Oct 13, 2016

The Great Columbus Day Car Adventure

A portion of he Flea Market at the AACA Meet in Hershey, PA
The other day, I drove to the credit union to deposit a check, only to find out they were closed for Columbus Day.  It reminded me of a funny incident that took place (Is it possible?!?) forty one years ago this past week.

I had acquired a 1956 Mark II Continental, a very limited-production car, in early 1969, and had driven it as my daily conveyance for over 5 years when I made the decision to part with it.  The car, which I purchased from my brother, had initially been ordered by an attorney from Atlanta, Mr. Gordon Horton.  He had special ordered the car with custom DuPont Lucite Pearl White paint and no external markings.  So serial number C56J-3351 had been delivered to Mr. Horton exactly as ordered in August, 1956.  It had appreciated somewhat since I had purchased it and I was concerned that it might get damaged if I continued to use it as my "daily driver."  I decided to take it to the Fall Meet of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) to be held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in early October of 1975.  I would drive the car from the Gulf coast, where I was living, to Norman, Oklahoma, where I 
would pick up some parts that I had stored there.  Then I'd proceed to Hershey in this elegant land yacht.  I planned to go by way of Lawrence, Kansas, on my way to Hershey, to visit a young lady I had previously dated in Norman.  The meet itself ran from October 9th through Sunday, the 12th of October.  I planned to arrive in Hershey by Friday evening in hopes that I'd find someone who had sold enough goods that they could rent me their flea market space for a day to sell my car.  The schedule might be a little compressed.  What could possibly go wrong?

A white Continental Mark II, exactly like the one I owned and was selling

I left the Gulf coast on the 6th of October, hoping to get to Norman by early on the 8th.  I'd pick up my parts and proceed to Lawrence for the night, pressing on to Hershey by sometime on Friday, 10 October.  Everything went according to plan until I was somewhere northwest of Baton Rouge, near Krotz Springs on federal highway 71, heading toward Alexandria, LA.   I looked at my instruments and suddenly realized my generator had quit.  It was late afternoon.  The sun was low in the sky.  I continued on, deciding I would go as far as my battery would take me.  Eventually, I had to turn on my headlights.  I pressed on, watching them get dimmer with every passing mile.  I made it as far as Bunkie, LA, little more than a wide spot in the road.  There was an intersection -- where state highway 115 crossed federal highway 71 -- where I finally coasted into a service station with a completely dead battery.  I rolled up to the main door to the service bay.  The owner informed me that he was closing.  He was kind enough to allow me to keep the car parked where it was and attach a battery charger to my battery, running the cables under his closed and locked door.  We figured that if I had a fully-charged battery in the morning, I could probably drive as far as Alexandria, where there might be a parts place that could help me.

Let me describe this intersection in Bunkie at that time.  There was the service station at which I would spend the night.  Next door was a "whites only" dance hall.  Next to that was a black dance hall.  And I recall that there was a liquor store adjacent to or part of one of the dance halls.  There was some celebration going on and there were dozens of cars in the area and a loud dance band playing.  The people outside were dancing and shouting.  Shortly after the service station attendant had left, a local sheriff or deputy showed up to see what I was doing at the closed station.  I showed him the battery charging setup and explained my predicament.  He said not to worry about the crowd.  He was in charge and nobody was going to get out of hand in his jurisdiction.  I decided to try and get some sleep.

Bunkie lies in the middle of a swampy area.  Swamps breed mosquitoes.  The bugs had decided to have a convention in Bunkie that night.  If I left my windows open, I was massacred by hundreds of mosquitoes.  If I closed the windows, I woke up in a pool of sweat.   It became a very long, miserable night.

The sun finally rose a few hours after the revelers had given up.  I started the car successfully,  disconnected the charger, and headed for Alexandria.  I eventually spotted a NAPA store and pulled just as they were opening.  This is the morning of October 7th.  I soon learned that the Mark II had its own unique generator, a much higher output generator than the standard Lincoln.  They could get one shipped in by the next day, October 8th.  I had no choice but to stay overnight.  The new part arrived at about 10:00 AM.  I always carried a tool kit, and I had the generator and a new fan belt installed by about 1:00 PM.  I got on the road headed for Norman.  After driving a long day (Remember, substantial parts of the Interstate System were still under construction.) I arrived in Norman near midnight.

I slept in the next morning before heading for my "barn" to retrieve the parts I wanted to sell or trade at Hershey.  As it turned out, I wouldn't get on the road 'til late afternoon.  There could be no stop in Lawrence, Kansas, if I was to make it to Hershey on time.  I cancelled that part of my trip, much to the displeasure of my intended hostess.  I made it as far as Effingham, Illinois, a distance of about 600 miles, when I finally threw in the towel.  The next day, the 10th of October, the car and I made it to Harrisburg, PA, another 700 miles.  I was completely exhausted.

I was fortunate enough to find a motel with room available.  After getting cleaned up I went down to the hotel bar to get a sandwich and a beer.  As fate would have it, I struck up a conversation with another car enthusiast.  I explained my mission and he informed me that he had a flea market space available.  I paid him $25.00 for the space for the entire day!

The next morning I drove straight to the flea market space and parked my car.  The car was in place with its signage on display by about 7:30 AM.  I was back on schedule much to my amazement.   The poster on the windshield declared: "1956 Continental Mark II, Approximately 80,000 Miles, Just drove car from Mississippi by way of OKC, $3,600 includes spare A/C compressor and other hard-to-find parts."

A few minutes after 8:00, a gentleman in a white jump suit came by and began looking at the car.  He introduced himself as Mr. Robert Filla.  His business card indicated that he was a vice president of a savings and loan association in Milwaukee.  He was accompanied by two other similarly-dressed colleagues.  He asked if he could examine the trunk.  I already had opened the hood.  He asked if his "body man" could inspect under the car and inside the car.  I agreed, as I had nothing to hide.  This was a very nice example at a reasonable price.  I started the car for him.  His mechanic looked everything over carefully.  Then Mr. Filla asked, "Why is the fellow down the row asking $5,500 for his and you're only asking $3,600?"  I explained that probably the other person didn't really want to sell his car, whereas I fully intended to sell mine.  He further asked what the price would be without the spare parts, and whether I would be willing to drive the car to Milwaukee to deliver it.

We agreed on the following deal:  For $3,600, I would sell him the car, without spare parts and drive it to his business in downtown Milwaukee.  He would buy me an airline ticket to Gulfport, MS.  He would pack and ship the spare parts to my residence in Gautier, MS.  He would write me a check in Hershey which we would cash on Monday when I arrived in Milwaukee.

Mr. Filla gave me the address and phone number of his banker.  I called the poor fellow and woke him up on a Saturday morning to ask about his customer's checking balance.  He asked, "How many cars has he bought?  He put about $75,000 in his checking account yesterday."  I figured I'd take my chances.  So at about 10:00 AM on Saturday, October 11th, I headed off the flea market field on my way to Milwaukee.

Downtown Milwaukee
The trip was uneventful.  I drove major highways and arrived at Mr. Filla's building on Monday morning as planned, even parking in one of his reserved parking spaces in the parking lot under the building.  Soon, I was stepping out of the elevator to greet him and complete the final formalities.  We went into his office, which was lined with photographs of several cars in his large collection.  It was obvious that he was a serious collector.  Immediately, Bob Filla informed me that there was a problem.  Columbus Day was on Sunday, so it was being celebrated on Monday, and the banks were closed.  He did not have enough cash to convert my check into his cash.

We agreed to an alternative plan.  He had raided every petty cash account in the building and had come up with about $800.00.  He gave me that much cash and a check for the balance.  He had already purchased my plane ticket, which was waiting for me at the Northwest Airlines counter at the airport.  I would hold onto the title for the car until his check cleared, at which time I would mail it to him.

The trip to Gulfport was uneventful.  Soon thereafter his check cleared the bank and I mailed off the title, ending my romance with the Mark II.  It had been a wonderful car, but it was time to move on.  Today, that car in comparable condition, is about a $40,000 - $50,000 car.  Ah, well...

Postscript:  I was curious if Mr. Filla had left any "trails" on the Internet, and found the following --

Filla, Robert W.   Bob died Oct. 14, 2008 in Seattle, WA, age 69. He was born in St. Louis, MO, and graduated from St. Louis University, after which he spent 40+ years in the mortgage banking industry. Bob is survived by his loving family: wife Rose, son Tony, daughter Tina, granddaughter Veronica, sister Carol, aunt Jeanette, and many nieces and nephews. After giving up hobbies of cars, boats, and airplanes, Bob studied theology the last 20 years, which he shared with many. In lieu of flowers, donations to a hospice near you. 
Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct. 26, 2008

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