My best friend in school and on through life has passed on today.
He was 60 and one of those freak incidents that just should never happen got him.
He survived being blown up in an ammo dump explosion in Viet Nam. His letter to me at the time just said “should have seen that explosion – biggest Fourth of July you ever saw”. He didn’t tell us the “rest of the story” until some 15 or so years later. The blast threw him across the compound, seperated his ribs from his sternum and put him in a hospital in Japan.
He also survived his Huey helicopter being shot down twice I think (again he didn’t talk about it at all until years later) and one of those times he pulled the mortally wounded co-pilot from the wreckage and carried him a hundred yards or so across a rice paddy which resulted in his getting the Bronze Star with the V for valour.
He survived the night of carousing the night before reporting for induction – the car he was passenger in didn’t – he and our mutual friend (also named Rob) – to the sound track of Grand Prix – took a turn on a rural gravel road way too fast, rolling Bob’s ’64 Fairlane.
He survived years of drag racing and road racing in his Corvettes.
What Mike didn’t survive was a blood clot that lodged in his lung and stopped his heart.
I met Mike when I was 13 and he 14 or 15 (between our birthdays each year we were a year apart, then it was two until my birthday again). I’d known his sister Betsy since at least 1st grade – our mothers were friends. He recruited me to become a part of the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps. His dad was a director. We spent several years together doing that.
We were carriers for the Denver Post together for several years also. When he got his license we’d load all the Sunday papers for both routes in his dad’s Ford wagon and toss them all before going to Davy’s Chuck Wagon Diner for breakfast at about 4 am.
Tossing papers we met another long time friend John. He is a year younger than I but the three of us all loved cars. It was though John I found out the details about what happened to Mike this week.
Cars also played into us meeting yet another long time friend Frank. Frank had a shop where he build honest to God race cars. We spent many a day at Frank’s and later we both worked for Frank for a while.Frank helped john get in touch with me with the news. The year we worked for Frank he won the Stock car class in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. We learned a lot from Frank.
At one point Mike got a “job” on a pit crew for a late model stock car that ran at the old Englewood race track. Many a weekend night was spent there getting the required white pants (unlighted pits) unbelievably dirty.
While I was still in school Mike was in college and took bowling as his PE requirement – he said “The instructor has a daughter your age, she’s really cute and hangs around the bowling alley”. That is how I met Vicky – she’s here beside me tonight as I write this.
Mike taught me a lot about cars – and we learned a lot together by trial and error. Like the “trial” of bolting a big Pontiac rear axle with 5.13 gears under his ’56 Chevy – using the stock U bolts and no traction bars. That 389 Injun motor launched one great wheel stand – until it straightend out the U bolts and ripped the drive shaft apart – that be the Error.
Once when he had lost his license for too many tickets, I was driving his 55 Belaire hardtop downtown to cruise 16th street. He had trashed the 283 he’d built for it and stuck in a rebuilt but bone stoch 265 complete with 2 barrel Rochester, oil bath air cleaner and the top mounted oil filter. That night we left the hood off so anyone looking could see it. Drew some snickers. It had a 4.56 rear gear, traction bars, super stiff springs all around and (the secret weapon) a 50 pound flywheel. I could wind that little mouse motor to around 5,000 rpm and drop the clutch and it would pull the wheels about 3 inches off the ground and make a very short trip stop light to stop light. The snickers stopped when the wheels left the ground.
Mike’s reputation as an engine builder got around in high school. That 55 with the 283 laid waste to a 64 ford Galaxy with a 427 a rich kid had. Some time later that same rich kid advertised a 389 GTO motor for sale – Mike went to look at it and during the bargaining the rich kid said maybe Mike would trade one of his small block chevy’s for it. What Rich kid didn’t know was the 265 Mike traded him was a very tired piece he had just pulled from what later became the late model stock car Mike worked on. That thing barely had the compression to start. A dollar or so at the quarter car wash and some new Chevy orange paint were his total investment. The rich kid bolted it straight into the slick little 34 ford pick up he had – next time we saw the kids car it had a 289 Ford in it.
Mike got one of his dream jobs when he moved to Phoenix and went to work at the GM proving grounds. He got to test all sorts of new stuff – some pretty unusual – like a twin turbo V6 Corvette.
The Viet Nam war was something he didn’t want to do but when his draft notice came he went down and volunteered rather than wait to be inducted. He didn’t like his year in the war zone but even though he started the deployment driving a dump truck building roads (that Charlie blew up daily) he volunteered to be a door gunner on a huey helicopter.
When he came home from Nam he was in the best physical shape of his life, but the war changed him. He wouldn’t ever eat rice. He had a hard time holding a job. He held in a lot. He covered up by telling “war stories” usually prefaced with “know how you tell a fairy tale from a war story? One starts Once upon a time – the other with This ain’t no shit”. Turns out the real stories he wasn’t telling were just too real. Long after he came home he found some kindred souls in a Viet Nam Vets group and then started to write it all down – I think it was good therapy.
Lately his favorite pass time seemed to be as a track photographer – taking pictures at the races and selling them to the car owners. He also like to talk aout car. Even though we lived a country apart, I would find a couple times a year there was something aout my tired old Vette that I needed to talk to him about. Those call were often hours long and sometimes we actually figured out my car problem.
Saying Mike was my closest long time friend doesn’t really describe it. He was more like a brother.
I’m sure going to miss him.