This story is personal. It's about coming full circle when the circumference of that circle amounts to over a half-century. It's about my Dad, a space-ship known as "The Eagle," an antique piano by the name of "Campy," and a grand old lady known to her close friends as "Emaline."
I like to tell the story of how my Dad got me involved in the antique car hobby from a very young age, but usually avoid telling the parts that bring a tear to my eye. See, me and my Dad were real good buddies and we did all kinds of cool stuff together. Some of it involved cars, some of it, not. His day job involved working on space ships, and he was the aerospace machinist who turned out the landing gear which went on the Lunar Excursion Module that Neil Armstrong flew to the Moon—and I like to say that before Armstrong took that "one small step for man," my Dad's footprints were there first! Dad's part-time job was that of a voice-coach and musician. He taught me to sing and read music and made a musician out of me—to the point where I spent about ten years making my living as a band-leader. To this day, his distinct playing style lives on every time I sit at a keyboard and bang out a tune (Songwriter Randy Howard had a similar experience with his Dad and wrote a ballad entitled, "The Leader of the Band." Dan Fogelberg recorded it).
There are two categories of antique mechanical implements that take on the heart and soul of the user and become as living things. One category includes wooden sailboats, steam trains, motorcycles, biplanes—and yes, old cars. Acoustic musical instruments fall into the other category; no explanation needed, there. Because each musical instrument in our home had its own unique personality, each had been given a name. Dad's Selmer trumpet was "Rickey," his Trini Lopez guitar was "Lope," and the big ol' Kohler & Campbell piano in our living room was "Campy." I was maybe five years old when Dad taught me my very first song on Campy, "Bye, Bye, Blackbird."
"PACK UP ALL MY CARES AND WOE; HERE I GO..."
Some fifty years later, after Dad passed away and it was time to sell his house, that old piano, which had been the center of so many Christmases and holiday gatherings with the family, had to be moved out with the rest of the furniture. Because it was a huge acoustic, it just wouldn't fit in my own house and so, with a heavy heart, we found this beautiful old soul of an instrument a good home where lived a little girl who really wanted to learn to play. When the movers arrived to take the piano, I said, "Wait a minute, guys. There's something I need to do, first." And I sat on that mahogany piano bench and opened the keyboard lid and played "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" on her—one last time. And then the movers took Campy away. By now, you've concluded that I'm a very sentimental man—maybe more so than is for my own good.
Well, let me tell the rest of the story in chronological order:
In 1937, while a student at Harvard, the man who would become a world-renowned automotive historian, Henry Austin Clark Jr., acquired his very first antique car, a 1915 Ford Model T, for the purpose of enhancing his social life. Indeed, the young ladies loved the adorable little runabout he had christened "Emaline." By 1948, Mr. Clark had collected a vast number of precious Brass-Era motor-vehicles and established the Long Island Automotive Museum in West Hampton, out on the east end of Long Island. There, among other ancient cars and trucks, resided the vintage fire-engines of the "Sandy Hollow Fire Department," a fictitious institution named after one of the roads near the museum. The flagship of that fire-fighting fleet was "Emaline," now painted up in the traditional, red & gold-leaf colors and markings of a fire chief's car.
In 1961, I was six years old and the proud owner of my own little fire chief's vehicle, an adorable red pedal-car with a brass bell and the word, "Chief" emblazoned on its sides, and in it, I spent many a happy hour furiously pedaling as I dashed back and forth on the sidewalk of our block, under the watchful eye of my mother. See, back in those days, every little boy wanted to be either a cowboy, an astronaut or a fireman. I had picked the latter vocation.
In 1962, Dad packed the family into our '51 Mercury for a Sunday drive of undetermined destination (because families did that back then), pointed the car eastward and quite by accident, discovered the Long Island Automotive Museum. Wow, what an amazing place! It was just chock full of turn-of-the-century antique cars and trucks.
Okay, today that doesn't sound especially exciting, for we now live in the computer age, but back then, we were an automotive society wherein an individual's success and a family's station in life was reflected in the kind of car they owned, and everybody drove the best car they could afford. Those were the powerful, chrome-encrusted, 8-mile-per-gallon behemoths that ruled the highways when high-octane gasoline went for 28-cents per gallon—and came with Plaid Stamps, S&H Green stamps, silverware, dishes, and all manner of promotional gimmicks. You rolled into the gas station and crossed over the red hose that made the bell clang and a couple of clean-cut, English-speaking guys in visored caps and bow-tied uniforms ran out to greet you with a smile and a salute, and then they cleaned all your windows, topped off your oil and fluids, checked your tire inflation—and oh yes, filled your gas tank. You see, back then, family life centered around the family car. Little boys were born knowing how to drive and the lines in their tiny right palms were in the shape of an H-shift pattern. Ten-year-old kids assembled plastic model cars advertised in comic books by the Kat from AMT, and everybody knew who George Barris, Big Daddy Ed Roth and "Rat Fink" were. Today, cars are all coughdrop-shaped, disposable devices of convenience which come in a few boring bland colors. Oh, but back when I was a kid, automobiles were seen as very exciting indeed, for they were the blazing, two-toned, finned freedom machines of an optimistic generation of Americans which had elected to the country's highest office, a man who said such things as "We choose to go to the Moon and do these other things, not because they're easy, but because they are HARD!"
So okay, there we were, me and my family, wandering around this wondrous museum of ancient automobiles. Such long-forgotten marques as Pierce-Arrow, Mercer, Stutz, Thomas-Flyer, Simplex, Locomobile, Columbia, Brewster, Stanley, Maxwell and Moon were well represented. Behind the museum, kids were given rides in a 1912 hook & ladder fire engine, and riding on that red, retired hero, clanging its big bell and playing its siren was the stuff of little boys' dreams. Oh, the cars and fire-trucks were just amazing and I loved them all, but the vehicle that absolutely stole my heart away was that adorable little Model T Ford Runabout, the fire-chief's car, "Emaline." When nobody was looking, Dad hoisted me up and plopped me down in the driver's seat, whipped out his trusty Polaroid Land Camera and started snapping pictures of me sitting in the little red runabout, tiny little hands gripping the wooden steering wheel with all my tiny might. Oh, how badly I wanted to drive that car! But I was just a little kid with legs too short for my feet to even reach the pedals. As we left the museum that day, I remember Dad saying, "Well, when you grow up and have a driver's license, maybe you can buy a Model T just like that one." And he handed me a book he'd bought for me in the gift shop. In it was a page with a captioned photo of Emaline.
"WHERE SOMEBODY WAITS FOR ME; SUGAR'S SWEET, SO IS SHE..."
From that point on, Dad made an annual habit of celebrating the end of winter by loading us up in the car and taking a Sunday drive to the Long Island Automotive Museum. When I was taking a photography class in high school, Dad gifted me with the little 35mm camera he had taken to war and said, "Let's head out to the antique car museum and shoot a roll of film there. Your teacher will be real impressed when he sees you developing photos of those vintage cars!"
"Yeah, let's go!"
And we posed with the old cars, of course making a point of getting several shots of us standing next to Emaline.
Then, when I started dating the lady who would eventually become my wife, we continued the family tradition of visiting the museum at the beginning of each spring season. In 1980, when the Long Island Automotive Museum shut its doors for the last time and auctioned off all its antique vehicles, we were more than a little dismayed; for by that time, this wholesome family establishment had become one of the indestructible constants of our lives, like sunshine and gravity. It felt like we had lost a dear old friend.
Well, life went on and my bride and I started our new life together. We bought a house, raised a daughter and watched with button-popping pride as she graduated college. When I aged to the point of balding and catching myself watching the kind of TV shows the commercials of which featured visiting nurses, people who fell down and couldn't get up, funeral homes, adult diapers and short-term life insurance which didn't require a medical exam, my male, mid-life crisis hit hard. I suddenly found myself faced with two basic options of tradition:
Option #1 consisted of parting my hair at ear-level, combing its northern constituents over my shiny cranium and getting a new convertible Corvette with a blonde, 20-something-year-old seatcover of high-maintenance and very poor judgment.
Option #2 was more a matter of facing the fact that when you reach that stage in life where the road ahead is much shorter than the road behind, it's time to start driving a really, really slow car. And they don't come much slower than a Model T Ford.
But wait—Most folks in the old car hobby find themselves there for reasons of nostalgia. They want to be reminded of a time when they were young and vibrant, when each new day began with something other than wrestling the child-proof caps off bottles of sliver-label vitamins and a battalion of amber pharmaceutical vials. So they tend to buy the vintages of old cars which were present when they were care-free kids. That usually means the marvelous Mercs, fifties-fins, and monster-motored muscle-cars of the sensational-sixties and seventies. Those closest to an appointment with the skinny guy of the scythe and hooded robe might choose a slightly older car, perhaps a fabulous '40 Ford. But you don't find too many seniors who feel a nostalgic yearning for cars of the Brass-Era because... well, folks who'd be old enough to have ridden around in cars of that vintage when they were young, would, with very few exceptions, now be the permanent and very happy guests of the last CEO of Joseph Christ & Son Carpentry. It was very odd, then, that the car of my youth, the one which inspired my nostalgic yearning, was a little, fire-engine red, 1915 Ford Runabout once known as "Emaline," which, if she still existed at all, was probably an embalmed static-display in some ill-attended museum on the other side of the world, or, more likely, was in poor shape, partly dismantled in some cat-loving widow's garage, serving as a shelf for dusty cardboard boxes full of junk and waiting for a restoration that would never take place.
By 2009, I had come to the realization that at my age, if I didn't start checking off some of the items on my bucket list, those things would soon become extremely unlikely to ever happen. So I started doing a little research on the purchase of a Model T Ford. That brought me to the online Model T forum, where I read about a Tin Lizzie that was owned by a volunteer fire department somewhere on eastern Long Island. Accompanying photos showed a fire chief's car, very similar to that of the old museum, which had been partially destroyed by fire, but subsequently, the car had been beautifully restored by expert craftsman, Tim Foye. Not having seen an example in quite a while, it seemed prudent to visit a Tin Lizzie before getting serious about purchasing one, so I phoned the Southampton Fire Department to ask whether I might be allowed to visit them and inspect their Model T. The man on the other end of the phone said, "Well, we're not supposed to do that, but... well... okay, maybe just this once." So before he had a chance to change his mind, my wife and I jumped in our car and got on the Long Island Expressway, headed east. This happened to take place on the Labor Day weekend, when the Fire Department was running on minimal staff which had more important things to do than supervise my visit. I was told to keep it brief, take my pictures and get going so they could get back to work.
"NO ONE HERE CAN KNOW OR UNDERSTAND ME..."
Well, the Model T at the fire house was indeed a 1915 Runabout with a paint job similar, but not identical to, that of the museum's Emaline. Still, the runabout's vintage and Hamptons location suggested the possibility that this might not be just a replica of the original. I remember saying to my wife, "I think this could be Emaline."
"The fire chief's car—from the museum!"
Okay, so Mindy isn't exactly an antique car enthusiast.
In the summer of 2010, I went ahead and bought a '15 Ford Touring and whenever Dad came over for a visit, we'd ride in it every time we went out for our usual pizza and ice-cream lunch. I joined the Long Island chapter of the Horseless Carriage Club, some of the members of which assured me that, yes, the little red runabout at the Southampton Fire Department was definitely the fire chief's car from the old Long Island Automotive Museum. Warren Kraft, a close friend of Henry Austin Clark, had been in charge of auctioning off some of the vehicles and he assured me that "Austie" had decided to donate his fire chief car to the Southampton Fire Department, contingent on their promise to never sell it off. Turned out, I had indeed found my childhood friend, Emaline. Dad thought that was "pretty darned cool!" We lost him two years later, in April of 2012, to a kidney infection. Dad had been six months shy of ninety years old.
Hang in there just a little bit longer; the circle is about to close. In 2016, I was elected president of the Long Island chapter of the Horseless Carriage Club, which meant I'd be receiving correspondence from folks who were interested in applying for membership. I'd tell them about our club, our location and about our the car shows and club activities in which we engaged. The prospective member would share a little bit about his or her antique car background and I'd invite him/her to the next meeting, etc. Well, it happened that a gentleman by the name of Craig was interested in joining up and when we shared about each other's background, it turned out he was a volunteer fire-fighter and had recently been given charge of the Southampton Fire Department's antique fleet—which included Emaline. Well, of course that started a whole new conversation. Craig graciously invited me to a car show which Southampton's fire-fighting fleet would be attending on Shelter Island and—I couldn't believe it—asked me if I'd like to take Emaline for a spin!
The rest of the story pretty much tells itself. Of course I went to that car show! After parking my modern car in the nearby lot, I walked over to where the fire-fighting vehicles were parked, stopped next to Emaline and said, in a voice maybe a little bit too loud, "Hello Emaline."
Craig's fiancée, Amy, whom I hadn't seen because she'd been crouched down, polishing a brass fire extinguisher on the opposite running-board, raised her head over the level of the door and said, "Ah. You must be Bob."
How did she know?
Well, of course, I took Craig up on his invitation to let me take Emaline for a ride, and for the second time in my life, some fifty-five years after Dad had plunked me into the driver's seat, I was again sitting behind the wheel of Emaline—but this time, my feet reached the pedals! Author Thomas Wolfe had once said, "You can't go back," and wrote a book about it. Not true, sir—not this time—for there I was, a sixty-something-year-old second grader getting the wish granted that I'd made over a half-century ago. Oh, if only Dad could have been there to see it.
"MAKE THE BED AND LIGHT THE LIGHT; I'LL BE HOME LATE TONIGHT..."
A wonderful couple at the car show, Fred and Dot, had extended an invitation to come to their car museum after the show for a barbecue, and I phoned my wife at home to let her know I'd be back a good deal later than originally planned. And so, with me behind the wheel and Craig in the passenger seat, we took Emaline for a nice, leisurely drive through the scenic roads of Shelter Island, to Fred and Dot's antique car museum for a lovely lunch with a big group of other wonderful old-car enthusiasts. And afterward, we took Emaline for another ride, back to the car show grounds where I had left my modern car.
This had been one of life's golden hi-lites. Thanks Craig.
That's wonderful, Bob! Thanks very much for sharing it with us.
Cool story Bob! Thanks for posting.
Good story Bob. There is nothing like a happy ending. Good for you being able to finally reach the pedals. Bravo. Jim
Wonderful story, Bob; I was hoping that Emaline somehow ended up in your garage....someday?
It' a great story but I had to stop twice because the screen got real blurry. Thanks more than you can know, Don.
In answer to your question:
Of course, I'd love to have Emaline in my own garage, but that's never going to happen. -And you know what? That's a good thing—for that grand old lady is in the best home a fire chief's car can possibly have. -After spending thirty-two active years in a living museum as part of a make-believe fire department, she has been promoted and indeed, is now a real, live fire chief car in a real, live fire house. -She goes to car-shows and fire-department functions and gets to strut her stuff on a regular basis for an adoring public. -The old gal deserves all that and, unfortunately, it's more than I could ever give her.
Besides, the Southampton Fire Department made a promise to Henry Austin Clark that they'd never sell his Emaline, and when a real-life hero gives his word, you know you can count on it. -She'll stay right where she is and will continue to receive the excellent care and feeding she so richly deserves.
Great story, and very well written too. Thanks for taking the time to post.
Loved the story Bob. Old friends are often the best! Thanks for the story
Very nice. Thank you.
Thank you, Thank you and Thank you again , Bob. Wonderful story and very well told!
Thank you for sharing a special part of your life, Bob.
Great story Bob, Amy and I are just glad we could do something for fellow T person, as we have been helped by so many on this web site and by those in our local club. What a great hobby we have that we could just reach out to someone offer a up a small amount of time and have it bring a good memory into their life. It is my opinion that we are all so very very lucky to be in this incredible hobby together that always seems to have good people involved at every turn.