Sign Me Up: From Grocery Carts to Model Ts

In Essays on May 15, 2013 at 8:14 am

Editorial note: I am struck by how much this veteran’s homecoming differed from this one’s.

By Jack Kissler

Jack KisslerMy first job was hustling shopping carts at the grocery store where my mother was a checker. They couldn’t pay me because I was only fifteen. The manager slipped my mom some overtime so she could pay me. I loved the job even if it was only for a week. I was outside, and I could run.

My next job was a gas station attendant. Flying A, just like The Fonz. I was outside, and I was around cars! That got me through high school.

At that point in my life, despite my 2.0 GPA, I figured I was too smart for college. But my mom said, “Jack, if you want to continue living here, you will go to school.” By the end of my first year at junior college, the edge was off my ego. I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, and I felt pretty low.

They were hiring at the Post Office, so I took the test and got an offer about two months later. I loved the job. It was outside, and I could walk. I figured, here I am: set for life. Easy job, good pay, sick leave, three days off every fifth week…sign me up. That’s what I was doing on that fateful day in Dallas.

Soon, though, my days of carrying that leather bag were cut short–Uncle Sam needed my services. The draft was alive and well back then, so I could have waited for conscription, but I knew where I wanted to go. I made a deal with a recruiter: Europe in exchange for a three-year enlistment.

Within weeks, I was off to Fort Ord for basic training, then clear across the country to Fort Gordon for signal school.

The troop ship left from Brooklyn Army terminal, and I saw the Statue of Liberty over the stern as we went under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  Five days in the North Atlantic was like a cruise ship. Not a ripple that August.

Bremerhaven, Paris, and then Fontainebleau. Home for the next 24 months. My job was to babysit a 2½-ton truck with a signal hut on the back. Oh yeah, it towed a trailer with two 5kw generators. I was part of a three-man team. Me, a PFC, an Sp4 and an E-5 Sergeant. Life was really boring. There was no work. We were just on standby. We field-trained twice a year. We played pinochle; we drank beer, smoked cigarettes and mostly wasted our days. Nights and weekends we traveled.

We would bug out of the lower motor pool to any place warm. I liked the Special Services library. I was hiding in the stacks one cold day and I found a college catalog that said I could go to school and study cars and become a high school auto shop teacher.

In an instant I knew that was me. Cal State LA, sign me up!

No more Army, no more Post Office, and only three years left until I could graduate. Thanks, mom.

Congress had just passed a good GI bill and they offered to pay all of my school costs. YES indeed! Sign me up! The VA also financed my first home in North Town. It cost $25,000.

During my third year of teaching, the movie American Graffiti hit the theaters. I loved that yellow ‘32 Ford. I wanted one. That was me. Sign me up!

But raising two boys and all that came with that, the five-window coupe was always just out of reach. Looking back, I probably could have swung it, but that’s water under the bridge. 

I taught high school shop for the next forty years and retired in 2008.

I now own a ‘27 Model T hotrod. My son owns a ‘29 SSK replica hotrod, which we converted into a woody wagon.

Next year, Im going to sell my ‘27 and start building a ‘32. It just might be yellow. 

All that has gone before has given me the skills, patience, partner, and cash I need to do what I’m doing now.

Jack Kissler, based in Gig Harbor, Washington, is probably hard at work on his Model T right now.

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