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Monday, April 17, 2017

Summer of 1963

Recently, I drove to Kansas to bring two of my grandkids here to The Woodlands for their 2017 Spring Break.  After taking them home a week later, I enjoyed listening to some great old songs on SiriusXM Satellite Radio as I drove back to Texas alone in the Hyundai Sonata.  A couple of the songs brought back meaningful memories of the summer of 1963.  Those songs were Candy Girl by The Four Seasons and Surfer Girl by The Beach Boys. 

Returning home, I fell back into my usual routine which includes frequent evenings out in front of my garage on the driveway listening to music from my iTunes playlists on the ION Bluetooth speaker.  Those two songs kept coming back to mind and I found myself thinking about that summer and the artists who had produced the music.  The only song in my collection from either group was Surfer Girl.  So I went to iTunes and acquired albums by each group.  While listening to the albums I surfed the internet, reading about the history of the people who created the music.  I was mostly interested in The Beach Boys.  Judy and I enjoyed the movie Love and Mercy, a couple years ago.  That movie stirred my interest in Brian and the group.  Since then I had been fascinated by his voice and tragically lost opportunities.

But getting back to 1963, in those days I only heard those two songs on AM radio stations in my 1953 Ford until a surprising opportunity came my way late in the summer of that year.  The year was a very impactful year in my life.  Turning sixteen years old in May, I got my driver’s license after taking the Rupert Cross Driver’s Ed class and completing the practical exam without alarming the OHP examiner too much.  With the license in hand, I approached the local Chevy dealer about a part-time job.  Of course nepotism played an important role in my getting the interview and the job.  Mr. Boyd Perkins was the owner of the dealership and the employer of my dad, Everett Middleton, the number one mechanic in the shop at Perkin’s Chevrolet.  And it didn’t hurt my chances that one of my best friends, Ernest Boyd Perkins, was the owner’s son.  As a result of my being employed there, it wasn’t long before Ernie began working alongside me although he was only fifteen years old and couldn’t drive (legally).

As the school year ended, the Chelsea High School baseball team was making a run in the State baseball playoffs.  At the dealership, a radio was tuned in to the broadcast of each playoff game.  We listened intently while washing cars and doing oil changes and lube work.  Ernie, along with a few other younger teenage boys were riding around town on the suddenly popular Honda 50cc motorcycles.  In fact, I think it was Larry Morgan who actually had the much more powerful 90cc version.  I had wanted a motor scooter or motorcycle since 1957 when some of my Roosevelt Grade School buddies began riding the Cushman Highlander and Cushman Eagle in my former home town of Henryetta, about 100 miles south of Chelsea.  But those were things we could not afford nor which my dad would approve of.

Ernie and I worked on customer’s cars but it was washing the used cars that took up more of our time.  The used car lot was several blocks away from the “downtown” location of the dealership.  So Ernie and I would ferry the cars back and forth between the dealership and the lot.  It was this practice that soon planted a seed of adventure in our minds.  I would like to say that it was Ernie who hatched the plan but I can’t honestly say that for sure.  Somehow we got the idea to leave certain interesting cars unlocked with the keys under the driver’s side floor mat.  At night, we would let a couple of our friends in on the “secret” and they would join us on a classic joy ride.  Chelsea was a quiet town with only one police officer on duty at night, so we enjoyed the pretentious thrill of danger and excitement by sneaking cars off the lot and spinning around the back streets of town.  Soon, we were taking two cars and drag racing them through the quarter mile strip west of town.  One station wagon and a pickup truck became our favorites.  The station wagon was a 1958 Pontiac with a 370 cubic inch V-8 and a four barrel carburetor.  The engine was rated around 285 horsepower, quite a lot at that time.  But soon, the decision was made to move the car lot across Highway 66 to the east side of that four-lane road, the main highway through town.  The assignment was given to Ernie and me to move the cars and the office furniture and equipment to the new site.  That Pontiac station wagon was a good vehicle to use in moving the office files, car keys, etc. to the new location. 

It was about this time, on a beautiful morning in June, that we were at the dealership washing the dust off the new cars lined up along the west side of the building facing Highway 28 (Vine Street).  At the very south end of this lineup of new cars was a white 1963 Impala Super Sport, parked in the very prominent spot so that it could also be seen from the main street of town, Sixth Street.  And soon came two cute girls walking along the sidewalk.  We didn’t recognize them.  But they were friendly and soon we were talking to them and learned they were from Redondo Beach, California, in town to visit relatives.  There was something very different about these girls.  Most noticeable was their California accent.  Definitely different than what we were accustomed to in Oklahoma.  And what a coincidence, they were cousins of our school friends, the Martin twins.  After lingering a while to talk, they went on their way while Ernie and I turned our attention back to work. 

Later that afternoon, Ernie’s mom, Mattie, who ran the office, came out to the shop and told us that somebody had a flat tire out on Highway 28 and needed us to go out there and put the spare tire on for them.  What a coincidence, the people had the flat right in front of the Martin twin’s house.  So Ernie and I jumped into the Pontiac station wagon and drove out north on the highway toward the location about five miles northwest of town.  I was driving and the station wagon was still loaded with as much of the used car lot office stuff as we could get into it.  When we arrived at the Martin’s place there was no car with a flat tire.  But those two California girls were there.  The girls claimed that the folks with the flat had changed it themselves and had already gone on their way.  I have always wondered if there ever was anyone with a flat tire at all.  But it was ok with Ernie and me.  We took a little time to talk to the girls before heading back to town.  As I was backing out of their driveway and onto the highway, I had to wait for a slow moving black 1950 Chevrolet sedan to pass by heading toward Chelsea.  I waved to the girls as I threw the shifting lever down to drive and floored it.  As usual, the nearly bald tires on the Pontiac squealed on the pavement as we sped off. 

Very soon I was behind that black Chevy and looking for a chance to pass as soon as we got through the winding portion of the highway that took us over a couple of hills.  Coming out of the last curve the way ahead was clear so I floored the Pontiac and laughed as we passed the elderly man at the wheel of the old sedan.  A couple of miles further as we were approaching Larry Delozier’s place, there was a loud pop and suddenly the car swerved a little to the right.  Blowout!  Whatever training or good sense I may have had before evaporated and I instinctively applied the brakes.  A very big mistake.  The vehicle suddenly began to skid with the right rear of the station wagon coming around to my right.  It was at this point that I experienced one of those rare moments that I had heard talked about before but never imagined I would face.  It was the “life flashing before my eyes” experience.  I could see the embankment on the northeast corner of the T intersection directly in front of our path.  I yelled to Ernie to get down as I gripped the bottom half of the steering wheel from beneath and pulled myself as hard against the seat as I could.  Seatbelts?  No.  Seatbelts had not yet become standard and were rare in those days. 

So it was in those few seconds as we slid across the highway toward the embankment that, in my mind, I saw a series of scenes from my life.  Time seemed to move in slow-motion.  What a terrifying feeling of helplessness.  And suddenly the Pontiac slammed into the embankment and flipped over onto its top.  Ernie and I were upside down looking at each other and amazed that we were still alive.  We scrambled out Ernie’s side through the window, finding ourselves in Gene Parks’ pasture.  The station wagon was upside down on top of his barbed wire fence.   We climbed over the fence and ran across the road, concerned the vehicle might catch fire.  The wheels were still turning and fluids were leaking out of the engine compartment, gasoline pouring out of the gas tank.  In the dirt and the grass along the embankment was strewn much of the content of the used car lot office; so many car keys.  It was then that the old man in the black sedan pulled alongside us and asked, “You boys need a ride”?

We sheepishly got into the car and checked ourselves over as he drove the last mile or so to Perkins Chevrolet.  I had a chipped thumbnail and minor scratches; Ernie, about the same.  We couldn’t believe our good fortune but now came the time to face our dads.  The old man let us out on the street and we walked across Highway 28 through the big open door of the shop.  Ernie went through the showroom toward his dad’s office while I walked over to where my dad was working on a car.  From that point things happened very quickly.  Mr. Perkins came walking briskly into the shop with Ernie right behind him.  Boyd told Everett to take the wrecker out to the accident location and bring that station wagon back to the dealership lot immediately.  Then he told Ernie and me to come with him back to his office. 

Boyd Perkins was a tall angular man with wavy gray hair.  Although his career before acquiring the dealership a few years earlier had been that of a skilled machinist, he had a distinguished look about him and an impressive gift for speaking.  I often thought of him resembling Jimmy Stewart or such a person as that. 

On the walk from the shop past the parts counter and back to his office, I tried to prepare myself for the meanest, most humiliating chewing out of my life.  The cost of the vehicle and all the office stuff weighed on my mind as we entered the office and Mr. Perkins closed the door behind us, motioning for us to take a seat as he made his way around behind his desk and sat down in a large brown leather chair.  All I could do was stare at the bright red model of a Corvette setting on his desk as I awaited his words.  “Boys”, he began, “The most important thing of all is that you were not hurt.  That Pontiac station wagon means nothing compared to how important you both are to Everett and me and your mothers.”  I’m sure he said a lot more than that but as far as he was concerned there was no punishment or financial obligations to be considered.  That was it. 

Ernie and his mom drove out to the site and searched the dirt around the area for car keys and any other items that could be recovered.  Soon dad was back with the totaled out station wagon which he parked across the alley north of the shop where such vehicles were kept awaiting insurance claims or other disposition.  As for me, there was a disabled car on the other side of town so my dad told me to take the wrecker over there and install a new battery in it for a customer.  I was still shaking when I climbed into that 1950 something Chevrolet two ton wrecker and started it up.  It was a reassuring feeling to drive along the city streets slow and careful in that big solid stable vehicle.  I knew I was lucky to be alive and vowed to myself to never again touch the brakes when a tire blows out.

During the time that summer while the wrecked Pontiac sat across the alley, the police chief questioned Ernie unofficially about the accident and wondered why it was never reported to the Highway Patrol.  He accused Ernie of being the driver.  No official person ever asked me about the accident or who was driving.  How do you spell “white privilege”?

The Pontiac ended up in a salvage yard in Tulsa on Pine Street.  Occasionally Ernie and I would stop by the salvage and stare through the fence at the crumpled up remains of that hot rod station wagon and question how we survived it.

And so that summer the California girls, Becky and Bobbie, stayed at their grandmother’s house in Chelsea for what seemed like a few weeks.  And during that time they became a part of my group of friends.  Becky was a year older than me and Bobbie a year younger.  Becky and I became constant companions during their time in Chelsea.  That was a soothing time for me as my first real girlfriend had broken up with me the previous fall and I was having a hard time getting over it.  When the girls returned to California with their family, several of us guys in town experienced some moments of anguish, missing these two girls who were just a little “different”.  Becky and I became great pen pals and over the next couple of years wrote each other often.  She wrote about days at the beach and about the popular songs and groups of the day.  Through her letters, I was able to get a sense of what it might be like to be a part of the surfing beach scene on the West Coast.  She called me a couple of times.  Something rare and expensive in those days, at least in my world.  She also returned to Chelsea a couple of times over the next year or two.  A very nice and innocent memory.

Later in the summer, we were surprised to learn that someone had begun the process to purchase the Perkins Chevrolet dealership.  I don’t remember the name of the man who wanted to acquire it but he was a wholesale car dealer from Tulsa.  The man was a very outgoing, a free wheeler sort of guy accustomed to high volume trading in the wholesale business.  The process of becoming an authorized Chevrolet Dealer was quite involved and required a period of time to submit all the documentation and eventually obtain approval.  But that didn’t pose any concern for this guy.  And as he surveyed the situation there at the dealership, he somehow decided I would be helpful in his Tulsa wholesale and personal asset disposition process. 

The first assignment he had for me was to go with him to a house on east Admiral in Tulsa, almost to Catoosa.  There he had a beautiful 1962 Impala Super Sport which he wanted me to drive to a dealer in Shawnee, Oklahoma.  The house seemed to be one that he owned of had some sort of interest in.  It was an older looking ranch type of property with a barn and some horses out back.  So on that hot sunny afternoon in the summer of 1963, I drove off from Tulsa down the Turner Turnpike in that fine automobile, air conditioner cold, and the radio tuned in to every station I could find playing the popular songs of the day. 

What a contrast to the wet, greasy, sweating conditions of the previous couple of months.  I had never driven the Turner Turnpike and never been free behind the wheel of a car like this one I was driving.  For me, music has held a very powerful role in my life.  Music permeates the deepest recesses of who I am.  So driving down the turnpike that day, one of the most played songs on the radio was Surfer Girl.  For so many reasons Surfer Girl touched me and made that whole day a prominent memory that is as real today as it was in 1963.  And Candy Girl, with its heartfelt tune and lyrics, really grabbed me that day.  Who needs to work when I can just drive this incredible car with the radio playing and my romantic heart loving it all so much?

Taking the exit at Chandler, I made my way south down to Shawnee with its prominent grain elevators and signs touting Shawnee’s Best flour.  I hated to think what kind of car I would be driving back to Chelsea.  Nothing could match this Super Sport with its bucket seats, center console, and floor shift automatic.  But to my happy surprise, the guy at the Shawnee lot had a 1961 Pontiac Ventura coupe ready for me to drive back.  Not quite as impressive as the Super Sport but a truly cool car and way beyond anything I thought I would have been driving a couple months ago as crawled out of that Pontiac station wagon wreckage.

As it turned out, the man was never approved by General Motors to own the dealership.  But my brief time as his courier and handy man helped to make my summer a time I often think about.  He must have thought I was older than I was for he never hesitated to send me off by myself to retrieve vehicles at various locations.  On one Saturday that summer he sent me to one of his ranch style locations on north Mingo or Garnett in Tulsa to get a large stake bed farm truck that I was familiar with from prior visits there.  Driving that Chevy wrecker from the dealership, I hooked up to the truck and towed it to another ranch type property north of Chelsea.  The truck I was towing was a little too heavy for the wrecker so that the front wheels of the wrecker barely touched the pavement at times.  I remember the wrecker tires squealing on the hot pavement in Claremore as I tried to stop at a main intersection there.  And so it happened that summer in 1963 before my dad left the Chevy dealership and began operating ByPass Texaco on Route 66 in Chelsea. 

There is something transformative in music.  Nowadays when I sit out in front of my garage and listen to the Beach Boys or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, I take a mental trip back in time and remember how I felt that day in the summer of 1963 driving the Turner Turnpike and feeling on top of the world for a few hours.  A great escape.

James Middleton

April 17, 2017