The first stop on our journey is the area west of Hartselle, that we, as kids, simply called “the country”. It was centered around my grandmother’s childhood home on Danville Pike, north of a crossroad community known as Neal. Some of my best memories were formed in this community, and many of my automotive and mechanical leanings were directly related to my summers spent there.
I remember that a trip to the country was a much anticipated thing. We would get up before the sun, my sisters and me in the back seat (and laying in the back window) with my mom driving and my grandmother in the passenger seat up front. It was a treat if one of us got to escape the mayhem in the back and sit in the front seat between the two of them. There were no seat belts, padded dash or airbags, and those knobs and switches protruded menacingly. We would be through North Birmingham before the sun came up, traveling Highway 31 north. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to the top of Lacon Mountain, north of Cullman, and peering down the long straight stretch of highway, marveling that the cars were so small that they looked like ants.
Many times, but not always, these trips to the country took place on July 31st, my birthday. I shared this birthday with “Papa”, my grandmother’s father who was born in 1875. The family reunions were like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Tables full of fried chicken, ham and every conceivable vegetable, and plenty of chocolate cake and banana pudding. It was spread out under a huge oak tree beside the old home place. There was a well under a shed attached to the porch that all of the kids knew to avoid. There was no indoor plumbing and I remember vividly trips to the outhouse. The barn had the harvest stored in it: green peanuts and corn. There were a couple of chinaberry trees in front that provided ample ammunition for battles with my cousins.
But the trips to the country that I remember most were to visit my grandmother’s brother, Harold and his wife Dot and their children Janice, Rayburn and Reatha. Uncle Harold was an old time hot rodder, having come up when Hot Rod magazine still had all of the pictures in sepia tone or green. He always had something interesting going on in the shop. Rayburn was a few years older than me and was in to drag racing, usually Corvettes but sometimes Model As with Corvette engines. I learned to drive a straight shift in their peach orchard, trying not to turn over the bushel baskets of peaches. I remember Rayburn and me riding to Neal on a pair of Honda 160 Dreams for a Grapico or Sun Drop. Riding that motorcycle was the same sensation as standing on the bow of the Titanic – I was king of the world!
Saturday nights, we would go in to Decatur in something that seems like a scene out of American Graffiti. Cruising to Shoney’s and other hangouts in Rayburn’s 62 Corvette. About that time, the Alabama State Troopers had been given American Motors products (before the AMX and Javelins) and I vividly remember Rayburn pulling beside one of the gray Rambler Ambassadors and asking the trooper: “What are you going do with that, set up a road block?”
One trip I had taken my grandmother with me in my Sunbeam Alpine (hard to imagine now). and I remember Uncle Harold kind of scoffing at the “small foreign car”. But on the morning I was to return home, he got up before me and took my car to Neal and filled up the tank with gas. When he returned, he made a comment that he was impressed with the handling and acceleration of the sports car. It made me feel great to have his approval on my car selection. Uncle Harold died my senior year in high school and I have always missed him greatly.
We limped into Hartselle with the motor on the Model A making ominous pounding noises that had me really worried. After visiting a while with Janice and Don and a couple of their grandsons, Reatha and Tim (and their beautiful granddaughter) and Aunt Dot, Rayburn offered his shop to help me investigate and (hopefully repair) the ailing Model A. Rayburn and I worked until midnight removing the oil pan and pulling shims from the main bearings. Some rather crude repairs were made to the rear main cap, but, with any luck, it will hold.
Janice and Don put us up in their guest house for the night and early Tuesday morning, I walked next door to the old home place. It looks a little different than when I was a kid. The well, outhouse and barn are gone, along with the big oak tree. But the memories are still there.
Day one: 108 miles