The Tommy and I, Junk Yard Story
Written 4/2013 and Rewritten 1/4/2016
By 1961, Tommy Letis and I had been good friends for more than two years.
In 1958 my father, with all good intentions, had ordered a new 1959 Chevrolet automobile. My mother and father wanted me to have reliable transportation when I went off to college.
It was a funny situation, as once my dad and I sat down in the car salesman’s office, and he started to show my father all the options that were going to be available in 1959, we somehow ended up with a beautiful black 1959 Chevrolet convertible with a red interior. Not only was the car beautiful but it had a special Corvette, four speed manual transmission, a 348 cubic inch engine with three carburetors and a nonslip “positraction” rear end. It was a factory made hot rod, it was sort of an experimental muscle car made by Chevrolet.
So once I had that new beautiful convertible, I started hanging out at the back row of Jimmy’s Restaurant. Jimmy’s was the “In” place for kids to hang out, especially if you had a neat car.
Hanging out at Jimmy’s became a pretty big social event, with everyone in the back rows of the lot talking to each other.
On many evenings, a shiny black 1956 Ford pickup truck would show up. The truck went up and down the rows of parked cars, revving its engine and making its front end lift up. That was something you rarely saw back in 1959.
The rumor was, that the truck had a secret high power engine and the hood had a lock on it, so no one could see it. The rumor was also circulating that the black pickup truck had never lost a race, and it was driving around Jimmy’s looking for competition. No one knew who owned the truck or who was driving it.
I didn’t know it at the time but the owner of the truck, was a fellow named Tommy Letis, and we were later to become the best of friends. (See the Tommy Letis pickup truck story).
It all started one summer evening, when I was parked in the back row of Jimmy’s parking lot. The top of my convertible was down and I was sitting in the passenger seat.
That’s when I noticed a fellow standing by the driver’s side door looking my car over.
He was about five foot six inches tall, with sandy blond hair and a friendly cherubic face, and he was twirling a stubby little cigar in his mouth.
He took the cigar from his mouth and said, with a big grin, “How does it go?” She goes OK, I replied.
He said, “I had heard that Chevrolet was producing these factory hot rod cars, but I never really saw one until now, he said”.
Now, to this day, I don’t know why I did it, but I asked him if he wanted to try the car out. I had never said that to anyone before, but that’s how I met Tommy Letis.
Tommy then introduced himself, got in the car and we took it for a spin. When we returned to Jimmy’s I asked Tommy what he was driving. He said, “I drive a pickup truck and he pointed to the black shiny 1956 Ford pickup he had parked across the street in the shadows”. From that point on in 1959, we became the best of friends.
I was working part time evenings at a Gulf gas station located on Derby Avenue in New Haven, Tommy would come to the station and visit with me until closing. He was always driving the 1956 Ford pick up truck.
When I had time off, I would drive out to Tommy's house in East Haven. He lived on Hunt Lane in the town of Foxon, which at the time was a very unpopulated semi-rural area.
Right from the first, I thought Tommy was pretty amazing, we were similar in age but Tommy already had his own dump truck business and he was making money.
Tommy lived with his parents, on a piece of property where his dad long ago had an egg business, the chicken coops were now starting to fall apart, but there was a big barn that Tommy was using to park the 1956 Ford pickup truck and also to work on his dump truck.
I loved going to Tommy’s house, his mother and father treated me like a family member. Tommy’s grandfather who also lived with them, was an old time German craftsman, he not only maintained the property but grew strawberries and I saw how made sleds by boiling and bending wood, so when I wasn’t talking or helping Tommy work on his truck, I was watching his grandfather. For me it was a novelty, because compared to Tommy, I was a city boy.
As time went on, Tommy and I found that we got along well, and we did things together, we both enjoyed automotive stuff, and most of all I admired the fact that Tommy was running his own trucking business at such a young age. Tommy had financial independence something that I didn’t yet have.
I also liked Tommy because compared to me he was a maverick, he didn't take any crap from anyone, and because of his financial independence, it allowed him to do whatever he wanted to do.
One day I went with him to the local Ford agency, and I watched him negotiate for a brand new ten wheeler truck. He spent twenty six thousand dollars, which was more money than I had ever heard of anyone spending. Having Tommy as a friend added a whole new dimension to my rather dull student life. In the evenings he would drive that black pickup around looking for someone to race. I always rode shotgun with Tommy and from that passenger seat I watched him win the races, I always waved good bye to the competitor out of the trucks side window.
We started going everywhere together, I thought Tommy was loads of fun and full of surprises. Sometimes Tommy would like to create a ruckus for no real reason, other than to cause some excitement. He always put on a tough guy persona but he was a real soft and easy guy. He carried a roll of money in his pocket, with a hundred dollar bill on the outside. He probably still carries it.
Every night hanging around with Tommy a real adventure.
One time we were all at some ones party in a big restaurant where all the people were drinking liquor. Tommy who rarely drank alcohol, stood up on a chair, yelling over the din of the party and he said, I’ll give $100.00 for a glass of milk. He was possibly the only guy I knew that had $100.00 in his pocket.
In his town of Foxon, Tommy was well known, by everyone including the police. He successfully created himself into a character that always kept the area wise from Wooster Street at a distance. The wise guys were never quite sure if he was really as tough as he acted.
Whenever I drove to Tommy's home, I had to drive down route 80 which was also called Middletown Avenue, and at the time, Middletown Avenue was zoned industrial. It was where many of New Haven’s automobile junk yards were located.
I had worked part time for Milford Auto Wrecking Company in 1958 and 1959 while I went to college, so I thought I had gotten a pretty good education about the running of a automobile junk yard.
Tommy, on the other hand had been buying junk cars and trucks on and off for years, and he had cut many of them up for scrap metal behind the family barn. So Tommy also thought he knew a bit about making money by junking cars.
One evening, Tommy said that he heard a rumor that a small automotive junk yard, on Middletown Avenue was for sale.
Tommy said that he thought the wrecking yard was owned by a local fellow named Carfora, and he thought Carfora’s two sons were running it. We were both very curious so we got in my car and drove down to Middletown Avenue to take a look at the Carfora’s wrecking yard.
We quickly found it, the Carfora junk yard was located on a small strip of land, about two hundred feet wide and perhaps five hundred feet deep. The wrecking yards front gates were set back about seventy five feet from Middletown Avenue, allowing a lot of room for customer parking. The entire yard was fenced in, except the rear which looked like a salt water marsh.
We drove up to the front gate and saw that there was a small wooden office to the right as you went into the yard.
As we walked into the yard, I looked across highway 80 behind me and saw Pete’s, it’s an old time diner where Tommy and I often went to eat at night, how convenient that would be.
As we entered the wrecking yard, there were about thirty or forty cars there, but it didn't appear as if they were doing much business. Standing on the steps to the small wooden office stood the two Carfora brothers, I think they thought we were customers coming to buy some auto parts.
One of the brothers was short and hefty, and the other tall and lanky, and both were wearing greasy unwashed coveralls. They reminded me of the two comic book characters “Mutt and Jeff”.
Tommy told them he heard that the yard was for sale, “Yes, they said, the wrecking yard was for sale, but we had to talk to their father who actually owned it, and he would be there on Saturday.”
It was pretty obvious to us looking at them, that these two brothers desperately wanted to get out of that place. I could see that their heart just wasn’t in running a wrecking yard business.
Tommy said that he thought the elder Carfora was making plenty of money in his job of hauling fuel oil and had probably bought the junk yard so his two sons would have something to do.
So on next Saturday, Tommy and I returned to find the elder Carfora waiting for us at the yard, he had his big oil tanker truck parked right across the highway, next to Pete’s Diner.
As Tommy had guessed, Mr. Carfora said he had bought the junk yard for his two sons, but they wanted to do something different now, and that was his reason for selling the wrecking yard. He told us that he wanted $35,000.00 in cash, for everything, which included both the business, and the property.
“Tommy asked if he would take a down payment, and a note for the balance, and the elder Carfora said he would consider any valid proposition.” So upon hearing that, we told him we were very interested, and we would get back with him as soon as we discussed it.
It was Tommy's opinion that Carfora was earning plenty as an oil tanker driver, and he didn't think he needed the money, which was probably a good bargaining point for us and a good reason we probably wouldn’t need all the entire $35,000.00 up front, which we didn’t have anyway.
So we both decided we would offer Carfora a down payment of $5,000.00 and the balance to be paid over a five year period. Both Tommy and I felt sure that with the experience we had, and the fact that we were both hard workers, there was no reason we couldn’t make money running the place.
Tommy thought he would continue with his dump truck business and work at the yard in the afternoon, and on weekends, and I could run the yard during the day. Thus the idea to buy the junk yard sounded like a good thing to us.
Tommy’s plan was that in the afternoon we could load up his dump truck with all our scrap iron, and he would haul it to the local scrap metal yard, and sell it for cash, and also Tommy said he knew a good attorney for us to discuss everything with.
The next day we went to see Tommy's attorney, who listened to our whole story, and our plans, he suggested that before we made a deal, we should do what was called “Due Diligence”, and research the property, to make sure Carfora was on the up and up. The attorney said he wanted to find out if Carfora really owned the property.
So, we immediately went back to the Carfora's wrecking yard and told them that we would buy the place, but our attorney needed to check everything out, and he would draw up a contract as soon as possible.
The elder Carfora said he knew our attorney very well, and he said he liked him, so everything was OK.
Now that we were going to buy their wrecking yard, the two Carfora boys became very friendly to us, and Tommy and I saw that they were not doing anything every day, other than sitting in the little office. So the next day I suggested that they let us start operating our business on the empty left side and in the rear of the wrecking yard, I thought it was a good idea that we could start working while we were waiting for our attorney to get back with us.
All we needed was for the Carfora's to let us borrow a couple of sets of their “Junk Dealer” license plates, so we could start buying and hauling in cars into the yard, They said that they had no objections to lending us the license plates, so this opened the door for us to get started buying cars to scrap.
That afternoon, Tommy and I went to several of the other wrecking yards on Middletown Ave to look for some kind of truck we could use to haul the cars in with. Luck was with us, because in one of the larger wrecking yards, we found what I think was probably the weirdest truck I had ever seen in my life. It was a 1948 cab over Coca Cola delivery truck that someone had built with a hand crank winch on the back. The old truck was painted original Coca Cola yellow, and to get to the engine, you had to unlatch the whole cab and tilt it forward, I know that I had never seen anything quite like it.
The winch on the back was an antique piece of equipment from the 1920’s, but it actually worked perfectly by manually turning a hand crank. I think the last time the truck had been used was in the 1940’s.
From my experience when I was hauling cars for Milford Auto Wrecking, I knew exactly what needed to be done to make this old truck work as a tow truck for us. So we bought it for $150.00 cash. It had no valid registration, or any papers. We got it running and then drove the truck, with no license plates, next to the barn at Tommy's house on Hunt Lane. That’s where Tommy had a trailer mounted Hobart welding machine sitting.
I scrounged around Tommy’s scrap metal pile until I found all the parts I would need to weld up a towing rig on the back of our antique tow truck.
I found pieces of chain and an old worn out torque rod that Tommy had removed from one of his dump trucks, and using Tommy's torch and his Hobart electric welding machine, we cut and welded what I thought was the most beautiful and ingenious towing rig, then we mounted it on the rear of our antique Coca Cola towing truck.
When it was completed, I was very proud of our accomplishment, even Tommy was surprised at how good it came out. You could see that it was a homemade rig for sure, but it would work to tow cars perfectly.
Tommy and I, were now very excited to go out and see if we could buy some junk cars.
Early the next morning, we started driving around the back country roads looking for old cars that were sitting in people’s back yards. We already had calculated how much money a junk car would bring us in scrap, also we already knew how much the other junk yards were paying, so we came up with a price of fifteen dollars that we could pay for cars, providing the car was complete. We also knew that our buying price was three dollars more than the other wrecking yards in New Haven were paying at the time.
Buying cars became great fun for us, we found that many of the houses in the country side had at least one old car sitting in their back yards.
As we drove up country roads, Tommy and I spotted the old cars, and we would stop, ring the doorbell, and buy them for fifteen dollars apiece.
Everyone we spoke to was happy to get the junk out of their yard, and in retrospect, I think a lot of the people would have given us the cars for free just to get rid of them.
We kept a pad on the car seat to keep track of all the cars we were buying, and I think by that by early that afternoon we had bought four or five cars.
At that point, we got to thinking and realized that we had new problems to deal with. There was no way I personally would have the time to go out and tow in five cars, and to run a wrecking yard, not only did we need the cars to be towed in, but then the cars needed to be disassembled, and their chassis cut into three foot pieces.
There was a lot of work that needed to be done, the cars tires, battery and radiator, needed to be removed, before the cars were turned on their side so the engine and transmission could be cut out, and saved. It was just too much work for me to do alone, and there just were not enough hours in the day to do it all, so Tommy gave it some thought.
First he said that he said he knew a good torch man, he was a guy who could cut the cars up for us, and he thought he remembered where the guy lived, somewhere in a bad neighborhood in New Haven. Also Tommy said he had a good friend, named Bobby Allen, and Bobby Allen had a young brother in law named Butch. Butch Tommy said, was a real ladies man, but he was strong as an ox, and he was also among the unemployed, so Tommy thought he could get Butch to tow in the cars for us.
That night we went on a mission, we drove to a pretty bad neighborhood in New Haven, looking for the torch man that Tommy knew, and after a few wrong guesses, Tommy found the guys house and he was home, and had nothing to do, so we sat at the fellow’s kitchen table and laid out the deal.
I would flip the cars on their sides and pay the torch man two dollars per car to come and cut up all the steel. We didn’t have to ask him twice, not only would he take the job but he had his own torch, and was ready to come to work anytime we called him.
Later that same evening, Tommy called to tell me that his friend Bobby Allen had contacted his brother in law Butch, and Butch would come to the yard early the next morning and start towing in the cars that we had already bought.
True to his word, the next morning, I met Butch, he was just as Tommy described, a handsome, solidly built guy, and best of all, Butch, really wanted the job of towing the cars.
We showed Butch how the antique winch worked and gave him the pad with the addresses of the cars to be picked up. Tommy and I had already calculated that Butch could tow in about six cars a day which would cost us one dollar and fifty cents each. But after the first car, we saw that Butch wasn't happy, he said it was too little money, so we upped the price to two dollars a car, and Butch was delighted.
The Carfora brothers stood by their little office, their arms folded in front of them, watching as Butch started towing in the first cars, I think it was more activity than they had ever seen in the yard before.
We cleaned up the left side and rear of the yard, so we could start lining our cars up to be taken apart. I think what Tommy and I planned on doing was going to be revolutionary for the wrecking business in New Haven. We were aggressively going out and buying cars to scrap. No one in New Haven had ever done that. Before.
So late every other afternoon, Tommy and I, began our ritual of driving the back roads and buying cars, Butch kept towing them in, and after three or four days the torch man showed up and started cutting up the cars for us.
There was only one large buyer of scrap steel in New Haven, it was Michael Schiavone and sons, and fortunately they were not too far away from us. Tommy could make a round trip with his truck loaded with steel in about an hour.
Once we started cutting up cars, we realized we had another major problem that we were going to have to face, how were we going to get rid of all the car’s bodies.
If we hauled it to Schiavone’s, they would only pay us three dollars and fifty cents each, and it hardly paid for Tommy to take the time to haul one or two there. If we burned the body first, they would pay us over six dollars each, but it was illegal for us to burn cars in the yard.
We knew that we needed to get rid of the car bodies, or they would end up consuming all our working space in the yard.
Tommy said, the only solution was, we needed a flat bodied truck capable of hauling one or two bodies at a time to the scrap metal yard, and I agreed with him.
I had seen a discarded truck flatbed lying in the back of the scrap yard near the swamp.
Sure enough, I went to look and it was in perfect condition, someone had cut it off of a truck and just left it at the edge of the swamp.
We asked the Carfora Brothers, and they said they didn't know who owned it, so if we needed it we should take it, but we didn’t have a truck to mount the flat bed on.
Again Tommy came up with an idea.
He said, I know a black guy that has the garbage contract for East Haven, and he probably has all kinds of used old garbage trucks for sale. So off we went to see the garbage man.
The garbage man’s house was out in the country on what looked to be a farm, as we approached, I could see about ten used trucks in various conditions all lined up on one side of the property. All of the old trucks appeared to have come from the Swift Meat Packing Company that was in New Haven.
The owner of the trucks, who was Tommy’s friend, was a big roly poly black guy that weighed near four hundred pounds, his wife was the same. He greeted Tommy like an old friend, but the stink of the garbage on his property was so bad it would almost knock you over, but the stink didn't appear to bother the garbage man or his wife.
Tommy explained what we needed, and the garbage man said all of his Swift Company trucks ran good, and we could pick which ever one we wanted. The trucks were exactly what we needed.
I climbed in the passenger side of a 1952 Ford truck that looked in fairly good condition. The big garbage man climbed into the driver’s seat to start it while Tommy looked at the trucks engine and hooked up a battery.
I watched as the big garbage man attempted to lift himself into the driver seat, but suddenly he had a funny expression on his face like he had forgotten something, and he backed down to the ground and unzipped his pants to take a leak. When I glanced down at him, I got scared as I thought he had a big cat in his hand, but it was just him taking a pee.
We bought the truck, and we paid two hundred twenty five dollars for it, and just as Tommy had predicted, the flat bed body we found, fit on the truck like a champ and we were now able to haul the unburned car bodies to the scrap yard.
About a week had passed and the torch man had showed up right on time and started cutting our cars up. Then late in the afternoon Tommy would back his ten wheeler dump truck into the yard. And he and I would load it with the iron from the chassis. The Carfora’s let us use their pole winch truck, and I would wrap the cable from the pole truck around a pile of steel chassis pieces making a bundle. Then I would use the pole truck to lift the bundle into the back of Tommy’s truck, where he untied it.
So now every few days, we would fill Tommy’s dump truck with steel, and he would haul it to the scrap yard and the cash started rolling in.
As we cut each car, we saved the tires, batteries, radiators and any engines and transmissions that we thought might be sold. Our hopes were that someone off the street would come in and buy some used parts. But if no customers came, we would sell all the used tires to dealers for one dollar each, and the cars batteries were also sold for scrap for one dollar each, I thought we had a good system going. We cleaned all the cars copper radiators and sold them for three dollars each. Then we loaded Tommy’s truck with old engines and transmissions to all be sold as scrap iron. It was a lot of hard work but our system began to function like a well oiled machine.
Tommy and I were still buying cars, Butch was hauling them in, and the torch man was cutting them up every day. The Carfora's were in utter amazement at what we were doing, but we noticed that they appeared to be acting too nice to us, and we suspected something was wrong.
Every few days the Elder Carfora would stop by, parking his tanker truck across the highway next to Pete’s diner, he wanted to know if we had heard from our Attorney, he wanted us to hurry up and give him some money and sign the papers.
One day as we were cutting up a row of cars, I noticed quite a few strangers stopping by at the gate and watching us. I tried to make believe that I didn't notice them, but I knew who they were. They were all our competing auto wreckers from Middletown Avenue. They didn’t like the idea that we were cutting up cars on a production line. They thought we were taking a lot of business from them. In only our first two weeks they felt that we were processing cars that belonged to them.
By the third week, we realized that we had a big problem, we had been piling up the unburned car bodies in the rear of the yard, and I never had time to haul them to the scrap yard. It just didn’t pay to take an hour to haul an unburned body for a little over three dollars, it just wasn’t worth my time.
Pretty soon, we saw the pile of car bodies was getting pretty big, and taking up a lot of room, we had about fifty car bodies piled up.
One evening as we were getting ready to leave the yard, both Tommy and I looked at each other as we had the same idea, at the same time.
Before we left we lit some matches, and we threw them, along with Tommy’s lit cigar into one of the unburned cars bodies.
That evening, Tommy called me and said that he thought he had heard the sirens of the fire trucks, on Middletown Avenue.
In the morning, when I arrived, I wasn't surprised to see all the car bodies, burned perfectly, and I could see the fire engines had been there. I was just thinking that now I could haul all the burned car bodies to the scrap yard for over six dollars each, but my joy was short lived.
The Fire Chief, in his official red car drove by the front gate of the wrecking yard, and he called me over. He said, “The next time you guys light a fire like this, you are both going to jail, and make sure you tell that to your fucking buddy Letis too.” I acted dumb, but he knew we had lit the fire. Then Tommy came by and said he heard a rumor that all the other wrecking yards were pissed off at us, and they had a meeting regarding what to do about us hurting their businesses. I told Tommy I had seen them all watching me from our front gate.
It appears that in less than thirty days, Tommy and I were becoming infamous, we had upset the whole Junk yard industry as well as the Fire Department.
Then Tommy said he received a call from our Attorney and we needed to go by for a meeting. The attorney said he had done a search on the property and found that a new turnpike was to be built right through Carfora’s wrecking yard. The property had all been condemned and Carfora knew it. After the new highway was done the Carfora wrecking yard, would only be forty feet long. He said Carforas property was worthless, and the junk yard license would also be worthless.
He said the Carfora's knew this all the time, as they had they had already received notification from the state that the property was going to be condemned.
When we told the elder Carfora that the property was going to be condemned, he acted like it was all news to him. He said he never heard about the new turnpike.
Thus came to a conclusion the Tommy Junk Yard Story.
I joined the Army Reserves, and left for Fort Dix New Jersey, and Tommy got married and he said he used the flatbed truck we had made to haul his little bulldozer.