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Boyhood Stories

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Several years ago I published a number of my boyhood stories about my brother and I growing up on the streets and parks and playgrounds of San Francisco.  I thought I would reprise them to celebrate my 90th year by posting one every Tuesday. 

To my grandchildren,
Many times while you are growing up you will hear your parents, grownups, and your grandma and I say, “It wasn’t like this when I was your age.”
What was it like when I was your age? What did I think and feel? What did I do? How did I play? What was school like? What were my friends like? How was I different from you?

My world in 1945 was not anything like the world you live in now. Many of the things I did you will never do. And you will do many things I never even dreamed of as a boy.

This is a collection of stories about your Uncle Leon and I growing up on the streets of San Francisco as he and I remember them.

We lived in a two story duplex on Larkin street, about a half block up from Pacific Avenue. There was playground about a block away and all of our friends lived within about a four block area. But the whole city of San Francisco was our playground. It was where my life really began and where I started to explore the world.

These stories are in no particular order, but range from about the third to eighth grade. I am hoping they will add something to your remembrance of me, not only as an old man who was the father of your mother or father, but also, once, as a kid like you; much different, but also much the same. Each story has a title, but if I were to have a title for the whole collection it would be Me and Lee and Larkin Street.

Auto Mechanics 101

I don't know when a young boy's interest in automobiles begins, but it must be at a pretty early age. In the seventh grade we were already identifying the make and year of every automobile parked on the block or passing on the street.

"There's a 46 Ford!"
"Over there in front of the church."
"Oh, yeah."

We were so knowledgeable. We talked about horsepower, carburetors, cylinders, transmissions, and soup-up kits. We dreamt of someday owning our own hot-rods with milled heads, dual carburetors, dual exhaust systems, dual points, and all of the chrome accouterments that go along with such pride and joys.

Our family didn't have a car. For about a year, when I was very young, Dad had an old Hupmobile. Later, for a few of years, he owned an old Reo Flying Cloud that he took us camping in. But when I was in the seventh grade, we had no car. Like sex, whatever I knew about cars in those years, I learned on street corners, school yards, and play grounds.

One day my cousin Emile called and asked me if I wanted to go to his dad's (my Uncle Bob's) place in Salinas and help him put new rings in his old black Plymouth.

Did I ever! None of my friends had ever seen the inside of an engine before. The closest thing any of my 'gang' had done was watch their fathers put water in the radiator or, at most, change the oil. This was going to make me the all time expert on automobiles, and we didn't even own one.

Cousin Emile came by the house about 8:00 o'clock on Saturday morning. I had been waiting for almost an hour. I kissed Mom goodbye and she told me to be good and do everything Emile told me.

I got in the front seat, and we started down Larkin street. I was hoping some of my pals would see me pass by, sitting in the front seat, with my Cousin Emile. But none of them were outside yet.

About two and half hours after we left San Francisco, we arrived at Prunedale.  Cousin Emile turned left onto the Vierra Canyon road and drove about two miles to Uncle Bob's place.

We pulled into the driveway and parked the car in front of the garage behind the house.  After some small talk and a cup of coffee (hot chocolate for me), Emile went into the garage, gathered some tools and a big pan, crawled under the car, and drained the oil. I lay under the car with him and watched with fascination as the little stream of oil slowly drained into the pan.

When the flow slowed to a little drop every couple of seconds, Emile pushed the pan out from under the car and asked me to hand him a quarter inch box wrench. I crawled out from under the car and looked at all the tools laid out on the rag beside the rear tire. What was a quarter inch box wrench? Uncle Bob smiled at me and pointed to a tool with his foot. I picked it up and noticed the 1/4 stamped on the side of it. One side of the wrench had an opening at the end of it and the other side was round, with a bunch of ridges inside the opening.

I handed the wrench to Emile, and he started to loosen the bolts around the oil pan. After about the fourth one, he handed me the wrench and told me to loosen the rest of them. 

Me?  Wow, we had just started and I already learned what a box wrench was, and I was using it!

After we got the oil pan and gasket off, Emile pointed out the connecting rods we would have to take apart. Then, after removing the head, we pulled the pistons out of the cylinders one by one and carried them to the workbench in Uncle Bob's garage.

The rest of the day was spent taking the old rings off the cylinders, cleaning all the parts in kerosene (I did most of the cleaning), putting on the new rings, and re-assembling the parts.

I was allowed to remove the old gasket material from the oil pan and cylinder head all by myself. Prying off the old, burnt cork with a scraper and cleaning the surfaces with kerosene was a lot more fun than washing or drying dishes, picking up my room, and cleaning up after myself in the bathroom. This, after all, was man's work, and I was really doing it!

The job was finished before dinner. Emile and I went to the faucet at the side of the house and washed the oily grime from our hands with a bar of Lava Soap. In my case, oily grime had to be washed from my forehead and chin too.

Then we went back to car. Emile started it, went to the front of the car, and listened. He walked to each side of the car, leaned in close to the engine and listened again. Then he told me to get in the car and turn it off. I sat in the driver's seat and turned the key. The engine became silent.

Emile told me to start the car.

"Start the Car?"
"Yes, Noel, start the car."
"But I don't know how."
"Wait, I'll show you."

Emile got in drivers seat and showed me how to turn on the ignition switch and step on the starter switch that was on the floor in front of the gas pedal. He turned it off and climbed back out.

I took my position behind the wheel, turned on the ignition switch, and tried to reach the starter switch. My leg was too short. I couldn't quit reach it. I grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and slid down in the seat as far as I could. My toe just reached the switch. I pushed it and the car started making a rump-rump-rump noise.

Emile said, "Step on the gas." I slid my other foot over to the gas pedal and tried again. Rump-rump-varoom. The engine was running! I had started the car!

We left right after breakfast Sunday morning.

With new rings, Emile said he couldn't drive faster than 35 mile an hour. They needed to break in.

The trip back to San Francisco took about four hours. I spent most of that time watching Emile drive the car. I watched him step on the clutch and shift gears, I noticed his foot work on the gas and brake pedals. I studied the gauges on the dash board. I barely noticed the passing scenery outside my window. That little space in front of the driver's seat with all of the controls and switches and dials suddenly became a universe unto itself. I was mesmerized.

It took a long time for me to go to sleep that night. I couldn't wait for morning to arrive.  I would go to school, and like a minor Hollywood studio clerk dropping important names, I would be dropping terms like cylinder walls, head gaskets, wrist pins, bearings, crankshafts, and the like.

Maybe we'd even do lunch in the cafeteria.


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The tires are worn.  The shocks are shot.  The steering is wobbly.  But the engine still runs fine.

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Thanks, Noel for sharing this short story. It's one that I believe hasn't been posted before! 🤔

Fr. Bill    

AOPA Member: 07141481 AARP Member: 3209010556

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Thanks for your story Noel. Somehow it reminds me of my own chilhood in Colombia. I remember seeing my dad changing a punctured tire several times, filling up the radiator, and he even took me to a automotive mechanics course he attended with his coworkers (he was the car expert at home). Then, at home I also played a lot with cars, and made my own with Lego. I also got the ability to identify the make and model of every car out there. Some years later, my dad began asking me to start the engine and let it warm up. One day he saw me playing with my made-up cars, and he asked me why didn't I study Mechanical Engineering. I didn't answer, but in my head there was a big fat "why not?".

Fast forward almost 30 years, and now I work as a product engineer for a major automotive component manufacturer in Argentina. We supply components to Toyota, Nissan and Stellantis, among others. And now my dad is the one who asks me about cars 😂

So, I thank you again Noel. Once for the story (keep'em coming!) and another one for making me recall my childhood.

Best regards,
Luis Hernández 20px-Flag_of_Colombia.svg.png20px-Flag_of_Argentina.svg.png

Main rig: self built, AMD Ryzen 5 5600X with PBO enabled (but default settings and SMT off), 2x16 GB DDR4-3200 RAM, Nvidia RTX3060 Ti 8GB, 256 GB M.2 SSD (OS+apps) + 2x1 TB SATA III SSD (sims) + 1 TB 7200 rpm HDD (storage), Viewsonic VX2458-MHD 1920x1080@23-144 Hz (locked at 120 Hz), Windows 10 Pro. Runing FSX-SE, MSFS and P3D v5.4 (with v4.5 default airports; the best of both worlds!).

Mobile rig: ASUS Zenbook UM425QA (AMD Ryzen 7 5800H APU @3.2 GHz and boost disabled, 1 TB M.2 SSD, 16 GB RAM, Windows 11 Pro). Running FS9 there... sometimes on just battery! FSX-SE also installed, just in case. 

VKB Gladiator NXT Premium Left + GNX THQ as primary controllers. Xbox Series X|S wireless controller as standby/travel.

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