Bridges covered

My sister and I received a durable lesson in generosity in the summer of 1963, in the heart of Iowa. That was where our family’s 1957 Ford Country Sedan station wagon, towing our Nimrod pop-up camper trailer, broke down.

It was on a Sunday morning in late June, heading south from Des Moines on I-35 when the engine made a loud bang, and there was smoke and steam everywhere. We pulled over to shoulder and sat there for a long time while the engine cooled off and the day heated up. Then we topped off the radiator with some of the water from our cache, started the car back up and knew right away that the engine was in very bad shape. Pop figured that fewer than car’s straight-six engine’s cylinders were working, and that water was leaking through the head gasket  (since steam as well as smoke and unburned gas fumes were coming out the exhaust). There was no traffic to flag down on the highway, which was still new.  So all we could do was limp on, while limping was all the car could do.

At the top of the first exit was a sign that pointed west to St. Charles, and east to St. Mary’s. The former was closer, it said, so we turned right. We pulled up in front of a general store with some old guys on the porch out front, and asked if there was a service station nearby.

“Deane fixes cars,” one of them said, and told us which house was Deane’s. It was down the road on the left.

Turns out this was Deane Hoskins, a master mechanic with a complete garage in his garage. His day job was working for GM’s diesel division in Des Moines. His wife was Arlouine, a teacher like Mom. They also had a bunch of kids: Carolyn, Linda, Janet, Karen and Robert. All were friendly and eager to help. Deane told us to pull in. So Pop and I disconnected the camper, left it in the street, and went up the driveway to help Deane as best we could while he tore down the broken engine.

At the peak of the Hoskins garage’s roof, facing down the driveway, was a thermometer in the shape of a big clock. It said 112°. Sweat poured off Deane’s nose and chin. I remember that his eyes were blue, though one was a mix of blue and brown. The whole time he talked to us about engine design, how they worked, and what they were built do do. This Ford, he explained, was built to fail.

The policy was called “planned obsolescence,” and you could see it in the cooling tubes in the engine block, flanking the cylinders. Water cooled by the radiator flows through these tubes, keeping an engine from overheating. The pistons in the first and sixth cylinders looked fine. The ones in the second and fifth were pitted on the top. The pistons in the third and fourth cylinders had holes blown through their tops. That was because the cooling tubes flanking the third and fourth cylinders had metal plugs in them, causing the pistons to overheat and eventually fail. The plugs were the opposite of necessary, unless the necessity was a blown engine, eventually. In our case the eventuality was sixty thousand miles.

This was a huge blow to Pop, a committed Ford Man. This wagon was the first new car he had ever bought, and it had been nothing but trouble from Day One. Even before this last failure he figured the car cost $60 per month on average to fix, and this was in 1950s dollars. It was also clear and present evidence of customer-hating corporate venality. To this day it amazes me to see nothing written about Ford’s (or anybody’s) practice of plugging an engine block’s cooling tubes. Were all of Ford’s inline-6 blocks crippled like this? Or was this an experiment by Ford with just a few engines to see what happened? How could a worker in good conscience have put the plugs in there, when the result would obviously be a short life span for the engine?

Deane drilled out the plugged tubes, removed the bad pistons, honed out the two center cylinders, called up a friendly Ford dealer, and drove us over to pick up some new pistons and a fresh head gasket. The dealer was closed on Sunday, but opened up just for us. On the way over we went through a covered bridge, one of those later made famous by The Bridges of Madison County.

By evening Deane had the engine back together, and the car running fine. We spent the night as the Hoskins’ house guests, and in the morning went on our way. For years Mom kept up with the Hoskins family through Arlouine. It was what moms did in those days. Mom was from a small town two states away: Napoleon, North Dakota. St. Charles and its friendly ethic was familiar to her.

Pop’s partisan loyalties were simple and clear. Three of the biggest were to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Ford Motor Company and the Republican Party. So this was the second time he felt betrayed. The first was when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. The third was Watergate.

Leaving St. Charles on Monday morning, we drove west. In Griswold, barely bigger than St. Charles, we found a Chevy dealer. It wasn’t that Pop was suddenly a believer in Chevy, but that he had become a disbeliever in Ford. He also took Deane’s word that GM didn’t play the planned obsolescence game. There were just two new cars in the showroom: a minimal white Biscayne and a  blue Bel-Air. Pop and Mom wanted to get the Biscayne, but my sister and I talked them into getting the Bel-Air, which had a 283 v-8 rather than the Biscayne’s straight six. Better for pulling the trailer, we argued, successfully. Pop’s compromise was to make sure the car had no radio and no air conditioning. That car was almost trouble-free until the transmission went, at 125,000 miles — a lot in those days. That’s when we sold it, in 1969.

And that’s Griswold, above. I spotted it last week while looking out the window of the plane from Newark to Los Angeles. It doesn’t look much different from above than it did on the ground forty-nine years ago. The dealer was small, with just two cars in the showroom: our Bel-Air and the Biscayne. No Impalas. I don’t remember the name, but there are no Chevy dealers in Griswold today.

I see that Deane died in 1991 and Arlouine in 2005. And, at the second link, that Linda is also gone. But our encounter with the Hoskins family isn’t forgotten, half a century later. To me the “flyover” states are places where good people live and lucky people drive through. Turns out our bad luck in St. Charles with a bum Ford was the best thing that could have happened.



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14 Responses to Bridges covered

  1. Dave McNamee says:

    I have to believe that the opportunity for adventure and for human connection such as you describe in this story is alive today. Thank you for adding value to my morning.

  2. Brett Glass says:

    And so, Doc, the moral is… what, exactly? That all businesses are evil?

  3. Allan Smith says:

    Wonderful story.

  4. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Dave, David, Allan.

    And Brett, if that’s your guess about the moral, you missed it.

  5. Skip Malette says:

    The humanness of this story outlines that, in some ways, local connections were easier then.

  6. Brett Glass says:

    I operate a local business and local connection. But Doc demonized businesses like mine at the “Freedom to Connect” conference (a Google-sponsored event, though it makes shallow claims to be independent) in DC last month.

  7. Mark says:

    Great story! And if one of the points to make is that a company that adopts strategy of ‘planned obsolescence’ is unworthy of brand loyalty, well, yeah. That’s right.

  8. Doc Searls says:

    Wrong, Brett. But I see no point in arguing it.

  9. Brett, I doubt Doc demonized business like yours, as I don’t think your WISP has the market power and customer base to be cutting exclusive deals with huge media companies (and if I recall correctly, you aren’t of the corporations-are-people persuasion). Be fair.

    Of course, the moral of the story is just-plain-folks are great, as opposed to impersonal big business. It’s the Prairie Home Companion, etc. The sad political problem is that Doc is never allowed (practically) to take a meaningful political position in favor of those just-plain-folks as opposed to impersonal big business. He’d get thrown out of the conference-club if he did that. A substantial amount of the Berkman Center (tedious – not “all”, not “every”, but “a substantial amount”) is devoted to various storytelling along these lines to try to resolve this dilemma.

    Anyway, I strongly suspect Doc would be willing to write as lyrical a portrayal of your ISP efforts under the right overall circumstances.

  10. Paul says:

    a great story — and like great stories well told, it requires a villain, and big auto, like big food, or big bank or most big anything needs AND deserves a rock every now and then.

  11. Kirby Files says:

    Man, Seth and Brett, your cynicism runs high. I get that you may have objections to Doc’s politics and talking points, but perhaps you can keep your comments the words he actually writes in each post.

    Why don’t you take this essay for what it is, a beautiful and evocative essay on a life touched by the kindness of an altruistic act?

    Beautiful writing, Doc, in classic early-American short-story form. I enjoy your tech observations, but I sometimes forget that you’re also just a great writer.

  12. Mark Twain about “Huckleberry Finn”: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

    All stories exist within a social and political context. I don’t think it’s wrong to explore that in commentary. (tedious anti-strawman – of course it’s possible to run off the rails in doing literary criticism, and practitioners do so regularly. But I don’t think that failure-mode makes examining story structure as it relates to the author’s wider world _per se_ unreasonable)

  13. Jamie says:

    Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

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