Remember when wrecking yards weren’t called auto recyclers? When their staff members were incredibly filthy, had bad teeth and used foul language? When cars were turned upside down and torched after the good parts were removed? When oil, gasoline and anti-freeze were dumped on the ground with no regard for the environment? I remember well. In the 1950’s, when I began to get hooked on cars, South End Auto Wreckers was my headquarters for cheap parts. It had all of the attributes mentioned above, a rich source of stimuli for a greasy fingered kid like me. It was located in South Park, a poor working man’s district across the polluted Duwamish River from the bustling Boeing Plant 2 in South Seattle. The roads were pot-holed and muddy and the air was thick from smoke from this and the many other junkyards busily burning cars.
At the muddy entrance of SEAW was the office, an old shack, at one time some poor soul’s home, now barely standing with old car parts scattered about. Inside, several old worn out mohair car seats leaned against the walls, the lunchroom for the staff when they weren’t out in the mud pulling parts. The uneven wooden floor was a thick mixture of mud, grease, cigarette butts, small unwanted car parts and discarded lunch scraps, all nicely rotted to form a smelly carpet. Near the front was a table holding a cash register and piles of work orders, all black from greasy fingers. The phone was hooked up to an oohga horn so it could be heard out in the yard. All conversation in the office was unprintable; filthy topics and words interspersed with laughter and oohga’s. The things I learned here stuck into my teen brain much deeper than any of the lectures I sat through at nearby Highline High School.
The staff: Yard Supervisor; John, seldom exposed to bath water, about 5 ft tall with about three visible but very rotten teeth. He had a great sense of humor, at least he seemed to find every situation very funny. Typical sentence: “Hey, @#%, go get that @#% and tell *&%$ to @#$% hisself! Hee, hee. His laugh was more of a wheeze, hinting of the emphysema that would eventually kill him. John made simple decisions, directed the Yard Rats and reported to the owner. He had a wife and children, who must have developed a positive relationship (or immunity) to dirt, both physical and verbal.
Yard Rats: A small group of nondescript humans that spent each day in the yard pulling parts. Their faces changed constantly as they drifted in, got fired and went down the road mumbling, kicking rocks. Faceless newcomers replaced them. The job conditions were tough; rain, mud and cold were constant buddies while they busted knuckles on rusty bolts. John furnished them incentive with his colorful threats, probably the only intellectual stimulation they received in their lives. Sometimes, John would assign one to the cash register since he wasn’t very good with figures, having dropped out of school in the sixth grade. These “smart ass %$#@‚s”, as John called them, sometimes lasted several weeks before getting fired or disappeared into the mists with a handful of money from the cash drawer.
The Owner: Nels, a tall, thin, handsome Norwegian, intelligent, educated, lucid, sensitive, honest, fair, a stark contrast from his employees. Nels handled all of the buying and selling, the payroll, firing (which hurt him deeply every time), hiring and dealing with legal items. Parts I bought from John; cars I bought from Nels since titles had to be signed. I suspected that John couldn’t write. I really liked Nels.
The Yard: About twenty acres surrounded by a sagging fence. In front of the sign painted on the fence: South End Auto Wrecking, was a parking lot with huge pot-holes full of water in winter, bomb craters in summer. At the edge of the lot was a row of cars that were complete and ran, the used car section. Since there wasn’t a lot boy or a water hose, these cars were never washed. Nels bought them cheap from desperately poor people. Inside the gate, the office shack and some old truck bodies that helped keep parts out of the weather. Beyond this, rows of dead cars were laid out, Fords over here, Chevs over there and all the other brands between, the broken dreams of an affluent society. Seen from the perspective of today when a ‚32 Ford roadster is worth $70,000, a Cadillac V-16 over $100,000, it seems impossible that these same models were chopped apart and burned for their scrap right before my eyes, while learning new swear words from John. Prices? Starters: $1.00, fenders: $5.00, engines: $20 to $40, hoods or trunks: $10. I bought many parts to keep my cars running, mostly with money earned from my part time jobs in gas stations. I bought a perfect ‘48 Ford V-8 engine for $35 and a totally rebuilt‚ ‘48 Dodge engine for $85. I also bought a lovely ‘40 DeSoto sedan from the lot in front for $35 since Nels was tired of looking at it. This yard didn’t have any vicious junkyard dogs to protect it since there was nothing of great value here. Stealing pocketable stuff from a junkyard was not a big crime.
Update: a few years ago, I needed two wheels for our Toyota van so I could mount snow tires. I happened to be driving by South End Auto Recyclers, which had moved into the Duwamish Valley south of Renton many years ago. Parking in a paved parking lot, I entered a huge steel building full of spotless racks of shiny auto parts neatly wrapped in clear plastic. Behind a long counter, uniformed personnel stood in front of computers, checking on the status of parts needed by the customers standing in line. Phones were constantly ringing. When it was my turn, a recycler specialist‚ escorted me over to the wheel section so I could make my selection. I looked out of the door and saw the yard, still muddy, with Yard Rats pulling parts. Except now they enter them into a computer for inventory control. All fluids are separated and contained, keeping the environment clean. After paying for two faded wheels (about what I paid for that DeSoto), I mentioned to the young man that I used to buy stuff many years ago when the yard was in South Park and was owned by a tall guy named Nels. “Nels!”, he shouted, “He‚s still here, back there in the electrical section.” I couldn’t believe it. I went back between the racks of starters and alternators and there, bent over a workbench, was Nels. Still very tall and handsome, he wiped his hands on a shop rag and stood up when I said his name. “Why, I remember you, you were the kid that hung around and bought all those Ford parts.” Both of our eyes watered as we reminisced about that far off world of 50 years ago. He continued to work as he still enjoyed it, no taste for retirement. We talked about John, how his health failed quickly, dying much too young. I wondered whether he went out of this life as clean as he entered it. We talked about the many changes that had occurred in the used parts business. Remembering the black smoke from the burning hulks, the gasoline, oil and antifreeze pouring onto the ground, the horrible working conditions, we concluded that great improvements have been made. But the prices, $1500 for an engine, $60 for a rear view mirror, $500 for bucket seats; a cleaner environment is not cheap. As I carried my wheels to the van, I took a deep breath of clean air and thought about these changes. Would I go back to the 50’s? Would you?