Mr. Schumann’s Model T

Old Man Schumann was an urban entrepreneur. In the 1920’s and 30’s, in the logged off land between Seattle and Tacoma, he built a water company and telephone company and ran them from his home. Later, he sold milk from his cow and raised a half-acre of strawberries, selling them in front of his house after paying us kids 25 cents a flat to pick them.

The water system was interesting. The water was pumped out of Star Lake, the pump house and head pipe on my uncle Vern’s waterfront property. The pump house was a small, low structure, half buried at the bottom of the hill across the road from the lake. Whenever Mr. Schumann came by to tinker with the pump, I always poked my head inside, fascinated by the strange machine that sent the water way up over the hill to the big wooden water tower behind my uncle’s ten acres. Amid the smell of grease, a huge, floppy red belt mounted to a large antique electric motor drove a large flywheel on the pump, which when activated, squirted water in several directions. Once the water was in the tower, customers on the other side of the hill were fed by gravity.

To get to the Schumann’s, I walked along the water pipe, which always leaked at the joints, watering the weeds in summer, creating intricate ice sculptures in winter. At the water tower, I crawled under the barbed wire fence into Zigalla’s pasture, crossed their ten acres, then down the road another block to the Schumann’s driveway. Next to the back porch was a large hand pump, the source of drinking water for the house, (they used the lake water for non-drinking purposes). In the pantry was the phone exchange, once run by Mrs. Schumann. She transferred the calls by ringing the code for each family, (McClellan’s, two shorts and a long, the Zigalla’s, a long and a short, etc), while she ran her normal household chores. This system was phased out, taken over by the Kent Phone Company shortly after World War Two was over, not long before this story.

To maintain the water and phone business, Mr. Schumann owned two cars, a 1925 Model T, touring car and his “good car”, a 1932 Ford V-8 four-door sedan. They both sat in the garage, the ‘32 a shiny dark blue with yellow wheels, the T‚ a dusty and work worn black. On my trips to buy milk or pick strawberries, I spent time playing in the Model T, which was fine with Mr. Schumann since he knew I couldn’t hurt it. I knew it ran because once a year he would pull the head pipe out of the lake for cleaning, using the T‚ to jerk it up onto the beach. The back seat was missing as he had used this car to haul reels of telephone wire for years before that business went away. The top had sections of material missing around the back window, used for patching things around his little farm. I never saw the car without the top up and the isinglass curtains in place. Until I moved away from the lake at age 13, I played in the T‚ at every opportunity, imagining that I was driving it down the road, wind blowing in my face through the split windshield.

We moved closer to Seattle, into a developed area near Sea-Tac Airport. At the dinner table one night, I passed along some depressing news: “Mr. Schumann will sell his Model T‚ for $100! I’ll never get enough lawns mowed in time to buy it!” My father shrugged, “$100? Forget it, there isn’t a T‚ on this planet worth more than $25.” As a boy, he hadn’t been impressed with them. “If you pulled both ears‚ down for any length of time they would fall apart,” he said. The T‚ had a spark control lever on the left side of the steering wheel, a throttle lever on the right side. Pulling them down, (both ears), advanced the spark and opened the throttle. With a flimsy crankshaft and a Rube Goldberg‚ oiling system, any sustained high speed usually spelled disaster for the engine. Even if I had $100, I saw that the T‚ wouldn’t be welcome around here.

The summer wore on and I put the Model T‚ from my mind. That September, shortly after school started, my father died suddenly, a large blood clot in the heart caused by lots of bacon, buttermilk, no exercise and three packs of un-filtered Lucky Strikes a day. I was four years younger than my brother but he didn’t drive and my mother never learned. Since I was the only who knew how, I inherited the family car: a green 1940 Pontiac Torpedo Eight four- door sedan. I was fourteen years old.

The following spring, I got word that Mr. Schumann would sell the T‚ for $25 to whoever got there first. My father was right; $100 was too much money for a T. I enlisted the help of my friend Lawrence and his ‘37 Plymouth coupe to race to Mr. Schumann’s house with the money and we were there before anyone else. I gave Mr. Schumann the money, both of us shaking visibly, he from old age and me from excitement. We pushed the T out of the garage and tried to start it. Lawrence worked second shift at Boeing and didn’t have much time. The car looked terrible with it’s tattered top, foggy side curtains and covered with dust. It didn’t look capable of going anywhere. With lots of hand cranking and advice from Mr. Schumann, it finally sputtered to life but no amount of pushing on the gear pedals would make it move. The transmission linings were badly worn and we didn’t have time to tighten them, as Lawrence had to get moving now! So we pushed it out into the road and tied a rope from the front axle to the Plymouth’s back bumper and prepared to take off. “Just a minute,” called Mr. Schumann. “Don’t mistreat this car like some young people do by rev’in‚ up the motor and then a’settin‚ the back tires a’scratchin‚ to get a’holt; promise you won’t.” It took a bit but I realized he was telling me not to burn the tires with a Model T, Ford? “Sure, I promise. Goodbye!” Gripping the wheel, Lawrence took up the slack in the rope and off we went.

Now I must tell you that a Model T‚ Ford does not have a steering gear like other cars. The steering shaft goes straight to an arm that connects directly to the tie rods that turn the wheels. What this means is: one turn of the steering wheel will move the wheels from full right to full left turn. This brings new meaning to the term sensitive steering. The slightest move of the steering wheel will cause the car to make a sudden and severe turn. People didn’t all run off the road in the old days because they drove slowly and they practiced a lot. I learned how to steer a T, like some people learned to swim by being thrown into deep water, towed behind a Plymouth at 55 MPH by a guy who’s going to be late for work.

As we flew down a hill with a major highway at the bottom, I found that the brake band, located in the transmission, was also worn out. So was the hand brake. Lawrence started to stop but saw I wasn’t slowing, and, seeing that the traffic was clear, hit the gas, but not in time. The T‚ has no bumper so the big 30 X 3 1/2 tires screeched on his bumper before he got out of the way, then the rope broke. It broke several more times before we pulled up in front of my house. Lawrence jumped out, untied the rope and then set his rear tires a’scratchin‚ to get a’holt, already late for work. After prying my fingers from the big wooden steering wheel, I climbed out of the old Ford to look it over. Other than what appeared to be teeth marks in the seat, we had made it home with no damage.

Sitting in front of the house, it looked lost. It seemed so content closed up in that garage, home sweet home since 1925. The top looked terrible, full of holes where Mr. Schumann needed patch material. The isinglass side curtains were fogged with age, no longer of use. I set to work, learning about the car from neighbors who came by to relive their youth. “Turn your thumb under when you crank’er or you’ll break your arm for sure,” one of them warned. I mail ordered, (from Sears Roebuck), a set of transmission linings and a Bull Dog brand ignition timer. “Don’t buy a cheap timer, that’s what broke my arm,” another cautioned. I removed and cleaned the points on the four wooden coils, careful not to get a shock. I learned another lesson: Model T’s had quick-change lining during the last two years of production; mine wasn’t one of these. To change the lining, the three bands had to removed from the transmission, the old lining removed and the new lining riveted on. The man next door, wanting to relive his youth, volunteered to help me install the new lining when it came. While we waited for Sears to deliver, my friend Jim and I decided to paint the car. I bought some black enamel, (Henry would have approved), and using my mom‚s hand pump Flit gun, (fly sprayer), we painted the whole thing. Other than an occasional blob and some orange peel, it turned out almost as good as a Ford factory job. With a can of white paint and a brush, we painted on white wall tires, a touch of class usually reserved for Lincoln and Cadillac’s. We tightened the trans bands as tight as we could, enough to do some joy riding if we avoided steep hills and fast stops.

When the bands arrived, we went to the neighbor but a football game was on TV. “Can’t do it today,” he said as he poured himself some home brew, “Let’s do it next weekend.” Having zero patience, I borrowed some tools and with my friend Jim, we became Ford mechanics. With the top plate removed, we could see that the bands clamped around three large drums in the transmission. The three pedals on the floor selected the mode: left pedal was the low gear/clutch band, middle pedal was the reverse band and the right pedal was the brake band. We loosened the bands and with much swearing and pulling, removed them. They weren’t the quick change‚ type for sure. We managed to get what was left of the material off of the metal bands and rivet the new lining on. In the process of re-installing one of the bands, I dropped a washer, ooops; down it fell, into the bottom of the transmission. We drained the oil, a considerable job since the engine and transmission share the same oil. The washer was too large to come out of the drain hole so we tried to fish a wire down to it. No luck after many tries. “Let’s leave it there,” said Jim, ” It will probably stay on the bottom when it’s running.” Made sense to me so we buttoned it up and hand cranked the engine to life. (The car had a starter but I couldn’t afford a battery). “Clank, clank, clunk, clunk!” I shut it off immediately. Something was very wrong in there. We drained the oil and fished a strange piece of metal from the bottom of the transmission. We finally identified it as a magnet, torn loose from the flywheel. The ignition of the T‚ can run on either battery, (if you can afford one), or magneto, the magneto being the magnets on the flywheel. The loose washer was tearing them loose. We tried again, draining the oil, fishing out the magnet, adding oil and starting it up. More loose magnets banging around inside the transmission. After a few sleepless nights, trying to think of a solution, we tried it again, fishing out even the elusive washer this time. Same results: “Rattle, clank, clank, clunk!”

Well, for me, my Ford mechanic days were over. I had no idea how to fix it. The dream I had held for years was ended; no chugging down back country dirt roads, looking over the T’s radiator cap and jutting front fenders, wind blowing in my face through the split windshield. Was this an indicator of things to come? Was life going to be a series of things falling apart and making noises that cause sleepless nights?

Lucky for me, a collector of old Fords happened along and traded me a very pretty ‘33 Chevrolet sedan straight across for the defective T. I thought he was nuts but he shipped it to Florida, leaving me a real car, one with a clutch and gearshift and doors with windows in them and brakes on all four wheels, and no flying magnets. I flew down roads with the windshield open, wind in my face until a rod bearing began to make a rattling sound. Well, here we are, fifty-nine years later, the car has a strange rattle when it first starts up and the pick-up has a funny noise in the right front wheel. During the years since Mr. Schumann’s T, the dozens of cars and trucks, all owned by me, have made a variety of sounds as they mechanically failed, causing me lots of anxiety and sleep loss. I have learned to enjoy life while you can because soon, something is going to wear out. Now I notice a clunk in my right knee and my doctor doesn’t like my glucose levels.