Shifters Car Club, Circa 1958
Remembering our “Happy Days” experience of 64 years ago, I’m thinking of a warm summer afternoon. This 17-year-old sits on the curb right in front of Jill Jabor’s corner store, at Maitland and Flower Lane pondering life.
The roar of a Chevy pickup shatters the quiet and slams me back to reality as it slides to a stop. Who’s the nut trying to kill me? Out jumps a skinny kid talking to me.
“Hi, I’m Dean!” he says. “I just hotwired my dad’s truck and am going for a cruise. Ya wanna go?”
“Yeah!” I reply.
I was in the seat of this now vintage pickup (I can still smell the interior). And off we went. I felt free as we drove up High Street to the Oakland Hills. Dean was full of mischief, burning rubber around corners, chasing cats, jumping curbs, and driving through a row of thoughtfully planted flowers. What fun (though I don’t condone the mischief)! Friendship, common goals, cars, and dreams, that’s what we were all about.
Dean got away with being the family car thief for quite a while. The first time I heard the Johnny Cash song, “Ring of Fire,” was in Dean’s front room. At the time we hadn’t a clue that we were beginning what’s become 57 years of friendship.
Bay Farm Island 1957 – Beyond the Dumps
My love of cars and trucks had probably started with the smell of Station Three at age 3. By age 15, in 1956, mom would often let me drive the Olds the last couple of blocks home without a permit. We lived next to Godfrey Park. Marion, the Park Director, owned a red and white 1954 Buick Roadmaster hardtop. She would let me drive her car the half-block to my house for a wash job. What a deal! Her son had a 1950 Chevrolet fastback with a louvered hood, loud pipes and a left-handed column shift, quite unique. Some days she would drive the Chevy to work. Well, it was my first chance to drive a stick. What fun, grinding, jerking and gunning the engine.
In the summer of 1958, I earned $300 working for a landscaping business where I learned to drive their ten-wheel dump truck on my permit, and we actually got away with it. That summer I bought a maroon 1949 Chevy two-door sedan. I later bought Marion’s son’s louvered hood for my car. Black prime, louvers and gold moon hubcaps… Wow! By age 22 I had owned 17 cars, three destruction derby cars, assorted model As, and a wreck of a ’32 Ford roadster that became my show and street machine.
Genesis of the Shifters
Dean and I had met Benton Randolph III, known as Red Dog for his flaming red hair, in auto shop. Soon we were introduced to his brother, Frank; Lee, who went by the nickname Budda; and Phil, called Flip. Flip lived above the corner store at Encinal Avenue and High Street with his father and brother.
Then there was Ken, or Heater (at more formal events, Heaterbill). Afterward came Gary; John; Laurence, later the owner of “The Acapulco,” a great Mexican restaurant; and Jerry who was a neighbor from BFI. Frank named me Uncle Boobs for my barrel chest. Thanks, Frank!
After completing my ’32 Ford, powered by a supercharged ’55 Olds engine, with 24 coats of pearlescent blue paint and candy apple red racing stripes, my name became Lead Foot. Corvettes? No problem.
We started meeting at the Randolph’s home and then moved to our clubhouse in Laurence’s mom’s basement on Buena Vista Avenue.
It took me all summer working for a landscaper to save $300 for a ’49 Chevy. I added a louvered and primed hood, some gold moon hubcaps, and a P.A. system in the grill so everyone could hear “Wake up Little Suzy” as we passed by. It had a left-handed column shift for faster second gear, and new seat covers.
In the meantime, Mom had just bought a red ’56 Ford station wagon from a cattle ranch. We didn’t have the money to remove the “Action Ranch” sign, so we erroneously became the owners of a ranch.
Mom never knew what fame the “Action Ranch” drew all over Alameda. The cops knew it, the kids at Encinal High School (our rivals) knew it, and Ryders Drive-In parking lot knew it. We used to take a set of coil springs secured from our auto wrecker, jack up the rear end, and fit them between the leaf springs. Instant super rake! Man, I could burn rubber around corners, and destroy tires fast at Mom’s expense. Mom kept commenting about the poor grade of tires. Sorry Mom.
Dean had a maroon ’49 Mercury; Red Dog had a black ’50 Ford. He had a real talent for speed shifting second gear; his talent often extended to the destruction of that second gear, and he soon became a pro at changing the Ford transmissions, in about 30 minutes from start to finish. He kept the wreckers rebuilding boxes for $12.50 a pop.
Happy Days and the Fonz
Our first encounter with Fred “the Fonz” Gaspar, took place kitty corner from Alameda High School at Ryders Drive-In, which was at Oak Street and Central Avenue. Fred was 10 years older, drove a ’48 Ford pickup, and had a reputation that scared us to death. He was a fighter and a motorcycle racer, the epitome of COOL. Truly, we were the “Happy Days” prototype 17 years before the tele- vision show aired. (I was a jock, but more the Richie character.)
Well, Freddy adopted our group, and we moved as a team… Fremont Drag Strip, Pacheco Speedway, hardtop racing on Saturday nights, girlfriends in tow, proudly wearing our Shifters jackets, and smoking Havana-Tampa cigars. Steaming the windows at Island Drive-In, and constantly working on our cars at the Randolph’s, or Budda’s on Harvard Drive, or my driveway on Beach Road, blackened from oil and grease. Poor Mom. Ken had an Oldsmobile powered ’47 Plymouth coupe. We couldn’t afford a chain hoist to install the engine, so just brute force was applied. Straddling the engine, feet on the frame, with the chain over my shoulders, I lifted a big block engine enough to bolt up the motor mounts. My body reminds me every morning of this stupidity.
Red and Frank had the coolest home positioned on the estuary, a deep-water channel separating Alameda from Oakland. The Randolph home at 3019 Marina Drive was small, maybe 900 square feet. All the fun was in the backyard. A path on the right side of the house led us through a grape arbor gate to a small yard, with a fishpond to the right, and concrete steps descending to the lower level across the seawall and onto a 65-foot pier. Moving onto the pier was a workshop with a 600 square-foot building, complete with family room, bath, kitchen, and a fireplace.
To the right of the building was an open deck; below was a small sand beach which was exposed only at low tide. Further out, near the deep- water end of the deck, sat a covered boat lift concealing a beautiful, 1932 Chris Craft-type inboard ski boat named the Chiquita. Standing at the end of the pier below was a 30-foot-wide, wood and Styrofoam float, a perfect takeoff point for waterskiing.
Industrial buildings and a scrap iron yard were visible across the estuary. Tidewater Sand and Gravel tugboats and barges passed by daily, sounding the horn for the High Street Bridge to open. I could hear that horn wherever I was in town.
At this time, we had very little money and were always looking for any form of income to pay the 20 cents per gallon fee for cruising the Plaza or Gordon Drive-Ins on Friday and Saturday nights. We sometimes sat for six hours nursing a cherry Coke and an order of French fries. Part-time work at the Chevron gas station at the corner of High and Fernside helped some, and it was a great place to work on our own cars.
One of our sources of income was located across the estuary in the Randolph’s rowboat at night. This was done during low tide, stealthily crawling along under the pier looking for brass and copper that had fallen onto the beach during barge loading. These finds would then be sold across town to a scrap iron yard that later resold back to the estuary yard – maybe the first true recycling plan.
This lasted until that fateful night under the pier on a 12-inch-wide walkway, face to face with four yellow eyes and two glistening sets of fangs. Guard dogs had been employed.
Hmm, Dobermans or water? We boys went for a swim and began looking for other forms of income… like a syphon hose.
David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department, and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.