Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Milford Auto Wrecking Story

                                                  The Milford Auto Wrecking Story                                 
                                               A true story about the stolen car business
                                       Written 7/2012 and rewritten 04/16/2016 unedited
                                                               Howard Yasgar
      This story took place between the years 1959 to 1960, while I was attending New Haven College.
The college had just instituted the cooperative program that allowed students to work at their intended future careers in the afternoons while attending college classes in the mornings.
      Actually this story really started when I was just fifteen years old back in 1954. My best friend Richard Andrade and I had, discovered a junk yard in Milford Connecticut called Milford Auto Wrecking.  
     We had gone there to purchase a couple of used automobile engines to build hotrods, and of course, we were young and one of the owner named Tony cheated us, but after seeing the place, I never forgot what Milford Auto Wrecking was like. Because even back then, I had the idea in the back of my mind of someday opening my own auto wrecking business, so what I had remembered seeing at Milford Auto Wrecking, had always remained with me.
     Once I started attending the cooperative program at New Haven College, I began thinking about where I wanted to work in the afternoons, and since the Milford Auto Wrecking yard was located fairly close by, I felt that it was worth a trip for me to go and ask them for a part time job. The wrecking yard was located just off Route 1 in Milford Connecticut. It was actually located on a dusty side street called South Washington Street. South Washington Street sort of ran parallel to U.S. 1 the entire street was only about a quarter mile long.  
     It was on that dusty South Washington Street where Milford Auto Wrecking ran their business. They had bought all the old farm property along the entire Street and they were also utilizing all of the old farm house’s that were on it. I thought that when I first saw it back in 1954, Milford Auto Wrecking appeared to be a very well run operation, besides from their organized method of storing the hundreds of old cars for their spare parts, they were actually rebuilding some of the parts. It appeared that they were covering all bases, as they even had a place to install used engines, and they had a used car lot as well.   
     I found that Milford Auto Wrecking was so well organized, they even, employed a full time mechanic named Layton. Layton had his own special area they called the engine changing area, where he had an “A frame” with a winch on it, it was set up to remove and replace engines. Layton who later became my friend, was a Korean War veteran, who still wore his brown military pants and walked around talking to himself. He told me that he did two engine swaps every week and Milford Auto Wrecking charged the customers $225.00 labor for each engine Layton changed. In return Layton said the company let him keep $50.00 cash for each job he did, and he and his wife lived rent free in one of the houses on South Washington Street.    
     When Milford Auto Wrecking was finished selling the parts off a junked car, the car would be sent to the car cutting field, an area located at the far end of South Washington Street. That’s where the company had their car scrapping operation going on. The cars were tipped over, onto their side and its body was cut from the chassis. The cars bodies were eventually flattened and sold and the chassis was cut up into three foot pieces and sold for scrap iron.
     I had always wanted to learn more about how they did what they did, so that was the reason I drove to Milford Auto Wrecking that day to apply for a job. I knew that all car wrecking yards like them, always needed people who knew how to use a metal cutting torch, and I knew how to use a cutting torch pretty good, thus I thought getting a job there would be easy.
    Well, I spoke to one of the two owners who was named Tony, he was the same guy that had cheated Richard and I several years before. Not only didn’t Tony want to hire me, but he wouldn’t even talk to me. However, luck was with me. As I stood there in their office, Tony was just firing some poor Puerto Rican guy because he had asked him for a ten cents raise. I guess you could say that it was my good fortune, as the Puerto Rican was also their steel cutting torch man, and I got his job.  
    The way Milford Auto wrecking was set up, they were using perhaps ten acres of land located behind all those old farm houses on South Washington Street, and they also utilized each of the houses to do something. So, as you turned onto South Washington Street, the first place on your left, was a two story wooden house where Layton the mechanic and his wife were living. Right next to that house, but in the rear, was an old wooden two car garage which had now been converted into a starter and generator rebuilding shop. The area in front of the shop, was where Layton’s work area was located, and where he did the engine swapping.
     To the right of Layton’s work area was about a forty foot area with racks holding used car doors and windows, and then there was a small one bedroom house that was used as the Milford Auto Wrecking’s official office. When you got to that office, you had to step  around various used parts laying on the ground and you walked up three wooden steps, opened the door, and then you were standing inside the official junk yard office which was once some farmers  living room.
     Inside, to the left and right were office desks, the left desk was where Tony’s younger junior partner Lenny sat. Lenny was pretty bright and energetic guy, he was always on the phone, buying or selling something. Then on the right side of the office, sat a young blond girl, who was probably Lenny’s secret girlfriend, she was answering their phone which rang endlessly.
     In the rear of the room, was an open door way that led to a bathroom and what was formerly the only bedroom in the house, but was now Tony’s office.
     Tony who was the older, partner, was the original owner of the wrecking yard, so having an inside rear office must have made him feel like he was the boss, but most people knew that it was Lenny who was really running everything.
     After the office, there was an area that was loaded with used cars, most looked like horribly dented, New York yellow taxi cabs that Milford Wrecking had for sale. Then came the next house along South Washington Road, it was now the radiator rebuilding shop. In that small house an employee worked all day testing radiators. If they didn’t leak, he took them outside and painted them black, and they were sold as one hundred percent rebuilt radiators. The second to the last house on South Washington was the employee locker room, it had metal lockers, wood benches and a big sink with soap to wash up with. Then after that there was the last and final house on South Washington Road, it was small two story wooden farm house with a porch all along its left side. Inside, the house, it was full of some government surplus electronic stuff Lenny had bought at a government sale. Now the stuff was just sitting there filling up the building, and no one knowing what to do with it. Behind all these former farm houses were about ten acres of used junk cars, they were all stacked up neatly three high, waiting for their parts to be sold.
     Wherever you were at the Wrecking yard, you could always hear several cars running around with no mufflers on them, listening to those cars made it sound like you were at the stock car races. The cars had no doors, or trunk lids either, and they had cutting torches set up in them and lots of assorted junk yard tools. Those noisy cars belonged to the parts pickers, they, were guys that removed the parts off the junk cars when they were sold.
     I was quickly to become friends with the number one parts picker, his name was Midget, and he really was a midget. He was about twenty eight years old but looked to be about fifteen. He was about four feet tall, with wavy black hair and a handsome boyish face. He wore a long sleeve greasy oversized plaid shirt, blue jeans and steel toe work shoes. On his black leather belt he carried the keys to all the junk yard buildings and a torch lighter. Midget and I became friends right away, and if you didn’t see the aging wrinkles on the sides of his mouth, you would think he was just a kid. I noticed that Midget sat on top of two stiff cushions in his junk yard car, he did that just to be able to see out the windshield. Midget was very good at what he did, and he was well respected, and trusted, and over time he taught me lots of tricks on how to remove used car parts really fast. He even taught me how to kick out a car’s rear window without breaking it.
    All of the land behind the houses on South Washington Street had once been farmland but that was long ago, now it was just rows of junk cars piled three high. All the parts cars had been neatly stacked, in an orderly manner using a forklift. They were placed so that the parts pickers could drive right up to a row and find the exact car they wanted, then they could stretch out their cutting torch hose and remove the parts they needed.
    Milford Auto wrecking employed Midget and two other parts pickers, and it became obvious that each one tried to make his parts picking car sound louder than the other guy’s.
    Now, at the very end of South Washington Street was a big open field it was where the older junk cars that had already been stripped of all their useful parts, were now lined up and waiting to be turned on their sides and be cut up for scrap. Milford Auto Wrecking employed two elderly black torch men, they worked all day in the big field, just cutting chassis off of the cars. They cut about six cars a day, and then they hauled the chassis to a big pile to be cut up into smaller pieces, and that was to be my first job at Milford Auto Wrecking. I was supposed to cut the car chassis into smaller pieces, using an oxygen and acetylene torch. That was the job Tony had hired me part time for, and my pay was to be a whopping eighty five cents an hour. On the very day I was hired. Midget offered to give me a ride in his noisy parts picking car, he wanted to show me the pile of iron chassis that I was going to work on.
     So every afternoon, I would drive to Milford Auto Wrecking and go to the locker room and change my clothes, and then I would climb on top of the pile of chassis, and start cutting them up. It was a fun job and I always tried to cut as many chassis up as I could. On some occasions, the fellows bringing the chassis to the pile would have had a drink or two and they accidently left gas tanks still attached to the chassis. My sparks from the cutting torch would go into the fuel tanks, and they would explode like a bomb. This happened to me several times a week, and whenever one exploded, it blew me about three feet into the air, everyone  in the area always came running to see if I was killed.
      One day I came to work and I was standing on top of the pile of Chassis, where I had a good view of the car cutting field, and all of a sudden I saw a lot of dust, as a car came speeding down South Washington Street heading for the cutting field. The car was coming real fast, and as it got closer, I saw it was an almost new Lincoln Continental. It quickly drove around and behind the cars that were ready to be cut apart. Then I heard the door slam and I saw that it was Lenny getting out of the car.
     Within minutes that late model 1958 Lincoln was on its side and being cut up. In a few minutes they brought me the chassis to cut into small pieces. I would say that it only took an hour, and the Lincoln was completely gone. I knew some kind of monkey business was going on, but when I asked anyone what had happened but no one wanted to talk about it.
     Eventually I found out that Lenny was driving a stolen Lincoln that had no registration papers, and he had gotten into some kind of minor accident, so instead of waiting for the police to investigate, he drove the car right to Milford Auto Wrecking and made it disappear.
     Midget confided in me one day, he said that no one at Milford Auto Wrecking had ever seen any one cut so much steel as I was. He said I was working way to fast, I was doing the job twice as fast as the last guy.
     Eventually, Tony, saw how fast I used a torch, so he promoted me, giving me a ten cents an hour pay raise, he told me that I was I was still to cut chassis but also I was to be in charge of the parts removal team. The parts removal team was another couple of older fellows that, using hand tools, unbolted any good used parts from all the engines laying on the ground in the cutting field. I had watched them so I knew exactly what they did, they removed transmissions, carburetors, water pumps, and clutches, all to be stored for resale.
    Within a day I revolutionized their entire operation, and I didn’t use any tools doing it, I just cut all the parts off with my cutting torch, and never once hurt any of the parts I removed. The two older parts men thought I was after their jobs, because I could do more in one day than the two of them did in a week, but I assured them I wasn’t there to take their job, and I taught them how to use the torch to do the job.
     While I was taking off parts, I noticed that the guys cutting the cars bodies, were not removing the copper heater cores located under the dashboards, and I knew they were worth money in copper scrap, so I mentioned it to Tony. Tony said, he knew all about it, but it was too dangerous taking heater cores out of the car bodies, as the torch men always caught the cars on fire. I told Tony that I could remove them all without ever having a car catch on fire, so Tony said if I could do that, he would split the money obtained from the copper scrap with me. I was so thrilled, that for the next few months, I removed all the heater cores and stacked them on the side porch of the last house on South Washington Street.
      Every month a scrap dealer would arrive at Milford Auto Wrecking and he would buy all their scrap copper. He was paying Lenny and Tony in cash, and they loved it, as they didn’t have to pay taxes on the money. So, I had the guy weigh up all the copper heater cores I had removed. He said I had $372.00 worth of copper. I couldn’t wait to run and tell Tony as he had said that we were partners in it.
      I ran all the way to the office, and when I told Tony about the money, he said “So what”. Then I said, we are supposed to be partners on it, you promised me half the money. “You are fired,” Tony said.
     That was quite a shock to me, I had never been fired from anywhere before. So I left the office and slowly walked down South Washington Street, I was going to the locker room to get in my clean clothes and go home.
     I saw the scrap copper man with his truck and scale, he was still parked there. He said, “What happened”, so I told him Tony wouldn’t give me the money he had promised. The scrap man said. “I knew he wouldn’t, so I kept this aside for you”, and then he handed me one hundred dollars”. It appears the scrap man was always cheating Lenny and Tony every month anyway, and he knew Tony would never split any money with me. He obviously felt sorry for me and gave me some of the money he was stealing.
     The following week I returned to Milford Auto Wrecking to get my final paycheck, and as I walked into the office another argument was going on. It seems Tony was verbally abusing another employee over money. The argument was with the guy that was running the starter and generator rebuilding shop, and as I stood there, Tony fired him too. Then Tony looked at me and asked me in a nasty tone of voice, asked what I wanted. I wanted my final check, but, then I looked at Lenny, and I said that as long as you need a manager for the starter generator rebuilding shop I want to apply for the job.
Tony said, “Get out of here.” But Lenny said, Tony you just fired a full time employee, and this kid wants to work part time, it will cost you less. Tony didn’t like it, but he couldn’t argue with Lenny and he said yes. So I left the office elated, I was the new starter and generator rebuilder.
     I immediately walked over to see Layton, the mechanic. Layton shook my hand in congratulations, and mumbled something to me, I was now officially in charge of the starter rebuilding shop, and Layton would teach me what I needed to know.
     Over the next few months I learned the starter generator rebuilding business from Layton. Every day the two old parts men would come and unload on the floor, a big pile of starters and generators just removed from the junk car engines. I would take them all apart, wash and test everything, then I would reassemble them, and paint them black. The junk yard then sold every one of them to customers as rebuilt parts I was producing so many rebuilt units that it caught everyone’s attention, and that’s when Lenny came to see me. I was surprised that he had even noticed me, but he did. Lenny said, “You are doing better work and more work than any starter and generator shop managers we ever had before. But now I see that you have too much free time, and I need you to do me a favor”,  I was so excited that Lenny the hot shot boss had even noticed me, I anxiously listened to him. Lenny said, “I need you to haul some cars to a small wrecking yard that I own in Stamford, Connecticut, and there in Stamford, you can pick up another car to bring back here to Milford.  I was so excited, to me it was like getting a big promotion, I would now get to drive a Milford Auto Wrecking tow truck, called a wrecker, and I was hauling cars all the way up the Connecticut turnpike to Stamford, and best of all, I thought I was now Lenny’s friend.
      I had never driven a wrecker truck before, nor had I ever towed a car, but now every few days, I was hauling cars to the Stamford, Connecticut yard. It appeared that Lenny owned this small wrecking yard in Stamford and he was using it for storing cars that were going to other wrecking yards located in the Bronx in New York. Then in return, the auto wreckers in the Bronx would leave special cars destined for me to tow to Milford Auto Wrecking,
      Sometimes, if Lenny was in a rush situation, and he asked me to deliver a car directly to another auto wrecker in the Bronx, and I always did it, but usually I was just hauling cars back and forth to the small Stamford yard.
      The yard in Stamford was just off the West Street exit of the Connecticut turnpike, it was located on West Main Street, and the yards rear gate was accessible through Anne Street. I would drive to the Anne Street gate, to which Lenny had given me the key. I would then open the metal gate, drive in, then let the car down from Milford and I picked up a car waiting for me there. Sometimes Lenny told me what kind of car I was hauling back to Milford but sometimes there was just a note on the cars window.
      After a few trips to and from Stamford, I couldn’t help but notice that the cars were not damaged, and I didn’t know why they were all in a junk yard. So I started to consider the possibility that they might all be stolen cars. So on my next trip, I started to watch what happened to the car that I was towing back to Milford. I watched it as the front end including fenders and the hood of the car were removed quickly, and loaded on waiting trucks to be delivered to local customers on that very day. The customer was usually a local automotive body shop that needed the parts to fix a car they were working on. The engine and transmissions were then marked and carefully stored away where no one could easily see them. Then the rest of the car went to the big field at the end of the yard and was cut up quickly for junk metal, it was all very suspicious.
     One day when it was raining, I was in the starter and generator shop talking to my friend Midget. I asked him, if the cars I was hauling to and from Stamford were stolen cars. He cocked his head and looked at me like I was some kind of dummy. “Of course they were stolen,” he said.
      Midget told me that Lenny would take the orders from local body shops for expensive late model parts. He would also take orders for late model cars that the junk yards in the Bronx needed. Then every few weeks Midget was given a shopping list of all the cars that Lenny needed.
      Midget said that he and five Puerto Rican employees would drive into a big shopping mall parking lot. If the parts were needed for Connecticut they would steal cars from shopping malls in New York.
For any cars that were needed in New York they would only steal them from shopping malls in Connecticut.
      Midget said that once one of the cars on the list was found, he would use a special jimmy tool to open the cars door, and because he was so small, he would crawl under the dash board and hot wire the car, then one of the Puerto Ricans would jump in and drive the car back to Milford Connecticut.
      Midget said that he thought that teams from wrecking yards in New York were probably doing the same thing he was doing.
      Midget said, that the small yard in Stamford was where the stolen cars coming from auto wreckers in New York were swapped with the stolen cars he stole from Connecticut, and I was hauling them.
      After two years at New Haven College, I graduated with an Associate in Science Degree. I quit the job at Milford Auto Wrecking. But to this day I don’t know if I obtained a better education from New Haven College or from Milford Auto Wrecking.
      After several months, I heard from midget that something was up at Milford Auto Wrecking, and that Lenny was no longer using the small yard in Stamford Connecticut, so I went to Milford see Lenny and I asked if I could lease the Stamford yard. I felt it was my opportunity to get into the wrecking business. I had erroneously thought that after working for Lenny for two years we might be friends, and he would help me to start a business, well, I was dead wrong. Lenny said that for two hundred dollars a month in rent, I could rent the yard. But I would need to buy the license from him for twelve hundred and fifty dollars. So I leased the yard from him only to find out later that he didn’t own it, Lenny it turned out, was a real piece of work, he was a con man and about dishonest as they come, and eventually I had to leave the Stamford yard.
     In 2007, I was attending a High School reunion in New Haven Connecticut, and I was anxious to show my wife Katherine, where I first got my start in the rebuilding business, so we drove down the Boston Post Road to where the old Milford Auto Wrecking site used to be.
     Naturally everything in the area had changed, and the old Milford wrecking yard was long gone and so were most of the old houses that were on South Washington Street. The garage where the old starter and generator rebuilding shop was, was no longer there. But I was very surprised to see that the tiny Milford Auto Wrecking main office was still there, but now it appeared abandoned, falling apart and it now looked much smaller than I had remembered it. Someone had painted it a faded yellow color.
As we drove a little further down South Washington Street, there was large metal building on the left
It was standing where the old Milford Auto Wrecking locker room used to be, so I pulled our rental car up to the front door. I was hoping that inside, someone could tell me what had happened to Lenny, Tony and the old Milford Auto Wrecking Company.    
      As I entered, it was a large metal warehouse filled with used cars, and it was very cold. From a side office two men walked out, one had a brown aviator’s jacket on, his hands were in his pockets, it was Lenny and he looked exactly as I remembered him.
      I said, you are Lenny, “Yes, I am he replied.” I said, do you remember me? “No he said,” I was disappointed, so I said, I worked for you at Milford Auto Wrecking many years ago. Lenny smiled and he said defensively, “I'm in the used car business.”
      It was truly disturbing to me to hear the evasive and defensive tone in Lenny’s voice. Did Lenny think I was the Police?  Again I asked, “Lenny, are you sure you don’t remember me, I worked for you for several years?
      Lenny smiled at me again and said, “I'm 92 years old and I am only in the used car business.”
So I turned around and walked with Katherine out to our rental car, and we drove away. Good by Lenny and good by Milford Auto Wrecking.



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