Musings of An Old Man

by Brian K. Moore

Radiator Water and the Old Dodge to Louisiana

In early summer 1935, when I was 16, my mother and my 21 year old brother, Joe and I took a trip from Alhambra to Louisiana to visit family members there. We traveled in my 1924 Dodge touring car. A touring car was a four door open car with a folding top and no side windows.

We came through Victorville, Barstow and Las Vegas and on through Arizona and New Mexico on Highway 66. We started the trip in Alhambra on 10 cent per gallon gasoline! Gasoline was usually about 15 cents per gallon, but at the time we left, there was a gas war going on and the going rate was 10 cents. The Old Dodge had real wide running boards and we had installed running board racks to keep stuff we carried there from falling off. We were carrying four 5 gallon cans of gas on the right running board.

There were no motels in those days, and if there had been we would not have been able to afford them. The nearest thing to a motel was an “auto camp” where for 50 cents you could, with your own bedding, sleep in a tent like structure with a wood floor. We rarely used these. We usually just pulled off the road and camped. My mother slept on the left hand running board which Joe and I had fitted with a removable extension made from a 1 by 12. This made a bed about 2 feet wide! Joe and I slept on the ground.

The most important, to us, building in Las Vegas was the Western Auto store, which was located at the bottom of the long grade which later became the “Las Vegas Strip.” By this time in the trip we would surely be needing something for the car. We did a lot of needing for the old Dodge. It was a 1924 model which I had bought for 25 dollars from a friend’s father in 1935. He had bought it new in 1924. It was definitely not up to 1935 technology and took lots of nursing along to keep it going. The normal cruising speed was about 45 miles per hour. The car would go faster, but over 45 the engine vibrated so much that we were afraid it would tear itself apart.

From Las Vegas we headed for the Colorado River. Hoover, then called Boulder Dam, was under construction and was built to about 1/2 of its final height. Lake Meade was filling behind the partially finished dam. The road ran right down to the water where a ferry boat would take the cars across the lake three at a time. After a short wait the ferry came and we drove on with two other cars. It was a hot, desert, summer day. So the ferry carried cold water. This was accomplished with a 40 gallon metal garbage can (there were no plastic garbage cans then) full of water, with a couple of 50 pound chunks of ice in it. To get a cold drink one would simply take the dipper which hung on the edge of the can, dip and drink. It was a memorable trip!

After winding through some sandy canyons on the partially paved highway 66 and driving across a flat sandy desert, we confirmed our suspicion that the cooling on the old Dodge was inadequate to handle the desert heat. The radiator boiled all the time and we had to make regular stops to pour water in. We had filled two of the 5 gallon cans that we had initially carried gasoline in with water, just in case of this eventuality. Joe and I had attempted to improve the situation by bending the blades of the fan so that they would pull more air through the radiator. This bending of fan blades was known as “putting more pitch on the fan” and was frequently done on these old cars in an effort to improve the engine cooling. On this car the fan was driven by an old fashioned flat belt and making the fan grab more air just made the belt slip instead of turning the fan faster.

As we were approaching a bridge across a wide, dry wash, we noticed that the radiator was steaming more than usual.

We stopped and raised the hood to pour more water in and discovered that this was not a normal water stop but an emergency situation waiting to be addressed. The top radiator hose had burst! We needed that western Auto Store now, but it was a couple of hundred miles back!

We started looking through our tools and other stuff for something we could do a patch job with. We found a flashlight and a roll of tape. We said, “This might work!” We unscrewed and removed the ends of the flashlight and dumped the batteries out and put the tube of the flashlight inside the burst radiator hose. It was a nice fit. Then we wrapped tape tightly around it, put it back on the car, poured in water and were on our way! At the next town we bought a new radiator hose but our jerry-rigged hose was working so well that we didn’t change it until we got to Louisiana!

There was one thing there that was a plus; the bridge over the wash had a 55 gallon drum full of water on it with a sign that said “radiator water only.” The highway department knew that it was hot and dry out there and that it was a long way to help. We replenished our water supply from it.

We continued on our way through sun and rain and wind with only the canvas car top between us and the weather. We had a hailstorm and a couple of thunderstorms. The canvas top withstood the hail but the rains got our stuff pretty wet as we had no side windows, but after a desert thunderstorm, things dry pretty fast.

We found another disadvantage to not having side windows in the car. When we came to the Sabine River in Texas, several cars were waiting for the drawbridge to close, so we got in line. As soon as we stopped we were inundated with mosquitoes! All the other cars had crank up windows. All they had to do was crank up the windows. All we could do was to sit there and slap mosquitoes and get bit!

We entered the state of Louisiana at the northwest corner at Shreveport. By the time we were this far our old Dodge was doing considerable backfiring through the carburetor. This was usually a symptom of a burned intake valve. This does not prevent the car from being driven but gets worse pretty fast and needs to be fixed. We decided we could fix it in Uncle Buddy’s garage, so we continued driving with the old Dodge spitting and popping.

Our first stop in Louisiana was Kinder, the town where my mother was born and raised. Her parents had run a general store and a boarding house there and that is where my father and mother met. My father lived at the boarding house while he and his brothers were putting in the irrigation system for the rice fields around Kinder.

Joe and I learned that almost everyone in Kinder was related to us, and so we visited almost everyone in town.

We also paid a visit to my aunt Sister and her son Patch and his wife who lived in Reeves, a rather primitive settlement about 10 miles west of Kinder. Their house had an off the ground wood floor. Most houses in Reeves had dirt floors some of them had hand hewn pine planks laid on the dirt floors. But all of them were well maintained and the grounds around the houses was raked or swept neatly.

Aunt Sister’s house had no windows; there were openings in the walls but no glass. It didn’t get cold there so glass was not needed for that purpose, but the bugs and mosquitoes sure got in. This was controlled by making what they called a “smoke.” This meant building a smoldering fire on a fireproof surface, inside the house, and driving the bugs out with smoke and almost suffocating the people.

Each morning at dawn at Aunt Sister’s house the first sound of the day was the coffee grinder. Aunt Sister had already built a fire in the wood stove and roasted the coffee beans on the cast iron stovetop and was grinding the beans to make some out of this world coffee.

Our next stop would be Uncle Buddy and Aunt Julie’s place in Lake Charles, a fair sized town about 25 miles south of Kinder. Here we would do a valve job on the old Dodge which hopefully would enable it to take us home.

Uncle Buddy ran a feed and seed store and had done pretty well with it. He and Aunt Julie had a nice fairly modern house with a double garage, which he was glad to let Joe and I use for our valve job.

Before taking the engine apart, we drove it to the parts store and bought a new valve and a valve seat reamer and gaskets. We were pretty sure of our diagnoses and we wanted to get our supplies while we still had transportation.

We removed the cylinder head and the valve cover. Sure enough our diagnosis was right. It was fairly short work reaming the valve seat and grinding in the new valve and replacing the cylinder head and valve cover with the new gaskets.

By the time we were finished we were pretty grungy, so after washing off most of the worst stuff with gasoline, we both took a bath in Uncle Buddy’s bathtub. It was a hot summer day and the humidity was, as usual, high. Both Joe and I found that with the hot day and the humidity and the hot bath it was impossible to get dry after getting out of the bathtub. The perspiration would replace the water we dried off as fast as we did it!

We went to visit Cousin Jerome. Cousin Jerome had a pair of good looking 26 year old twin daughters. It made me think “gosh, I wish I was 26.” Cousin Jerome also had a machine shop. When Jerome heard about how we were cooling the old Dodge, he said, “I’ll make you a pair of vee pulleys!” A great idea and a great offer! So Jerome, in his machine shop, made us a pair of vee pulleys which would drive the fan belt without slipping! Joe and I installed them and bought a vee belt to fit. This fixed our boiling problems and, when the time came, we were able to drive the old Dodge home in a fairly normal manner, at least as far as cooling was concerned.

After a lot of nice visits and swimming and fishing in the Calcasieu River, and eating Cajun food and being called y’all we said our goodbyes and started west. We traveled a more southerly route that would bring us into California at Blyth. We had barely made it to Texas when our starterator went out! Someone’s bound to say, “What the Hell’s a starterator?” Well there is, or was, such a thing.

A starterator is a combination starter-generator. It was a big heavy thing cylindrical in shape, mostly iron and about 6 inches in diameter and one foot long. It was connected to the engine with a drive chain so that it turns as the engine turns. When the engine is running the starterator works as a generator and charges the battery. When the engine is stopped, it is a starter ready to crank the engine. When it cranks the engine, it is absolutely silent. We are all used to the rrr rrr rrr sound of today’s staters, but all you could hear when the starterator cranked was the carburetor sucking air. It was also useful to move the car if the car engine wouldn’t run. You could just put the transmission in gear and step on the starter and drive the car for a little ways.

We had to fix the starterator because there was a long trip ahead of us.
We could do without its starter function, we could start the engine with the hand crank, but we needed the generator function to power the ignition and lights. Again we performed an intuitive diagnosis and determined the problem was probably the brushes, so we bought some brushes and found a place a little off the road to work on it. We took the starterator off and took it apart. Sure enough the brushes were worn out. We replaced them with the ones we had bought, put it all back together and were on our way.

Things went pretty well through the rest of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, except that the starterator quit again just east of the Arizona/California border. This time we didn’t have any good intuitive fixes, as we had already installed new brushes. We figured, “we’re almost home. Let’s just start it with the crank and fix it when we get home.” The return trip had taken several days and we had camped every night. We crossed the border into California at Blythe near sundown. We were right in town. No good place to camp, so Mom said, “Let’s rent an Auto Court tonight.” (The Auto Court was a step up from the Auto Camp and the predecessor to the Motel). We were close to home and we knew we had money enough for the rest of the trip. That night we slept in beds!

The next morning we arose at four o’clock to get an early start to beat the heat. I went out ahead of the others to start the engine, which I would have to do with the hand crank. The old Dodge had a reputation for easy starts. This time it outdid itself. It started on the first pull of the crank! An uneventful six hours later we were home in Alhambra.

A little point of interest about the old Dodge. The flywheel and crankshaft in the old Dodge were so heavy that the engine would idle just, Chug – Chug – Chug – Chug. It had a hand throttle as well as a foot throttle and I could set the hand throttle way down, put it in gear, open the door, get out and walk alongside while it Chug – Chugged!!!