by Jim Bulls
In case you didn’t know, the definition of Trans-Jammers is (1) 1950s car club in Parlier, California that set a drag racing record and was featured in Hot Rod magazine, and (2) a dilemma between a school superintendent and some eighth grade boys. The story goes something like this…
It is spring of 1957 and all the boys are into something. Ritchie, the junior high rebel, stole Sherry, “The Queen,” from goodie-two-shoes Jimmy; Donny Ray is practicing his Elvis gyrations behind the woodshop; and Gerald is recovering from his fall through the ceiling of the music room when the janitor caught him smoking in the attic. Mike, Bruce, Bob and I, along with a few others, are into cars. We are known as “gear heads”—the guys that carry “the little pages” around in their back pockets. When automotive magazines like Car Craft and Rod and Custom began publication in the 1950s, they were one-quarter the size of a regular magazine and would fit easily into the back pocket of your Levis.
We lived and breathed cars. Bruce couldn’t wait to get to school one day to tell us he had a blow-out. Grinning from ear to ear, he described the excitement of having to change the tire on his Chrysler. This happened in his backyard; he was too young for a driver’s license and could only drive the car forward to the fence and then backward to the garage, over and over again.
One day while standing around the back of the cafeteria after lunch, we noticed that someone had left the keys in the ignition of the panel truck used to deliver lunches to Lincoln and Washington schools. There were a few dares made: “Dare you to get in the truck;” “I dare you to start the ignition;” “Dare you to put it in reverse;” and finally the big one, “I dare you to peel out.”
This became a daily event. We would race through lunch and out to the back of the cafeteria to see who could make the longest black rubber marks on the blacktop. After a week, we had quite an appreciative audience, and the cooks (and any other authority figure) were still oblivious to our new-found hobby. Then the transmission blew up.
It took a couple of days before someone ratted on us and we found ourselves in the school superintendent’s office. Mr. Nikkel said “Each one of you owes me $200 to repair the transmission. Go home and tell your parents.”
A few days passed by and we were summoned back to pay up. Mike said, “My Dad refuses to pay anything.” Bob said, “My Dad says a transmission for that model Ford shouldn’t cost over $200 total.” Bruce and I both said we would have to pay him from our allowance for lawn mowing and paper route jobs.
Seemingly discouraged, Mr. Nikkel excused us and we didn’t hear from him for almost three weeks, when he ordered us to report to Washington School on Saturday morning to work for the janitor.
Saturday we all showed up and Mr. Ogata, the janitor, armed each of us with a Hula-Ho® and directed us to the tennis courts to do battle with the weeds. Around ten o’clock he returned to find that the amount of weeds chopped wouldn’t even cover a card table.
Bob complained that he didn’t know he would be working outside and hadn’t brought a hat or gloves. Mike said, “It’s hot. We’re all thirsty. Don’t we even get water or a break?”
Mr. Ogata wasn’t very happy, but he told us we could go to the kitchen and make a pitcher of lemonade from the concentrate in the freezer.
About a half-hour later, Mr. Ogata came in for a glass of lemonade. One look at that big aluminum, ten-gallon pot normally used to make elementary school spaghetti and his face turned several shades of red.
There were a couple of minutes of ranting in a language none of us understood, but we all knew wasn’t very complimentary. This was followed by another minute of raving in Japanese and English, and then finally just English. The words were short and simple, “You little spoiled punks! Get out and never come back!”
We left our pot, five pounds of ice and half dozen globs of concentrated lemonade and orange juice floating around in the water.
On Monday morning, right after the flag salute and roll call, the phone rang in our homeroom. Mr. Nikkel was requesting our presence in the office. He was livid, but being of good Christian upbringing, he showed his disappointment and anger without profanity. He demanded that we attend church the next Sunday and make a public confession of our sins (this was customary in the Mennonite faith at that time).
Sunday morning came and went, and on Monday we didn’t even get to homeroom. Mr. Nikkel was standing in front of the school, waiting to usher us into his office as we arrived.
“Explain yourselves,” he demanded. Bob said “Did you mean attend your church? I attended my church and sat with my parents.” Mike said “I’m sorry Mr. Nikkel, but I’m Catholic and I can’t attend your church. I went to confession on Saturday night; you can ask Father Hanna.” Bruce mumbled something about separation of church and state, and this being a public school. I blurted out, “My Dad said you tempted us to sin by leaving the keys in the truck, so it’s your fault the transmission got busted in the first place!”
This was the last time the subject of the transmission would come up. We were getting ready for eighth grade graduation. For a couple of us, that would be the only commencement exercise we took part in. We never told our parents about the transmission incident. Come to think about it, if it had been so important to the school, you would think that Mr. Nikkel would have let them know.
The names have been changed to protect those who may be embarrassed by growing up over a half century ago. Mike was the great grandson of the original owner of the Reedley Exponent; he owns a pool service. Bob graduated from Stanford Medical School and ended up as a brain surgeon. Bruce was the son of the Postmaster and had a career in the postal service. He owns a classic Mercury convertible.
All three have moved away from Reedley and we only see each other at our high school reunions. I can still be considered a “gear-head.” I still own my first car, a 1928 Model A, as well as a 1940 Ford pickup and a 1939 Ford 2-door sedan.