It's with a bit of trepidation that I present this post. I originally wrote it over twenty years ago and it has been passed around some of my circles, all of whom enjoyed it, and have told me time and again that I should post it on my blog. However, when I started putting this together I became aware of many similar versions being told and retold in coffee shops and family gatherings, church socials and post offices, ranging from locations in Alberta to Montana, North and South Dakota to Saskatchewan, and Nebraska. Their origins were long before I was around. Since the story was told by a local handyman who hailed from Kansas, I'm using Kansas as the location of this story. I might add that there were some good things coming out of the Great Depression: a lot of good stories that were just as bizarre as this one. However, this story was first heard by JC in the local coffee shop in the fall of 1968 when he and Tude were taking a break from some earth moving chores. The story was originally told by Charlie, apparently a relative of one of the actual players, although so much water has run under the bridge in the intervening years that, everyone who is still living has forgotten just who he was related to. And he can no longer tell you, either.
Now, if I am treading on someone's toes, I am sorry. But it's about time this particular story was told.
So, here is the story, as told to JC (and the rest of Coffee Row who was there at the time) by Charlie, the local school handyman, and embellished (maybe, just a bit) by me. We'll call the leading character, Al, because it's short, easy to remember, and I can't remember what the original character's name was. Al's mother-in-law will be known as, Zelda, no explanation necessary.
Stories about mothers-in-law have run rampant since--well--there have been mothers-in-law. That (mostly fictional) overbearing, demanding, demeaning, meddlesome, parasol-brandishing blight on humanity has been the object of jokes and other stories in nearly every culture around the world. It has even made a great deal of mileage on radio and TV, being immortalized in popular shows such as The Flintstones and Bewitched. For years men (and women) have contrived to get even with that most notorious and undesirable part of matrimony, only to have the scheme backfire, leaving the triumphant mother-in-law waggling her finger at her son or daughter and uttering those four magic words: 'I told you so.' All in all, that beleaguered son, or daughter-in-law can get pretty fed up with those all-too-often encounters with their spousal matriarch. But did anyone pause to think that someone or something else might be just as weary, and just as determined to wage vengeance?
It was late spring, 1935, in the Kansas Dust Bowl. The Depression was still raging on with no end in sight but somehow people managed to get by. They worked together, played together, and helped each other out the best they could. As a result, the community was close, to the point of everyone knowing what everyone else was up to. The upside to this was knowing what others needed. And it was one of the things that attracted Al's wife to move out west.
Celeste came from Philadelphia, which like New York City, was the self-acclaimed cultural center of the United States. In other words, the elite considered themselves superior to anyone else, especially the peasants from the Midwest. Celeste's family could never understand why she fell for the likes of Al but then, they never knew how much true love could motivate a person. Misgivings were many but the couple built a life together.
Once a year, Zelda took the train out to Kansas and stayed--rather, endured the hillbilly lifestyle--for an average of six weeks where Al was largely ignored while Celeste was bombarded with how her life could have amounted to something if she had only heeded her mother's advice and married Alexander Schtuckupp or some other equally boring aristocrat instead of some back country hayseed whose idea of modern indoor plumbing was a pump jack over the kitchen sink, and a nocturnal visit to the bathroom required a lantern, coat and boots. And when Al's presence was acknowledged, he endured a continuous barrage of insults, demands and constant reminders about how he had ruined Celeste's--Zelda's daughter's--life.
But it was only for six weeks. And who was counting?
Al's family car at the time was the battered remains of a Ford Model-A Open-Touring or Tub, as that body style was often referred. This one was even more open as the windshield was long gone; the only evidence that one ever existed was the two tarnished nickel-plated supports on the cowl which now led a new life as a place to hang a hat and coat whilst performing roadside repairs.
Six weeks over with and the day of departure finally arrived. Al wasted no time heading out to get the car ready for that eternally joyous six-mile journey back into town. Al even had a spring in his step as he fairly pranced around the car, checking the oil and topping up the gas tank. Everything was going so well, until he happened to see a large dark spot under the front of the car.
The radiator core had finally given up the ghost and dumped all of the coolant on the ground. Al tried to top it up but water just ran out everywhere; there must have been a dozen leaks. It looked like the only way he could keep water in the radiator was to have someone straddle the hood with a bucket of water and keep the radiator topped up that way.
'Oh, Zelda, Dear...'
But all was not lost. Al was a resourceful person and he'd get his mother-in-law to that train if he had to harness the milk cow and hitch her to the buckboard. Before he had to resort to that though, he still had some ideas on how to get out of his predicament.
Al used to drive a Model-T, the precursor to the Model-A. He also had an ultra-modern John Deere D Two-Speed tractor. Both of them had plagued Al with radiator leaks, which were quickly and easily fixed with a little American Ingenuity in the form of a few handfuls of rolled oats. Toss in some rolled oats, add water and give it time to circulate around while the water soaked into the oats and caused them to swell and clog the leak. Of course if one overdid that, the radiator tubes could be just as easily clogged.
A Model-A wasn't all that different from a Model-T--Was it? Well, the Model-A used the new sliding-gear transmission which meant that it always had a low and reverse gear, while the Model-T could leave you stranded at the bottom of a hill with both gears out. And when you rushed into the general store to pick up a pouch of tobacco, you could leave your Model-A idling in the street, to actually find it in the same place when you came out again. The archaic Model-T with its planetary transmission tended to creep away and eventually drive off without you. Many a Model-T owner was seen chasing his Flivver down the street and across the church lawn before the cursed thing attempted to make a new entrance through the side of the building.
Yes, I heard about the announcement for those attending Weight Watchers to use the new double-doors at the side of the building.
Back to the Model-T versus the Model-A, the radiators were similar and they both had a fan; that was similar enough...
Rolled oats, it was. But Al suddenly recalled something that was said in the coffee shop some time ago regarding that repair procedure. 'Mix up a paste of rolled oats, and wheat bran,' somebody said, 'Start the engine then add the goop along with more water. That way there will be a better chance of sealing the leak without plugging up the radiator.' That sounded like good advice so Al did just that; he mixed up a paste of that sickly-looking gruel, started the engine and proceeded to pour it in with water from the rain barrel.
Just like they had with his old Model-T and the John Deere tractor, the leaks began to dissipate until they had almost stopped entirely. For good measure Al decided to toss in an extra handful of rolled oats, then filled a cream can full of water and set it on the floor in the back for the trip to town.
Zelda came out of the house, clad in her overstuffed, overpriced Navy blue travel dress with the white polka-dots. She also wore a gargantuan three-storey hat that must have dated back to somewhere near 19--0--Titanic. She constantly brandished her ever present parasol, which Al thought to be totally unnecessary as the hat itself offered enough shade to double for the big top at the circus. Al carefully secured Zelda's steamer trunk onto the rear luggage rack then set her three sizeable, well-filled carpet bags onto the rear floor beside the cream can. He politely helped his mother-in-law into the passenger seat then slid in behind the wheel and braced himself for the six remaining miles he still had to endure before dropping Zelda off at the train station.
And he prayed that the train wouldn't be late.
They hadn't made it out of the yard before Zelda started in. She should be taking her daughter and her grandchildren back to a life of culture. The very nerve of this Neanderthal sweeping her daughter off her feet and dragging her off to some desolate cowtown where there wasn't even a decent theater group. "Mark my words, those boys are going to end up just like John Dillinger or Clyde Barrow because they've got no guidance and no hope for the future!"
And on and on... Maybe those boys would take a shine to a Thompson machine gun and use their grandmother for target practice...
Al could dream, couldn't he?
Al kept his peace, counting the minutes until he was finally able to turn this blimp with an attitude over to the conductor. Maybe a quick drink at the local saloon afterwards would settle his nerves and make this whole thing worthwhile.
The one thing that Al never bothered to consider between the Model-T and the Model-A was that the A was equipped with a water pump. Until then, Ford--and even John Deere--had been satisfied to let Mother Nature's law of Thermo-Siphon do the circulating. Water heats up in the engine block and cylinder head then naturally rises up through the upper rad hose to the radiator on its own accord. It cools off in the rad which makes it more dense and thus heavier, so it settles to the lower part of the radiator where it rises through the lower hose back to the engine and repeats the cycle. Suffice it to say that the water pump tended to hurry the process.
Unfortunately, in this case, there was something that didn't want to be hurried up.
In the 30s and even the 40s--with the exception of those more modern pressurized cooling systems--a radiator cap was a rather rare commodity. With one constantly having to top up the radiator to combat the numerous leaks, the cap was usually forgotten on the fender and subsequently fell off somewhere along the--usually dirt--road. Or else someone who had lost his own rad cap before and couldn't bear to be without one simply boosted a replacement from the car of some unsuspecting owner when no one was looking. Of course there was always a car with an unsightly piece of a shovel handle jammed into the opening as well. At any rate no one paid much mind to that minor inconvenience as that little wisp of steam that streamed back from the filler neck gave indication that the cooling system was full and functioning properly...
Three miles to go and Zelda was into her third tirade. After berating Al for being such a dismal failure and how he'd missed his golden opportunity to become some big steel tycoon in the east, instead of becoming a dirt farmer in the Kansas dustbowl, and subsequently depriving his wife--her daughter-- of the better things in life, she was now complaining that the wind had shifted a bit giving that wisp of steam from the rad a more direct line to her face. She was about to repeat herself, lest her son-in-law(?), no, that bum that married her daughter forget every word she said, when there was a deep gurgling sound from the depths of the radiator. A wisp of steam, somewhat larger than unusual, blew out from the open neck, spraying the hood and cowl of the car.
Then, as if Mount Vesuvius, itself erupted, a blob of yellowish oatmeal, water and rust blasted forth, the wind catching it and plastering Zelda in the face and running down the front of her fancy dress. Zelda, a mixture of surprise, shock and indignation, opened her mouth to really give Al a piece of her mind when another blob of piping hot baby vomit caught her squarely in the chops and added to that glistening mess that had already ruined her attire. Another attempted outburst netted the same result so the ever resourceful Zelda opened her parasol in an attempt to ward off the assault on her person. But another blob caught the edge of the umbrella and dribbled down into her lap. At the same time a gust of wind caught Zelda's flimsy shield, flipping it inside out and rendering it more useless than it originally was. Another biological mortar was propelled into that monstrosity of a hat of hers, forever destroying its cosmetic effect.
By the time they made it into town, Zelda was plastered in slimy goo from head to foot, giving passers by the impression that she'd been violently ill. That oversized hotel-convention center of a hat had been reduced to something reminiscent of dilapidated, flat-roofed tenement dwelling, slated for demolition. And poor Zelda had been miraculously transformed from something reminiscent of Taz, the Tasmanian Devil into a subdued, whimpering subservient shell of a human being. Despite Al's suggestion for her to see a doctor, she was not going to risk missing that train and having to remain one more day in this miserable wide spot in the road.
Much to the tremendous relief of her son-in-law.
The train was on time and Zelda, enduring the humiliation of boarding while still clad in that filthy outfit, was on her way back to the real world of theater, horse races, ballet, and pomposity.
Al did stop for that (celebratory?) drink at the saloon to steady his nerves; he might've even had a couple more. Surprisingly enough, that old Model-A's radiator never so much as let out a burp on the way home, and that makeshift repair on the radiator held up for the better part of a year when Al could afford to fix it properly.
The word quickly spread about Al's beloved tub exacting it's revenge upon a rather unwelcome passenger. Some of his friends even asked if they could borrow the car to transport their own mothers-in-law to the train.
Zelda? Well, the train's attendant successfully treated her for minor scalds to her face and hands. She recovered fully and never berated Al again. I might add that it would be ten years before she would be able to make the trek back out west again because of the war. Time tended to mellow her out but on the other hand, Al was able to become a successful farmer, successful enough to be able to build a new house (from the Montgomery Ward catalogue) with real indoor plumbing. He even bought a newer car with a closed in body and complete with a hood that covered the radiator and cap. Those acquisitions, plus seeing the kids growing and developing into responsible citizens, convinced her that just maybe she'd misjudged him.
Just a bit...