Herb Fuester remembers a Saturday morning in 1919. A train disappeared down the tracks next to Highway 30 near Dennison, Iowa, after slowing to grab a mail pouch. Stopped across the road was a lanky young man on a low-slung Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a sidecar.
Always one to chat, Mr. Fuester walked over to introduce himself and take a look at the dandy sidecar. The man said he was going to school in Lincoln, Neb. Fuester bounced the sidecar up and down.
"Hey, that feels like a baby buggy," said Fuester, who had never ridden on a motorcycle but wanted to.
"You want to take a ride?" asked the man.
They took off, thundered through the next town, then made a quick U-turn and returned. Fuester thanked him, and the man stuck out his hand. "Charles Lindbergh," he said, and roared away.
In telling this historic footnote in his life, Fuester's ruddy face is beaming, energy and fun pouring out of him like tangy lemonade at a picnic.
At 101, Fuester sits in the spacious, hotel-like lobby at the Lakewood Meridian Retirement Community, his booming voice telling about his Iowa boyhood, an abbreviated farming career in the Depression years, and later, his many years as a sought-after auto mechanic in Denver.
"Lindbergh was going to an aviation school then," Fuester says of his meeting with the legendary flier. "I found out later he traded that motorcycle for an aeroplane."
A few years later Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis and helped accelerate the American craze for aviation, the internal combustion engine, and a car in every garage. Fuester, like so many men of that era, derived pleasure and employment from cars and engines and the burgeoning possibilities of electronics.
Born in Ida Grove, Iowa, into a farming family, Fuester sprinkles his speech with words from a past era. He calls his home state "EYE oh way," and several times he mentions a measurement term seldom used any more: a rod (5-1/2 feet).
"My grandfather, a doctor, bought the town's first Buick Roadster in 1903," he says. "It didn't even have a windshield. He wore the long coat, goggles, everything. I said, 'Grandpa, what are the goggles for?' He says, 'To keep the bugs out of my eyes at the speed of 19 miles an hour.' "
Fuester, always handy with repairs and engines, took over his father's farm shortly after coming back from Dennison, Iowa, where he went to a vocational school. But drought years and the Depression forced him and his young wife to sell the farm in 1930. They went to Denver at the invitation of an uncle. "Times were hard," says Fuester, "but I got a job driving a bus."
Later he became an auto mechanic, and also built high-speed engines for midget racers that competed at local tracks. He and his first wife had two children before they divorced. Fuester married again, and his second wife, Ruth, passed away in l985.
At one time in the late '40s Fuester owned a Pontiac Eight that looked like a standard model, but under the hood he had installed double spark plugs and a double coil, which meant the car could move like lightning. "We were driving at night, and passed a patrolman by the side of the road," he says. "I says to Ruth, "Let's have a little fun.' "
Before finishing the story, he pauses. "I don't know why I did it, but I did." He quickly had the car moving at 140 m.p.h. with the patrolman in pursuit. Fuester streaked ahead as the patrolman fell farther behind.
"The next day at the shop, the patrolman shows up, not knowing it was me," says Fuester. "He's telling the story and says, 'I don't know what that guy had, but when I got on top of one hill he was three hills ahead of me. I stopped chasing him.' Everybody was laughing and pointing at me."
With barely a pause, Fuester has another story in the chamber and fires it off.
"Everybody asks me, 'How come your hair ain't white?' " he says, launching into a tale that clearly has improved with the telling. "Well, I was working for a dealer, servicing trucks, and one come in and drove over the pit. Needed some work on the oil pump. I was in the pit and did this and that. With the engine idling, the driver steps on the gas pedal by mistake. Oil pours out all over my head. I jump out of the pit and stick my head in a pan of gasoline and washed it out and added a little lemon juice. I didn't have a flake of dandruff for 10 years."
Fuester's mouth is open, eyes crinkling, and vines of laughter are spreading around the room, grabbing everybody.
"If you can't have fun," he booms, "what's the use of living?"
More than a man with laughter and stories, he has taken care of himself too. The governor of Colorado twice awarded him a certificate for walking more than 3,000 miles a year.
His daughter, Peggy Atkinson, remembers Fuester as a father who was always there for his offspring, and for dozens of customers who thought he was the best mechanic since Ben Hur.
"He knew I liked music," says Mrs. Atkinson, seated near him now, "and he used to take me out to the park every Sunday evening so I could hear the band play."
Fuester nods, then rolls out the next adventure in his don't-try-this-with-your-own-car collection of stories.
"One time me and Ruth were driving back from Corpus Christi," he says, "and a guy passes me in a Cadillac with a big cigar in his mouth. So I says to Ruth, 'Let's have a little fun....' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society