The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Johnson Rod Mechanic

By Mel Tharp © 1986

Issue: February, 1986

For me, the spring of 1946 had a propitious beginning. World War II was over and the country was looking forward to an era of peace and prosperity. That fall I would be starting my senior year of high school. What made it even more auspicious for me was the fact that I had just landed a full-time job at R.L. Pirtle's Drug Store.

I grew up in the small western Kentucky town of Beech Grove. I had the advantages of living near shopping and recreational facilities without the hustle and bustle of the big city. On the negative side, finding summer employment for a teenager was very difficult unless you were willing to endure the rigors of a ten-hour day in the tobacco fields.

This is not to say that there were not some sacrifices entailed in accepting this job. For one thing, it meant giving up playing baseball on Sundays. Pirtle's was the only pharmacy in town, so agreeing to work Sundays was a prerequisite for my being hired.

This day started off like the typical leisurely Sunday, but before the day was over, what started out as a practical joke would precipitate a situation which was humorous although with potentially serious repercussions. Forty years later, I am prompted to remember this episode when the name of an antique or classic car is mentioned.

The last of the mid-morning church crowd had just left, and I was clearing away the last of the coffee cups and sundae dishes. I expected to have this day pretty much to myself. Mr. Pirtle was catching up on some work back in the pharmacy. If the radio reception was good, perhaps I could tune in on the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game that afternoon. I wondered how it would be to sit in the stands at old Sportsman's Park and watch Stan Musial belt one out.

Suddenly, the front door opened and my reverie was broken by the appearance of one Lilburn Hudd. This was the first indication that all might not be well this day.

Lilburn was not a companion you would choose for an afternoon dialogue - unless you were a priest in a confessional. He was a classic prototype of the "sad sack." People familiar with him had given up saying "How are you Lilburn?" Because it was a signal for Lilburn to open up his misery sack to reveal the sum total of his private woes. In addition to being a chronic malcontent, his slothfulness was legendary.

It was not that Lilburn didn't seek employment. Point of fact, he spent much of his time in quest of a job. His problem was that he had aspirations to be an instant expert on everything from engineer to brain surgeon. If he applied for employment at a bank it would have been unthinkable for him to accept anything less than vice-president. "The world just won't give me a break," was his complaint.

Lilburn sprawled down at one of the tables I had just finished wiping, and in doing so, managed to upset a sugar dispenser. I momentarily conjured up pleasant visions of him being banished to the most remote regions of Tierra Del Fuego.

"May I help you, Lilburn?" I asked, although I knew it was probably futile. Lilburn was not listed as an all-time great spender.

"Naw, I don't want nothing," he whined, adding a string of cigarette ashes to the spilled sugar. "You couldn't get it anyway. I don't know how you got this job. I asked Mr. Pirtle for a job six months ago. I wouldn't want no prescription you filled."

I was tempted to explain that compounding prescriptions was not in my job description. But I suppressed the urge. It was futile to argue with Lilburn. He simply would not have his ideas tainted with logic.

My only hope was that someone would come in who would divert Lilburn's attention from me. Then, Providence intervened in the form of one Joe Dent who operated the service station across the street. This was also unusual. Joe was normally closed on Sunday's.

"Business must be booming, Joe," I remarked as I served him his cherry phosphate.

"I don't relish working on Sundays," he replied. "Lloyd Sitler brought his Austin Bantam in for a tune-up and he wants it in the morning. You know how Lloyd is, and you know how he cherishes that car."

Indeed I knew the ways of Lloyd Sitler. This austere, unyielding man was devoid of humor. His steely disposition was sufficient to evoke awe from everyone with whom he came in contact. There were those who said he could melt rocks with a single glance. Despite his harsh temperament, Sitler was a good business man and he had accumulated a sizeable fortune from his tobacco and dairy farms. His parents had immigrated to this country sometime around 1875. It was said that the Sitlers were of Junker aristocracy. Lloyd certainly ruled his farm tenants like a Prussian general.

Sitler's only recreation was derived from his fleet of classic and antique cars. This included such classics as a Pierce Arrow, a Willis-Knight, and a Hudson-Terraplane. But ironically, his pride and joy was not really a classic in the true sense. It was a 1933 Austin Bantam.

The American Austin (Bantam) made its debut in the United States in 1930 - just in time for the Great Depression. It was well suited for individuals who liked to pinch pennies. Forty miles per gallon was more than twice what most other U.S. cars would deliver.

The little car was actually conceived during 1929, well ahead of that year's fateful stock market crash. The car was intended for the prosperous buyer who already had a full-sized auto and wanted an extra little toy to use in running local errands.

But when the Austin appeared, many would-be buyers laughed it off as a midget, a novelty, and a silly little thing that few people would dare to be seen in! As a matter of fact, the tiny car was the butt of many movie comedy scenes, and in circus acts where many clowns would emerge from an Austin.

The problem: few Americans took the car seriously. The Austin was too small for the average family.

Sitler's Bantam was a roadster. He bought it new for the original price of $335.00. It carried a 4-cylinder, 13 horsepower engine. The economic features of the car probably helped to endear it to Sitler's frugal nature. At any rate, he treated the car more like a beloved pet than a mode of transportation.

Joe gulped his drink hurriedly and started to leave.

"Drop back over this afternoon and we'll listen to the ballgame," I suggested.

"I'd like to but I've got to get this job done. My mechanic moved last week and I have to do all the work. It's hard to find mechanics now. All the good ones are moving to the city where the money is."

"I'm a good mechanic, Joe," Lilburn spoke up. His interest had perked up at the mention of a job. Why don't you hire me?"

Joe stopped and scratched his head as if in deep thought. He knew Lilburn well, and he couldn't resist the necessity to have a little fun. "You know, what I need is a good Johnson rod mechanic. Are you a pretty good one?"

"I reckon the best," Lilburn assured him.

"You be over at the station in the morning at ten o'clock. It looks like I might have to put a new Johnson rod in Lloyd's Austin. I guess with your expertise, I'll just let you install it."

Joe returned to his work assuming the matter was finished. In doing so he underestimated both Lilburn and Sitler. He assumed that Lilburn would simply forget the matter and never report for work or that someone would enlighten him that Joe was pulling his leg. He also assumed that Sitler would not be in to pick up the Austin before noon.

However, the position of Johnson rod mechanic had great appeal to Lilburn. He wasn't about to wait until mid-morning to report to work and risk the chance that someone else might be hired to fill the position. As for Sitler, he had no intentions of allowing his cherished toy to be out of his hands one moment more than necessary.

Lilburn was on the scene at seven o'clock the following morning. Finding the station locked, he went next door to Joe's house and was told by Mrs. Dent that Joe had stepped across the street to the drug store to have doughnuts and coffee.

Then, Lilburn had a brilliant idea that would help him make an impression on his future employer. If he could just find some tools lying about, and he could gain access to the station, he could start right to work and maybe have the Austin repaired by the time Joe returned. A search around the area uncovered some badly rusted wrenches and screwdrivers. Thinking these sufficient for the job at hand, he now looked around for a means of access. Alas, he found all doors and windows tightly secured. Lilburn gave up and decided to await Joe's return.

Now enter Lloyd Sitler. He too found the place padlocked and started next door to the Dent residence. Then, for the first time, he noticed Lilburn lolling against one of the gas pumps, the rusted tools scattered at his feet.

Sitler stared down at Lilburn with the same expression he would have used had he found something loathsome lying on his living room carpet. "Where is the proprietor?" he demanded. "Who are you?"

"I'm the new mechanic," Lilburn replied, beaming his rabbit-toothed grin. "Mr. Dent's over at the drug store having a sody pop. I'm in charge. I'll have your car running in no time. I'm gonna put in a new Johnson rod."

Sitler took one more look at Lilburn and his stack of rusty tools and struck a beeline for the drug store. The sight of Lilburn probing and pounding away at his Austin inflamed him beyond reason. It was in this enraged frame of mind that he tore through the front door of the drug store.

Sitler wasted no time on preliminaries. He pounced on Joe like a Puritan schoolmaster upbraiding a recalcitrant student. "You unprincipled scoundrel!" he roared. "You mislead me and deceived me! I demand an explanation!"

Poor Joe! He was temporarily mesmerized. "Wh-what's wrong?"

Sitler was livid with rage. "What is wrong indeed! I left my car with you in good faith. You assured me that it would be secure. Then you put it in the hands of that insouciant lout which you so loosely refer to as a mechanic. Johnson rod indeed! You have the unmitigated gall to charge me for mythical components installed. Anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about a car knows that, the term 'Johnson rod' is a standard joke often cited on the laymen! You swindler!"

It was becoming painfully obvious to Joe that his practical joke had flew home to roost. But he was also starting to recover from the initial shock or Sitler's onslaught. "Hold on Lloyd. I'll listen to whatever complaint you might have, but I don't have to take your verbal abuse. This is all the result of a misunderstanding. Your car is tuned and ready for the road. I want you to walk over and look at the car and satisfy yourself."

Joe never revealed to Sitler that the whole thing had started as the result of a practical joke. As for Lilburn, he need not have worried. Lilburn's attention span was short. By the time Joe and Sitler reached the station he was busy constructing a pyramid of empty oil cans in front of the gas pump. Once Lilburn had a achieved his aspirations to be a Johnson rod mechanic he was ready to move on to better things.

When Sitler found his car safe and sound, he promptly paid his bill and drove away. Although he never apologized for his verbal tirade, he did manage a weak smile as he drove away. "After all," Joe remarked later, "that's about the best you can expect of Lloyd Sitler."