My step dad was a lot of things, but a good business man was not one of them. He was a partner in a forest seed business, Century Forest Seed, in Lebanon, Oregon, my home town. He hadn’t bothered to be adequately insured and the business was severely damaged by a flood in 1965. I wasn’t privy to all the financial details, but our family finances were a bit spotty over the next couple years, and he eventually lost the business.
At one point, things got so bad that we had our cars (among other things) repossessed. This was around 1967 or so. None of this fazed my step dad one bit. He’d lost his business, a house, our cars, a boat and a camper and we were watching a black and white TV from the 50’s instead of the year old color set that had been the focal point of our living room. We were lucky to have a phone. My step dad had a friend take him to a junkyard where he found a 1952 Ford 2 door sedan that he towed home and managed to make run.
It looked like the one in the photo, (even the visor over the windshield) except it was two tone green oxidized beyond all hope of displaying anything remotely like a shine. It almost looked like it was flocked. I think he only paid $25 bucks for it. Now, I’d love to have it, but, then I was ashamed of it. Except for the paint, it was in good shape, Flathead V-8 backed up by a 3 speed with overdrive, but I hated to be seen in it.
He found a job in a few days. He’d owned a sheet metal business in the 50’s, and went to work for a non-union shop in a nearby town.
Soon, he managed to get another car (loan from my uncle) for my mom to drive, a 59 Rambler Station Wagon in Appliance white.
This had an automatic transmission and steering so slow it was probably six turns, lock to lock. It was the car I learned to drive in. Quite a drop in prestige from a 1965 Impala and a 66 Chevy Fleetside with a Chinook camper. Our current rolling stock had a value of less than $300.
I didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation at the time, but it must have been fairly dire as I remember one time he came home with a bunch of USDA surplus food (pre-food stamp program) in cans. They all had labels painted right on the cans with USDA stamped all over the place, and I distinctly remember a can labeled “One Whole Chicken”.
Years later, it all dawned on me that the way he handled this situation with calm and resolve was very special. He never seemed to miss a beat, never showed any signs of self pity, or seemed to be the least bit embarrassed having to work for someone else or bringing home surplus food.
How a man acts after he gets knocked on his butt tells you a lot more than watching him when everything is going smooth. It only took a year or so for us to get back on our feet, more or less. We got a new color TV (big deal in the 60’s, you know) The Rambler turned into a 63 Dodge and my step dad bought a 61 GMC pickup. For some reason, the old Ford stayed around for another year so so. I can’t actually remember what happened to it, but he did tell me he kept it around, as a reminder.
He eventualy started up his own sheet metal business in the early 70’s that he operated until he passed on in 1979 at the age of 56. He was the sort of man who taught me things by example rather than lecture me on some subject. Once I came home when I was around 16 after drinking a few beers with my buddies. I was a little shocked to find my parents still awake when I got home and I was certain that I was going to get busted. But they said nothing, and so I went upstairs and went to bed. I was awakened at about 7:30 by my old man who announced that I needed to help him unclog the drain in the basement. I was experiencing my first hangover and now I’m in the basement pulling on the end of a plumber’s snake that’s stuck in an old cast iron pipe. I’ll spare you the details of how it all worked out, but when I was crawling out of the dirt floor basement he said to me “I hope if was worth it.” “What?” I said, wondering what “it” was. “I know what you were up to last night, think I wasn’t young once?” He didn’t need to explain at that point that sometimes actions have consequences: I heard him loud and clear.