I nodded toward the old Model A Ford sitting in the woods above our house.
“When do you think we can get her cranked, Daddy?” I asked.
“It’s too cold right now,” he said. “We’ll do it soon as the weather warms up.”
We got no more windfall money that winter, so I spent a lot of my spare time hanging around my disabled car to see what I could learn. I found out: if it was liquid, Potchie leaked it. Water at the back of the radiator, gas where the fuel line met the carburetor, and oil from the motor. To me, this last leak might call for a repair we could not afford.
So I made a mechanic’s creeper from a piece of cardboard and slid under the motor beside the oily spot. The lost oil was dripping out where the motor met the clutch housing.
I should have asked Mr. Mick what to do about it. He ran the garage below the Depot and loved working on Fords. He knew Daddy, but he didn’t know me yet and I was too embarrassed to ask. So I just prayed Potchie’s motor wouldn’t knock when I finally got her cranked. But I did learn how a Model A was supposed to sound, the day Mr. Ike Martin left his sedan running in front of the Post Office.
“Listen to that old car, Benny” I said.
“Cadillac-ing” Benny said.
“Sounds better than a Cadillac.”
“No,” Benny grinned. “Cadillac-ing. Listen.”
“Caddilac-a cadillac-a cadillac-a” the old engine said, smooth as a silk handkerchief.
On the first warm day of spring, I walked straight up to Potchie after school and sat down in the space where her trunk had been, now floored in like a truck bed. Then I got up and walked around in front.
“Potchie,” I said out loud. “I want to hear you run.”
“We do, too,” said Dog , Outlaw and Benny as they came up behind me. “Me too,” yelled my baby sister, Bingo, who, at 11, was junior member of the would-be crew.
“Why don’t you take us to ride?” Dog asked.
“Make her cadillac,” Benny smiled.
Outlaw came out from behind Potchie, “Me and Dog ‘ll sit in the truck bed, and I’ll hang my legs where there ain’t no license tag.”
I turned to my sister, “You really want to ride, Bingo?”
She looked at Potchie and nodded.
“OK,” I said, “If we can get her to crank, we’ll ride around in the yard.”
I got Daddy’s gas can, then poured what fuel was left into Potchie’s tank, opened the hood, and turned the lever to “on.”
“It’s getting fuel,” I said.
“How you know?” Dog asked.
I pointed out the leak near the carburetor.
“Duck that weed, Outlaw,” Dog hollered. “Don’t, you’ll blow us to kingdom come.”
“Naah, Dog, Naaaah,” Outlaw said. But then he knocked the fire off his smoke in the dirt.
Dog nodded. “Let’s push her off.”
“A little oil and water wouldn’t hurt,” Outlaw said, sliding his second-hand smoke into his shirt pocket.
I took out the dipstick, wiped it on the new oak leaf Bingo brought, then plumbed to find plenty of black, still greasy, oil. Benny brought water from the pump house. Pretty soon the radiator was full to the brim, and only a little leaked out. I pulled the hood back in place and fastened the spring latch.
“Y’all ready to push?” I said.
Dog and Outlaw walked to the back.
“Ready,” they shouted.
“Can I help?” Bingo pleaded.
“Not this time,” I said as she pretended to pout.
“Hop in and get in the middle,” I said. “If she cranks, Benny will jump in beside you.”
Bingo slid into place and Benny moved up next to the shotgun-side door.
“I’m ready,” he said.
I leaned into the driver-side doorway, yelled “One … two … three,” and we pushed Potchie off down the path.
When she got to rolling good, I jumped over the running board, pulled the floor shift in second and dropped the clutch. “Chooo choo choo choo,” the engine wheezed, just the way she had on the road home from Uncle Lon’s. The next time, I stayed in the cab, so I could get the clutch out faster.
“Let’s try it again,” I said.
We tried, but when I let the clutch out, Potchie just said “choo choo choo choo ” again.
“You ain’t no blame train, Potchie,” Dog said as he caught his breath. “Why don’t you act like a car?”
“We got space to try one more time before we get to the highway,” I said. We tried, but she still didn’t crank.
I pulled up the brake and got out. “Well, I guess that’s that,” I sighed.
“Let’s push it off out in the highway,” Outlaw said.
“I don’t know,” I answered.”I don’t want to get caught out there.”
“Yeah,”said Bennie, “Gene Dutton might come by.”
“He’s a patrolman, “Bingo said. “He might put us in jail.”
“He wouldn’t put us in jail,” Outlaw replied.
“You want to chance it?” I said. “With no tag, insurance or title?”
Outlaw started to speak.
“I do,” Dog interrupted. “We done worked too hard to quit now.”
Outlaw looked up the highway, “Too much hill to push toward town.”
“Let’s go ’round the Ridge then,” Dog grinned. “We can ride by mine and Benny’s house and yell at our mamas.”
“I won’t tell daddy on you,” Bingo said.
“You scared?” Outlaw asked me.
“Tell you what,” Outlaw said, “I’ll stand lookout on the other side of the hill. If I see a cop, I’ll holler and flag him down. You hear me holler … push off to the side of the road and run. ”
“OK,” I sighed. “We can try it.”
“Yes!” Outlaw tied his red handkerchief to the door handle. ”Just in case,” he smiled, then jogged off toward the top of the hill. “Let’s push it off … backwards,” Dog said.
“Mama, here we come,” Dog hollered as Bennie joined him at the front fenders.
So we turned her around and backed her out onto the road, facing Outlaw’s hill. Then they pushed me down the mild grade, backing toward Pigeon Ridge.
The old car rolled better on the pavement, but when I dropped the clutch, she only skidded and went “choo choo” again.
So we pushed another time. Then she sputtered, and the third time ,she went “PUTT putt putt putt — PUTT putt putt putt.”
I gave her more gas; she putted faster.
“Yay,” Reba cheered.
“Hot Ding, Bennie,” Dog yelled .
“You may sound like a John Deere tractor,” I said, patting Potchie’s dash. “But you’re not knocking .”
“Let’s go … while we still can,” Benny said, as he jumped in.
“We gon’ ride today,” Dog said, as Outlaw jumped on and hung his long legs where he promised.
“Reckon we can make it ‘round the Ridge?” Benny asked.
“If we don’t we’ll park her,” I said glancing at Bingo. “We won’t go so far that we can’t walk back.”
So we jerked backwards down the road, past our exit, where I stopped her , and put her in first gear and putt-ed forward onto Pigeon Ridge.
“I just love riding in a piece a’ car,” Dog hollered from the back.
“We do, too,” we yelled from the cab . “We do, too.”
Next time: what we saw on the ride.