HARDWAY stories AND some from OUR FOLLOWERS
wayne and dwayne
A Tommy Bartlet ski show boat ? - brought back to life.
bernie's general auto parts - an icon of michigan city
Some things are engrained in a young person’s brain while growing up. You may remember a grandparent’s particular words or an incident at school, or an embarrassing moment -good memories, bad memories, places and things all remind us of our youth and possibly a simpler time as seen by us now.
Places are my favorite. There is no substitute for an engrained visual image as it alone can represent an entire book of words. As a kid growing up and still today cars are an important part of my life, so much more than just “transportation”. If you knew something about cars, you really knew something. Cars were, and still are the ultimate “freedom machine”. Back then we had no competition from video game aficionados. Even today how macho is a video game? It’s not even real. It could make you fat and lazy. How many fighter pilots are we going to need in the future anyway? One of my favorite places was “Bernie’s General Auto Parts”. Having loved cars and doing all the required repairs myself I spent a lot of time at “Bernie’s”. Or as Bernie said when he answered the phone “GENERAL!!” What any car buff would not give for a “Bernie’s” today. Every car guy had his Bernie’s in the 60’s and 70’s. Mine was a stand-alone, concrete block building across from the paper box factory, faded white paint, two dirty double pane picture windows separated by a small alcove with three stairs leading up to a wood framed glass door with a bell on it. Bernie didn’t even have a lit sign. The name was just painted across the top of the building. You parallel parked in front, on either side of the street.
You enter the building and the door sticks; you give it a good shove, the bell rings. Not an electronic bell but a set of Christmas bells hanging on the top of the door. Enter the smoke-filled space and make your way to the counter down a rubber mat path lined with dead batteries, brake drums to be turned and the occasional carb waiting a rebuild. The old wood floor creaked so bad they really didn’t need the “doorbells”. If you had experience, service was somewhat of a cat-and-mouse game. There were no numbers to take. As you enter you scan the counter looking for who might be available, maybe Bernie himself on a very good day. But all his employees were friendly and knowledgeable - usually. Then you realize - Oh-oh - the only guy not busy is that new guy who has to look up everything in a book. (Back then nothing we had was new or even original so looking up parts in a book was futile). He’s eager for sure, but don’t make eye contact or you’ll be stuck with him… so you hang back and look around over by the daytime running lights and reflectors. You peer out toward the counter looking for the right moment, when Bernie himself or maybe Larry was free – the security cameras of today would certainly see you as a shoplifter. Auto parts stores today contain only the “new guy” scenario. If you can’t look it up in a book forget it. The problem is that we had new engines in old cars with added or removed accessories, the book just doesn’t work. Once when I needed a fan belt I got stuck with the new guy. I took in the belt measurements and the guy said what’s it for? I said just give me a 1/2” wide and 47” long belt, he again said what’s it for? I said it’s for a 1961 corvette with a 1971 307 engine and a 1968 Camaro alternator. He then said “what were those dimensions again?”.
The stuff hanging on the pegboard walls behind the counter never changed. Not just the “do not ask for credit” sign or the “make sure brain is in gear before opening mouth” sign but the dusty, outdated merchandise on the faded cardboard posters. What is the shelf life of an auto air freshener anyway? How about those little flints in a round circular plastic thing for a Zippo lighter? Old Zippos are big now so I am sure there are NOS flint packs on EBay.
Now Bernie was a great guy. He always took whatever time was necessary to deal with people (including me) who seemed to often not have enough information. Bernie also possessed a great sense of humor and a toupee. Ever walk into a place where your eyes go to the exact same thing every time and you read what it says every time, you know what it says yet every time you see it you read it again? Why do we do that? Bernie had a pint-sized irregular shaped, gray-black rock sitting on top of the cash register. The hand-written sign taped to it said: “Rock from moon landing - not for sale” It was easy to see that the “not for sale” was added later. Do you think people kept asking him if he wanted to sell it? Anyway, I read the sign on that stupid rock every time I saw it never quite sure that the rock was not the real deal.
Bernie’s machine shop was always a mess with engines and parts scattered everywhere. John the machinist was super friendly and extremely knowledgeable. And again, always available to answer a stupid question from a punk like me. That shop rebuilt my 1967 Camaro 350 short block which I installed in my 1964 Nova SS.
Bernie was an icon in the car parts business, and he always drove a new Cadillac, so it is possible he knew people in high places. He always stopped at Newman’s Sinclair in the Pines where I worked to fill up the Caddie. I assume maybe on his way to Chicago.