Jun 27, 2013

Memphis or Bust...

Believe it or not!  This 1955 Ford firetruck is competing in the 2013 Great Race...
A few weeks ago, Jim Kahrs contacted me regarding the 2013 Great Race.  Jim is an old colleague from Oklahoma -- first as a student when I taught in the NROTC unit and later as a roommate -- and we have a common interest in cars and other distractions.  The first year I participated in the Great Race, Jim joined the crew in Kansas City and helped Margo with the support vehicle all the way to Boston.

I told Jim that I had actually considered going to Germantown on the 26th of June to watch the cars arrive there en route from Minneapolis to Mobile.  That was all it took.  Jim informed me that his bride, Sheila, was going to be out of town for a couple of days including the 25th and 26th.  It made perfect sense that he'd drive from Athens, Georgia on Wednesday, spend that evening with Mary Ann and me, and then he and I would drive from Fayetteville to Memphis and back in one day, just to see a bunch of old cars and old friends.
Crowds welcomed nearly 100 cars to Germantown
Jim drove over, arriving on Wednesday the 25th.  I met him at the shop of Dan and Deron Shady, where we examined the current state of progress on my 1932 Plymouth roadster hot rod.  After a nice tour of all the projects in the shop, we headed to Fayetteville.  Mary Ann and I and Jim enjoyed a relaxed dinner at Las Trojas Mexican Restaurant, returned to the house, and got a good night's rest.

On Thursday morning, Mary Ann fed us a nice breakfast and after we showered, we got on the road around 9:30 AM.  The shortest route to Memphis from our house is actually highway 72 from Huntsville through Decatur, Alabama to Corinth, Mississippi, and on to Collierville, Tennessee.  Our first stop in Memphis was directly across the street from the famed Peabody Hotel at a very established rib joint, the Rendezvous.  We descended the steps from street level to the subterranean dining room and were greeted by the most amazing aroma.  A delicious Memphis-style barbecue rib dinner ensued.

The local Cobra Club was well represented

Jim and I proceeded to Germantown (thank God for GPS) and got a good parking place close to the arrival location at Municipal Park.  The venue was perfect for a Great Race arrival, with a lovely shaded park adjacent to a wide boulevard for the arrival pageantry.  A Great Race stop is a mix of circus parade, carnival barking, high drama, and old cars.  A large inflated gate is set up under which the cars pass.  Music is blaring over some loudspeakers.  A professional sports announcer, Mr. Brian Goudge, of Ottawa, Canada (affectionately know to all as "Motormouth"), announces each arrival, along with some information about car, driver, and navigator.  Corky Coker of Coker Tires in Chattanooga is right by Brian's side offering an equally upbeat commentary.  The cars and drivers roll by among a cheering crowd.  Local sponsors are providing each team with gifts, including cold, wet towels to put around their overheated necks.  It all makes for terrific theater.

Each car welcomed some wet, cold towels
for the long-suffering crew
After the cars are welcomed, they proceed to the "parc fermé," literally, "closed park."  Each Great Race participant will keep their car on display for the public to enjoy for a couple of hours at each overnight city.  It is a wonderful opportunity to interact with the public and explain what the Great Race is all about.  This was the third time the rally had stopped in Germantown over the last ten years.  The crowd was enthusiastic, but I was told that it was smaller than in previous years.  I think the heat and threat of rain showers might also have affected the size of the crowd of spectators.

Jim and I admired the cars and chatted with participants for an hour or so before heading home.  We got dinner at a small steak house in Corinth, Mississippi, and were back in Fayetteville a little after midnight.  It was a fun experience and brought back many happy memories.

Jun 19, 2013

Mr. C. D. Howard...

I first encountered Mr. C.D. Howard when, in 1978, I found myself in need of obtaining a general contractor’s license in Huntsville, Alabama.  Mr. Howard (Just call me “C.D.”) was a Huntsville native.  He was the slowest-talking southern gentleman I have ever encountered – one of those folks with whom you find yourself trying to pull the words out faster.  He was the head of the Huntsville Department of Inspection.
I asked Mr. Howard how I might go about getting a license and he advised me of the necessary steps.  But he also stressed to me the importance of working with his inspectors in the course of a building project.  I took that message to heart.  During the next few years as a licensed general contractor, I often called his office with questions about a specific regulation or requirement.  I practically memorized the Southern Building Code and never tried to put anything over on the inspectors.  As a result, Mr. Howard and I got along just fine.
The conversation which I remember most vividly took place in early 1979.  Margo and I had been talking about buying a lot and building our own home.  I had been studying solar home designs and had drawn up several ideas for a solar heated energy-efficient home.  I had heard that some localities prohibited contractors from building their own residences.  The conversation with Mr. Howard took place on one of my regular visits to his office and went something like this:
Me:  Mr. Howard, is it legal in Madison County for a contractor to build his own home?
C.D.: (very slowly) Mr. Mead, neither the city of Huntsville nor the county of Madison has any prohibition against a licensed general contractor building his own place of residence.  However, should you and Mrs. Mead elect to do so, I suggest that you include in the cost of the residence the cost of a divorce.
Enough said.  We never tried to build the house.
I recently learned that Mr. C.D. Howard is a member of the Huntsville-Madison County Builders Association Hall of Fame.  How appropriate.

Jun 9, 2013

Banjo Boys, Chapter 20

The first Banjo-Boy to finish his instrument!  Congratulations, Clint!
A Land Rover like Clint's
Today was very special.  One of the Banjo Boys might finish a banjo that was started back in November.  Clint met me for breakfast and we proceeded to the shop.  The first order of business was actually to investigate a problem with the front end of his Land Rover.  We solved that issue within an hour and began work on our banjos.  Monty couldn't be with us today because of a prior commitment.

Our goals were fairly simple.  For Clint, it was to remove his existing nut (the "bridge" that supports the strings at the top end of the fretboard), make a replacement nut, measure, mark, and file the grooves in the nut, and put the remaining strings on the banjo.  For me, the goal was to work on measuring and marking the places on my tension hoop (now silver soldered into a continuous ring courtesy of Dan Shady), and to start filing the recessed notches in the tension hoop where my "hooks" engage it.  Also, I wanted to start cutting off the ends of the Navy spoons that I plan to use as hooks and to see if I could bend them properly without breaking them.

Clint successfully removed his existing nut by gently tapping it using a small scrap of wood placed against the fret side of the nut and tapping it gently with a mall hammer.  The glue popped and the nut could be lifted out easily.  He then carefully measured the width of the neck and cut the piece of water buffalo horn that he had acquired for the new nut.  Remember that his banjo has lots of black and dark coloration.  The water buffalo horn is very dark and looks wonderful with the ebony surface of the fretboard.

Clint's finished nut.  You may be able
to see a little wax on the strings.

We had acquired a new tool to assist in accurately spacing the notches in the nut, so in no time, Clint had shaped the nut, polished it, glued it in place, and was filing his carefully-spaced string notches.  He used a feeler gauge placed under the string and over the first fret to judge where to stop filing on each string.  This is tedious work and took a couple of hours to complete.  He waxed the notches to help the strings slide more easily when tuning and we were ready to bring his banjo to life for the first time!  Pictures and a brief video can do this better than words:


I can't express you what a big deal this is.  Clint had never built a musical instrument in his life.  He told me that Sarah wanted to learn to play the banjo.  I threw out the idea of him building one for her.  Never, in my wildest imagination, could I have dreamed that he would build this heirloom-quality work of art.  Congratulations to Sarah for receiving such a special gift.  All the Banjo Boys hope you will learn to play it, treasure and cherish it for many years to come!  And now, Clint wants to build a second one -- this time, with a "bees" theme.  Get it?  Birds and bees?
My banjo with clear plastic
head and tension hoop in place.

After the excitement of "first notes," I proceeded to sand my tension hoop with gradually finer grades of sandpaper down to 400 grit.  This will make it easier to polish eventually and I wanted to "round off" the square edges of the rim.  I then placed the clear plastic head on the rim and the tension hoop over the head to mark the place where each notch will be filed.  I marked each with a marker pen and then filed a small groove at each mark.  Using a fairly aggressive metal file, I made the first notch to see how wide and deep it would need to be.  This required that I cut and bend at least one spoon to see how the hook will engage the notch.  Here's one of the spoons, cold-bent using a small metal brake.

I decided to go ahead and cut and bend all sixteen spoons.  Unfortunately, I broke three in the process, so now I must find a few more.  Ebay to the rescue.

Here is how I plan to use the spoons.  On the back of each spoon segment, there will be a silver-soldered nut.  I will use a stainless steel screw passing up through the bracket and into the nut on the spoon to apply tension to the head.  It might even work.

That's all for this chapter.

Jun 7, 2013

A Visit to the "Power Tour"...

A few weeks ago I became aware that the Hot Rod Power Tour was going to be in Chattanooga on Thursday, June 6th.  This is a rally of sorts sponsored by Hot Rod Magazine.  It moves from city to city over a one week period, usually going to cities with car-related attractions.  This year it was to start in Arlington, Texas, and proceed through Texarkana and Little Rock, AR, then to Memphis and Birmingham, and finally through Chattanooga to North Concord, NC.  The main attraction for me was that typically, the event draws a couple thousand participants in high-quality hot rods.  This year was no exception.  The Web site indicated 2,600 projected entries.

I decided it might be fun to drive my 1932 Plymouth coupe to Chattanooga and back in one day.  It's about 125 miles to Chattanooga State Community College, the advertised venue where the cars would arrive.  I researched a possible route on which I wouldn't have to get on the interstate.  It turns out that there are several no-interstate options.  I finally decided to take Highway 431 south to Highway 72, then proceed east as far as New Hope/South Pittsburgh, TN.  Just before I might normally get on Interstate 24, I would opt for  Tennessee highway 156 leading to Tennessee highway 134.  This connects with Georgia route 299 connecting with US highway 11 into Chattanooga.  The longest leg, on US highway 72, is about 70 miles.  This is a divided 4-lane road, which makes it easy for other motorists to go past my car, which is only capable of 55-60 miles per hour.

The "Back Roads" Route
Winston, ready for the trip
As the day approached, I asked my friend Clint Rankin if he would like to join me.  He drives an older Land Rover that is technologically in the same league as my Plymouth.  His family resided for many years in the region along the Tennessee River through which we would be travelling.  Clint agreed to go with me.  I prepared the car, greasing the chassis, changing oil and filter, checking all the lights, and topping off the fuel.  We were as ready as we'd ever be. I mentioned the trip to Monty Love and he said that he and his son Patrick would like to join us.  They could be our escort vehicle.  Everything was in place for a boys' day out!

I started watching the weather about ten days in advance of our trip.  It didn't look good.  I don't like to drive the Plymouth in the rain unnecessarily because it only has one very ineffective windshield wiper.  Unless someone has driven a car with vacuum-operated wipers (typically pre-1955) they can't appreciate how bad they were.  Whenever you give the car more gas, i.e., try to accelerate, the windshield wipers slow down or stop!  Try going up a hill.  You have no wipers.  Downhil, they go like crazy -- vwap, vwap, vwap, vwap!  You get the picture -- I didn't want to drive the old car if rain was likely.

The day before departure, the weatherman was predicting 60% likelihood of rain.  I decided to abandon the idea of driving "Winston" and to drive my truck instead.  At about the same time, I heard from Monty that he and Patrick would be unable to go.  So now, it would be Clint and me in my truck, but I still wanted to take the back roads to scout out the route for future adventures.

Clint and I met on highway 72 and got underway at around 7:00 AM.  We stopped in Scottsboro, AL, and had breakfast at the Huddle House.  Then we proceeded on our preplanned route.  As we reached the haven of Whiteside, Tennessee, on highway 134, Clint was describing his ancestors who had lived in this community and mentioned that many are buried in the Mt. Aetna cemetery (Clint pronounces it "Mount Etny" in the way he has heard it from his kinfolks.).  He pointed out the road that goes to the top of Mt. Aetna, and we did what any red-blooded boys would do -- we headed up the mountain.

One of the better-preserved tombstones
at the Aetna Cemetery, Lizzie Graham,
who died in 1890
After leaving the highway, we proceeded through a one-lane railroad underpass and soon ran out of pavement.  The gravel road winds up a steep incline marked by multiple switchbacks.  This was all punctuated by various points of interest descriptions. "That house belonged to my great aunt.  It was sealed up after she died and still has all her belongings in it."  "There's where old Mrs. so-and-so lived.  My cousin walked up the mountain every winter day to start her fire for her."  After what seemed like a long time, we arrived at a flat spot at the top of the mountain, and there beheld the Aetna Cemetery in which many of Clint's ancestors are interred.  It clearly is not cared for or visited very often.  It was completely overgrown.  I was surprised at the expanse of the place.  It covers several acres.

In the late 19th century, this mountain was an active coal mining site.  There are layers of coal below the top of the mountain.  According to the Nooga.com blogsite,
"In 1839, land grants from the state of Tennessee passed ownership of parts of Raccoon Mountain to James A. Whiteside and F.W. Lea. Whiteside joined with Robert Craven
A 19th-Century etching of
Aetna Mountain mining
to form the East Tennessee Iron Manufacturing Company in 1852. Aetna Mountain was found to contain a rich vein of coal, and the Aetna Coal Company was formed and began operations there in 1855.

Coal mining on Aetna Mountain grew. The coal company built a railroad across the mountain, and inclines were built to haul coal to the bottom of the mountain. Houses were built on and around the mountain, and the Aetna Mountain/Whiteside Mountain School was established. A cemetery on the Marion County section of Aetna Mountain reveals the lives that were led on or near the mountain in the mid-1800s."
We took a few pictures and returned down the mountain, proceeding into Chattanooga and to the Coker Tire Company on Chestnut Street.
Coker Tire Company Headquarters
Clint's cousin, Jess Hodenpyle, works at Coker.  Also, my friend Jeff Stumb, who is from Huntsville, now works for Corky Coker as the Director of the Great Race, now owned by Coker.  We paid a visit to both of them, looked around the Coker site at preparations for the evening's Hot Rod-related festivities, and moved on to the campus of the Chattanooga State Community College.
A sample of the thousands of cars at CSCC
This was the perfect site for such a huge event.  It's a commuter college, so there are parking lots everywhere.  We walked for seemingly miles among thousands of cars that had been driven from Birmingham that day.  The quality and variety of cars was overwhelming.  My particular interest is traditional hot rods as they might have been built in the late 1950's when I graduated from high school.  These typically would be modified cars of the thirties powered by souped up engines no newer than around 1955.  There were a few scattered among the participants, but the muscle cars of the '60's and '70's prevailed.
After a couple of hours of gawking, Clint and I headed home along an alternative back road route.  We even went within a few hundred yards of his grandfather's home near Guild, Tennessee.  We arrived home tired but having enjoyed a great day out -- and we only had a few drops of rain!