Sunday, June 16, 2024

How I wound up working for Shelby American…

It all started with a girl named Patsy. She was a sweet, sunny, petite blonde from FLA two years behnd me at high school. She had this seductive smile that would melt the heart of any teenage boy and for some reason, she flashed it at me, one day. She was being claimed by a guy named Gary, but the relationship appeared to be a bit rocky. I left a little message for her, telling her that I was enjoying her smile and laugh, which she replied to quickly, giving me hope for something special to happen.

I had bought a little Honda CL90 motorcycle from a local used car dealer, who had gotten it from a sailor who had brought it in from his overseas tour and traded it in for a car. It was like new and being from overseas, it might have been one of the first ones on the country, as the Honda dealers had yet to receive them. I puttered around on it in town and rode it over to Patsy’s house a few times to visit. Apparently, Gary had seen it parked outside and confronted me, when I went to the store to buy a Coke or something. He wanted to start a fight, but the store manager headed it off and sent him on his way. This was the push-pull relationship that left Patsy in the middle of a messy situation.

I got a call from her, soon after, saying that she had was now pregnant by Gary. I took her to my family doctor and he confirmed it. I was shattered by the news and had no idea what was to come. I needed some time to gather my thoughts together, so for some reason concocted a plan to take a break on the little Honda CL90 and head towards the mountains for a long ride.

I left with a few belongings in a little briefcase, strapped to the back of the bike. I had layered up with a few shirts and my lightweight vinyl jacket. Suddenly, off I went, not giving anyone a clue as to what I was doing. I just jumped on the bike and headed up Highway 395, stopping every 100 miles for one gallon of gas. I had left in the afternoon and by the time it got dark, I was in the Sierras and it was getting cold. 

All this was happening in April and the "flat-lander" me hadn’t considered that there was snow in the mountains at 6k feet. Hypothermia started to set in and I decided to stop at the first lit building where I could take shelter. Fortunately, the only such building was a sheriff’s substation in Mono Lake. It was almost midnight and the outside temperature was about 20 degrees. I hobbled into the lobby of the building and was met by a lone sheriff who was quite surprised to see me walk in the door, obviously riding a motorcycle.

I asked if it was okay to stay inside for a while to thaw out and he offered an open jail cell with an army cot and blanket to warm up with. I gladly accepted the offer and then crawled under the blanket and fell fast asleep. I awoke the next morning to a bright sunny day and left the office with gratitude. The water in the CL90’s battery was frozen and I had to push start the bike to get it to fire up. Off I went, having spent my only night in jail, voluntarily.

The low-beam in the headlight had burned out, so I sought a replacement part in Reno. I found a motorcycle shop in town and they happened to have a bulb in stock. With the light repaired, I headed back down towards Sacramento, stopping to rest at the border check station at the CA/NV state line. Then, I headed out and down the I-80 highway on the little bike, which had a top speed of about 55 mph, which is the minimum speed to be driving on the highway system in CA. I stayed in the right lane and was passed by many large trucks along the way.

I stopped once at a pay phone to call my family. I didn’t have enough change to make the long-distance call, so I used the special code of calling collect to myself. When Mom answered, she said that Bill was not home, but asked about where the call was coming from. The operator told her that it was coming from Sacramento, so that was all she really needed to know. She knew that I was alive and about 500 miles away from home, but she didn’t know why. All I had left behind was a slip of paper saying “I am taking a sabbatical.” She didn’t know about Patsy and how affected I had been with the sudden ending of our relationship.

I continued to drive across the Bay Bridge in SFO and found my way towards Haight-Ashbury where all the “Happenings” were occurring during the "Swinging 60s". I got soaked driving over the bridge when a sudden rainstorm hit me. I stopped at a 24-hour laundry and dried out most of the outer layers, then laid down next to a tree, near the parked bike and fell asleep. No one bothered me for some reason and I slept long enough to get my body recharged for the next leg of the trip. Riding about 1,100 miles kept my mind focused on riding the bike, not my heartbreak, but it was taking a toll on my body and spirit.

The last leg was to head back to LA and stop to see my father, Kendall, who was living with his mother in Playa Del Rey. I had spent the previous summer up there, working at a gas station across the street as a post-graduation adventure. 

There were about 400 miles left to go… 

 I headed down the famous, scenic Highway 1, with the little Honda just putting along happily. It was getting about 100 mpg and gasoline was about $.25 a gallon, so the trip wasn’t costing me a lot. I had stopped for food a few times, but mostly I just drove the bike forward in search of something that I could not foresee.

I made it safely to PDR and my Dad’s place. They were not totally surprised to see me as my Mother had called them to say that I might be headed in that direction. I hadn’t shaved in a couple of days and my eyes looked like burning coals from 1,500 miles of riding through many temperature changes with only an open-face helmet with a flat face shield as protection for my face.

I called my Mom and told her that I was safe and might be staying up in LA for a while. My father, Kendall, had found work at Shelby American earlier, and was working in the mail room. When they offered to let me stay awhile, he asked around at Shelby’s to see if there was any work available. He told them that I had been in auto shop classes in high school and was good working on bikes and cars, so they said, “Have him come in on Monday.” There was no interview, no application, just “Show up and we’ll put you to work.”

I had swapped the little Honda for a 1956 Ford Station Wagon, which had a burned valve but was otherwise in good shape, except once when the brakes failed on the way to work. The brake pedal went straight to the floor, as I was approaching the S-A building. I used the emergency brake to stop the car, lifted the brake pedal back up and then it began to work again. I replaced the master cylinder that night and it was fine afterward.

I was tasked to assemble the headlight assemblies for the Shelby Mustang production in the east building along W. Imperial Highway. Shelby had leased two large buildings, with the race shop in the West and the production line in the East. They had dug 4-foot deep trenches in the floor of the building so the technicians could work underneath the cars, as they progressed down the assembly line. Cars would come in from the East end of the building, some getting new oil pans or traction bars for the rear suspension. Down near my station, they were attaching the fiberglass hoods, truck lids, tail lights, and the front nose pieces. These were fitted with long studs, which attached to the car with speed nuts once the piece was properly positioned.

Apparently, the molds for the nose and tail pieces were being made in Long Beach, where it is moist most of the time and the molds would lose their correct shape during the lay-up process. Once the parts were painted and attached, the outer edges of the panels wouldn’t align properly, so the mechanics called me over to grab the inside of the engine bay and put my knee down on the outside edge of the nose piece until it matched the fender lines. They had been coated with some clear RTV sealant, so it squeezed out when the nose piece was attached. Once the nose was installed, the mechanics wiped off the excess RTV and the car went down the line to the next station.

I worked there from my arrival in April, until about July, when they announced that they were moving the production facilities to Michigan. If we wanted to keep working for the company, we would have to move with them. Sorry, that wasn’t a good option for me, a SoCal native. I had been in college on a student deferment to prevent being drafted during the Vietnam War, and I hadn’t been in school for 3 months.

My father told me to sign up for the US Air Force. I drove into LA and signed up for a 90-day delayed enlistment program. I packed up and headed back home to San Diego, where I found out that Patsy had gotten married to Gary. I wound up buying a 1934 Ford 2-door sedan rolling chassis and put a 312 Ford engine and auto transmission in it, got it running just before I had to leave for my USAF enlistment inside the 90-day window of opportunity.

In summation: If I hadn’t gotten my heart broken by the Patsy disaster, I probably wouldn’t have taken off to parts unknown to clear my head, winding up in LA and getting my job at Shelby American. Life is not a linear event and your choices can have unexpected consequences and outcomes. Patsy got divorced and I went to visit her in FLA, but it wasn’t a great experience. She took off with her child to NY with some other jealous guy who heard that I had come to see her. We never spoke again. Years later, I heard that Gary had died in a motorcycle crash.

Life goes on, with memories and a feeling of gratitude for the challenges and blessings that come to you in your lifetime. I have survived 3 motorcycle crashes, two divorces and various ups and downs that we all face in some form or other. I have been blessed by a wonderful family and friends who have supported me along life’s path. I am very thankful for the journey.

It’s hard to see how people and circumstances might play out in your future life. As much as you would like to say that you have control over your life and your choices, sometimes there are a series of events that overshadow your life and your plans if you had any. Some people have the ability and wisdom (and luck) to plot out a course of action, follow their passion and experience a fulfilling and successful life. For others, life is like living a ping-pong game where the ball takes unexpected bounces and leads to surprise results and outcomes.

Despite all the ups and downs that have occurred in my life, I feel much gratitude to my family, friends and those who have supported my efforts to live my best life, even when I am not fully aware of what it might be in the moment. Looking back at all of the major life events, I can see how they all evolved and created the life experience that is mine now. There was a lot of discomfort, danger, distress and heartbreak in those peak moments in your life, but it all plays out in the end, mostly to your advantage if you can surmount those challenging moments and just keep moving forward. 

Each of us has their own heartbreak stories from the past or maybe are living them right now. Keep strong, ask for help, and just move forward, knowing that there is a bigger plan in place, that you probably have no idea is coming your way.

Blessings on your own journey..

Bill Silver


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