Bullring Days Two: Bradford Speedway
Back there in August of 1954 it was hard to get my head around it all as I lay there in my hospital bed trying to make sense of everything.
When I could think halfway clearly, which wasn't often, strange images flooded my mind, starting with Sandy's race car getting sideways in front of mine. I know I tried stomping on the brakes a thousand times, but my leg wouldn't move. I kept seeing my car – number 66 – sliding up over his, seeing the crowd, seeing the dirt, and then seeing nothing.
Along in there I had a few other dim impressions. At one time I thought I heard Frank and Spud talking to me, but I couldn't make out what they were saying, 'cause they weren't making any sense at all. A couple times I was sure I'd seen Arlene, all dressed in white. That didn't make any sense. What would she be doing dressed in white unless she was an angel? If she was an angel this must be heaven, so why did my head hurt so much? No idea; it didn't make sense. Nothing much made sense at all. But slowly, things began to come into focus, and I began to become aware of where I was and what had happened, though a lot of things still hadn't started making sense yet.
I'd had some good years and memorable years driving for the Midwest Midget Sportsman Association, but this was halfway through my fifth year, and I'd been feeling for some time that it was getting to be time to grow up and get on with my life. I'd seen a lot of country roads and tank towns driving those little oddball midget cars – it was really more of a show than it was a racing circuit, but we really did race, and I was pretty good at it. In fact, I was good enough at it to win the MMSA championship three years running.
It had all started back when I met Frank Blixter and Spud McElroy back on Okinawa just before the end of World War II. Both of them were pre-war midget racers, and often after a day's work in the motor pool the rest of us would sit around and listen to Frank and Spud tell stories of racing in the bullrings of the thirties and early forties. Frank was mostly an Upper Midwest racer while Spud was an East Coaster, mostly running in New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania. After the war they went back to racing while I went to college to get a teaching certificate, but one day in early 1950 I ran into Frank in Milwaukee. He talked me into driving for the racing show for the summer, and, well, the summer turned to fall, and one year turned into the next. I couldn't quite give it up until forced to. As I finally found out, a tie rod end broke on Sandy's car that evening at a dirty, little beat-up dirt track in Bradford, Michigan, which was why I was lying in this hospital bed trying to figure out what was going on.
Along the way, about a year before, the MMSA was racing in Schererville, Indiana, where we met Arlene Pewabic. She was only weeks back from being a surgical nurse in Korea – the war was still going on – and she wanted to get it out of her system. She was a pretty good driver, and we were short on drivers at the time, so somehow she wound up traveling with the show. She and I had started on a pretty good romance, but when there's just one woman among a bunch of guys, well, tensions arise, so we'd pulled back from each other a lot. It was only when I came to in that hospital bed with her hovering over me in a bad-fitting white nurse's uniform that a few things started to make sense. I somehow began to realize that our romance wasn't over at all. The kiss she laid on me the first time I was awake enough to appreciate one wasn't far short of rape, not that I wouldn't have been willing, even if not physically able with that catheter I had in a necessary spot. She'd stuck with me rather than go on racing, which was a bit of a surprise. At least to me.
I mean, I had gone the last couple months figuring that any hope of setting anything up with Arlene was gone, and I had just totally missed the signals. Maybe I'd missed them for a reason, since she'd been laying low herself, and it wasn't exactly as if I had been sending any to her. Now it seemed like there was a chance to get something going. Maybe more than a chance – in fact, it looked pretty likely. There was no telling how it would come out, but right about then I figured I'd put the Midwest Midget Sportsman Association behind me for most purposes. At least we wouldn't have that standing between us anymore. She made it clear to me she was planning on us staying together.
There were still plenty of other problems to solve, but as Arlene was with me for at least a while, a good many of them seemed manageable. It was clear that I couldn't stay in the hospital until I was all the way better, even though I was clearly going to be here for a while yet. I hadn't gotten all that good of a look at the tourist court out north of town where we'd been staying, but as I recalled it wasn't a bad place. I supposed I could survive there for a month or six weeks if I had to, especially with Arlene around to help out. Even if she was working, if I had a radio and something to read I'd probably be all right, even if I was likely to get bored to tears. And at least Arlene would be working, so we'd be able to pay for the place. After that things were a little hazy, but at least I'd be on my feet and be able to do something useful.
It wasn't as if I was totally broke, either; I'd always been careful with my money, and over the last several years I'd managed to put some money back at the end of the season each year. It wasn't a whole lot, maybe fifteen hundred dollars, which was a lot of money in the '50s. The only problem was that we'd have to go up to the MMSA's home base in Livonia to get it, and I wouldn't be able to do that for a while. Maybe, I thought, I could call up Vivian, the MMSA business manager, and maybe there would be something she could do.
But there was more than just the room and eating money. Hospitals and doctor bills were expensive, even in those days. I had no idea how much this was going to cost me, but I suspected that I could blow through that fifteen hundred and still have a lot of bills left over. There was no question that I'd pay them, but it might take years.
I was still stewing over the money when Arlene came back into the room, carrying a tray. "Dr. Bronson said it's time to try to get you back to eating something," she said. "You've been on IVs all this time, but you've had time to heal in your belly some. This isn't very much but it'll be a start."
"I don't think I'm going to mind," I said. "But you know, until now I haven't really even thought about eating. Now I guess it sounds a little interesting."
"I thought so," she smiled. "Your body is usually pretty good about telling you when you're ready for something. This is lime gelatin, nothing special. Do you think you can handle it or do you want me to feed you?"
The cast was on my right arm and I hadn't tried to do much with it. I fumbled around for a little then said that I thought she'd better be the one to do the honors. Right then, I didn't mind, so long as it was Arlene doing the feeding. In fact, it felt pretty good. In fact, it was just about the best lime gelatin that I ever ate.
I didn't get around to talking about the money with Arlene that afternoon. I guess I knew I was still not in very good shape or thinking very clearly. Besides, there was no rush and no point in worrying about it just then; I could worry about it all I wanted to in the future. I guess I must have slept most of the afternoon, anyway.
The next morning I was feeling quite a bit better, and was surprised to discover that I had a visitor. He was a guy about medium height, thick black hair and a face that must have been chiseled out of a pine knot with a dull knife. He seemed to be around fifty, give or take, and had on shop pants and a pinstriped gray shop shirt. He had the look about him that he'd know what to do if someone stuck a wrench in his hands. He seemed familiar, but I couldn't put a name with him.
"Smoky Kern," he introduced himself. "I'm the owner and promoter of the track here." That made him swim into focus a little. I'd seen him talking with Frank, but I hadn't actually spoken with him. "I hear tell you're getting better," he continued.
"I'm alive and awake," I said. "That counts for something."
"Beats hell out of the alternative," he smiled. "Sometimes you have to take what you can get and like it. Anyway, they told me you were up to having visitors, so I thought I might as well drop by."
"It's good to see someone," I told him. "The only people dropping by have been hospital people. Guess that's not surprising, since I'm a stranger here and all."
"Yeah, your guy Frank told me that he hated like hell to have to move on without you. He said it was going to be rough to leave his best driver behind, but I guess that's the nature of the business, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it's part of the risk you take," I told him. "I always wondered what would happen if I had to get left behind in a strange town like this. I'm not quite alone, I've got Arlene here with me, that counts for a lot."
"Arlene?" he frowned, then brightened. "Oh, the gal that was driving the car behind you. Strange to see a woman driving a race car, especially something like one of those midgets. I tell you what, when that crash happened she stood on the brakes, did a bootlegger turn in the middle of the track, and was out of that car next to you just about as soon as you stopped moving. Darndest thing I ever saw. Then she really gave everybody hell when they wanted to move you, she was afraid your neck was broken. Can't say that it didn't look like it, either."
"I can imagine," I told him. "I've seen her in action. That's how I met her the first time, except that I wasn't the guy driving the car that got wrecked."
"Is she really a good driver, or was she just along for the show?"
"She's a darn good driver," I said. "Frank may have said I was his best driver but I'm of the opinion that she was. That number 2 car she drove never was all that great until she sat down in it, and right from the beginning she was better in it than anyone else I'd ever seen driving it."
"Darndest thing," he shook his head. "You think of women drivers, you think they drive like, well, women drivers."
"Lot of people thought that," I told him. "I think it sold a few tickets."
"I can understand that," he nodded. "Me, I'm always one for selling tickets when I can. It's getting harder and harder these days, since people are buying those darn TV sets and staying home with them on Saturday nights, rather than coming out to the races where they can buy some tickets and have some fun. We were down a little bit last year and I didn't think it a big deal, but so far this year we're down again, and those damn things are the only thing I can think of to account for it."
"I guess they're really taking over," I replied. "I haven't seen all that much of them. Out on the road like we are there's not much chance, except in a bar sometimes."
He shook his head. "It's getting so you're not up to date if you don't have one taking up space in the living room, and it's pretty much junk that's on it," he sighed. "There's no telling what it's going to do to racing. You can't hardly open the Speed Sport News without hearing of another track going belly up, and I don't think we've seen the worst of it yet. But I think I'll manage to hang on for a while yet. But anyway, this is all getting away from the reason I come up to see you. I wanted to do this last Saturday night but we took a rain out. So when we raced last night, I announced to the crowd that the midget driver that was almost killed two weeks ago was still in the hospital here, and I had the buckets passed around." He held up a paper sack. "I counted out the change and turned it to bills, but we took up $578 for you."
"Damn," I said. "I really appreciate that. I'm like any driver, I guess, next to broke. I was starting to wonder what I was going to live on when they let me out of this place. That'll go a long way toward helping get me started. Next time you have a race, tell the people that I appreciate every penny of it."
"I sure will," he said. "If you're still around when you get to feeling better, come on out to the track and I'll introduce you around. I'm sure there'll be folks showin' up that would like to meet you."
"We'll have to see," I told him. "Arlene and I don't have any plans yet, but we may be going back to stay with her family. If that's the case I'll at least try to get back here before the season ends."
"We'll be glad to see you," he smiled. "We've had some spectacular wrecks and yours was one of them, but we ain't never had nobody killed yet, thank the good Lord. So, you going to go back to racing them midgets?"
"Probably not," I told him. "The season will be just about ending before I'm ready to drive. I'm hoping to find a job someplace before then. I've just about made up my mind to pretty much turn my back on racing and concentrate on getting on with my life."
"I sort of know how that works," he said. "I decided to quit driving a few years ago myself. But getting away from the driving is one thing, getting away from the smoke and the dust and the sound and the smell is another thing, and I found it was a whole hell of a lot harder. So, what kind of work are you looking for, anyway? You a mechanic?"
"A fair one," I told him. "But I'm actually a high school teacher, certified here in Michigan as a matter of fact, though I've only been a substitute. Social studies and auto shop, mostly."
He shook his head. "Well, don't that beat all," he said. "You don't hear of many teachers driving race cars, that's for sure. High school dropouts, yeah, but not school teachers."
"It was one of those things that just happened," I told him. "I met Frank back on Okinawa during the war, we got to be friends, then I didn't see him for years. You know how it is. When I met up with him again he already had the MMSA going, and the next thing you knew I was driving. It was fun, so I stayed with it for a while."
Well, that got us going on the racing stories. I had a few from over the years, of course, and he had a few as well, dating back to driving big cars back in the thirties. He said he remembered Frank from before the war, just a kid driving around in an old sprint car he'd built himself. From what I picked up from Smoky, those days were just about as wild as the stories that Frank and Spud had told over the years, so they had the ring of truth to them. While I'd seen an awful lot and had some fun driving for the MMSA, that was a pretty controlled thing by comparison. It would have been a lot wilder if it was a case of having my own car and trying to make ends meet driving it, like Frank and Spud had done. In a way I was a little sorry I'd missed some of those wild and wooly days, but I couldn't complain about what I'd done.
I don't remember how long Smoky was there but it wasn't a short time, a couple hours, anyway, and it could have been more. His showing up and being friendly sure brightened the whole day. In fact, the only thing that made me feel better than Smoky coming around was finding out that Arlene and I weren't on the outs after all.
When Smoky finally left, promising to come back and shoot the bull some other time, Arlene came into the room. "Sorry to have to stay gone," she said. "But I had some other stuff that had to get done. I heard the two of you bench racing in here pretty good, though. It sounds like he's a real character, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, he does," I agreed. "I've met a few track owners and promoters over the years, and he seems like he fits right in with them. A nice enough guy, up to a point, but with a temper. He said they passed the buckets around last night, and took in five hundred and seventy some dollars for me. I guess that means that we won't be totally broke when I get out of here, but how the hell I'm ever going to pay the hospital bill is beyond me."
"You're not going to have to pay it," she said. "I guess I didn't tell you. When Frank and Spud were here the other day, they told the hospital administrator to ship all your bills up to Vivian and she'd take care of them."
"What?" I said in surprise. "How could he do that? I don't believe you."
"I'm not fooling," she said. "Frank wrote out a check for a thousand dollars right on the spot as a sort of a down payment. You think you were surprised! The hospital administrator just about had a heart attack on the spot. I'm sure he thought he was going to be eating your whole bill."
"Well, I will be damned," I shook my head. "Hell, I never figured Frank for that."
"Why not?" she said. "He did the same thing for Hap and Junie, and you mean a heck of a lot more to him than they ever did."
"I will be double damned," he said. "I never knew that, not a bit of it. Frank always acted like he was right on the edge. I mean, he always said that we'd had a pretty good year, but I never knew the details. I always thought he meant that he broke even."
She shook her head. "I really doubt that the MMSA has made Frank a millionaire, but he's made out all right with it, and partly because he watches every dime. Or, having met Vivian, I expect she does it for him."
"Yeah, I think I know her better than you do, but you're probably right. I guess I never thought about it too much from a business standpoint."
"Probably because you're a man and a racer, so you think everything can be solved by stomping your foot on the gas," she charged. "And, if you get right down to it I expect Frank thinks pretty much the same way, but Vivian looks after him. I'll give Frank credit, though – he takes care of his people. When he and Spud were down here the other day, they brought the clothes and stuff you'd left with Vivian. She sent along a cashier's check for what was in your bank account, too. Frank left the pay you had on the books with me, along with a thousand dollar bonus, so we shouldn't have to worry about money for a while."
"Well, thank God," I said. "I was worrying about that."
"I probably should have said something to you about it before, but we got to talking about other things," she said. "Now, you don't have to worry about money. All you have to worry about is healing up, then you can worry about what comes next."
"That takes a load off my mind," I shook my head. "I'm just sorry I was out like a light when Frank and Spud were here. I'd have liked to see them."
"Like I said, they hated to lose you," she smiled. "They said you've been the guy they depended on most for years, and they're going to miss that."
"I just tried to do my fair share," I said, a little surprised at what she'd told me. "You know, just drive the car and keep things moving."
"You did a fine job of it," she said. "Plus, you did the biggest part of training all the new guys who came on board. I know, because you taught me most of what I really know about driving a race car."
"I wouldn't have accomplished anything if you hadn't been pretty good at it anyway," I told her. "But speaking of cars, how bad was the 66 car torn up?"
"Amazingly enough, not all that bad," she replied. "Oh, it looked pretty bad from the skin being bent up. I didn't take a good look since I was more concerned about you. I recall thinking that the 69 car actually looked worse. Spud said they had both of them back running. He said that if you have to tear up a race car, two days out of Livonia is the place to do it. Apparently your friends up there worked a couple of small miracles. Now, I've got to get back to Mrs. Mayfield, I'm afraid I've been gone too long as it is. You just relax. You must be exhausted after your visitor, anyway. Maybe you ought to think about taking a nap."
"For once, I'm not particularly sleepy," I told her. "In fact, after that I think I'm going to be a little bit bored without someone to talk to. Is there something to read around here? A magazine, or something?"
"I'll see what I can do," she replied. "It may be a while. Try to sleep if you can."
The idea of sleep sounded good, but it wasn't anything that appealed to me just then. A great deal of what I had been worrying about had been taken care of in fairly short order. I tried to add the money up in my head, then realized that I didn't know all the numbers. Whatever it was, it had to be over three thousand dollars, which was a heck of a lot of money in those days, especially not having to pay the hospital bill. Whatever else happened, once I could get out of the hospital it would buy Arlene and me a good bit of time to look for a place to settle down, to look for a place to work.