were tender and sensitive. Rudy knew all about farming, how to increase the performance in a V-8 engine, and how to build a hot rod from the ground up, but hadn't the faintest notion of what tenderness and sensitivity meant. Cynthia grew bored, and it wasn't long before Rudy got his ring back.

The three of us were modern cowboys, using the '39 Ford to herd cattle. The exhaust system was gone, and the Ford was very loud. The second the cows saw this car with the three clowns in it, they headed for the barn in rapid double file. We would drag race with forklifts, flatbed trucks, pickups, and tractors. Delightful idiots, the three of us.

In the winter it was procedure to drain water out of the radiator of the Ford after a day's hot rodding. In the winter of 1960, one of us forgot to drain out the water. The engine froze and cracked. We felt awful: Our beloved hot rod was gone. That '39 Ford was our first love, a taste of adulthood. And we knew we would have to go back to bicycles, softball, fishing, and marbles.

In 1961, the Ford was stripped for parts. Rudy's father gave me the rearview mirror for a keepsake. The body was taken down to the farms landfill and burned. I couldn't watch that.

The summer of '61 was my first experience living in a large city. There was indifference, pollution, crime, racial difficulty. On the farm I had never seen any of these things. Innocence was gone. I missed the corn, watermelon, tomatoes, and the farm-fresh milk.

The three of us were no longer hot rodders. The world was changing beneath our feet. It was becoming less simple, more complex, and the three of us drifted apart.

Floyd finally got to live in a house. I saw him once in 1966 driving a Triumph sports car with his latest girlfriend. Rudy's macho attitude got him bounced from school in the early '60s. The last report about Rudy was in 1964 when he was trying to escape the draft. I never learned who won, Rudy or the Selective Service System. In the '70s, the farm changed hands. Our childhood was gone. I still had the rearview mirror of our hot rod, and memories of another day.

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