Even Pessoa, that eminently healthy man,
That artist, wore a blue wool hat
Even on the hottest days.
Simply to toss at strangers in the street.
He liked to see them catch it,
And grow immediately less strange.
In the back of the store at Harmony House, I checked Volume 3 Elvis’ Golden Records for scratches or bubbles.
“Elvis is the last of the great crooners,” Carl said. I slipped the album back into its paper sleeve and then slid the sleeve into its cardboard cover.
“What’s a crooner,” I asked, as I opened a Bobby Vee jacket and slid the vinyl into my hands.
“Crooners are singers with velvet voices, like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, and Bing Crosby. The style will survive for a bit more, because Elvis is so young,” Carl replied. “They have a unique phrasing, as well, like Elvis, a softness in their voices,” he added.
Carl McFadden was the owner of Harmony House Records, in the Northern Lights Shopping Center in Columbus, Ohio. He was tall, with close cropped black hair, dark rimmed glasses—a gentle man with a soft voice and a kind, open face. He hired me on the spot a year earlier to work as a clerk, along with two older women, Mildred and Mrs. Wiley, which is how they introduced themselves and how I addressed them from then on. Mildred was thin and stylish in her dress, very attractive in her presentation of herself, a lady. Mrs. Wiley was older and shorter and a bit cantankerous in her ways, but a dear, warmhearted woman. Deep inside her, though, dwelt a spine of steel. She once thwarted a robber who approached the front sales-counter, gun in hand, and demanded the cash. We were all elsewhere in the store, when suddenly Mrs. Wiley blurted out,
“You get on out of here, it’s not my money to give you!”
We turned to see the thief’s back headed out the door. I couldn’t tell, as we gathered around her, if she was more angry than shook. After a few moments she laughed at herself.
“I probably shouldn’t have done that, but he made me so mad.”
These were my fellow workers at Harmony House, but they were also great friends to me when I was seventeen. I had just spent a year with my family living in Spain. My sister and I lived in separate boarding schools except for bi-monthly Sundays, when we went to the apartment my parents rented on Paseo Del Prado. It was a horrifying period in my life. Shortly after we returned to the states, my mother attempted suicide. After her recovery, she and my father were divorced and my father remarried. I was hired at Harmony House and worked there every day after school and on Saturdays. It was a respite I cherished, to live, if only for a few hours, with these kind, dignified people, who felt love and respect for me and the simple work I did there.
It was 1963. In the last two short years I had moved four times, lived in three different states and one foreign country, and gone to four different schools. I awoke midnights to hear my parents’ useless arguments, experienced the trauma of their contentious divorce and child custody hearings, and moved yet again after their divorce and my father’s subsequent marriage. I clung desperately to the sanity and serenity of my after-school job.
Carl McFadden was more than a boss. He befriended me, counseled and comforted me with his patient instruction. He built me up with his acceptance of my ideas, like to buy the Beatles first album that sold out in the first week. Each day I could experience people working in concert with one another, and speaking with respect to one another. There was music playing there behind it all, music I’d never heard, and music new to Carl, Mrs. Wiley and Mildred. There was, of course, laughter in its many forms. It washed over us, it seemed to me, dissolving the visible barriers that made us different, and evaporating them into sound that said we were very much alike. I relaxed there and surfaced out of the fog of my diffidence. There, was the imagined self, the one who inhabited but a few moments or days in my life up until Harmony House. Only writing this now do I realize what an auspicious name that was. I worked at Harmony House until I graduated in 1964. Carl could not afford to hire three full-time employees. My experience there, the confidence it gave me, stayed with me. I visited Carl, Mildred and Mrs. Wiley many times after I left, until I moved to California. In my mind, I visit Harmony House still, so many years later.
My first full-time job began in June of 1964. I was very thin for 5’10”, maybe 145 pounds. When I applied for a job with Sutherland Lumber Co. as a loader, the two men interviewing me laughed. Loaders were also unloaders, meaning they would scale the sides of a wall of lumber on the open side of a boxcar filled within one foot of the top. In the summer a boxcar could be one-hundred-twenty degrees. A loader would crawl on his belly between the ceiling and the first layer of lumber and start shoving pieces out the door to a stacker below. It was hard physical work. Physically, the confidence I had gained was from working on a farm years before. The intelligent, encouraging environment working in Harmony House allowed me to convince them I could do the job. During the year I worked at Sutherland Lumber I earned a reputation of being one of the best loaders they had, a reputation to where they did not hesitate to transfer me to the Anaheim, California, yard at my request in 1965. Looking back I can see how true friends helped me grow into what was then my awkward bravado, but before I set out on a two thousand mile journey to Anaheim, there was another change in my life that further empowered me, perhaps more than anything before. It was a car I fell in love with, white with black interior and shiny baby moon hubcaps. It was my 1964 GTO.
I had saved some money during high school and the first few months in the lumber yard. My first car was a blue 1960 Chevy Impala convertible.
When my father moved to Dresden Street in Columbus I met our neighbors, the Sullivan brothers, Tommy and Jerry. Their father owned several gas stations and they had been raised around cars all their lives. I had dabbled in street racing with them in my Chevy, but with a column shifter and linkage I kept blowing transmissions. When I drove the GTO home the Saturday I purchased it, they were over to my house in an instant. We went for a drive. The GTO was powerful with a 389 cubic inch displacement, generating 325 horsepower. The GTO (or Goat, or Judge as they were nicknamed) had a floor shifter and was easily speed-shifted, meaning you don’t let up on the gas as you move through the gears. The Sullivans loved it and in the week that followed they convinced me to let them disassemble the engine and modify it for drag racing. They outlined how we would do it in one of the gas station garages and how much it would cost. I was in, a big leap for me to do something so radical and somewhat irreversible. During the pulling of the engine with a hoist, I felt the old waterfalls of doubt raging inside me, alongside a free excitement I had never experienced.
It was the second week on a Saturday morning when we stood in the garage and saw the engine of my car lying in orderly dissociation on the concrete floor that I first hesitantly asked them if they really knew how to put it back together. They laughed.
“You know Jerry’s ’57,” Tommy said (referring to Jerry’s classic 1957 Chevy). “We rebuilt that and it is the fastest car in Columbus. Yours will be faster, much faster.”
“How fast?” I asked.
“110 mph in a quarter mile, in about twelve seconds. Fast!”
In the two weeks that followed, we bored out the cylinders, installed oversized rings on the pistons, replaced the hydraulic valve lifters with solid lifters, installed a three-quarter racing camshaft, three two-barrel Muncie carburetors, and a Hurst 4-speed floor shifter. We also replaced the clutch spring with the spring off the hood of a car we found in salvage. We replaced the rear axle gears with a 411 Posi traction rear end, and put butyl rubber slicks for rear tires to reduce spin. When reassembly was complete, we lowered the newly reconstructed engine and bolted it back in place.
“Start it up.” Jerry handed me the key. He smiled at Tommy, then said to me, “Make sure it’s out of gear; the walls are only concrete block.”
I checked the Hurst shifter to be sure it was in neutral and turned the key. It cranked a few times, but nothing. On the second try the garage echoed with an alarming rumble, and then a deep gurgle as the engine idled with its new-found power. It was truly awesome and we looked at each other with knowing grins for what was ahead. I felt as though I had been catapulted into a universe that I never imaged in all my fantasies of living boldly as a young man with male friends who slapped my back and said, let’s go do something heavy.
It may sound trivial or superficial to say a car helped me ascend a mountain, the way they conquer Pike’s Peak in Colorado, but I was in an earth-bound paradise. When the GTO idled in gear it loped the way a T-Rex must have made its way over the prehistoric landscape. Sometimes with Sullivans, sometimes alone, I loped through Johnny’s Drive-In inviting the Chevy Super Sports, the Olds 442s, the Shelbys, and the Cudas to follow me down to Cherry Bottom Road, a deserted straight country road where the street racers went. No one ever beat me. I would go through four gears so smooth, many claimed the Goat was an automatic. Soon the Sullivans and I began hearing about the white GTO—The fastest car in Columbus.
In a way it was both profound and superficial simultaneously. After a year of “fame” it was strange to feel myself outgrowing the toy that elevated me so. I won trophies at the drag strip for quarter mile times of eleven and twelve seconds, but the exhilaration of that faded. The vehicle that had been like the pumpkin in Cinderella for me, that had emboldened me to go to nightclubs and dance. That put a spirit in me to the extent that I would, one night at Luv-a-Go-Go, a night spot in Columbus, climb on the band stage and take the mic to recite “The Yarn of the Nancy Bell” to the crowd, and have them love it and ask for it the next time I was there. That spirit also led me away from such fertile ground to seek something else. What I did not know. But I had been reassembled it seemed and it was up to me now to follow a heart opened by a few and precious unforgettable friends.