Clunker takes on a whole new meaning these days

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By Kes Colbert

The government once again has moved too slowly to help me. Where was this clunker program idea in 1954? Was Congress so engrossed in the Joseph McCarthy saga that they forgot about the rest of us? Was Eisenhower more interested in practicing his golf or monitoring the Marshall Plan than to my lonely plight in West Tennessee? Was the entire world’s attention averted by the Monroe-DiMaggio wedding?

I reckon, as a nation there in the mid 1950s, we kinda lost our direction. A right-thinking government would have instituted several clunker programs. And it should have started with shoes. I’d get the Sunday hand-me-downs from Leon. He’d wear those Buster Brown encasements to church every week for a year, sometimes two. It would take another year for me to grow into them (and sometimes even then Mom would have to stuff some newspaper in the toe). Folks, they made those things out of Pittsburgh steel and ready mix concrete. It was like walking around in brick-bats. I kid you not! That little boy in the picture looked so nice and innocent but he didn’t know didley-squat about making shoes! It was the biggest clunker ever perpetrated on the foot covering industry.

You could get a blister just sticking your heel into one of those things. And walking was near about impossible. It was enough to turn you against church! I have cried through the announcements, all five verses of “I’m Gonna Take a Trip on that Old Gospel Ship,” two offerings (we were Baptist), that sermon where Abner lets his guard down and Joab runs him through with a sword and an invitation that lasted so long I thought we were waiting for Moses to appear!   

My parents didn’t have any money. Why do you think we were passing those shoes around? They couldn’t afford to buy new Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes every year. But if Uncle Sam had’a stepped in and offered us, say $8 to trade them hard-as-a-rock Buster Brown shoes in for a brand new pair of Nike Air Max Tailwinds. Wow! Now we’re talking government intervention that would mean something!     

I can’t see any reason that they couldn’t have done the same thing with bicycles. Leon found a bike in the trash behind Tommie Hill’s Texaco Station. We straightened up the handle bars, patched holes in both tires, oiled the chain and tied a burlap bag over the metal seat. It didn’t look all that great; both rims were missing a few spokes, the hard rubber filling was gone from the left pedal and it didn’t have fenders but you could “take off” from the hill up at Jim and Joe Williams’s house and near ’bout coast all the way to our front yard. ’Course, it was hard to get the baseball card to hum because of the lack of spokes and if you ran though any kind of ditch that fenderless back wheel was going to sling water on you and you didn’t impress Brenda Ellis when you pedaled by. It was better than nothing but calling it a “clunker” might have been overstating it.  

We wore Tuf Nut jeans. We didn’t want to. We longed for a pair of those Levi Strauss’ that Mr. Beasley sold over at the National Shirt Store. You could buy Tuf Nuts for a dollar. The Levis were almost three times that.

None of that mattered to our parents. They were “too” practical. No amount of begging or explaining could move them. We had to wear our clunkers. It was embarrassment on top of embarrassment.

Joe Sasser would drop by and pick me up in his dad’s old Dodge truck. It had cattle rails on the sides, a lot of junk in the back and a dash piled high with work gloves, D-cell batteries, duct tape, a Keco Milling Company hat and an assortment of screws, pliers, bailing wire, old thermostats, drill bits and box-end wrenches. That vehicle was dirty and ancient and got about 2 miles to the gallon. Joe and I talked about school, farming and if were going to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Park Theatre. Dummy us! It never crossed our minds to petition Washington for a little help on a trade in. A new Corvette would have been perfect. It was smaller, sleeker and even with the souped-up engine it would get better gas mileage than that old pickup.   

The government, in its infinite wisdom, hopped in 47 years too late to help me. Ain’t that the way life goes?