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Terror On Massol Avenue!!!

by edhawk on July 23, 2013

 

In the days when Elvis, the Drifters and Roy Orbison were prominent in the “Top 40” on the pop radio stations, we would visit my aunt in, what was to become, Monte Sereno. She lived in a small, older house near the end of Viewfield Road, just a bit more than top40yrbkhalf a mile from Santa Cruz Avenue and Highway 9 intersection. Aunt “Dee,” and her family, lived on a couple of acres on a gentle hillside, with an old style water tower right outside the back door with a small barn that served as a two car garage across the driveway. Dominating the drive’s big circle were three or four huge Eucalyptus trees that always had this back yard drowning in endless droppings of these tree’s bark, which would fall in little strips and get pulverized into a fine, light tan powder by the shoes and tires that tread on it.

Unlike our place in Almaden, with a similar layout, but in the middle of the table top flat, working fields of vegetables, Dee’s place was on these grassy, rolling hills with occasional oaks strewn about. Her nearest neighbor was raising a few horses and several odd beef cattle, but that was it. This was more of a “country” setting rather than a “farm house” like our place, with tractors and trucks and a gas pump all clustered around the back side of the weathered, old barn. Dee’s neighborhood was a gentler place, just outside Los Gatos, on the little highway that went between Saratoga and Los Gatos.

Whenever we visited Dee during the day, my little sister and I would take off on our own little hikes and go exploring the creeks and natural berry patches that lay at the foot of the hill. Really, there wasn’t much to do around there.

Dee had three sons, one about five years older than me and two that were much younger than me. I remember the both of them being born. I never got really close to any of the three but we did have our own minor adventures when we’d get together. When I was around ten or eleven, Joe, the oldest of the litter, was getting very involved in cars. He and his friends were building them up and tearing them down. He had a very highly polished ’57 Chevy convertible that was bright red with a white top and accents and a white with red interior. While the car wasn’t brand new, it was Joey’s pride and joy. He kept it sparkling like it was still on the showroom’s floor.

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1957_Chevrolet_Convertible_red

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Joe wasn’t so much the mechanic as more the user, the car “show off,” we might say. He loved to be seen driving with pony tailed, bobby socked girls, in their tight sweaters and pedal pushers, their arms wrapped around his neck as he pulled the car into the scBobby sox Laura Lee Perkinshool parking lot for the next sock hop. It was Joe’s friends who really intrigued me, the mechanics, the greasy guys who had cigarette packs rolled into the sleeves of their grimy, white tee shirts. These were the classic bad boys of the 1950s, be it on motorcycles or in ground pounding dragsters, these “dudes” are the ones you didn’t mess with. They always had broad shoulders, sharp jaws, big fists and a steely gleam in their eye. You never questioned or challenged this sort, they had testosterone dripping from their pores and clouds of adrenaline wafting from their snouts. The young girls were in fear of this sort, but they’d often swoon when offered a ride in or on the greaser’s heavy metal steeds. I could never figure that out. Girls can be so fickle, I used to think.

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Joey had this one mechanic friend, Turk, who lived on Massol in the Almond Grove District of Los Gatos. The streets of the Almond Grove were very unique to me. The front of the houses on the Almond Grove streets had no driveways, just paved walks to the front door. This always seemed very classy to me. The only residential neighborhoods I was familiar with were the tract houses being built up around our farms. They always had a big garage door on the front of the houses and a driveway running to the street. In Almond Grove, the cars had access to the houses from the alleys that ran parallel to the streets but at the back of the houses, with the garages facing the ally, not the street. The first time Joe took me to Turk’s house on Massol, we turned up this little ally that I’d never been aware of before and I was taken into a funky little world of bare light bulbs, busted doors, muddy ruts and broken down fences. The tidy little houses on the street had another story to tell, here, in the alleys. On the farms, we stored junk and broken things “behind the barn.” Here, in residential America, we had “back in the ally,” I came to realize. I also learned very soon, that in the ally is where the greasers turned their second-hand cars into their mighty and powerful hot rods.

Joe pulled the red convertible to the side of the ally as we approached some bright yellow light pouring out of one of the ramshackle little garages in this nether world of ally land. This was a really neat place (and not “neat” as in orderly). As we approached the brightly lit garage, Turk stepped backward out of the garage and into our view to see who had arrived. He said a quiet “hi” to Joe and I didn’t even exist. I had met Turk once or twice up at Joe’s house, but only briefly as we passed each other as the older guys were leaving the house. People who weren’t yet into their teens didn’t warrant anymore attention than a flea on a dog’s rump. As in nearly all places where people were breathing air during the 1950s and 60s, there was a radio plugged in somewhere playing the top 40, the ever-present drone of the small, table top radio. If it wasn’t in your car, the music and the chatter was in your garage, your patio and in your living room, all over the place. As we entered the garage I saw something I’d never seen before, the inner guts of a V-8 automobile engine. The shiny, metallic parts were strewn all over the place, being of the strangest, twisting, turning, shapes I’d ever seen. Almost nothing had an organic line to it, but ultra straight lines and edges or rounded but in such a uniform, repeated and, obviously, ultra-precise manner. I was absolutely awe-struck. As this engine had been cleaned and machined, ready for reassembly, everything was shiny, glistening with a fine coating of oil It was like finding a hidden treasure. However, I stayed in the background and didn’t touch a thing. Us fleas would get barked at for just rolling our eyes in this company.

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engine_disassembled_01

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The two elder boys started talking in a very strange dialect of English while in the garage, using words I’d never heard like cams, crankshaft, roller bearings, torque wrench (it was years before I found out that ‘torque’ wasn’t a dirty word), freeze plugs and of course, carburetors and magnetos were first heard by my virgin ears on that night. Every now and then, Turk would turn to some metallic thing laying on the rough cement floor, pick it up and then, showing it to Joe, he’d flip it over and round about to examine every aspect that it had. Then he would pick something else up off the work bench and do the same sort of exposition to Joe, who was watching the every twist and turn made by Turk, very attentively.

 

Over the next few years, Joe and Turk would allow me to tag along with them on some of their automobile excursions. For example, there was a big, famous drag strip up in Fremont, a dry, dusty old town on the eastern edge of the Bay that was remarkably dull and energy-less, save for the Fremont Drag Strip and the tiny airport nearby which serviced a very healthy number of sail planes (gliders) which I could watch for hours at a time for their grace and silence.

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Greasers from the movie “Outsiders”

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As it turns out, though Turk was a total greaser, and proud of it, he was actually quite the intellect. I discovered this one night when I was drinking several bottles of coke while the older guys were sucking down innumerable cans of beer. Turk was among some of his other mechanic friends and they were heavily engrossed in the talk of engines and transmissions so, not understanding much, I just listened to the rhythm and discordant chorus of their conversation, sleepily absorbing it. But I roused with curiosity as only one voice became the entire conversation. It was Turk, and he was telling the others how to determine the angles

Full Race Camshaft

Full Race Camshaft

on the different lobes of a custom racing cam shaft. He had taken out a pencil and was drawing and calculating on an unfolded paper napkin. Everyone was listening hard to Turk’s very technical dissertation and I was listening very hard to their silence, they really respected this mechanical genius. He wasn’t even eighteen yet and he already held a handful of speed records at the drag strip, racing against professional mechanics more than twice his age. Had he been born ten years earlier, he’d have been a NASA engineer designing space ships to the moon.

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Occasionally, when this bunch of high schoolers would go out and do high school things, they would take me along so I could get into some high school trouble of the sort you’ve seen on American Graffiti. I’d sit in the back seat when they went into downtown San Jose to drive round and round First and Second streets, to “Drag the Main,” as it was called. We’d sometimes go up the El Camino Real and find different “slot car” tracks built out of raw plywood in unused store fronts, frying your brain with way too many cheap fluorescent lights. They were horrible places and we spent way too much time and money in them.

slot car track

slot car track

 

One night Joe and I made our way down to Turk’s house to see the new hot rod he just finished. Turk was a mechanic, not an artist. He never cared what the cars looked like, he just wanted them to run perfectly. None of the cars I ever saw him drive had any sort of an interior, there was just a simple fiberglass chair bolted to the floor in the driver’s position, the dash board, a steering wheel and the shift lever, that was it. The rest of the interior was empty, just bare metal. Even the window “roll-up” mechanisms were removed, except for the driver’s door and the windows were eternally rolled up and forgotten. The new hot rod was the same as the others, the interior bare and the exterior was just beat up primer.

There was already a whole group of Joe and Turk’s friends gathered near Turk’s house on Massol Avenue when we arrived. The new rod was sitting cold and still at the corner of Massol and Bean, and there was another, unfamiliar car next to it, also quiet and still. They were both facing the same direction, which struck me as a little strange. The bunch of guys were in front of the two cars, not at Turk’s garage, clustered together looking at something on the ground. As Joe and I walked up, one of the guys started complaining very loudly about his lousy luck. Joe asked what was going on and someone told him that the complainer had lost the coin toss. Joe looked at the complainer with chagrin and said “You poor sap.” I was totally at a loss and shrugged my shoulders. Joe told me that the complainer, by loosing the coin toss, had to go over to the neighborhood around Saratoga Avenue and Los Gatos Boulevard and lay a bunch of “brodies” (streak the streets with burnt rubber from his spinning, smoking tires). When I asked why this guy had to do such a disruptive thing over there, when we were all over here, Joe simply said “there are only two cops on duty tonight.”

I looked over my shoulder at the two cars pointing toward Highway 9, I watched the decoy pull away from us and then I got it. He was going to draw the only two LG cops working tonight to the other side of town while these two had a drag race down Massol Avenue for pink slips.

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. . . on our Massol?

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3 Comments Leave one →
  1. This is a good buildup, but … what happened?

    I remember some of my brother’s friends being into drag racing down First and Second streets, downtown San Jose. I thought it was silly. Lots of games with the cops and lots of tickets. How about going out on the Interstate on those long, straight runs in the desert, where you can really let it out? Some of the guys had a dirt track where they could race legally.

    I didn’t have a car of my own until after I got married and had a job. Before that, I could get everywhere I wanted to go on my bike.

    My only experience dragging was on my bike. I had a stripped track bike. No brakes, no derailleur, no coaster. The pedals turned a large sprocket in front and the chain went around a small sprocket in back. It was direct drive. If I moved my feet, the rear wheel turned. If the rear wheel turned, my feet moved. To slow down and stop, I pedaled backwards. It was a very high ratio for high speed sprinting. It was very light, it had wood rims, and I could lift it with one finger. The aircraft steel frame went “ping” when you hit it with your finger nail, not “thuk” like most bikes. It had down bars so you rode tight and streamlined. At race speeds, drag of an upright body would slow you down.

    I pulled up to the signal on Camden at Union and leaned on the pole. A station wagon pulled up in the fast lane. I recognized the driver as one of the dragsters, Bonasera. He was said to have one of the fastest cars on the strip. This was surprising, because a station wagon is pretty heavy, but he had something under the hood that more than made up for the weight. Then a little red sports car pulls up next to me in the slow lane. There is a cute blonde in the passenger seat. The driver looks over at Bonasera and revs his engine. Vroom, vroomumumum. Bonasera looks over and VROOMMUMOOMMMOOMMM. The race is on. I want to see the outcome. It will be decided somewhere between Union and the next signal at Bascom. Camden curves to the right, so I must move out if I am going to be able to see the outcome. I cock my legs and hunch down, ready to bolt at the green light. It’s GO and we are off. With a much higher power to weight ratio, I start in the lead. I hear the roar of engines behind me, but I am intent on keeping as far ahead as I can for as long as I can. I need to get to the bend in the road before they pass me. I’m coming up to the last ramp out of the Camden High School parking lot when I hear the sports car coming up on my tail. I look back and he is frantically working the stick. He is looking straight at me. He is racing me. Bonasera is no where in sight. He gets it into high gear and pulls past me just at the far end of the high school track. A while later, Bonasera pulls past me, not even trying.

    I talked to Banasera the next day at school. He said he had no intention of dragging Camden Avenue, to much risk of a speeding ticket. He had a middle age man challenge him to a drag and he revved his engine. The light changed and the old man raced off. Bonasera smiled as he went by where the cop had pulled him over.

  2. davidn permalink

    Interesting story Mr. Bellezza. It brought back a memory of a “right of passage” pact that my buddies and I had in the middle 1950’s.

    (If you are familiar with the San Jose Police Station back in the 1950’s you can skip to the last paragraph.)

    The San Jose Police Station was located in the middle of what is now Casar Chaviz Park on North Market St. The park is a large oval surrounded by southbound Market on one side and northbound Market on the other. The park is across the street from where th Fairmont Hotel is today.

    The Police Station had a tunnel running underneath it that connected the two sides of Market St. The police would go down through this tunnel to unload prisoners. It was not open for the public to drive through.

    There were stop lights at both of the intersections where the tunnel came out. They were regular traffic except the police could control them when they needed to make access or quick exits from the station.

    At any rate (now that you know the geography of downtown San Jose) our “right of passage” was when anyone got their driver’s license they had to go run the red lights on both sides of the police station. I’d guess there were 35 to 40 kids that did this and believe it or not… not one single guy ever got caught.

    Amazing I think… and pretty silly. Kids?!

  3. Bob R. permalink

    What a great Blog. Brought back many memories of the 50s. My friends and I would also drag up and down Massol, and wait until the two cops were busy at one end of town. Then we would either play ditch at the other end, or, as I did once, drive my car backwards the length of Santa Cruz Ave. Those were truly the good old days.

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