Friday, May 12, 2017

Remembering Henry Gregor Felsen. (1916-1995)

                                                 photo soutce: front porch expressions

Who was this serious looking man and why do I consider him an Icon of automotive literature? Like most artists we remember their work instead of the artist themselves. Actually without their work, what would we remember about any artist?

Mr. Felsen was a an American Mid West writer during the 1950s.  He wrote fiction, primarily for junior and senior high school age students.

He is best remembered, by many automotive enthusiasts for the series of teen age adventure stories, starting with this book:

This is the same edition that I borrowed from my fourth grade classroom lending library.
I managed to find a copy  almost fifty years later. 

This book struck a nerve in me. I was in the fourth grade when I first read this book. I had always had a fascination with cars but I didn't have a direction or know the language to express it. In Bud Crayne I found a kindred spirit. Not so much in his personal life story. He had experienced little of a normal family life, he had been orphaned, as was raised by an older bachelor Uncle. He was a loner, and he turned to his car as an expression of his identity, his spirit, and his individuality. The following passage sums this up.

" No wonder then, that Bud felt more than a pride of ownership in this fellow-hybrid that was his car. Made with the work of his hands and the thought of his brains, it was his totem, his companion, his dog, his drawer of shells, his treasured childhood blanket and fuzzy bear."

Yes, I would say that Mr. Felsen UNDERSTOOD the bond between a youth and his machine.

Years later when Henry Felsen's daughter Holly decided to have a reprinting of this iconic first book. She posted on the H.A.M.B. (Hokey Ass Message Board) trying to gauge the potential interest before committing her money into this project. It turned out that she amazed by the outpouring of response. So many older car enthusiasts shared with her the depth that her Father's stories had meant to them. How these stories had touched their lives and helped form their concept of what a car guy is. Previously Holly had no real idea that her Father's stories had been so influential and memorable to those who read them.

His most remembered novels besides Hot Rod are:

Road Rocket ( Later re-titled to Boy gets Car)
Crash Club
Street Rod
Rag Top and
Fever Heat

There is a lot of teen angst and rebellion in these stories, and they do not always end in the happy manner we might have liked. Mr Felsen wanted his stories to have a moral. He wanted to persuade his audience to do the right thing, to behave in a socially acceptable manner. The car is often a catalyst in a teen age rite of passage.

Besides "Hot Rod", I think that my favorite novel is "Boy Gets Car" formerly titled "Road Rocket."

This edition looks like it was part of the Bantam publishing release.  The cover art portrays a more mature character than is described in the novel.

In this story, a group of young, car loving teen age boys  have formed an informal car club, the Road Rockets. They have a wonderful time holding meetings in the basement of the young protagonist, Woody Ahern. They get together to discuss exciting topics like boring and stroking a flat head Ford, multiple carburetor set ups, and performance enhancing gearing changes. They get to argue the merits of various modifications, while Woody's Mother will bring down a platter of snacks, cookies  and milk. They are having just a grand old time. It's a good thing that none of them own an actual beat up old car, it's a lot more fun to talk the talk. That's still true for me today!

Mr. Felsen captures the zeal, longing and naivete of a young teenager, especially in contrast to his long suffering Father who accompanies his son on his foray to the back row of the local, low buck used car emporium.

The Father gets into a discussion with Sid, the owner of the car lot.

Sid pulled his hat down. "You ever buy your boy anything like an electric train when he was younger?"

Ahern nodded. "I don't think any Father misses that. He was seven years old."

"How much did it cost you?"

"I got a buy on a good train set. Forty dollars for the works.

"All right. If you spent forty dollars on him when he was seven. It won't kill you to spend another forty on him now. Particularly if it's his own forty. Look at it this way, Mr. Ahern. Your boy doesn't want a car, he wants a big toy. If he wanted a car he wouldn't be looking in that back row. Believe me, sir, there isn't anything that will keep a car crazy boy off the streets better than an old car in his garage. Instead of rattling around all night with some older kid who has a car, he'll be at home, working on his own little pride and joy. I don't think it makes any difference to kids like yours if their cars ever run or not. What they want is a real car to work on, with real gears, and real transmissions and real engines. That way they can tell themselves that they're working, and not playing. And maybe they are. Maybe he'll learn more from an old car that won't run than you can ever guess. One thing, he'll find out whether he likes to work on cars, or just thinks that he likes to work on cars. Think of it like an electric train or an erector set, or some big toy like that. Let him have it."

Well that is real life for you. We all had ideas and dreams of the future when we were younger, not always based upon a realistic assessment of our situation. Still, life should be about learning, and our best lessons are usually taught to ourselves.

I like this cover art much better. It portrays a bewildered young man peering under the weirdest looking hot rod I've ever seen.

All this fun is shattered when Woody actually goes out and actually buys an old beater. The boys had
previously decided that all member's cars would be treated as "club cars" and they would all work on each other's cars as they acquired them. Standing in front of a rusty, beat up, smelly heap, they realized that it just didn't seem like as much fun as they thought it would be. Of course they were happy to ride around in the car while it was still running. In short time Woody's friends abandon him. He is left alone with the reality of a tired old car that needs a lot of time, money and labor. Maybe more than he can invest in it.

Woody is plagued by self doubt, but like young car enthusiasts everywhere he gets down to business.

I like this story because it captures the innocence of young love, well car love at least. Woody's father isn't the least bit interested in cars. They are transportation, that's all. There are more important things in life, like getting an education and later a career. So Woody, as a middle class kid, is not exposed to the reality of his father having to wrench on some old beater so that he can make it work on Monday morning. In Woody's idealism he sees himself working on cars not only as a hobby, but as a career. As a mechanic, a racing pit crew member, or maybe some day as a racing car designer. Woody's father sees all this as a dangerous distraction and even worse as a dead end. Especially for the son of a school teacher/ coach. Respectability is not to be found as a grease monkey under some old car! What middle class parent wouldn't worry that his offspring was so intent on dropping down the social and economic scale? Could Woody become a J.D. (juvenile delinquent?)

Unfortunately, this was the reality that middle class parents associated with hot rodding in the early 1950s. So many families had escaped from poverty after the Second World War. Some of those returning GIs took advantage of the GI bill and attended college or trade school and climbed into Middle Class respectability and opportunity.  Losing that, was something that these parents took seriously and feared, they knew the harsh realities of Life.

photo source: William Gedney, photos of the Cornett family
rural Kentucky 1964-1972

Digging through he spare parts pile. I guess
Paw just set his gun aside while he was working.

What Woody wouldn't and couldn't realize at this age was that cars could be an interesting hobby and pastime. There was no need to make them a career. Of course there are many types of careers in the automotive world. White collar as well as blue collar.

Mr Felsen wrote cautionary tales of just how dangerous cars could be. Not only in reckless driving as described so graphically in "Hot Rod" but how they could become a distraction to an aspiring middle class kid's social and economic development. But his stories also captured the hopes and dreams of thousands of young car enthusiasts of my generation.

Let's end on a more cheerful middle class image.

Photo source: Life magazine

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