MR. & MRS. KIRK F. WHITE MOVE TO DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA
This next bit of my life was so preposterous, that it is nearly impossible to put to paper!
However, for better or worse . . .
The day following my graduation from Germantown Academy, the final school to have tolerated my attendance, I married the pretty blonde junior from Penn that I had been dating at that time! We simply stepped aboard the Atlantic Coast Line’s crack streamliner, the “East Coast Champion” bound for the sunshine state of Florida by rail.
I was certain I’d swiftly make my fortune in the auto racing town of Daytona Beach, Florida.
Upon our departure from Philadelphia, neither of us had gained parental blessings for our newly minted state of marriage, nor did we have any job prospects, any money or any real plans for the rest of our lives, which were now blissfully entwined in nuptial perpetuity. Holy matrimony!! What the hell were we thinking??
Mother had given me, I believe it was $600, and coolly wished me good fortune for the balance of my life. My bride’s mother had not even attended the wedding and was simply furious with both of us.
DAYTONA BEACH, CIRCA 1957
In 1957 Daytona Beach was, and certainly is today, one of America’s great speed centers. Its unique hard sand beaches, in the day, had been the hallowed ground upon which a great many of the world’s land speed records had been set. And, of course in 1957 it was home to the fledgling, but steadily burgeoning, stock car racing group known as NASCAR. It just had to be the place for me to quickly barrel down the road to success.
Most of my friends in Philadelphia were either commencing a college education or securing jobs with a solid future. Good night, what was I doing??
Ten days of honeymooning in a cheap boardinghouse on the beach depleted our funds to a point where I felt I’d better get out in the real world and land a high paying job pretty quickly.
Before doing much of anything though, I had to get a car. Not just any old car, of course . . . something cool. How could I do that with no money? Well, my mother’s sister, my Aunt Emita, lived right there in Daytona Beach. With some reluctance, Aunt Emita might consider helping me to the extent of co-signing for a vehicle that was a solid “no nonsense” automobile. I expected that mother had warned her sister to be wary of Kirk, particularly any automotive schemes he may concoct.
I located a decent four year old ’53 Oldsmobile 88, stick shift, two door post sedan at the back of a used car lot in South Daytona. It had been slightly lowered, and was finished in a dark gray primer. I’ve long forgotten the price, but my very conservative Aunt Emita felt the idea of an “Oldsmobile” sounded Midwest solid, so she signed on with me and I had an automobile.
Perusing the local newspapers relative to positions of employment revealed some fairly unappealing job opportunities. The only item that caught my eye was an advertisement for taxi drivers with an outfit based in Daytona. Great, that would give me a chance to learn the area, meet people and earn a great deal of money. I applied for, and received, the job almost instantly, possibly because I had all of my teeth, or that I gave the vague impression that I knew what I was doing.
The workforce I joined appeared to be nearly derelict. Quickly though, it was determined that I was, in fact, a good deal worse than the other drivers, in that I had no idea where anything was in Daytona Beach. I certainly didn’t know where most of the streets were, let alone neighboring towns, such as Deland, Ormond Beach, or New Smyrna Beach!
My passengers didn’t really feel they should be giving me an education in the town’s layout of highways and byways, and at the end of the third day, I was relieved of my duties.
The guys in the gas station across the street from our “villa” were beginning to take pity on us. One morning Jack, at the station, said that so and so two streets over and four blocks down was looking for someone to paint the outside of his quite substantial home; so I hightailed it over there and hired on for that bit of employment.
Seven or eight days into the paint job, the loneliness, the monotony of it, and the unbelievable late July Florida heat folded me up. I did finish that job, but my house painting career came to an end. We were then dangerously low on funds.
I sought the services of a wizened, older, bushy browed, employment counselor, on the third floor of an old office building on Orange Avenue in Daytona. He sat across from me in his frayed, but well starched, white shirt, and spattered necktie.
Sitting there with a substantial stogie clenched in his teeth, he reeled off a series of jobs, most of them training or menial tasks carrying weekly salaries around $40 per week! I commented that the wages seemed pathetically low.
He removed his stogie, sat forward in his chair, and leaning across his cluttered desk, and said directly to me:
“Understand one thing, Sonny. When you crossed that state line from Georgia into Florida, you left the ‘Yew’ ‘nited States as far as decent wages are concerned. The median income in this town, buddy, is $47 per week”. Oh, Man, the whole deal was beginning to look like a bad move. I was headed for skid row at age 19! I just had to be the most foolhardy nineteen year old in America!
Then, the following morning the boys at the gas station told me that there was a brand new Amoco station opening just north of Daytona in a little town called Holly Hill. The station might need someone.
I hustled myself out there and met Bill Deems and his wife, Mary Lou, a terrific young couple who had worked hard to acquire and build this brand new Amoco station. It was a bang up beautiful new facility with all new equipment, three service bays, canopied pumps, brilliant lighting, etc. In 1957, Holly Hill was to hell and gone, away from Daytona. There were scarcely any other businesses that far north on Route 1.
Bill and Mary Lou both worked at full time day jobs and were looking for a “man” who could run their new station through the daytime hours. My degree of experience in Pennsylvania was fine, but I’d never run a brand new full blown filling station, top to bottom before. The Deems took a real shot and hired me. I was to start the next day. I really needed this, as my wife had been hired for a “real” bookkeeping job for some time now, while I had been stumbling about from one goofy excuse of a job to the next.
I went to work for the Deems and ran the place like it was my own. My experience at Kenyon’s and Egner’s was beneficial, and I kept the Deems facility spanking clean. It quickly gained a local customer base and was known for its service.
THE LEGENDARY “SMOKEY” YUNICK . . .
I began to learn a bit more about the town and the people who lived in it. I learned that the great Smokey Yunick lived on the river less than a quarter mile directly behind the station where I was working! It wasn’t long until I was hearing Smokey Yunick’s name all over town, and an endless stream of stories that dealt with the legend that was “Smokey.” I drove past his shop on Ballough Road at least fifty times before I got the nerve to approach the building.
That “Best Damn Garage in Town” sign was intimidating to say the least!
Finally, one evening I screwed up my courage and ventured in. There were a number of men working feverishly to complete a NASCAR Grand National car. Smokey Yunick was easy to spot, with his dead serious demeanor and that gunslinger hat of his.
I ended up visiting with a wonderful old-timer back in the shop area who had been foolish enough to say hello to me, and I sat right down and quietly talked with him. He had come down from Alabama to work his magic through the night. He was patiently “hand lapping” the pistons on the sides opposite the wrist pins to reduce the friction surfaces.
No one told me to get out. A few more mechanics nodded a greeting my way. From that night on, I often spent some of my free time in Smokey’s shop. Smokey was always patient and good with me. Occasionally, I was given a menial task.
One day Smokey said to me: “I’m going to sell my Chevy over there. You interested?”
Well, that Chevy “over there” was a development bed for Chevrolet Racing, and was loaded with trick pieces. It was a ’56 Bel Air, two door post sedan, in Smokey’s signature gold over black color scheme. The suspension had been substantially modified, and the car was lowered, but not a great deal. It had a set of early sand-cast Halibrand wheels, and a very close ratio 4 speed. The rear axle ratio had to be in the high threes, or low 4’s. That Chevy was just stupid fast, and it handled superbly.
You couldn’t hold the car back. The engine had really been “smoked” over and featured an extremely early example of the fuel injection system that appeared on the ‘57’s and a superb set of tubular headers that Smokey had fabricated. The cam was from another planet. The car had been a test bed for any number of experimental and upcoming items for Chevrolet Racing and for future passenger cars. It had that marvelous understated look that almost all of Smokey’s cars had, and it just ran like the wind.
Well, of course I wanted it! “How much is it?” I inquired…
“$2,600” said Smokey.
I sure didn’t have $2,600 or any amount approaching that.
“C’mon son, we’ll take you over to the finance company and get you signed up”.
Even with Smokey Yunick bringing me through the door, no one was interested in taking on a 19 year old that had been in the state less than 3 months. Though I had a good job, I had no tenure to speak of. I was in agony that I could not get that car. I reluctantly approached my Aunt about possibly co-signing for the car.
Though no auto racing fan, my Aunt Emita was smart enough to know that if a vehicle was coming through the notorious Smokey Yunick’s shop, it was going to be a wicked hot rod of one sort or another. So much for that wonderful piece of automotive history coming into my possession.
At that point I was quite sure I’d be driving my ’53 Olds for the rest of my life, and working at least 70-80 hours per week to barely keep food on our table, said table being just large enough to hold our two plates in what was truly the smallest apartment in the continental United States.
During this period, my wife was keeping the books for a large, high volume gas station just two blocks from our apartment. That big station where she worked had its frontage on South Atlantic Avenue in Daytona, just off the beach. The station pumped over 100,000 gallons of gas per month, which in 1957 was a pretty big deal.
In the late fall, my wife’s boss offered me a job for considerably more money than I was making with the Deems at their Amoco station in Holly Hill. I would be back to being a “pump jockey” instead of the “manager.” I really didn’t want to leave Bill Deems in Holly Hill, but the money
differential was too great, and the Daytona station was two blocks from where we were living. Also, that station was always jammed with work, which would make the days go by quickly. I made the switch, and began to pump a hell of a lot of gasoline (It really was “gasoline”, in 1957!)
Soon after joining the workforce there, I underwent an automotive educational process, unlike anything I’d experienced before.
“Big Bob” was the station manager. “Harold” was next in command and Harold essentially oversaw the entire “service” operation. Harold was from rural Georgia, mid fifties, thin, wiry, and hyper energetic. He carried a pint of Ancient Age whiskey in one pocket, and a very sharp switchblade knife in another. He was always mildly blitzed.
The morning of my fourth day working there, Harold was standing outside with me, sipping from his pint of “Ancient Age”. He spotted a big Oldsmobile 98 sedan, with Illinois tags, laden down with a family, undoubtedly on vacation, easing onto the tarmac, and moving slowly toward the pumps for fuel.
Harold nudged me, and said: “Follow me kid”… As we approached the Olds, Harold moved quickly forward, crouched like a cat, toward the car while it was still rolling, and frantically motioned for the guy to stop short of the pumps.
The man stopped, and Harold approached the driver’s window with a deep frown on his face . . . “Sir, back up a few feet, would’ja?”
The guy moved the car back slowly, and Harold crouched again like a cat near the left front wheel. . . . “Come on forward, Bud, real slow like” . . . he said, and as the guy inched forward, Harold was intently peering and listening. Suddenly Harold leapt up and back and motioned for the guy to stop again.
“Buddy, you got a serious brake problem, there’s somethin’ loose as hell in there”.
That poor “customer,” like a hundred before him, and a hundred after him, was about to get gouged and bamboozled just as slick and neat as anything you ever did see. The family, all five of them, spilled out of the car and were encouraged to relax in the air conditioned lounge area while the pack of thieves set about determining what that . . . “awful noise is”.
I was told to man all the pumps outside, and stay out of the way.
A NASCAR type pit stop ensued inside the garage area, as the Olds was quickly wheeled on to the lift, air wrenches whacked all four wheels, and the brake drums were yanked back.
Someone then grabbed a trigger squirt type oil can filled with brake fluid, and went around to one, two or all of the brake wheel cylinders, pulled back the protective rubber covers, and gave a few healthy squirts of the fluid into the backside of each cylinder, quickly resetting the rubber caps. I was watching the first of a good many of the rip offs that would transpire in the service bays.
Harold or Bob would then get a concerned face on, and go get the poor owner.
“Sir, you better come and see this for yourself”.
Here came the poor customer out into the service area where everyone was looking deeply concerned and downcast.
“Look at this sir”, and he’d pull back a wheel cylinder rubber boot, and sure enough, the freshly inserted brake fluid would flow out, pretty as you please.
“Wheel cylinders sir; unbelievably lucky you made it in here sir.”
Lots and lots of time and money later, the guy and his family would drive out with their car simply put back together. Their invoice though would have charged them handsomely for all new wheel cylinders, brake shoes, maybe new hoses . . . you get the idea. The victim would be thankin’ the hell out of everybody for being so sharp:
“. . . and they were damn courteous Eunice. Hell; they gave us the tank of gas.”
If it wasn’t the brakes, “the crew” would hone in on the wheel bearings, or a “fuel leak”.
“Hell, I can smell it all over back here, buddy”. . .
Then, on occasion, Harold’s switchblade knife was brought out to slash a battery or drop a tire. The service bills were staggering but most everyone left thinking the place was full of automotive diagnostic geniuses. Virtually every victim was from out of state.
Only once did I see the whole scheme get pulled up short. It was a stunningly hot, summer morning, “Big Bob” was off the property and Harold really had a home run underway. Bob came back, looked in the lounge area and saw this totally frazzled, young Mother, nearly in tears with four kids in tow, two of them in diapers. “Big Bob” came out to the service bay where the lady’s old Ford station wagon was blown apart all over the place.
“Harold, what’s goin on here?”
“Got a good one boss, brakes, new battery, the works, easy as pie”, hissed Harold, under his breath.
“Put it back together Harold, and get her outta’ here; she ain’t got no fuckin’ money.”
“I already ruin’t her battery, boss”……
“Then give her a fuckin’ new one; get it on the ground and outta’ here."
That was a nasty chapter in my automotive education. We sure as hell hadn’t been doing that sort of thing up north in the stations that I worked in. Was I involved in setting these people up? No, being low man on the workforce, I would twist my wrenches on the regular jobs and stay away just as I’d been told. No more, no less.
Was I pleased, or comfortable with my involvement? No, but we were financially so desperate, that I needed those 80-90 hours per week, trying to stay ahead of financial collapse. That certainly didn’t mitigate my involvement by any stretch of the imagination.
Summer weekends, I’d stand out there pumping gas in 95 degree weather often watching my wife and our friends from Rollins College walking past the station with all their beach gear. They were invariably on the other side of Silver Beach Avenue, never on the station side. Generally, in high spirits, they were all on their way to spend a day on the beach, just a block away.
It would be mid-morning, and I wouldn’t see them again till the end of a day returning to the apartment. More often than not, they didn’t bother to glance in the direction of the station. Of course, I wasn’t exactly hoping to draw attention to my menial occupation. It all felt pretty poor.
By the time I’d get home those days, usually well after 9 PM, everyone would have gone, and I’d eat a cold plate of whatever they’d all had for dinner.
“SMALL TOWN SATURDAY NIGHT”
The biggest financial windfall that came my way in Daytona happened late one hot, summer, Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep and I heard a car’s starter out in front of the apartment grinding and grinding away, to no avail. I looked at the clock, it was 10:40.
It was never going to start, so I got up, threw on a pair of shorts and went out front. Walking outside to the street, I came upon a scene straight out of a B movie.
Sitting there across the street from our apartment, almost under a streetlight, was this big, bright red ’55 Cadillac convertible, top down, a white leather interior, and Texas tags.
Standing alongside the Caddy was a big ol’ Texan, and sitting dejectedly in the passenger seat was a stunning platinum blonde in a low cut red dress. (I’m not making any of this up!) He was out of the car, and all flustered as he probably had some great plans for the late evening, and they sure didn’t include being broken down in front of my place.
I offered to help.
He said: “Sure son, have at it, the sumbich is jes’ plain busted.”
I pulled the air cleaner off and determined he was getting plenty of fuel. I soon found there was no spark at the plugs. I went to the ignition coil and found the wire that went to the distributor had slipped back far enough that it probably wouldn’t conduct a spark down the line to the distributor or the plugs.
I pushed the wire firmly back into the coil; and then sensing a dramatic, triumphant moment, I sauntered easily to the driver’s door, smiled at the gorgeous blonde, and slid into the driver’s seat. I turned the key on, and casually hit the starter. The Caddy fired instantly and settled to an easy idle.
The blonde swooped me up in her arms with a hug while “Tex” was slapping me on the back.
I started to retreat back to my apartment when the Texan yelled out:
“Hold up there, son; here’s my card; you ever get out toward Houston, look me up, you’ve got a job with me any time.” I took his card, thanked him and turned back to cross the street . . .
“Wait son”, and as I turned around he pressed a $20 dollar bill in my hand.
“Thanks again pal”, he said, as he winked at me and roared off into the night. That $20, at that time, was a true financial bonanza; and boy, did we need it. I’ve never forgotten the thrill of getting that $20 bill, or the near providential circumstances that brought it to me. It was definitely time to scrape up enough money to get the hell out of Florida, go home and get a real job of some sort.
ALONG COMES ANOTHER FORD . . .
The battle between the top automotive manufacturers for supremacy on the nation’s NASCAR racetracks was at a full boil in the fall of 1957.
Chevrolet was on top of the pile with their factory fuel injected cars. Zora Duntov and Smokey Yunick had done a tremendous job of developing the small block V-8 into a potent racing engine that also had great durability. Chrysler had the almighty Hemi, and Ford was working hard on catching up.
In early 1957, Ford developed the Paxton (originally McCulloch) supercharger to a reliable level and coupled it onto their strong 312 C.I. Y-Block engine. The development of these marvelous engines had been accomplished almost exclusively for stock car racing purposes, but some few supercharged passenger cars were built, particularly the 1957 Thunderbird with 200 plus units having been assembled.
Chevy was, of course, offering a limited number of passenger cars with their factory fuel injection system at the time to keep the “Homologation Gods” happy.
The Daytona hot rodders kept their ears close to the ground, and one week, just before the upcoming Daytona 500, word flew around town that a full truckload of supercharged F series Fords was coming to Heintzelman Ford in town.
Smokey Yunick was interested in looking these cars over, and he drove me to the agency to check them out. Our timing was perfect, as the truck was just unloading as we arrived. There was almost a complete model mix on board to show the public, including a supercharged Fairlane Country Squire station wagon! Ford was pretty much saying: “Hell yes, your family can get the same engine right under the hood of your new Fairlane wagon that “Fireball” Roberts is drivin’ this year in the Daytona 500”.
We looked them all over. Smokey honed in on a Model D70, Custom, two door post sedan in bright red with a grey cloth interior, dog dish hubcaps, no heater, no radio, no anything. Wait, there wasn’t even a back seat in it! Just a “down to business” street racer. The D70 was what the Ford teams would use for their NASCAR Grand National racing cars.
1957 Ford, Short Wheelbase, D70 Supercharged Sedan
Smokey said to me: “This little ‘Custom’ D70 2 door is built on a shorter wheelbase chassis, and is a pretty serious racer right out of the box. If you gotta’ own a Ford, that Custom is the one you want.”
I wasn’t going to lose that one. I had been gainfully employed just long enough to be considered for financing, and I had the Olds to trade for a few more dollars. With a payment book the size of a brick, I drove out of the Ford agency feeling as good as I had since I’d moved to Daytona. Damn! That Ford was fast!
The Ford earned me some street racing respect at the station, and the drive-ins too. Most people thought it was just a “broom peddler’s” special, because it was so darn plain appearing, finished in an unexciting shade of
red, with an industrial gray interior . . . again, no heater, no radio, crank windows, no back seat, no power steering, or brakes. Did I mention the crank up windows? It was a hopelessly dull appearing sleeper. My wife thought it was the dumbest car she’d ever seen. She thought the interior of the Ford looked like a police interrogation room. I suppose she had a case . .
With any few hours I had off from the station, I’d go hunting down victims with the Ford. “Break it in quick” Smokey had said. And I did. The car was a runnin’ fool. I couldn’t wait to get it back up north for the guys up there to see.
BUT, THEN . . .
In the late spring of ’58, my wife decided it wasn’t really necessary to honor all of the vows of our silly marriage. One morning, jeez, it was only about 9 o’clock, after a long pull on his Ancient Age whiskey, Harold told me that my wife and “Big Bob”, the station manager, were having more than a working relationship together.
I remember that Harold’s “news” literally froze me in place; my peripheral vision seemed to diminish. A sickly warmth engulfed me, and I felt like I needed to get away from Harold somehow; but, there was no place to go. I struggled mightily to imagine that Harold simply hadn’t gotten it right. But, of course, he had.
If nothing else, that tidbit of unpleasantness galvanized what I’d suspected for some time. It was time to leave Daytona behind and head back to my roots.
The only possession “we” had was a big, blonde, console size, Admiral Hi-fi, which also had a payment book. We loaded it up (. . . It fit just fine, where that back seat “wasn’t” . . .) and we drove north in the Ford.
(What did I do about my wife and Big Bob? I blindly rationalized it all away. Things might be better back in Pennsylvania, I thought.)
LIFE AS A RESPONSIBLE CHARACTER, (WHAT??)
Returning to Philly was a sobering experience, as most of my friends were now well on their way to developing careers, having children, and taking on the responsibilities of young adulthood. My mother and Bob were both perfectly pleasant upon our return, but there was definitely a coolness that prevailed.
Sure, many of my Philadelphia friends were mightily impressed with the blower Ford, but their interest was more a passing one at that point in their lives. Everyone was growing up. We were no longer all going out to the Green Arrow to hunt down victims and street race all night, run from the cops, and generally break every law we came across. Those wild days were fast disappearing, and most of the drag racing was now being done on the ever increasing number of well sanctioned NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) drag strips.
Oh, there were plenty of guys that still loved the hot rods, but it seemed their interest was slotted into in a more sensible, secondary category. Street racing was becoming less of an activity in the northeast. In fact, there was a lot less clandestine illegal racing going on. In a word, it simply wasn’t “cool”.
Soon after returning to Pennsylvania, I made my way out to the York County Drag-O-Way, for a Saturday night of drag racing under the lights. I couldn’t get over the number of cars that were there to run and how many people I didn’t know!
The first time I made a pass on the track in the supercharged Ford, it just lit off the back wheels. The tires were spinning endlessly with the overwhelming power of the engine. They stayed lit, farther down the track, than anything I’d raced before. The tires were literally running out from under the power. The car was somewhat manageable by mid track. At that point, I was well into second gear. But, as I entered the timing traps at the far end of the quarter mile, I snap shifted it into third, and the back end started around again.I had to let off to gather it back up, but I still sailed through the quarter mile at 104 mph.
That run sobered me somewhat and although it was a small incident, something was beginning to tell me that someone more experienced than me, should probably be driving this car at the drags. I’d been away from drag racing for a couple of seasons, and I wasn’t anywhere close to being any good at it. I decided to turn the driving over to a friend’s older brother, Bill Bonsall, who had a good deal more track experience than I had.
With Bill as the driver, it became my job to try to keep the Ford ahead of the competition for him. “Smitty” Smith, one of Bash’s retired top mechanics, and I schemed up an alcohol injection system that was both cunning and innovative, if not altogether legal.
The Ford, being a stripped down Custom model, had no radio, so the speaker grille on the dash merely covered an empty space. Well, we filled that space with a one quart paint thinner container, and from said container, we ran a bit of small diameter copper tubing quietly through the firewall, shrouded as a small vacuum hose. Under the intake manifold, Smitty had fabricated a network of tubing which flared out, into the intake runners. The plan was to pressurize the tank, and inject alcohol into the runners to increase power, at the crucial time during a pass. Well, OK, maybe it was totally illegal. The modification wasn’t terribly effective, but it did make a fractional improvement in our trap speeds.
I quickly grew weary of the risk of getting caught cheating in a racing venue (NHRA) that had been so good to me, and we yanked the system.
ENTERING THE BUSINESS WORLD, FOR REAL . . .
At the same time, when I arrived back in Philadelphia I was nearly penniless, and not very employable. The time had finally arrived for me to show some seriousness about earning my way through life. My resume since graduation, was somewhere between sketchy and nonexistent.
Virtually my entire working career up to that point had been either in a day camp, a delicatessen or any number of filling stations!
Through close friends of my parents, a job interview had been arranged for me in the home office of a major, prestigious insurance company, the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company in the middle of Philadelphia’s financial district.
For the interview, I wore my only suit, brought my best manners, and somehow was offered gainful employment as something called a “match-up” clerk in the underwriting department. Oh, and I was to be there each morning well before 8AM to open and distribute all of the departmental mail.
My starting salary was $47.50 per week.
Devastatingly pitiful, but that was all there was out there for someone who appeared to be a decidedly dicey risk. My wife had gotten a job in the regional headquarters of Gulf Oil. Her salary was essentially three times mine.
“DON’T WASH MINE” - AN AMUSING, YET POIGNANT, ASIDE
(This seems a good opportunity to leave my dismal details behind for a moment, and experience a tale sketching out an early work experience for of one of my oldest friends, Bill Jellett.)
Bill was among the friends that I was glad to return to in Philadelphia. He had been one of the hardcore hot rodders of our group, and a classmate. While I was foolishly fumbling around in Florida, Bill had taken business courses in college, and just as I returned to Philadelphia, he had landed a good job with one of the top casualty and property insurance companies.
Bill was a preppy kind of guy. Wiry, jaunty, well dressed and always had a joke for you. He had completed all his due diligence training within his insurance company’s home office and was finally poised to go out in the field and meet with clients.
Bill’s insurance company counted among its top clients a vast chain of scrap yards. On his first assignment, Bill was sent to Columbus, Ohio to meet with the manager of a major yard out there.
The summer weather enabled him to present himself to the management team in a freshly pressed light blue seersucker suit, sparkling white shirt, tie, polished shoes, etc.
When he arrived in Columbus, he telephoned ahead to confirm his appointment and get directions. It had poured rain in Columbus that morning, but the rain had stopped by the time Bill arrived at the facility in the early afternoon.
Well, that Ohio junk yard was the mother of all scrap yards. It just seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see in every direction. Bill parked his car in the muddy, unpaved parking lot, and began picking his way through the puddles and the towering stacks of steel and iron junk.
His directions were leading him deeper and deeper into this vast maze of all things, well, scrapped.
The door was wide open. It appeared dark inside the building. He tapped lightly on the door frame, and a booming voice shouted:
“What?’’ . . . in a huge New York accent.
Bill put his head inside the door, holding his business card ahead of him, as if the card might offer him a defense if called upon.
“Bill Jellett, sir; with Maxon Insurance; . . . Uh, from Philadelphia, sir.”
Well, there sat “Sir,” in a sweat soaked “wife beater” undershirt, weighing in at an easy three hundred plus pounds, seated behind a stark metal desk, with a telephone to his ear, and wildly gesturing with his other hand for Bill to have a seat. Bill’s eyes swept the dark room, located a dusty metal chair, and he sat down.
His notes indicated “Sir’s” name was Tony . . .
It was almost pitch dark in the “office.” Way over in a corner Bill was sure he saw an elderly lady toiling away silently, at a small desk.
“Tony” was shouting down the line at someone that he was attempting to bully into sticking to a deal. The unhappy customer on the other end of the line wasn’t going for it, it seemed.
“Fuck you Harry; I ain’t doin’ that; I ain’t taking that load back” . . . Tony shouted. Back and forth the shouting went. The bombastic rant carried on and on, neither telephone warrior prepared to give in. It was incredibly warm inside the building.
Then, at a jaw dropping volume, Tony shouted down the line: “Harry, listen to me. Harry, you stop ‘dat fuckin’ check, I’ll stop your heart, ya’ hear me?”
Jellett was beginning to think that the casualty insurance business may not have been the wisest career choice after all.
Bill said that as he navigated his way through those narrow alleyways of towering metal, he soon stopped looking up. Some of the heaps were so tall, he said, they appeared to be leaning in precariously over the muddy pathway; some looked like they might collapse in on him at any moment.
Finally Bill burst out of the jungle of scrap and saw a crude cinderblock building sitting in the midst of it all. He referred to his bit of paper and realized that the building must be the “office.” Now that he was out of the towering alleyways of junk, the heat of the afternoon sun was hammering down. Bill picked his way through the last of the muddy lot to what seemed to be the entryway.
Bill was stewing on that thought when the entire back wall of the building came crashing in, and a Lincoln Town car lurched to a halt just short of Tony’s desk, narrowly missing Bill. Jellett shot to his feet, certain the world was ending right before his eyes. He was destined to be a casualty himself, in a fucking scrap yard in Columbus, Ohio, no less!
A slight figure of a boy jigged out from behind the wheel of the Lincoln with a wild eyed look. There was dust everywhere and cinderblocks continued to lose their footing and tumble to the floor. Tony never moved from his desk. He looked at the disaster all around him, and said into the telephone:
“Harry, Harry, shut the fuck up a minute, just hold on a second. . .”
Tony raised his massive hulk from his steel chair, knocking it over backward, adding a final cymbal to the disaster, and viewed the devastation. His expression never changed. He said to the kid:
“What da’ fuck are you doin’?”
At that point, the kid was totally unglued and about to go off the rails entirely. . .
“I was washin’ Uncle’s car,”. . . He squeaked.
Tony looked at him, bent and picked up his chair, settled into it, and started to put the phone back to his ear.
Finally, almost as an afterthought, he pointed at the kid, and said:
“Don’t wash mine . . .”
Bill said he never saw the secretary move at all.
Through the years, we all retold that story a hundred times . . .
(In the fall of 2005, Bill Jellett was very close to losing a long battle with cancer, and I saw him just before his life closed. He’d always kept a keen sense of humor, but that was a hideously rough time for him.
Just as I was leaving him, knowing I wouldn’t see him again, Bill began to drift off to sleep. As I went out the door, I stopped, turned, and barely whispered:
. . . “Billy,” I said: . . . “Don’t wash mine . . .”
He smiled through his pain, and chuckled . . .
PLAYING HOUSE, KIND OF… AND BACK TO MY GROWN-UP NEW JOB
In gaining my new job with Penn Mutual, we moved into a freshly refurbished upstairs apartment in a home in Wyndmoor. We had the barest few sticks of furniture, and used a card table for meals. We learned that Spam with ketchup and white bread could actually be consumed if one put their mind to it. A small cube steak was a once a week treat.
Oh, and that big blonde console Admiral Hi fi was still our biggest asset. Hell, the payment book was now no thicker than a slab of slate. I had become a fan of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Gerry Mulligan. Peter Ustinov had come out with his superb, “Gran Prix du Rock” record album. And . . . I had every one of the Riverside Records Albums of the great sounds of all of the period sports cars racing at all the great venues; Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen . . . I seemed to be the only one who wanted to hear all of them in one sitting . . .
FINALLY, OFF TO WORK AT A GENUINE JOB
The looming twenty story Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company building was a daunting structure. How would I ever cope with the physical layout of such a vast company? Where was I supposed to go? I had no real grasp of what exactly I was to “do.” And, I had to do “it” in a suit and tie! The painful shyness of my youth began to rear it’s its ugly head. I was afraid the whole deal might well be more than an uneducated gas service station worker could handle.
I quickly learned that the “unattainable” goal for a lowly “match up” clerk, such as myself, was to match all of the incoming Retail Credit Reports to their respective life insurance applications by the end of a given business day. (“No computers in those days, kids!”) I was informed that very few “match up” clerks ever got all of their allotted reports matched up to the files in a single day. I mean, they were just “match up clerks.” You couldn’t expect too much from them.
I liked the “couldn’t be done” challenge of it, and started coming in at 7 AM to grab the reports for the day at an early hour. That way, I was able to run down all sorts of applications that weren’t “in motion” throughout the vast office complex in the course of a business day. I rarely left before 6:30 in the evening.
I became the King of “match-up.” The supervisors found my interest and enthusiasm for my menial tasks a bit more than amusing, and I was bumped up through a series of jobs within the underwriting department, finally reaching a truly challenging position within a year.
I was given seven agencies in various states where I would be their home office liaison, available to work with them through a month, start to finish.
The Penn Mutual used a system of closing out their regional sales offices throughout the entire country each month. That meant that around the 20th of each month the applications would start to really pour into our Underwriting department, hopefully to receive approval prior to the end of the month, thereby increasing an agency’s “approved” totals for that given month. As it drew closer to the end of each month, the action would become more frantic. The home office sales vice presidents were incessantly cracking the whip over the nationwide field force, driving them to new heights, and the General Agents were pushing hard at their liaisons such as myself, who in turn were expected to bring pressure to bear on the company underwriters.
The most productive agency under my auspices was in, of all places, Omaha, Nebraska. The powerhouse General Agent, Bill Gustafson ran a dynamic force of sale agents. They wrote an astonishing amount of life insurance in the state of Nebraska. Top producing agencies like that one pushed relentlessly to get their numbers up.
That agency, along with six other agencies had to rely on my ability to go to the department underwriters, company Doctors, etc. and convince them that they should grant an approval of one sort or another to an “app” that had just landed on their desk that morning, often with only the sketchiest information.
“SELLING”- A NEW CONCEPT . . .
I was scarcely aware of it, but those end of the month closings required my “selling” our home office underwriters, or the company physicians, on approving the scant bit of insurability evidence that was available to them. It often meant my coming in super early in the morning to possibly move a fresh application from the “In” box of a “difficult” underwriter to the “In” box of one who tended to rubber stamp things along. Or possibly a file discovered by me at 7:00 AM in the “In” box of Dr. X, might be better served in Dr. L’s “In” box.
On a morning following a particularly big effort on everyone’s part, Bill Gustafson called me and said:
“I’ve thought hard about this Kirk, and I feel you should get out of the Home Office, and into sales. We’ve had a great time together, but I want you to consider moving on; I want you to make an appointment to talk with Carl Oxholm, at his agency in center city Philadelphia”, he said.
Well, all that was very nice to hear, but certainly out of the question for a kid with no college education, and a guy who had been painfully shy in grade school, and still tended to be that way. But Bill Gustafson wouldn’t let go of it, and finally I agreed to the interview.
LEARNING HOW TO TRULY SELL…
A life insurance sales career, presented cleverly to a prospective agent, can appear to easily offer great rewards. And, in fact, it truly could provide every bit of that with top notch training, and enormous perseverance on the part of the “rookie” salesperson.
Carl Oxholm was a dynamic general Agent whose agency had a disproportionate number of extremely successful sales agents within its ranks. That made for an enormous edge for anyone fortunate enough to receive their training there.
Carl Oxholm sold me on a sales career in such a fashion, that I scarcely knew what happened. All of the company sales rookies started on a modest monthly draw against future commissions. I would no longer receive the steady $123.62 weekly checks from the home office. There was lots to learn, plus licensing exams. With zero knowledge of the product, and no idea how I might sell “it”, I had a real fear that I’d never make it.
When I came on board there were three other new guys. We all sat virtually next to each other, at starkly bare desks in what was known as the “Bullpen” which was wide open in the middle of the office complex. There was endless book study and constant suffering from the disdain and abuse of the top producers, as they peered, and tossed verbal jibes into our lowly bullpen on the way to their private offices. They fully knew that three of the four of us would not make the cut and would be gone in four to six months, or less.
Throughout the training, Mondays were a special Hell. When the office day ended at 5:00 PM, we greenhorns would hustle across the street to the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurant, a great old Philadelphia institution. Then back to the office, and “get your sorry rookie asses” back in the bullpen.
We would return to our stark desks and start the viciously tough task of telephoning prospects. And, you stayed with it until you had five solid appointments for the week.
Sounds relatively easy doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t; not by any stretch of the imagination. In the beginning you roared through all your relatives, friends, etc., and it was amazing how many of them blew you off.
Two crack sales agents worked the bullpen each Monday night to critique the rookies. The agent who worked with me was one Robert Brooks, an incredibly talented agent and a multi-million dollar producer. Many months of any year, Brooks was the agency leader.
As he picked up my paperwork, our relationship began thusly:
“Kirk F. White” he said, “what’s the “F” stand for?”
“Fink” he said, “Well, Kirk ‘Fink’ White, let’s see if you’re worth a damn on the telephone.”
Bobby Brooks was miserably tough, relentless, haughty, blindingly brilliant, and he became the greatest single influence in the shaping and formation of my career in not only life insurance sales, but all sales throughout my life!
“Extra effort, Fink, that’s the difference.” said Brooks.
“Extra Effort”. Two words that so often made the difference between just “OK” and “great” and did in so very many endeavors all through my life. Today, if one were to ask for a few words from any of my children that typified their Dad, they’d almost certainly include: “He taught us the meaning of “EE” . . . as it became known to all of them . . . “Extra Effort.”
Life insurance sales developed into a very rewarding field for me. The challenges were massive, but you could go as far as your “efforts” allowed you. It taught you how to take a commodity that no one really wanted to talk about; the grim prospect of someone no longer being with us, and making it appealing enough for your prospect to listen to what you had to offer.
(Heaven knows, no one wanted to give up even a few moments of their precious time to discuss what may transpire after they’d crossed the River Styx . . .
(Of course not, your sales pitch had to be couched in terms that led your prospect to instead pay attention to an amazing plan of “saving money for the future”. And, if they should happen to perish along the way . . . “Well then, Melanie and the kids are set for life, including college!”)
The company selling presentation was extremely well designed; and if I could get in front of someone, I could generally get them to purchase a policy.
At some point it came to me that, after a fashion, one was “selling” in virtually every aspect of your business life. Right from the manner in which you met someone for the first time, straight through to presenting a highly complex pension trust. You were always putting yourself across in the best light that you possibly could. So, you’d better get yourself damn good at it, or you’d be passed on by pretty swiftly. It was very hard, but rewarding work.
LIFE ITSELF AND THE AUTOMOBILE, 1958 – 1962 . . .
So, where did “Life itself and the automobile” fit into those various years since my return from Florida in late 1958 through 1962? Well, as I mentioned earlier, my ’57 supercharged Ford Custom was pretty much out of step for a young man developing a career in the life insurance field. I was no longer going to the drags, and the Ford blower had scorched two mainshafts within two months, an expense I could ill afford, as a family man.
I “yanked” the blower belt for the last time. I was scarcely using the Ford at all as I was taking the train into the city during the work week.
In the midst of all this, my marriage completely folded up, and just as well, as the two of us had pretty much treated our life together as a party that never really stopped when high school ended. During the brief time we were married I don’t believe we ever once spoke of actually buying a home, or raising a family, or anything at all about “our” future. Our silly Hi-Fi had been our only asset, and the finance company still owned a piece of that.
(Not so easy, even today, trying to breeze over this slice of my checkered life . . .)
In the early fall of 1959, I was visiting George Maginniss’s foreign car agency in Horsham, Pennsylvania. (Yeah, the same den of temptation where I’d bought the Matchless motorcycle. . .) And, while in the midst of some sort of out of body experience, I traded the blower Ford for the new Austin Healey Sprite roadster! Straight up deal, no less! And, yes I’d recently had a bigger, better, Healey, and hadn’t cared much for it. And no, I don’t recall what my utter lack of reasoning was at the time, but we’ll blame it on the unraveling of the marriage!
The Austin Healey Sprite might be best described as “cute”. If you wound it up enough, its modest industrial torque curve would propel you to a speed sufficient to meet the speed limit in most states. The little roadster would reward you by dashing around corners dead flat with a touch of understeer. It was almost as low as my newly acquired go kart.
Oh yes, I had joined the earliest ranks of eastern go-karters. Damn, those things were fun!
The Sprite did little for one’s self esteem, as it was so low and small that at traffic lights you were studying hubcaps and license plate designs. Once in a while you might glance upward to find the odd soul in a Ford Galaxie, or Oldsmobile curiously peering down upon you.
Whenever I lifted the one piece hood and nosepiece, I was always a bit let down by the tiny engine and the even tinier wheels and tires.
In the very late fall of 1959, I discovered Lou Delaney’s “Suburban Foreign Cars”. Lou, along with Elmer Wolf in Media, and Otto Linton at Speedcraft Enterprises in Exton were among the earliest pioneer sports car dealers in the Philadelphia area.
Lou was buying, selling, and servicing, a broad range of the better European sports cars including: MG, Triumph, Jowett, Sunbeam, Jaguar, even the occasional Ferrari. He was also the eastern distributor for Lotus cars of Great Britain. Lotus was certainly an automobile I’d never heard of. The Lotus, Model 11 was an amazing sight to behold in 1959. So low, so tiny, yet the Lotus had an appearance of swiftness and capability, in spite of its petite, fragile appearance.
One late afternoon I was utterly transfixed by a brand new Lotus Eleven that had just arrived at Suburban Foreign Cars. It was sitting in front of the shop, resplendent in its polished aluminum body. The car was incredibly streamlined with all four wheels enveloped, and obviously built to an ultra lightweight standard. It was beautiful to the eye from every angle. The engine was a physically tiny four cylinder unit, with the unlikely moniker of “Coventry Climax.” It displaced just 1100 CC, and someone mentioned it was originally intended to power a British Fire brigade water pump!! The exquisite, package looked as if it could almost be tucked under your arm and carried away!
Suburban Foreign Cars also maintained and stored a bespoke coachbuilt Ferrari for Senator Wood, of Pennsylvania. It was the first Ferrari automobile I had ever seen. The car was a flamboyant Vignale bodied coupe, in black over scarlet red with a natural tan leather interior. I believe it was a 212 series. For the period, it carried very radical coachwork. The car had an extremely low roofline, so low it looked like Harry Westergard, or Sam Barris had whacked a serious chop into it. The Vignale body had a very high, ornate beltline.
The details were breathtaking. You could scarcely take your eyes off the car. It was often stored quietly on the second floor, and I spent a good deal of time with that Ferrari just taking in the incredible coachwork and the trim details. Each time I visited the shop I went upstairs hoping it was there. You could spend forever simply studying details such as the dash, the instruments, the leather seating, and the beautiful wood rimmed aluminum steering wheel. The shut surfaces of the car were perfect with blade thin gaps. And then, there was that V-12 engine. Exquisite.
Lou Delaney had a number of customers who were actively racing their various, new sports cars at such venues as Vineland, New Jersey, Marlboro, and Cumberland, Maryland, Lime Rock Connecticut, Bridgehampton, and Watkins Glen, New York, etc.
It was a fascinating new automotive venue for me, and I was captivated by these altogether different European sports racing cars. I’d read a bit about road racing, and was intrigued that the racing courses twisted and turned in every direction, over hill and dale, and then a course might open on to a substantial straightaway, through sweeping high speed turns, then drop to a virtual hairpin switchback. The tracks were generally two to three miles in length.
A new group of eastern racing names drove these sports cars: Bob Holbert, Augie Pabst, Erwin Goldschmidt, Roger Penske, Bud Huggler, George Constantine, Dr. Dick Thompson, Phil Walters, Bill Spear, John Fitch, George Wintersteen, and many others.
New magazines came to my attention, among them: Road & Track and Sports Cars Illustrated. Those two publications brought forth the gifted writings of Henry Manney, Warren Weith, and Ken Purdy. Various pulp publishers began to do quarterlies, and annuals covering sports cars.
I heard about an organization called the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) that anyone could join. Someone said they had sports car races all around the country. All manner of European high performance cars that stretched well past the MG’s, Austin Healey’s and Jaguars, were gainin an active following.
The more expensive, sophisticated, and powerful sports cars included such makes as Porsche, Maserati, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Allard, Mercedes Benz 300SL, etc.
All my life, whenever I’d get caught up in an exciting new automotive interest, I’d go after it voraciously. On occasion I’d be driven to an episode such as the following!
Having absolutely no business doing any such thing, I ordered up a brand new 1959 Triumph TR3B from Lou in bright red with a black interior, and wire wheels! Many weeks later it arrived. I’ll always remember the perfect late spring evening when I took delivery of the TR3. It was a terrifically good automobile, with substantial cockpit room, and those wonderful cut down doors. The four cylinder OHV engine which carried twin SU carburetors was “tractor” strong, with massive torque, and a damned nice exhaust note. The gearshift took you through widely spaced ratios in short, reassuring throws. The handling, although somewhat tipsy, was quite good for the era, and thoroughly predictable.
Hard to imagine a more deadly combination in a Jaguar sports sedan? My stepfather, bless his soul, was a conservative Wall Street banker, who merely knew that certain automobiles were prestigious, and what appeared to be a sporting Jaguar sedan in banker’s grey certainly fell into that category in his eyes.
I’ve always pictured the sales staff at that Manhattan Jaguar showroom rejoicing wildly the day that baby “elephant” rolled down Park Avenue. I mean, really, again now; right hand drive, the smallish “tax saver” 2.4 litre engine, and a sluggish Borg Warner automatic gearbox! Still, it was a remarkably handsome Jaguar in that grey with scarlet leather.
You may remember that girl with the Oldsmobile Starfire from the summer school era a few years back. Well, she and I were married in the fall of 1960. We had just caught our breath after the marriage, when suddenly we were expecting a brand spanking new baby arriving almost “on the very next train.” Over the course of the following seven years, we had two sons, Geoffrey, Christopher and the youngest and, of course, the dearest by far, a splendid daughter, Elizabeth! Certainly the time was at hand for me to conduct my life in a thoroughly responsible fashion. Responsibilities forced me to take a series of more conscientious rational actions.
In the spring of 1961 Geoffrey Kirk White was born, and the world became an infinitely brighter spot in the galaxy. God must watch very carefully over the special children that are “first- born”, as their parents navigate the uncharted waters of parenthood, often not particularly well.
The Triumph TR 3 was reluctantly traded in on a brand new 1960 Volkswagen Beetle in what was Volkswagen’s idea of a pleasing, blue. We purchased a delightful, albeit tiny, two story colonial home in a neighborhood filled with terrific newly married people among them, David Penske, Roger’s brother.
My automotive interests were forced well into the background, as other pressing “family” issues loomed.
I sold the hell out of a bunch of life insurance, wore proper suits, worked long hours, returned to hearth and home each evening, and did it week in and week out.
The once roaring flames of my automotive interests were dimming to a barely flickering lick of flame.
KEEPING THE FLAME ALIVE . . .
There was, however, one ritual that I never curbed. Early, each Sunday morning I would go down to our local Pharmacy and purchase the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Never mind the world news. I’d go straight to the Times Sports section. After gleaning the Sports editorial portion for any scant auto racing coverage, I would settle into studying the automotive classifieds, which were always located at the very back of the Sports Section. It was here that one found the richest and most comprehensive selection of European automobiles for sale anywhere in America.
AND, THEN . . .
One Sunday in October, 1961, my eye caught a well composed advertisement in the Sunday Times for a 1954 Jaguar XK 120M Drophead cabriolet in black with a red leather interior. I had never forgotten the first XK120 I had seen which belonged to my friend Don Baumann. The seller of this DHC knew how to write an appealing ad. He totally reeled me in with his description of careful maintenance and servicing since new, the rich elegance of the scarlet hides, the warmth of the highly finished walnut veneers, the long look out over that gorgeous black hood, to say nothing of the bark of the factory dual exhausts. The advertisement finished off with a vaguely familiar name, a telephone number, and a Park Avenue address in Manhattan. The price was $2,400.
CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE READING CHAPTER 7
The TR3 would serve me well as an everyday car for business and daily use. I remember twice driving the Triumph all the way from suburban Philadelphia to Hartford, Connecticut to visit my sister for a few hours, turn right around and drive the Triumph straight back to Philadelphia, the same day, thinking nothing of it. And, that was an era when a great deal of the trip was completed without the benefit of thruways or high speed limited access highways, although there was the Merritt Parkway. Sure, it was a tiring journey, but motoring in the open air was enough of an elixir to maintain my enthusiasm. I don’t believe I ever had a bad moment in that Triumph.
Even my very conservative stepfather had gotten caught up a bit in the foreign car frenzy. He purchased a 1959 2.4 litre Jaguar sports sedan. No, not a 3.4, but one of the rarely seen in the USA, 2.4’s . . . Wait, it gets better; elephant grey with a red leather interior, right hand drive, and it had the slushy Borg Warner automatic gearbox. Bob had purchased this minor elephant from the Jaguar showroom in Manhattan.