A Life of Crime

William Wayne Weems
 

© 2012 by William Wayne Weems

 
 
 
 
 

 

Photo of William and his 1955 Chevvy.
 
This tale is from the year 1960, when I was 16 years old and lived in southern Davidson County, Tennessee. I have modified it somewhat from its original draft, primarily to eliminate the names of the individuals described below. My occasionally fallible memory is the only source for the tale, and it may have fuzzed a few facts, but these events did happen as described.

One Central High School classmate’s house was about a half a mile from mine, atop a nearby hill on Inverness Avenue in the suburban city of Berry Hill. This guy gave me a tip that ultimately led into a solicitation to enter a glamorous life of crime. Here is how all that came about. My classmate’s father had purchased a used 1958 Edsel Citation in fire engine red. His father knew that most folk had a dismal view of that make of Ford, but nowhere else could he get a V-8 engine of 345 horsepower for the same money. His father’s only gripe was the trouble-prone "Teletouch transmission" in which you shifted through a series of buttons in the middle of the steering wheel. His father loved to keep that factory hot rod spotless and washed it nearly every week, which probably wasn't the wisest thing to do. The new multicolor Detroit finishes of the late 1950's were so prone to fading and premature weathering critics accused the automakers of using water colors. Yet it was the high powered drive train that so entranced this guy and his Father, and they found a very convenient speed shop to keep it going at peak performance at a service station just down the hill on Franklin Road. My classmate suggested I accompany him and check the place out.

So I was introduced into what ultimately proved to be perhaps the most unusual Berry Hill business of the period. Envision for a moment the antiquated pinball machines of 1960. There were the classic multi-flipper patterns with the lights, bells and multiple ball "kickers", reproduced today in both modern electronics and in software simulations. Then there were the machines that had none of those bells and whistles, indeed no flippers at all. The ball was sent on its way in the usual fashion, but could not be lost to some artificial hazard on the board. Instead you had a board with as many as 50 holes in which the ball could temporarily come to rest. Every time a ball descended into a numbered hole and stopped, a corresponding number would light up on the vertical screen. If you got a certain pattern of lit numbers in a line or on a diagonal with five balls, you would win games. Push the machine to jar a ball into a needed hole and you would likely lose your game with the "Tilt" notice. Start a new game and all the balls would descend together into the bowels of the machine, ready to be launched again.

How thrilling, I can hear you think. But wait...here is the grabber. If you inserted more coins or used up won games before the first ball was shot into play on those multi-hole machines, you would at irregular intervals get better odds and access to an ever increasing series of mechanical pattern overlays, which were controlled by buttons on the top of the machine next to your sweaty body. With such an overlay a nothing pattern could be converted into a big winner, and with multiple overlays you could secure multiple winning patterns. Certainly these machines might be used for mere amusement, but if each won game represented a coin necessary to play the first basic game and could be cashed in as such, you had a killer gambling machine. Of course such a use was totally illegal, but Berry Hill had a tiny police force and it was usually found patrolling the purely residential districts some distance away.

So with my classmate’s introduction I joined that group of wastrel teens that occasionally hung around the office of that service station, watching “high rollers” with duck tailed haircuts feeding coins into the pinball machine while the station manager, a plump middle aged man with red hair and a florid complexion who only shaved every few days, smiled benignly and reached behind the machine to throw a hidden switch which let the won game count clack down to zero on those rare occasions when one of the players had won enough games to "cash out". However, I had been around service stations before on normal workdays, and I could tell this one was run rather differently. The two large service bays where the speed shop operated acted almost as an independent entity; the station manager seemed careful to avoid entering the shop if he did not have to, and all of his teen visitors were forbidden to set foot there. Indeed the manager seemed to avoid most work, letting his assistants see to the gas pumps and the servicing of customer's automobiles out front. Nevertheless all his titular underlings, even the mechanics in the service bays, treated him with wary respect.

If you as a visiting teenager didn't play the pinball machine, you were not permitted to hang around the station. I admit being one of the kids who played the pinball primarily to ogle the eye-popping rides that moved in and out of the adjoining speed shop. I certainly did not have enough coins to properly play the pinball machine as a gambling device. In those days certain top of the line performance hardtops from Ford and Chrysler had speedometers that were marked for maximum speeds of 150 mph or higher. Once I heard a guy in the service bay complaining loudly that his 1958 Plymouth Fury III (the car in the movie "Christine") had either an engine or fuel supply problem, as it kept cutting out around 145 mph. When I mentioned this to the station manager he snorted aloud. He said that all Detroit speedos were wildly inaccurate over 90 mph, and that as far as they could tell from 90 to 100 mph each true increase of 5 mph was represented as 10 mph, and from 100 mph up each true increase of 5 mph was represented as 15 mph or more. How do you know all that, I asked. He said they had tested quite a few of 'em at a racetrack with professional equipment. A sly look came into his eye. Want to know the fastest car around the station? Of course, I responded. He said it was the nondescript “Henry J” that often came in for work there. I opined I had thought that all such effort was simply to keep that rust bucket rolling. The manager laughed aloud, and said I should learn to look under the hood. One of the mechanics had installed a supercharged '57 Cadillac V-8 with fuel injection in the “Henry J”, and did it so skillfully that nothing showed on top of its hood. I registered a shocked disbelief, but the manager merely beamed with pride over the skill of the mechanics there. He said its aftermarket speedo was so accurate they no longer had to pay to use racetrack equipment, but could simply pace new auto models against the “Henry J”.

The last “Henry J” had rolled off the assembly line in 1954. "Liberty Ship" manufacturer Henry J. Kaiser had teamed with a auto type named Frazier after World War II to produce a few thousand poorly received automobiles, and when Frazier dropped out of their partnership Henry J. had a brainstorm. He would produce an American Volkswagen, a fuel efficient bare bones little sedan he could sell relatively cheaply, and he would name it after himself.

Alas for him the buying trends of the American public did not favor such a product. Premium gasoline was sold for less than thirty cents a gallon, so the buyers opted for big cars with ever increasing tail fins and powerful engines whose limitless thirst for high octane easily delivered the raw power everyone loved. Kaiser had to give up his dream of challenging Detroit. "Back in the day" most folks knew all this, but I was still puzzled why anyone would bother to lavish that much time and money on a unpopular auto that looked like it was only a few months away from the scrap heap. And from what the manager had said, it appeared they were proud of how thoroughly they had disguised their efforts to turn that clunker into a true howler. I was puzzled, but I was about to be educated in a way I never expected.

One day in summer, shortly after I had gotten my driver's license, the service station manager followed me out of the station as I was leaving and asked if I had time for a private talk. I shrugged and said OK, so we went a short distance around the side of the station, well out of earshot. Haven't seen your buddy around much lately, the manager said. I hesitated, for although my classmate was a neighborhood kid he was always so quiet and reserved one might well wonder at times what he really thought or felt about things. Though I was happy to call him a friend, I didn't know if I could really classify him as a "buddy". All this rumination came out as a noncommittal grunt. Pity, the manager said, I had my eye on him ...those glasses, he said almost absently, before apparently reaching some kind of decision. When he looked up at me there was an astounding transformation in his demeanor. His gray eyes were suddenly hard and cold. How would you like a job that pays $18,000 a year, he said, and provides you with a brand new car every year? This was the yearly salary of a junior level business executive at that time and place. What would I have to do to get such money, I asked warily. Just drive, he said, drive from a place just outside of Atlanta to a place outside of Chicago once every two months. As a rule you won't be going very fast, though your car will certainly be capable of moving out if you need to give it the gas. You will have to be careful, though, because you will be carrying a valuable cargo. What, I asked, envisioning diamonds or gold. A full tank of pure corn liquor in the trunk, he said.

I was thunderstruck. Here I was, about to be a junior in High School, and this guy wanted to turn me into a Robert Mitchum character in the movie "Thunder Road". True, I was very tall for my age and even looked considerably older than I was. A cousin had given birth the previous year, and I had been mistaken for a new father when visiting the hospital. We all saw "Thunder Road", and I suspect all of us young males to some degree wanted to be such a cool antihero, thumbing our nose at the authorities, outrunning the feds and sending competing outlaws who tried to run us off the road off the pavement themselves. But wasn't I just too young for such a risky business? I pointed out to the manager that I wasn't even out of high school. He retorted that I had mentioned I had my driver's license, and with the money I could make I wouldn't need a High School diploma.

But, I protested to the manager, I'm no Robert Mitchum. I can't even fist fight very well, and the hot girls call me dorky. Again the guy amazed me, this time by laughing aloud. That's the whole idea, he said. Feds watch movies too, and they know every punk that wants an exciting and profitable life of crime is going to be lining up at some still operation, looking like a bad copy of Robert Mitchum and begging for a chance to carry just one load to show 'em what they can do. What they can do driving a tanker is get busted before they get 100 miles from their loading point. Might as well spray paint "180 proof " on the rear of the car. You look like a Junior College student on his way home to see his parents. Yeah, I said, but my parents do want me to finish school and go to college. Dazzle 'em with dollars, he said. Look, he continued, once you make a few successful runs and show my guys you are reliable, we can tweak your image a bit. Give you a clear lens set of eyeglasses and a crew cut, and you might get away with two more runs a year. The sly look returned to his eye. Hell, he said, I can line you up with some worn out working girls who are ready to retire but aren't old enough for any kind of government pension. Fix 'em up to look like your Mother or your Aunt, put 'em in the front seat, and I bet you can do at least twelve runs a year; double your money even after you give them a cut. And, the hard look returning to his eye, he said if you slip them a few extra bills they will see to your real educational needs. No matter how dull the scenery, your trips won't be boring.

I was overwhelmed by this unexpected offer. For some reason I believed the man before me could deliver exactly what he promised, or more precisely, recommend me to those who could. I knew from the "Gangbusters" radio show and comic books that underworld recruiters, like their military counterparts, tended to skip unpleasant details and in either case once you were in their clutches there was no Union representative to help you with a grievance claim. Nor did it bear thinking about what might happen to me if for some reason I were to disappoint his superiors in what obviously was a criminal organization. Moreover, my mother and father .... who suffered through young adulthood during the Great Depression .... were now more prosperous than they ever had been in their lives. They would be horrified at the prospect of their only child leaving home to pursue a life of crime, and I doubted they would be dazzled by a wad of money waved in their face. They might turn this guy in to the cops. Heck, if I ran away from home they would probably turn me in.

But there were deeper reasons still. For a while when I was quite young I became a "latch key" kid, while my mother and father labored together to build the business that was the basis of their present wealth. During that time I often wandered over to the L&N railroad tracks. There I sat on a stack of telephone poles and watched the steam locomotives thunder by in all their hissing glory, until diesel engines began to replace them. While I respected the power, cleanliness, and obvious efficiency of the diesels, it just wasn't the same. Some of the glamour was gone from railroading forever. I stopped going down to the tracks and for the next two years quietly sought a new passion. My parents bought a 15 inch black and white television, and my interest was piqued by the newscasts of John Cameron Swayze. He would flash battle maps of Korea on the screen under his ubiquitous row of world time clocks. United Nations forces gained a mile here, and Red Chinese gained a mile or two there. Ho-hum. But US Sabre jets had been very successful, and the screen was filled with furious action from gun camera footage as the tail of a MiG-15 shed pieces then began trailing clouds of oily smoke. My trigger finger itched.

Then came the fateful day a B-36 bomber visited Nashville’s Berry Field as the center piece of a USAF recruiting drive. The bored pilots decided to generate a little interest in their activity by taking off and buzzing Nashville's suburbs. As it happened my father had dragooned me into helping him tar the uppermost flat roof of our home that day, and had to leave me alone up there to answer a business call. As I struggled with the tar alone I heard a loud rumble, then felt the roof vibrate. Suddenly the B-36 appeared heading straight for me at a frightfully low altitude and almost immediately it was overhead, an aluminum overcast that filled the sky. Then it was gone, the roar of its six pusher props and four jet engines still pulsing around me. Better than ten steam locomotives put together. My Father's head popped up over the edge of the roof and he said "What was that? Shook the whole house!" But I was entranced, for I now knew beyond a doubt I wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force. I began to build and collect some of the first plastic aircraft models.

And now, all those years later, that passion remained undimmed. So I refused the offer of that Berry Hill "businessman", allowing that I had been mightily tempted by the prospect of the tricks those "working girls" could teach me. I would not mention his offer, but I thought I knew of more than one Central High student who would eagerly accept it. I was going on to college and become a Air Force jet pilot. The guy gave me dubious look and said, then send your buddies down here to play some pinball. There isn't room for you here any more. Later, when Air Force officials echoed his frank skepticism about a person who couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time wanting to handle a high performance jet fighter (Hey, George W. Bush did it) I wound up flying a LSD ... Large Steel Desk ... for the rest of my Air Force career. I occasionally felt a twinge of regret for my abandoned chance to rumble down "Thunder Road", but it was the lost tutelage of the working girls that vexed me most severely. I never made easy money, but later I did my share of wild driving. I jumped a ditch in northern California, and later, when a guy looked me right in the eye and ran me off the road on a long straight stretch of desert highway, I exceeded 100 mph to catch him and return the favor. But as for the girls, I was left to feel my way around, a pitiful prospect for a geek.

At this remove in time I wonder what my father knew or suspected about any of the events described above. He had suggested that I continue riding my motor bike until he could see about fixing up a 1953 Ford sedan he had his eye on. Hey, it was a Golden Anniversary special with extra trim. Shortly after wandering away from the speed shop for the last time, I found myself gifted with an auto the advertisers of the day had called the "hot one"; a 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air hardtop, with full chrome trim, custom wheel covers and roll and pleat in the back deck. Not quite Bob Mitchum's ride, but it would do.

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