Flight of the Blue Goose

by Art Rathburn

Just sitting there in the back yard she wasn’t much to look at. She was a square built creature, blocky, like all of her kind, but what made her stand out was the strange way her tail angled into the air as if she were ready to lay an egg. Oh yes! I should mention that she was blue, not sky blue, navy blue, or robin egg blue, nothing common for her. She was bridge blue. A color I am sure most of you have never even heard of, but I will explain later. Yes, just standing still she wasn’t beautiful, but she did have a special character that made heads turn. However, on the move she was an astonishing sight. Everywhere we went with the Blue Goose people took notice. If my parents wanted to know where my brother and I were, or where we had been, they could just ask around and some one would give a report of seeing, or hearing (the Blue Goose was not a very quiet thing) us come by. In flight the old girl kept her nose down and her tail still jauntily flared upwards. As I said, she was an astonishing sight. Well the astonishing part was that she could even move. As we passed by we would hear people exclaim: “My God, look at that old girl go. I wonder what is holding her together.” Where ever we went people were awed at the sight of the Blue Goose in flight.
My brother was the one really responsible for bringing the Blue Goose into the family. He had worked all summer, the summer of his sixteenth year, driving his hay crew and himself to exhaustion with the firm goal of having enough money saved for a car. It was not an easy goal, I can attest, my being one of the unfortunate members of his overworked crew (but that is for another story). For every bale we stacked in the barn we got the vast sum of three cents. Can you imagine how many bales it took for a crew of three young lads to make a decent wage? The good, and the bad of it, was that under my brother’s ruthless leadership we all made a decent wage. With $100.00 burning a hole in his pocket he went looking for cars. Even in those “old days”, as my children call them, one hundred dollars would not buy much of a car. However, my brother kept up his search until he located just the right one.
There it stood in a little town near the ranch we worked on. A 1929 Model A Ford. It didn’t look like much, but it ran and it was cheap. A previous owner had added a great feature. He had taken the rumble seat out and welded the bed out of a Model A pickup in to the resulting space. The bed didn’t quite fit in on the level so that the rear of the bed was a bit higher than the front. This, coupled with the fact that the back end of the frame had been reinforced with wooden 4x4s, caused the rear end of the car to jut into the air. This caused my father to exclaim, “She looks like an old goose sitting on the nest.” The handle “goose” just seemed to fit her. Like all young lads with a new “used” car, my brother decided the very first repair needed was a paint job. The only problem was that paint, especially paint that would stand up to being used on a car, was a bit more expensive than gypo (small contract outfits) hay haulers could afford. My father saved the day, as usual, with some left over paint he got down at the rail yards where he worked. The paint he “borrowed” was a rather bright blue used by the railway bridge crew. Thus was born “THE BLUE GOOSE”. The only other critical need was a voice. The Blue Goose had far too anemic a voice for my brother’s taste, so an appropriate “Ooh Gaa” horn was added.
Having solved the important issues, there was many other minor repair items that my brother planned to address. However, he just never got around to them. If a car ran, looked good, and had a cool horn, why worry about small matters? For example, the “wishbone”, the “V” shaped frame that held the front axle in line was designed to be attached by a special bolt to the flywheel housing, right in front of the transmission box. This held the whole front end steady. In the case of the Blue Goose this bolt was missing. In its place was the fix it all; bailing wire. If we would have had WD40 in those days, to go along with bailing wire, no machine would have quit working. The wishbone on the Blue Goose was held in place with a couple of wraps of bailing wire around the transmission housing. This worked great, except for a minor problem. The wire would always work itself loose and create a small gap between the end of the wishbone and the flywheel housing. Whenever one went over a rough road or applied the brakes, the wishbone bone would begin to clatter, and one would have the impression that someone was taking a jack hammer to the bottom of the car. One didn?t need to hear the “ooh gaa” horn to know the Blue Goose was approaching. People heard her long before she flew by them. For some reason they always jumped for cover.
Another “minor” defect was her brakes. Those of you familiar with Model A’s will remember that they had mechanical brakes. No modern electrically activated or hydraulic gadgetry, no sir! When you stomped on the brakes, and you darn well had better stomp, the brake shoes were physically pulled against the wheel drum by long steel rods that ran from the brake peddle to each wheel. The only problem was that the rods were attached to the wheel brake lever with special steel pins. These pins were very hard to come by. NO PROBLEM! A bent 8 penny nail worked just great. Of course 8 penny nails tend to be a bit soft and wear through rather quickly. One just had to know that at any given time one or more of the brakes would not work. That is what the ooh gaa horn was for.
Despite to those few items, the Blue Goose was darn near perfect. Well, of course the doors sometimes did swing open when she skidded around a corner, something she did often – being a bit light in the rear end. That only meant the girls had to hold on to the driver; that didn’t seem to bother my brother. And, what was the big deal if little brother was sometimes quickly ejected? Blue Goose was not only the pride of my brother, but was sort of the school mascot.
We lived in a small mountain town in the northern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. What one needed was a tough car that would climb mountains, navigate the deer trail called roads, run on any available fuel mixture – such as white gas or a kerosene/ diesel mix, and haul as many teenagers as could climb aboard. The Blue Goose could do it all. Well, nearly all.
Blue Goose had her weaknesses. For instance, no matter how many times we tried to teach her, she could not swim. Time after time we would drive her into a stream hoping this one time she would swim to the other side. Time after time she would flood out and we would have to push her, or get towed to the bank, dry out her distributor and spark plugs and be on our way. She also could not resist trying to nest in the mud. Every time we got her even near a mud hole or a boggy meadow she would settle right down, clear to the frame, and would refuse to budge. No matter how my brother cussed her, (I only used words of kind encouragement), reved her engine, or popped her clutch, there she would sit. We knew the smell, texture, and depth of every mud hole in two or three counties.
Old Blue Goose was at her best when she could show off to a novice. There were lots of Model A’s in our home town so it was a lot more difficult for her to strut her stuff in front of the home town gang. However, if we had a “flatlander” visiting, watch out. “Flatlanders” were those soft, “citified” people that lived down in the Central Valley of California. They were only two steps above the bottom rung in humanity, Southern Californians (Los Angelos ) thus being only one step above Bay Area dudes (San Francisco Bay Area residents). I remember one memorial visit by my cousin Jerry. Now Jerry was a very nice guy, but had spent his life on a small dairy in the San Joaquin Valley and was a bit naive and perhaps gullible. In other words, a perfect target for two uncouth mountain boys to show off to. Therefore, when Jerry came to visit, we decided to show him the back country. Off we went in Blue Goose with no real agenda other than to show Jerry what a rugged land his cousins lived in. The old gal was at her finest. She did everything but climb a tree. Jerry was hanging on for dear life while my brother and I tried to look cool and act like we were not even worried whether or not the old girl could keep her claws dug in on some of the trails we asked her to navigate. I can still hear old Jer moan “Oh my gawd I think you guys are crazy”.
The Blue Goose did well that day, giving us hardly a problem. Unless you want to count the fact that she caught on fire three or four times. It seems like the bailing wire holding the manifold against the engine was a bit loose. Occasionally when we would hit a particularly big hole or rock it would cause the manifold to gap, and the flames would shoot out and ignite all of the crud and old oil on that side of the engine. No problem, except when you realize that the gas tank on a Model A is located right in front of the windshield. However, we always carried a 5 gallon can of water (for the leaking radiator) and a shovel (to dig out of mud holes) so extinguishing a little fire was no big deal. After the second time, Jerry just jumped out and started throwing dirt with his two crazy cousins as if it were just part of a routine drive in the mountains. Then there was a small incident, just a slight problem. The front wheel fell off.
We had returned to the security of a paved road, and Jerry was just feeling like he might survive the day, when he nearly didn’t. We were coming down the long hill on the Gold Lake road as it approaches the State Highway. It is a rather steep incline, but is relatively straight – quite a relief to Jerry after the wandering dirt tracks we had been on all day. My brother let Blue Goose have her head. In fact, as was his custom, in order to save gas he shut her off and put her in neutral to coast down the hill. She got up a fair head of steam and was shimmying and shaking her way downhill at a good clip. My brother yelled, “She sure is feeling a bit loose. I hope the wheels don’t fall off.” Naturally, I knew he was joking so I just laughed. Not that Jerry heard either of us. He was yelling “OOOH MYYY GAAAWD YOU GUYS ARE CRAZY!” The road flattens out at the bottom and the old gal slowed enough for my brother to dare stomping on the brakes. We slowed down to a nice uneventful stop at the intersection. Just as we did, –CLUNK– one front wheel fell off. There we sat; even us super cool brothers had a problem not wetting our britches. My brother recovered first and nonchalantly said, “Thought she acted a little sloppy.” No problem; we just put the wheel back on, stole one lug nut off each of the other wheels, tightened her down and were on our way home. When we got back to the house Jerry’s mom asked him, “How was the trip dear?” She looked rather shocked when Jer just shook his head and muttered “Oh my gawd these guys are crazy.” My mother gave us a rather dirty look but said nothing. My Dad, on the other hand, seemed rather proud of his sons.
In all the years she was part of the family, Blue Goose only made one long trip. Usually she was not allowed (nor trusted) to range very far from the house. In a moment of total weakness Mom and Dad agreed to let my brother and me take her to our Aunt and Uncle’s cabin. They had a cabin in the High Sierra’s, near Sonora Pass. This was about 250 miles south of our home. We diligently fixed up the old girl, even removed most of the bailing wire and 8 penny nails. For the occasion we even gave her a hair cut. We made her into a convertible. Being a coupe when she came off the line in ’29, she had a chicken wire and tar coated canvas roof stretched over a wooden frame. It was not much of a challenge to remove it. This, along with her jaunty tail, gave her a very sporty look.
We loaded her up, put Dasher, our old dog, aboard, and took off one late summer morning. Our route was to take us to Reno, Nevada via Beckwourth Pass, then south on Highway 395. My parents were to follow and, as my Dad put it, pick up the pieces. They gave us a several hour head-start. Their plan was to let us burn the old girl up, pick us up, leave the remains wherever, and drive on to the cabin. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the adventure and thrill of heading on that journey. Except for stopping now and then to refill the radiator and recharge the extra 5 gallon water-can we rolled right along without mishap. As we traveled south the day got hotter and the old girl started to steam like a locomotive. Several times when we stopped for water, or gas, the station attendant would come rushing out and urging us to “get that damn thing out of here before she blows!” My parents, not coming upon us, began to worry. Had the boys somehow taken the wrong road? They stopped at the first watering spot and asked if, perhaps, anyone had seen two boys and a dog in a Model A come by. The attendant started to turn red and shouted, “How the hell could I miss ’em? That old crate was ah wistlin’, steamin’, and clanking like a demon. And, when I yelled at those kids to get the damn thing out of here, I thought that old dog would take my leg off.” My folks stopped and asked at several places along the way and got about the same response. They didn’t catch up with us until our planned rendezvous at the turnoff to Sonora Pass. We decided to drive on to Levett Meadow on the east side of the pass to camp for the night.
We got there right at dark and found the campground full. My Dad asked my brother if he would rather just stay along the road until morning before going on west over the pass to the cabin. Upon finding it was only a few miles, my brother naturally opted to drive on. Dad said, “You know that it is a pretty steep and windy road son.” My brother gave my Dad a weird look and replied, “Gee! Pop, you talk like I have never had this old car in the mountains.” So off we went for the last leg of the journey. Just as you leave Levitt Meadow, heading west, there is a 270 degree corner. Now you probably have never even heard of a 270 degree corner unless you have been over Sonora Pass, or perhaps Tioga Pass. A 270 degree corner is 180 degrees on the horizontal and 90 degrees on the vertical. As we came around the corner my brother started grabbing gears and urging the old goose to gain altitude.
Before long there was a strange red glow in the cab. It was then I noticed I could see the manifold glowing red hot through the floorboards. It was quite noticable, being that it was brighter than the barely glowing Model A head-lights. My brother cautioned me, “Little brother keep your hand on the door handle and be ready to jump. The old girl is libel to blow any minute.” At last we saw the sign, Sonora Pass, 9,624 feet elevation. “Whoopee”, my brother yelled, “We’ve got it made now.” So he thought. When you go down the west side of the Sonora, you go down. In fact, part of the highway has a 13 % grade. When one has a little 4 cylinder flat-head engine for compression and mechanical brakes, a 13% downgrade can present quite a challenge. It wouldn’t have been so bad had we known the road, but this was our first time there. We could see the lights in Kennedy Meadows, right below us several thousand feet. The little hill proved no match for the Blue Goose, or to the young, but experienced, hand of my brother, and we were soon at Douglas Flat, and the cabin. Well, almost there. One hundred yards short of the hill up to the cabin I smelled burning rubber. We stopped and got out to investigate. The old girl’s wiring was fried from stem to stern. It sure was a let down. We wanted very much to prove my parents wrong about the Blue Goose’s ability to make the entire trip.
No problem. As usual, my Dad, with the help of my Uncle had the old goose on her legs the next day. The area around the cabin was tourist country and therefore full of tourist girls. Move over, sports cars and big Buick convertibles, here comes the Blue Goose. My brother and I were the stars of the drag. Every girl wanted a ride in the Blue Goose. My cousin Carla thought that we had brought it that far just to let her ride through the area like a queen on parade.
I don’t even remember the journey home. Let it be said that Blue Goose came home in triumph under her own power. Never again was she to make such a trek. After my brother left for college and more sophisticated cars, I took over the Blue Goose and added many a back country mile, rough road, and mud holes to her log. Soon I too moved on. Years later, as I was in Germany serving my country, and my brother was in Alaska plying his new trade as a forest engineer, my Dad sold the Blue Goose.
Even today when I walk outside and hear the call of the wild Canadian geese winging their way overhead, I know that my brother and I can still remember the real call of the wild….


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As writer, editor, and publisher Art has free rein to do what he wants.

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