The following story is one of 19, set-in-the-fifties, historically and technically correct, hot rod intensive stories from the book, THE WAY IT WAS, Nostalgic Tales of Hot Rods and Romance, by Chuck Klein. Klein, a member of the Knights of the Twentieth Century (est. 1955) is also the author of Circa 1957, a like item that is becoming a cult/collector book. Details about the books: http://www.chuckklein.com
Chuck Klein, Copyright 2003
In the beginning was Elvis and Smokey
the Everly's Richie and Fats
four-on-the-floor or three-on-the-tree
and DARLING COME SOFTLY TO ME....
The young man, in his late teens, pulled into the driveway, eager to show his father and great grandfather his latest acquisition, a '32 Ford. Almost at the same time a delivery man arrived with a package. Taking the carefully wrapped box, with the word "FRAGILE" stamped in red on all sides, into the library of the ancient tudor style house, he approached a much older man seated in a leather wingback.
"Pop." Then a little louder, "Grandpa, come outside for a minute I want to show you my new car. It's got all the extras."
The old timer knew cars. He had studied, and in some cases rubbed shoulders with, the best of the early engineers, customizers and racers. Men with the immortalized names of Iskenderian, Duntov, Barris, Fangio, Vukovich....
After the ritualistic inspection of the male bonding medium the two men returned to the den where the younger remembered the package. "I almost forgot, Pop, this came for you a little while ago."
"What is it Sonny?" the old man asked, settling into his overstuffed chair.
"I don't know Pop. It's from some law office back east and it sounds like it has liquid in it. You getting your Geritol by mail now?" The great grandson joked.
Staring at the proffered package the old man pushed back further into the cushions of the chair as if trying to distance himself from it. His mouth dropped open... "oh my God", escaped in an barely audible, raspy whisper.
"Grandpa, what's wrong? Are you okay?" The young gentleman crossed the room to take this ancient man's hand and search his frightened stare. "What is it, Pop?"
As recollections of events, forever melded to the sentimental portions of his mind, were forced to the present, the great grandfather's eyes soon began refocusing to a new intensity. "Get a couple of glasses and some ice, Sonny - and call your Dad in here. I've got a story to tell you."
A man with graying hair and his teenage son watched the great grandfather, in his 96th year, carefully and ceremoniously unwrap the package. Inside, sealed and encased in a solid wood box with a glass front panel, was a bottle of whisky. Attached to the outside of this shrine was a small brass hammer and a pouch. From this pouch he pulled a sheet of paper containing a list of names - names that had lines drawn through each, save one.
It was a very long time ago that they had met for the last time - a sort of reunion and farewell to one of the members who had but a short time to live.
Pretensions and pressures were checked at the door that night. Whatever problems they faced outside seemed far away and not important. Maybe it was seeing a "best" friend for the first time in two or three decades or just that deep feeling that only comes from the knowledge that to this group each truly belonged. They all knew that this assembly was just this night only and never again would they all be together. Maybe it came with the understanding that these were their roots and the distinct sensation of having come home again. Perhaps it was the familiarity and companionship of old friends, whose dues were also paid in full. It was a most memorable occasion.
It wasn't a large gathering, but 21 men out of a possible 36 wasn't too bad for an informal reunion. Some had died, some couldn't be found, most were graying and pot bellied, but all had, at one time, belonged to the KNIGHTS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Born so many years ago in a back alley garage of a midwestern American city, The KNIGHTS hot rod club was not unlike other clubs of guys of that era. Back when rock & roll was in its infancy and fast cars had to be built by hand, the members bonded together to learn, help each other and talk engines, cars and speed. It was exciting being the center of attention during this era of historic automotive and musical upheaval.
...Big Bopper and Ben E. King
and LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING
"Here, you do it Sonny," the old man said handing the brass hammer to his great grandson.
Uncapping the bottle, which had been freed by breaking the glass front and without lifting his eyes from the list, the old man in his articulate way, began to pour forth a tale as if he had been rehearsing it all his life.
"Moonie, that's what they called me because I was the first to have Moon wheel covers on my rod, a '34 roadster that I had stuffed a Caddy engine into. It had a dropped front axle, chopped windshield and sported three-duces on the engine. Though I never got it completely finished it ran one-oh-three point six in the quarter mile. Not that this was the fastest in the club, but still very respectable. I didn't drive the roadster on the street much because something was always breaking so I kept a stock '39 Ford as my everyday car. The '39 was battered and shabby and second gear was stripped but, it ran quite reliably - those old flatheads would just run forever. The only thing I hated about that old relic was the hot, scratchy mohair seats. I got my share of carpet burns on my elbow trying to put my arm around a girl.
"Ah...the girls. It seems that we built and raced the cars to impress the girls and then whenever one of the guys had made enough of an impression she'd up and marry him and that would be the end of his hot rodding. Brides and all the 'comes-with' things associated with marriage probably contributed more to the demise of hot rodders and their clubs than anything else.
"You boys should have seen my bride! She was just about the prettiest thing that ever rode shotgun in an open roadster. I met her at a club dance - a sock hop we called it. She wore dungarees with the cuffs rolled up, in giant folds, almost to her knees. Her oversized shirt must have been her daddy's white dress button-down which also had huge folds of the sleeves all the way up her arm. The shirt tails were tied in a knot at her tiny waist, the slightest view of smooth soft skin barely visible. She wore her hair in a flip and she just had that fresh scrubbed look about her. Quite the opposite of me with my axle greased ducktails and form-fitted pink shirt with string tie and pleated slacks of charcoal gray. We rocked and rolled to the likes of Fat's Domino, Dale Wright, Buddy Holly and Larry Williams and when she put her head under my chin to 'Sixteen Candles' I knew it was something special. It was. Last week it would have been our 72nd anniversary...if she were still alive."
"Grandpa," the impatient teenager interrupted, "What about the bottle?"
"I'm comin' to that, Sonny. Don't rush me. Like I was sayin', it was at this gathering when we all got together for that one last time to say goodbye to Freddie. Now, nothing lasts forever, and by age 50 Freddie had developed a terminal case of cancer. Knowing that he was a short timer he kept himself busy hunting us down and planning this assembly to unite us for one last time and to establish his gift as a tontine - the bottle from which we are drinking at this very moment. He said he won the fifth at a club dance and being a teetotaler, just put it away. Freddie was Jewish and for that solemn affair he gave us a little insight into these ancient teachings. It was such a somber and commemorative occasion that I still remember his final words to us. Here was this dying compatriot, frail and weak, who looked each one of us in the eye as he decreed: 'In our faith it is believed that on Rosh Hashana, the New Year, it is written; on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, it is sealed:
How many shall pass on,
How many shall come to be,
Who shall live to see ripe age,
And who shall not,
Who shall live,
And who shall die;
and so it must be, that only the last surviving member of THE KNIGHTS, the KNIGHTS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, may toast his fellow members with - and savor the nectar of this - this last man bottle.'"
With a sigh of finality his still steady hand, rough, dried and cracked like a cheap paint job that had crystallized, picked up the small doubles glass. Using both hands, and not unlike how one would make an offering, raised the glass to just slightly above his head whispering, "I'll see you soon fellahs, keep 'em tuned up."
Warmed by the energy of the aged whiskey the old man rose from the security of his wingback and shuffled to the leaded windows overlooking the springtime embraced driveway. Just for an instant he was sure he saw Freddie waving from his NINETEEN thirty-two Ford, the one with the hopped-up Chevy engine and the plaque that said KNIGHTS, dangling from the back bumper. But, a deliberate wipe of the hand across his tear filling eyes revealed it was only his great grandson's...brand new TWENTY thirty-two Ford.
Author's note: The story, Last Knight, is true inasmuch as there was a Knight's hot rod club (same one depicted in the book, Circa 1957), they did have a reunion and they do have a tontine. http://www.chuckklein.com
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