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Sunday, December 21, 2003

Travel by auto sparks an unusual Christmas

Jerry Bowen

Cars keep plugging along toward Klatt’s Island

Every once in a while something happens that makes writing these columns about our past more fun than usual.

I received a call from a niece of Mr. Maglio’s, Tammy Murray. Apparently none of the family knew that Laurence Maglio had written a story of his life and that it was on file at the Vacaville Heritage Council. (They spell his name as Lawrence vs. the spelling on his document).

It was with great pleasure that I was able to provide the family with a copy of his tales of the early days. Stories like his give historians a personal glimpse into days long gone. Some of what he wrote may even cause some “old-timers” to chuckle a little as they remember their own experiences.

In 1921, 17-year-old Lawrence bought - for $150 - his first automobile, a 1914 Model T Ford that had been wrecked. He wrote, “The man who sold it to me told me that if I’d get the radiator and top fixed, it would be as good as new, and if he weren’t leaving for Sweden for good he would keep it himself.”

Lawrence had the radiator fixed by a man who told him he would do a good job for $20. His “fix” included plugging all the holes, then drilling a hole in the radiator cap. As Lawrence commented, “You can imagine what happened while you were driving down the road and the motor got hot.”

He went on to describe his first lessons about driving by reading a book about how to drive a Model T. So, with high hopes and a couple of friends - Carl Mattson and Emil Peterson - he prepared for his first driving experience.

Carl got in the front seat with the novice driver and reminded him “to shove down on the clutch, give her a big shot of gas, then let it into high,” which he did. Some 100 feet later his friends hollered, “TURN RIGHT.” “So I turned the wheel, but it was too much, so they hollered, TURN LEFT!” By that time, they had plowed through a fence at the end of the road and as he commented, “Carl stayed with me, but Emil jumped. So much for my first lesson.”

Little by little, he learned to drive, fix flats, determine which brand of tires had a tendency to blow out and learned not to hit the only curb in town.

Then one day the crankshaft in the engine broke. He found another “mechanic” in Napa who offered to fix it for the mere sum of $35. When he got the car back, it had “an awful knock,” but the mechanic said it would “wear out in time as the camshaft was short, and in time it would adjust itself.”

He tried to trade the car in for another, but was told by the dealer, “You’d better take the car back to him and tell him he left a monkey wrench in the crank case!” Two months later the disgusted young man sold the car for $100 to another unsuspecting dupe.

After going through a couple of other cars, he bought a 1926 Essex 6, two-door sedan that the seller said “was hardly worn” for $100.

He was working as a switchman for the Southern Pacific railroad on the swing shift. He described his many trips home from the job when the headlights wouldn’t work and he couldn’t see a thing. So, the resourceful young man used other means. “I would get out, light a couple of S.P. flares and put one on each headlight. Then up Highway 12 to Walters Road, then to what is now Travis Access Road; except for Highway 12, they were all dirt roads then. It took 12 flares to get home. Today I’d probably be in jail for running down the road with flares in front and back.

Too much would be lost if I rewrote what followed on Dec. 25, 1929, so I’ll simply reprint his own words with minor editing for length:

“Here’s one of the experiences I had with that ‘Klunk.’ I’ll never forget it. This happened on Dec. 25, 1929. My sister, who married in June 1928 after graduating from Armijo High School to Richard Albertsen, lived on Klatt’s Island by Collinsville, and all the family was going to have Christmas with her. Being that there were too many in the family to be transported at once, my mother and I decided that my brother Melvin, who was then 15 years old, would take part of the family to Collinsville and then come back and get the rest of us. (My father died in 1920 at the age of 44 and I was acting head of the family).

“The first load consisted of my Aunt Angelina who lived in Tolenas (now East Tabor) and her three boys; Italo, Robert and Larry; also the raviolis, turkey and all goodies. Her husband, Uncle Joe Re, my grandmother, Angela Therete Fazio, my mother, Ester Maglio and I were supposed to go in the second bunch when my brother got back to pick us up. They left at seven in the morning, and by noon we got worried wondering what happened, as it was only 21 miles to Klatt’s Island, and my brother should have been back.

“We decided to take my Uncle Bernard Fazio’s 1925 Model T, as he had left it with us when he moved back to San Francisco in 1928. It had no headlights, but we figured we’d be back before dark. So we took off and when we got to Denverton I saw an Essex that looked like mine. I remarked to my mother and uncle, ‘I wonder what Melvin is doing there?’ When we got closer we saw it wasn’t my Essex, but my brother-in-law’s, Richard Albertsen. We stopped and went in the store, and there was my brother sitting on a stool drinking and peddling up a lot of old head!

“I sure was hot under the collar and told him so. ‘Why didn’t you come over and get us instead of fiddling around?’ His excuse was that he just got there as our Essex was broke down the road a ways and he, Aunty Angelina, Italo, Bob and Larry started to walk towards Klatt’s Island. They walked about five miles when Dick came along and picked them up. Since they had not arrived, Dick got worried and came along to see if something had happened. Aunty Angelina was carrying the turkey, Italo the raviolis, and the other three had the rest of the goodies.

“Dick loaned him his Essex to come over and pick us up, but he had to stop and fortify himself with a beer or two. So I made him get into Dick’s Essex and take us to where my car was stranded. My Uncle Joe Re and I got out of the Ford to see what we could do. I told my brother, Melvin, to take my mother and grandmother to the Island and bring Dick back, as I was the only driver. Uncle Joe had never driven a car. So Melvin took off with his load. Uncle Joe and I started to check and see what was the matter with my car. I found out that it was out of time. I took a piece of barbed wire from a farmer’s fence and put it in the spark plug hole to see when it was on dead center. To make a long story short, we got it timed.

“We were ready to take off then - except for one little problem - two cars and one driver! We waited and waited, but my brother didn’t show up. Here it was already after four p.m. and we’d been at it since seven a.m. to drive twenty-one miles!

“Uncle Joe was getting nervous because he had to get home and milk the cow. I decided the only thing to do was to drive one car a couple of hundred yards ahead and walk back and get the other one and drive it beyond the Ford until we could knock at some farmer’s house and see if they would let us park the Model T in their yard. Every farmhouse we came to, nobody was at home. We knocked down that road for about 8 or ten miles until we came to a grove of gum trees. We ditched the Model T in it. Then we took off in the Essex.

“Uncle Joe was complaining all the time, but he never walked a yard! Everything went along smoothly until we darned near were in Birds Landing. Being a dirt road, it was pretty rough. You’d drop down a little hill before you got into Birds Landing, so I took my foot off the gas. When I got down to the bottom and stepped on the gas - no power. So, I got out and timed it again - timing was OK. What else was wrong? I glanced back from where we came from and there was the battery laying about 50 yards from the car. My brother had been driving the Essex to high school. The battery box that was under the front floorboard was eaten away by battery chemicals so he tied a couple of strings to the battery and frame to hold it up. He never said a word to me - so let it go at that!

“We picked up the battery, cut another piece of barbed wire from another farmer’s fence and tied the battery to the frame of my car. About then Dick, my brother-in-law, showed up in his car. They had gotten worried wondering what had happened to us. I said to him, ‘Didn’t Melvin tell you about coming back - the both of you - so we’d have an extra driver?’ He said, ‘Melvin never said a word!’

“Well, we got to the Island about 6 or 7 p.m. and by the time we got through eating dinner it was about 11 p.m. Christmas night. Then we were ready to go back home.

“So we started home. Melvin was sitting waiting for us, and then he started up going so slow that I couldn’t stay behind him. So I passed him and went on ahead as we had about six more miles to go to Aunty Angelina’s place on East Tabor. It was about 2 a.m. next morning when we all got to Angelina’s place. We unloaded everybody but my mother, grandmother, Melvin and I, as we had to go on to Vanden.

“We tried to start up the cars to get to Vanden, but they wouldn’t start on account of running out of gas! Being that mother and grandmother weren’t able to walk the distance, I was the only one left to walk the 3 miles to Vanden, get 3 gallons of gas, and walk back with it to get the cars home.

“It was about 7 a.m. before we got back to Vanden, the end of a beautiful night and day.”