Excerpt from Transplanted Yankee: Lest All My Balderdash Be Forgotten.
I worked as a small engine mechanic at Critter’s Creek during high school. Critter’s Creek was a small amusement park located in Chennault Park in Monroe, Louisiana. Kim S., one of my best friends in high school, got me hired on there.
Critter’s Creek had an outdoor roller skating trail (which tended to trip most skaters due to the acorns and sticks that fell onto it), a bumper boat pond, a go-kart track, and a dual water slide. The water slide was the main attraction, but the go-karts and bumper boats were popular, too. There was also a small zoo consisting of the owner’s pet peacocks. Birds are nasty creatures and the larger, the nastier in my opinion.
The first year I worked there, I started out running the bumper boats. Think of them as bumper cars, but on the water instead. I had the monster tan as I wore muscle shirts and shorts, not that I had muscles—I was pretty skinny in those days. I would spend as much time as possible in the mechanic shed before and after work and during my lunch break, though. About a third of the way through the season the mechanic quit.
Feeling the need to have all of his three main attractions running, Melvin, the owner, gave me a chance to prove I could fix the engines. I had taken Industrial Arts (shop) in 8th grade under Mr. Brock, so I knew how engines worked, and I was good with my hands. In addition to small engine mechanics, this class got me started in the electrical and electronics field. I consider Mr. Brock to be on my “Top 5 People Who Influenced My Life” list. But I digress.
Critter’s Creek had 13 go-kart frames and only five running engines, a mix of Briggs & Strattons, Hondas, and something I’d never heard of and can’t remember. The other engines were in various states of disrepair. I managed to get another two running by combining good parts from the other engines and reseating some valves. The rest were kaput. I could have gotten one more running, but the valves were seriously burned up. The previous mechanic seemed to like to run the engines hotter than they should have been; he left me a pile of burned up valves.
I took two of those valves to Melvin, and said if he could find some new ones, I could get one more running. After that, he should consider buying new engines. He bought the valves for me, which brought our total operational go-karts up to eight. However, at any given time we were lucky to have six running, because the customers seemed to think it was a bumper car ride instead of go-kart racing. I spent a lot of time welding bumpers back on (thanks, Dad, for teaching me to weld). We limped along the rest of summer on those eight go-karts while I whined about not having the parts the fix those other engines.
There were also a dozen boat engines (from the bumper boats) I had to keep running, and after a couple of weeks of tinkering with them, they had no more problems.
The next year on my first day back, I figured I would be spending the next two weeks getting those eight engines running again. They had sat up for months without being run, so I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen. Melvin surprised me by having 12 brand-spanking new engines on pallets still wrapped in plastic sitting outside the mechanic’s shed. He asked if that was enough to shut me up. I just grinned and got to work installing them on the frames. I let them break-in for the designated 24 hours, changed the oil, set the governors, and then got to cleaning out “my” shed of all the parts I didn’t need anymore. The thirteenth frame was to become my own toy.
I was digging through all the parts, deciding what to keep and what to throw away, when I came across a weird looking piece of an engine. It looked like a manifold of some type, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was for. I didn’t throw it away. With the parts I had left, I built my toy, a bored out Briggs & Stratton with over-sized rings. As I was putting the carburetor together, I noted the manifold port; it looked just like the one from that weird piece I saw a few days earlier. I dug it out of my junk box and realized it was a dual-carburetor manifold. Dual carbs on my toy! Oh Yeah! Needless to say, it ran like a scalded dog. It didn’t get put into the line-up for standard customers, though. That was my toy, and I kept it around the back of the shed with an old piece of canvas over it. I ran it after hours, sometimes on the streets there around Chennault Park once it closed for the day. I never got in trouble, but then I don’t think anybody could have caught me if they had tried. It’s a wonder I didn’t kill myself.
About midway through that season, Melvin decided he wanted to grow his business, so he hired a marketing company to come in and help run things. The first thing they did was give us uniforms. Cool. I had never worn a uniform before (other than Junior ROTC). It was a cool looking shirt with ¾ length sleeves, the logo on the front (a gator, raccoon, and other critters sliding down a water slide), and “Tom Helps Any Critter” on the back. I spent about 30 minutes in my shed with that thing on and decided to rip the sleeves out. A wood and metal shed on asphalt in the middle of a Louisiana summer is hot. There was no way I was going to wear that thing all day. The marketing people were not happy. They didn’t like this skinny, greasy mechanic wearing cowboy boots, a cowboy hat with peacock feathers (from Melvin’s peacock zoo), and a wife-beater bearing the company’s logo running around the park. They also took this opportunity to complain about how I gripe at the customers for treating my go-karts like bumper cars. I didn’t appreciate their lack of understanding about how to run a go-kart track! They suggested I get some coveralls to put on when I needed to walk across the park.
I was about to refuse when the two college guys and the ex-Navy sailor who worked the track convinced me that I was a grouch and that I needed to be more personable. Dave, the ex-sailor, said, “When you walk up to the customers, just smile and ask, ‘How y’all are?’” To this day, I still use that phrase. I’m still a grouch, though.
Well, I went and got my coveralls: pink and white pinstriped. And I ripped the sleeves out. I thought they looked good with my cowboy boots and straw cowboy hat with the peacock feathers. I never heard anything further from the marketing guys.
One time, Melvin had Ronnie McDowell come out and put on a concert. I think they were friends, because I heard Ronnie did it for free, or near free or something. They brought in this large flatbed trailer, and Ronnie and his crew jumped up on that thing and commenced to singing their asses off. That man knew how to work a crowd back then. He might still be able to, but I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen him since then.
Part of the way Melvin made money was to sell tickets at a ticket booth and then people would use the tickets to buy things (food, waterslide, go-karts, etc.). Go-kart rides were two minutes a ticket. Well, some redneck with too much beer and not enough money got the wise idea to bribe me for an extra 30 seconds on the go-kart track with a beer. And then it became an extra minute. And before long, it was a beer per go-kart ride, with sixteen ounce beers getting you five minutes.
Now, 16 was not the legal drinking age in Louisiana (it was 18 then), but 16 is the age where a 16 year old thinks it should be 16. I tried my damnest to drink all of those beers, but I couldn’t keep up with demand. The only thing to do was store them in my water cooler. One thing you would think you didn’t want around go-karts was a bunch of drunk rednecks. Or maybe you do, who knows? Sounds like fun! I know they were having a blast, and they weren’t even tearing up my babies, so I let them ride pretty much as long as they wanted to.
As with any good thing, it didn’t take long before the word was out about the kid at the go-kart track selling rides for a beer. The line at the go-kart track was long. So long in fact, Melvin had to come investigate the sudden popularity in something that should have taken third fiddle to his main attraction, Ronnie McDowell.
So here I am, sitting up under the mechanic shed’s open door in my chair, a line of about 50 people at the gate—all with a single unopened beer in their hand—and rednecks hootin’ and hollerin’ as they ran the go-karts around the track. On a five minute timer. He looked into the ticket box and then looked at the long line at the gate. He emptied the half-dozen or so tickets into his hand and asked, “Where are the beers at, Tom?”
I shyly pointed to the water cooler.
He lifted the lid, and the look on his face was neutral. Here was the largest man I had ever met in my life, gold rings, big cowboy hat, and shiny boots, just staring into a cooler of about 30 beers. He stuck his hand in there and rummaged around until he found a Coors. Melvin was one of the coolest bosses you could hope for. He closed the lid, smiled, and said, “I think we need to start taking tickets again. I don’t have an alcohol license, so I can’t resell these.” He then just left the track drinking his ice-cold Coors.
I thought for sure I was getting fired then, but I didn’t. I guess he must have been 16 once.
Later that evening, once the show was over, Ronnie and his crew came out to the track for some fun. Ronnie was no dummy. He looked at me and asked, “Which one is the fastest?”
Now, all the go-karts had governors on them to keep them from going too fast. I said, “Ronnie, they’re all about the same. Have to be to keep from tearing them up.”
“You mean to tell me you don’t have one around here you keep for yourself?” Like I said, he wasn’t a dummy. I pulled my toy out from around the side of the shed and let him drive that one. It was too much for him, unfortunately (it was too much for me on that track), but he did manage to run everyone else off.
I spent most of the next morning before opening time welding them all back together.
I saw his bus parked out by a hotel a few years later. I can’t remember where it was—Virginia, Florida, Michigan, somewhere—and I had the thought of walking up and knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, I’m the go-kart dude from Critter’s Creek! Let me in!” Never did it, though.