Monday, January 12, 2009

George Watterson and the great Safari (Part 3)

Rt. 37 is the main, state road, north-south connection between the towns of Bedford and Mitchell, Indiana. In 1998 it was still a two lane road and had very little to see, or places to stop, for the 10 miles between towns. This provided few distractions and plenty of time to think about what I was doing as I buzzed south that morning looking out the windshield of my Mustang at the grey, leafless scenery. It was cold that morning, probably around 45, and I decided to pull into a little diner just as I rolled into Mitchell. Maybe a hot chocolate and a little visiting with the locals would put me in the right frame of mind before I set out on this little journey, and besides, I still had about 20 minutes before seven a.m. rolled around and something told me that when the old man said seven he REALLY meant seven. 

After my little pit stop and a final check of my supplies I was off. 

It was as close to seven as could be as I pulled off the road and up to the old  man's trailer. I was feeling pretty confident now. Something just came over me as I hopped out of my car. I felt like I could deal with anything that this guy was going to dish out at me, car guy to car guy. Armed with this, I walked right up to the trailer door and gave it a few taps. Nothing. I tried again. Still nothing. I stood there for a while just listening, for anything, whether it be from the trailer or outside...  anything. As I stood there all of the confidence I'd had just moments ago began to wash away. Was this some kind of set-up? What's this old man up to anyway? This is crazy... a dollar a car. 

I walked down a path going out past the right side of his trailer. This, surprisingly enough, opened up into "almost" a back-yard of sorts, but of course, cars everywhere. Not only cars, but an entire maze-like series of sheds and lean-to buildings made from scrap sheet metal, rotting lumber, and brush. Every one of these had car grills, bumpers, and head-lights peaking out of them and went back into his property as far as I could see. I was overwhelmed with curiosity... I had so many questions for this guy. But where the hell was he? I had done my part, it was now after seven and no sign of...  then a sound. A tapping from off in the distance. A very specific metal on metal tapping. Something small. Small parts, small tools...  tap tap tap. 

I started walking towards it back in the direction of the trailer. Tap tap tap. It was getting louder and I was nearly at the road, past where my car was parked. It was coming from across. OK, so we're crossing the road now. I had seen a few cars over there but it was more heavily wooded than the area around his trailer so I hadn't paid too much attention. I start down into the woods. The tapping is very close now, I can guess that its about 50 feet away but still can't see the source. Pulling back brush and stepping over buried car fenders I make my way deeper and deeper. Finally I see something yellow about 30 feet away. This is where the sound is coming from. I take a few more steps and see a sight that to this day I'll never forget and will never be able to explain. There he was...  the old man, ball peen hammer and chisel in hand, sitting on a short stack of car rims and crouching down next to the front wheel of a school-bus yellow model A Ford. He had an old scissor jack under the front axle holding the drivers side front wheel off the ground and a greasy blanket laying underneath the front corner of the car making a sort of outdoor work station. Neatly placed on it was a small set of tools and an old brown wax paper Ford NOS parts wrapper that was laid open. The old man had the Model A's front brake drum in his lap and was whacking away at it with his hammer and chisel. As I moved in closer I could see the old races and bearings that were spread out on the Ford paper and suddenly realized that he was installing new wheel bearings in this Model A. New wheel bearings! 

Now, let me take a moment and describe to you the Model A that I stood there looking at that morning. This car was a complete '30-'31 Model A 5 window coupe that had been painted school-bus yellow, had not a single piece of glass in it, and would conservatively estimate hadn't moved in at least 30 years. The body was rough to the point that the fenders were starting to come away and were mostly laying on the ground as the car had sunk almost to the frame. Not only would it have taken a full day with a team of workers and a dozen chain saws to free this car from its densely wooded surroundings, but it had an actual TREE growing up through it between the grill and the front bumper. Not a little whip of a tree but something about 8-10 inches in diameter that had come along to fully secure the car to the woods. 

Just as I'm about to complete my study of the scene in front of me, the old man whips around. "I didn't think you were coming. It's 7:10 you know?". I explained that I had been up at the trailer and wasn't sure where to find him until I'd heard the work going on. The old man said,"Yeah, these wheel bearings'll go bad on ya if you don't watch 'em". He wiped his hands off to shake mine and said,"George Watterson is the name, don't believe I've caught your's". I introduced myself and he asked,"So you want to see some cars aye?". I said I did and he asked,"You bring some money with you?", I said that I did, and with that he started to gather up his tools and parts. 

Before we walked very far he asked if I was driving the green Mustang that he had seen me in the day before. I said that I was and he immediately said,"I got one of them". We walked through the woods away from the Model A past a few car shapes covered with briars and brush and he pointed at one and said,"There's mine. 1965. Got the 289 motor. Bought that one in Kansas City." I could just make out a taillight from about 15 feet. As I got closer I could see it was a '65 coupe, white with a red interior. The windows were up and you couldn't see much looking in but what I could see looked like a complete car. Every emblem, every piece of trim. This would soon become a mysterious theme with the cars that I would see throughout the rest of the day...  and the day after that. That's right folks, it took two full days.

Watterson asked, as I was looking at his Mustang,"How many cars you think you're gonna want to see." 

"All of 'em," I said. 

"Well, then we better get started," he said.

We started away from the Mustang and were soon upon a car I'd noticed when walking down into the woods earlier. A 1936-7 Packard 120 sedan. This car was a good 40-50 feet from the road but still had spray-can lettering on the side of it that said "Not for sale". I had to assume that the car was visible to passers-by back when it was parked. This was also a complete car but with the usual broken glass etc. As we continued to make our way through the woods, Watterson began to warn me, with great seriousness, that this would end immediately if I mentioned anything at all about wanting to buy any car or any part of any car. I assured him that I wasn't interested in buying anything and that I was just hear to see and look at his cars. Believe me, I could tell by the way he asked that that was the only answer he was going to accept. But also understand, this was an excruciating thing for me to do because at the time I was deep in the throws of collecting any and all Model A parts for my beloved '29 roadster project and was desperate for many pieces and parts that were holding back the progress of gathering up an entire car- and I'd already seen 4-5 Model As that had been left to rot since I'd been there. Fortunately, I had no idea how bad this was going to get when I assured him that I would follow his rule to the letter and made the deal. 

As walked on it continued to be one car after another. Cars where you couldn't see cars. He would stop and say,"1951 Cadillac." And I would honestly not know where he meant. You would see a hubcap poking out from under some brush if you were lucky but other than that you needed him as a guide. I quickly learned that it was partially his doing that had made these cars so hard to see. He had spent a lot of time in these woods throwing brush over the cars and other kinds of camouflage like branches or old sheet metal pole barn siding. Between Watterson and what nature was providing the cars were amazingly well hidden. 

One of the more striking discoveries, and a moment that seemed to almost bring me into his trust, came after we had seen a few cars around the yellow Model A and he walked me over to a hull that was resting on the floor of the woods. It was an open car from the '50s that wasn't quite as hidden as the rest. Its body was on the ground and the interior had filled up like a flower box with growth up to the doorpanel armrests and nearly to the bottom of the dashboard. As I walked along side of it I couldn't believe my eyes. Before I could speak Watterson said,"I bet you can't tell me what that is." As I stood looking down at it I not only knew what it was but couldn't believe what I was about to say was true,"It's a Muntz Jet", I replied. With that Watterson said,"You know you're the first person that's ever seen it that knew what it was. Most people ain't even heard of 'em." He went on,"I bought that up outside of Chicago and damn near never got it home what with all the overheating going on with that old flat-head." 
"Chicago?, I asked. "You drove it home?" 
"Oh yeah", he said."I drove damn near every one of these home from where I bought 'em". 

OK, now it was time to get to the bottom of this. How in the world did all of this happen and what is this guys story? In as covert a way as possible, I reached down into my camera bag and turned on my tape recorder. I knew that if I got this guys story and didn't get it on tape, nobody would ever believe me. It was one thing to be getting pictures of every car ( only one per car or I had to pay double... no kidding ) but I needed the audio track too, so I started to ask away...  and here's what I learned. 

George Watterson had gone to work in Mitchell, Indiana as a young man at the Carpenter body works factory in the 1940s. Carpenter was a company that manufactured bodies for school buses and had a customer base throughout the midwest and the south. Carpenter would receive brand new bus chassis', fix their bodies onto them, and then drive the finished product to the customer. This is where George Watterson comes in. George was a delivery man for Carpenter delivering buses all over this part of the country during the 1940s, '50s, '60s, and '70s. George's job was to deliver the new buses, and how he got home was basically up to him. He was given a certain amount of per diem that he could spend on a bus or train ticket, or he could tow his personal car on a tow bar behind the bus and use his per diem to cover his fuel. Keeping his overhead down by way of never marrying and living in a series of trailers on a section of land that I'm sure had long since been paid for, Watterson put all of his energy into saving money and amassing his dream car collection one car ride home at a time. He would drive to a town, drop off his bus, and then, as he put it,"Make a bee-line for the local paper or Pennysaver and find an interesting used car to drive home in." I would say a Muntz Jet would qualify as interesting. 

Watterson said that he would do this as often as he could afford to and of course it would also depend on what he could find. As he said,"You could always find and buy a Model A, no matter how strapped I was at the time. And they'd always get me home." He added, "And if I couldn't find nothin' interesting I'd just hop the bus and go home." 

So, now it was adding up, and fast. What was still a fascination to me, and still is to this day, was the reverence that George Watterson showed towards his "collection". He showed me every car he had with such pride and renewed interest. Telling me in great detail about the day he bought it, where he bought it, and what the drive home was like...  remembering little details, people and happenings, more and more as he spoke. But with every car's story came an early ending as he didn't seem to have much to say about them once they were home. I honestly don't believe he drove them much, if at all, once they did their duty. It was as if the entire adventure consisted of finding each strange new car and then seeing if he could coax it into traveling with him back to Indiana. After that was accomplished, it was over. That was then the story that would forever be linked to that car. No more no less. I think referring to his cars as his "collection" was probably the greatest stroke of luck I had towards making this visit happen...  because that is exactly how he saw it. He considered himself a car collector as much as any other guy. He just wanted them to die with him for some reason. It's hard for many to understand, I know. But seeing the look in his eyes when he talked about them and what they meant to him, I just couldn't imagine him going through life without every single one. Each car marked a moment in time for George. A hyper-realistic movie reel of sensory recall that would click into play at the sight or mention of any of them. This was his life parked all around him. This was his collection. 

To be continued...    

1 comment:

biggearhead said...

Man! This is one of the most amazing stories I've ever heard - and right here in my home state! Can't wait to hear the rest of the story! And any pictures?!?!?!

Muntz Jet. Holy cow.