Dad gave me this photo he’d scanned from a slide. It epitomizes my childhood; mop of blonde hair, patched knees on pants, messing about with some old car. But this 1957 Dodge didn’t belong to our family, it belonged to Cliff, one of our neighbors and another influential figure in my automotive education.
We got a new neighbor on our rural road when I was about eight when a young man named Cliff and his wife moved in three houses down. He had a ready, gap-toothed grin and settled into our little neighborhood well. When my Dad was struggling to make the lights work on our camping trailer, Cliff grabbed some tools and rode his bicycle over to help. He cut up blocks of wood for us kids to make boats out of and float in the creek. A really good guy, and I began following him around to see what he was doing.
He was doing quite a bit, because Cliff was incredibly industrious. He immediately set to work on his little house, jacked it up on cribs to put a proper basement underneath, then added a second story. He did all the work himself, which I found amazing: I’d never seen a jacked up house before.
Even more interesting to me were his vehicles. He had arrived with the Dodge in the lead photo, or more accurately a Plodge, since as a Canadian-market car it was mostly a Plymouth from the cowl back.
It eventually got scrapped, and Cliff saved me the fabulous instrument cluster (which I ruined by taking apart) and the ownership paper (which I lost).
Next I recall a pair of ’63 Pontiacs in his driveway, I think one was a parts car, but I never rode in either one. Of course, they had the (in)famous narrow-track chassis.
For errands, Cliff drove a teal green ’55 Fargo pickup and I tagged along on dump runs and trips to the hardware store. It was a great little bouncy, noisy thing, all you really needed for small jobs.
For big jobs, Cliff had a 1960 GMC one-ton dually flatbed. To me, it looked as menacing as the Fargo looked friendly.
Cliff tolerated my following him around pretty well, but I was a persistent kid, and I think some days he would tire of me and gently but firmly send me home. He got mad at me only once, and that was when I tried to change a tire on the Dodge without asking permission.
He came around the house just in time to see the car fall off the jack and (from his vantage point) onto me. Luckily, it didn’t actually fall on me; the jack knocked me down, but I was unhurt. I sure got the lecture I rightfully deserved.
He also gave me a little lawn mower powered by a Clinton gas engine. I was thrilled, as this was the first engine I had ever owned. What an incredible learning experience, although it was a temperamental thing and I never could keep it running long enough to mow our entire quarter-acre lot.
There were unforgettable lessons learned from the Clinton–such as, don’t pick up a hot engine by the exhaust pipe or you will severely burn your hand. I still remember pulling my hand back and it not really hurting. For about two seconds, anyway…
Once the bandages came off and my hand was healed, I also learned that if you disassemble an engine using only a hammer you won’t be able to put it back together, but you probably already knew that.
I was seeing less of Cliff by this point, I guess because he was spending less time outside doing interesting things. The house was done, his small business was doing well and he now had his own children to follow him around too.
The Pontiacs were replaced by a pair of Mercedes-Benzes: A late ’60s sedan, and an old 190SL convertible.
This was exotic stuff, the only imported cars on our country road; but me being me, I still preferred the Fargo.
In 1979, we moved to a new subdivision on the edge of the city, a move that I still regard as not having been the best for me. My new neighbors were mostly steelworkers who drove new cars and kept the lawns neat in front of their new houses. They did not do interesting things like jack their homes up on cribs or drive old pickup trucks to the dump. There was no one to follow around, so I made my own fun with slot cars and balsa wood model airplanes. I never saw Cliff again.
I haven’t noticed any inquisitive kids following me around while I’m working outside. Hopefully, the ones that are out there have managed to find their own Cliff, and picked up a few lessons in how to be industrious and have interesting vehicles. It sure worked for me.
Further DougD Reading: