[November 12, 2023] The rain was coming down hard. The night was hot. For that reason, I was allowed to sleep in Bigmama’s twin bed on the first floor, next to an open window; only the screen kept out the night air. An old, oscillating fan blew a breeze over me; occasionally, a spit of rain would come through the window, catch in the fan and blow it on me. That morning, I woke to the smell of frying bacon, handmade biscuits, and grease-fried eggs. Bigmama was up early, getting Granddaddy’s breakfast ready. After he ate, it was our turn. And it was true that Bigmama’s breakfast was the best. But, that day, the anticipation of Granddaddy finishing his repair of a 1918 Model T Ford got me out of bed and piqued my interest. He rebuilt old cars for extra cash and because he liked old Fords. You see, Granddaddy had been trained as a young man in the Ford factory and spent part of his youth building Model Ts sometime in the 1920s. That day dawned with clear skies, we were to discover whether he could get a junked Model T running after it had sat in an old barn for more than 40 years. Granddaddy was my mom’s daddy. She was the youngest in her family.
“Get on up in the driver’s seat, Douglas, it won’t hurt ya,” Granddaddy said with that big ole grin on his face. He was the best guy ever. His mechanical and construction skills were the best in Morehouse Parish, and I was his grandson. Everyone knew him and his excellent reputation; by extension, I was also looked up to with respect. Although, at the time of my youth, I did not understand this. He was also physically strong and mentally sharp. So it was that no one ever underestimated his capabilities. He was still the most competent man with only a sixth-grade education. Sitting in the driver’s seat, looking down, there were no floorboards in this Model T, and the wooden floor had rotted away long ago, a common problem. Granddaddy was finishing up properly adjusting the single-barrel carburetor. Earlier, he installed four pistons. The secret to getting these old Fords running was installing aluminum pistons in this four-cylinder car. He told me factory T-Models had cast iron pistons that meant it emitted a chug-chug-chug rumble, the whole car shaking as it chugged down the road. Aluminum pistons smoothed out the ride considerably.
By early afternoon, Granddaddy had fixed enough of the car that it was ready for a ride; of course, it was on his property. The car was not road-legal just yet. “Douglas, you go ahead and drive.” “Hey, Granddaddy,” I said, “there’s three pedals on the floor and two blinkers” (one for spark timing, the other a throttle). This Model T was a beast! It was complicated and too much for me, a youngster of about 12 or 13 years of age. I learned a lot about old Model Ts that day, but more about my Granddaddy. For example, I learned that many of his mechanical skills came from owning a gas station and repair shop in town for decades, although he had been formally trained in the Ford factory to build the original T-Model. That day, I saw him lift a modern tire and rim off the ground by himself without breaking a sweat. It weighed at least 200 pounds. I stared at him, mouth wide open; the tire was almost bigger than me. Later, he would say, “Hey Douglas, look at this arm muscle,” pointing to his right arm. Granddaddy lifted me off the ground without any trouble; that was fun. I laughed. The little village of Bonita was lucky to have him and his family. I was lucky to have him as my grandfather.
A few years later, my brother Philip bought an old Indian Motorcycle. And I mean old, probably from around 1940 or thereabouts. It didn’t run, so he made a big mistake by taking the machine apart, down to the tiny springs and gears of the transmission. The motorcycle parts were randomly jumbled up in a cardboard box. My grandfather put the motorcycle back together without instructions and got it running; only a miracle could explain how he did it. I was the first to ride it, and this time, I went on the highway and back roads without tags or registration and with a loud muffler. Wearing an old motorcycle leather helmet, I got away with illegal riding. That was a really fine machine. A few years later, Granddaddy helped me rebuild the 289 cubic engine in my 1965 Mustang. My mom’s parents, Granddaddy and Bigmama, were generous folks, and we all loved being at their home.
Repairing and upgrading that T-Model Ford was like nothing I’d ever seen since. But it was my Granddaddy who showed me so much about himself and his willingness to share with me how he thinks, what his beliefs were, his intense love of Bigmama and family, how he pictures machinery in his head and repairing them, his mentoring young men in his church, ways of solving moral dilemmas, and his thoughts on what he believed were the greatest passages of the Bible, and what being a good man was about. We talked often. And that was the greatest treasure and adventure I could ever get from anyone.
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