The Uncle Norm’s Car Story1958
Written 2011 and rewritten 11/2015 unedited
A true story about my Uncle Norman
In 1957, I was just eighteen 18 years old, and in my last year of Hillhouse High School in New Haven Connecticut.
Every day, after school, I was working at the Gulf gas station, located on the corner of Whalley Avenue and Emerson Street in Westville Connecticut.
The gas station was a typical, two bay Gulf Oil gas station that was owned by the Oil Co, but leased to a manager. Its main business of the Gulf station was selling gasoline, greasing and changing oil, fixing tires, and washing cars.
As a two bay Gulf gas station we were allowed to do things like clean sparkplugs and do a tune up one in a while as well as some very minor car repairs, but none of these things added up to making any real money for the station manager, consequently whoever was leasing the station always tried to make an extra buck any way they could, and they had to do it without letting the Gulf Oil representative catch them. So over the years I watched as the different managers tried every trick in the book to make some money.
As long as I worked there, I saw that station being managed by two different guys, both of them good old local New Haven Italian guys, one was a thin fellow named Tony Navarro, he was a Korean War vet and then there was Scotty Massey who looked like a typical Italian movie mobster. The reason I mention that they were Italian was because my home town of New Haven had a very large Italian population, as well as the best Italian apizza to be found in New England,
And you can note that in New Haven it was called apizza not pizza.
I was only an employee at the station, but I had always assumed that the station was leased by these guys on a yearly basis, and then when, the managers finally realized they couldn’t make a living, they abandoned the gas station.
The constant changing of managers didn’t seem to bother the Gulf Oil Co, as they always seemed to find another unskilled guy to take their place. But for me, working for these different managers was a good learning experience. It taught me lots of things that I shouldn’t ever do in the future.
The first manager I worked for was Scotty Massey. He had an average build, was slightly on the short side, about five foot six and had an olive Mediterranean complexion. He had dark black hair slicked back, he looked like an Italian mobster and he didn’t like to work too hard.
Actually Scotty was a pretty nice guy, and always treated me pretty good, and I don’t recall him ever uttering a harsh word towards me.
Scotty uttered plenty of harsh words towards others though, and I found that his business ethics were far less than desirable. For example, Scotty had several wealthy Italian friends in New Haven, two of them being the owners of a big restaurant and motel complex.
Scotty’s best friend, who was one of the brothers that owned the restaurant and motel, drove the most expensive Chrysler Imperial available in 1958. The car was a light baby blue color, a real beauty.
Whenever the car was left with Scotty for oil and filter change, Scotty would check the dipstick, and if the oil looked clean, he wouldn’t change anything. But he billed his friend as if he had changed the oil and filter. Then Scotty would have me search under all the seats, for any pictures that were hidden there. Scotty wanted to see if he recognized the waitresses that his friend was taking to the motel.
Eventually Scotty told me he wasn’t making any money with the Gulf gas station. He said too many neighborhood customers came in and bought their gasoline on credit, and since there were no credit cards back then, many of them never paid their gas bill. So Scotty kept a deadbeat book in his desk. One day, Scotty told me to write each deadbeats name in big letters on the front window of the station, so I used white car polish to do it.
Then Scotty instructed me to put how much money they owed him, next to their name. He then walked out to the curb to look at it. I had written about ten names big enough for anyone passing by to see. Scotty never collected any of the money, but he was very pleased, and said, that as far as those ten customers were concerned, they could never drive by the station, as their bill was on our window.
One day, Scotty announced to me that he was not going to renew the lease with Gulf Oil Company, he said he was looking to move to a small no name Gas Station that was available at the end of Legion Avenue down in New Haven. I knew the place he was talking about, it was a tiny gas station with an office big enough for a desk, it had an indoor bathroom and only a single bay with a car lift in it. I knew Scotty took over the place because the rent was cheap and he lived near there. Also with only two gas pumps he had little in the way of work to do. When I came to work every afternoon, Scotty would take off, and when he came back around five you could smell the booze all over him. But he never lied about it, Scotty always said he was visiting friends at the local Gin Mill, then when he came back he would sit with his feet up on the desk and tell me how his wife was going to yell at him when he went home. Once I asked him why he didn’t just sober up before going home. Scotty said, “My father said, why build a fire if you are going to put it out.”
One afternoon, while Scotty was out drinking, I heard a loud grinding and squealing noise outside the gas station office. It noise that I was somewhat familiar with. It was the noise made when a wheel bearing on a car is burning out.
I looked out the side window of the office, and I saw my Uncle Norman driving a 1949 Chevrolet, and he was pulling right into Scotty’s little gas station.
I already knew from the terrible noise his car was making that a right front wheel bearing was completely burned out.
Now my Uncle Norman was about as nice a mild mannered guy as you would ever meet. He was married to my mom’s younger sister Lillian.
So I went out to greet my Uncle as he got out of the car, Norman had a broad smile on his face. “It sounds like something in front is making a noise,” he said.
Yes, I replied, it sounds like a right front wheel bearing, I think it’s burned out.
“Can you fix it?”
asked me. Norman
“Sure,” I said, as I was very anxious to show my uncle Norman that I was a good mechanic, and I knew that fixing a wheel bearing was not too difficult, depending on how much damage had already been done to the car’s front spindle. I put a rolling jack under the right front wheel, lifted the car, took off the hub cap and then with a hammer, I knocked off the metal grease cap, and removed the front cotter pin and nut. Then I removed the entire tire, with brake drum attached. This now exposed all the burned out ball bearings that were making the loud noise.
As I did this, all the burned out little steel balls from the ball bearings fell out and on to the pavement. I could see the bearings were so burned out, that all the individual balls in them fell out. Then I saw that not only were the bearings burned out, but they had also worn out the car’s front spindle. It appeared to me that my Uncle Norman had been driving around listening to the noise of the bearings and spindle grinding up.
I then told Uncle Norman that just replacing the bearings would not fix the problem, the car’s front wheel spindle needed to be replaced. Norman was looking over my shoulder, he could see that everything was worn out, and what I said was correct.
Uncle Norm, I said, you need a new spindle and new inner and outer ball bearings.
“How much will that cost?” Norm asked in a very negative tone of voice.
I said, we can buy a used spindle from a junk yard for about thirty five dollars and I can install it for free as long as Scotty didn’t come back and catch us.
Norman pondered the situation, and finally said, “Put it all back together, I am going to wait.” When I heard that, I had to stop and gather my thoughts.
What Norman was asking me to do, was almost an impossible task, as all the burned out balls from the bearings were laying everywhere on the pavement.
Norm, I said, I don’t think I can put it back together, as all the bearings are broken and burned out. Norman’s reply to me was very stern, he said “I drove in here alright before you took it apart, didn’t I”
So I went into the station and got a hand full of thick lubricating grease and a couple of wiper rags, then picked up each individual burned out ball from the ground, and wiped the dirt off it and I used the grease to hold the balls on the spindle, then I carefully replaced the brake drum and tire.
Without saying another word
backed out of the station and went on his way. Norman
I never asked Uncle Norman how far he got, before the bearing fell apart again, and he never said anything to me about it ever again.