I mentioned some of these stories about my youth growing up after high school around cars and such, and some of the stories came flooding back recently.
This is a story about three guys, two Joes and a John (me). We had graduated from different high schools but the lure of cars brought us together, hanging out in a little gas station in South Hackensack, northeast New Jersey, diagonally across from Teterboro Airport.
One of the three; Joe Calabrese; had a ’69 Road Runner, I my ’68 Chevelle; and Joe Frassa had saved his work money and had purchased a brand new ’69 Camaro 396/375 a year or so before he even had his driver’s license. By ’71, I was working at the Burger King next door to the station. I think statute of limitations is over by now so I’ll admit to thinking more hamburgers and fries were going out the back door over to the station than we were selling out front.
The three of us learned about cars more by making mistakes than anything else. And by the way, we made some doosies, most of which were centered on Frassa’s brand new Camaro. I’ve spoken about making sure the distributor is in the correct position in the engine, eventually leading that to a broken screwdriver tip getting stuck in a piston. Funny now, not then.
Frassa also had somehow come up with the idea that installing 140-weight gear oil in the transmission would allow it to shift smoother. Come to think of it, I think Frassa was the instigator with a lot of our hijinks. But we drained the typical 90-weight gear oil from the M22 four-speed trans in his Camaro and using a suction gun; attempted to push that oil into the trans. I still remember more of the oil dripping out of the wrong end of the suction gun down Joe’s shoulder and in his – at that time – long hair. Joe kept is car in an unheated garage and once the temperature turned cold, he awoke to a trans he couldn’t shift because the oil was so thick. Another lesson learned.
Frassa had other friends who were building a Pro Stock Pinto at the time, introducing me to them which is where I eventually met Rich Halverson, who became, and still is, somewhat a mentor to me, helping me to get more involved in drag racing in addition to introducing me to my now wife Dottie. But the three amigos slowly went in different directions, with Frassa and myself still staying close, while we lost track of Joe Calabrese.
After I won the very first NHRA Bracket Finals in October of 1976 having taken that entire year off to just go racing, I was broke, despite the “huge windfall” (yes, that was a joke) won at that race. Frassa had been working at a fork lift repair company and he mentioned they were looking for a mechanic. Me not knowing anything about fork lifts, he reminded me they still had engines and the rest could be easily learned. In a short amount of time, the job included setting you up with a work van and having you go on the road to repair fork lifts at a variety of companies. Frassa had already been a “road guy” when I got there and I got my van shortly after.
Part of your job was maintenance on your own van as well as your normal duties. Frassa had married his high school sweetheart Randi and he mentioned they were going on vacation for a week. On Monday morning after pulling in the yard to receive my day’s work, I was informed the engine had to come out of Joe’s van in order to be rebuilt with me having to do that job.
“Why me? Why doesn’t Joe do it himself?”
“Because it has to come out that day and gone to the rebuilder, so the engine is back next week and Joe can put it in. We figured that as close as the two of you are, you could pull it out and Joe could easily see how to hook it back up.”
At least that’s what I was told.
“So you wanna see how close Joe and I work together? I’ll show them!”
It’s a lot easier today to take apart something which you have no idea how it works because with a cell phone, you can click off dozens of photos as you pull things apart, therefore making it easier to see how they go back together. Not back then though.
So my idea was to simply cut any wires or hose rather than disconnect them which should allow Joe to simply match up wire colors and hoses when it came time to put it together. I had the engine out of the van in no time flat.
I’d give anything to have seen the look on Joe’s face when he showed up and looked at his van! He knew then it was me who pulled out the engine. He called me later to curse me out good. But we had a good laugh.
I tell this story to also say I’d probably give anything to hear his voice again after I found out he passed away a week ago from heart issues. Over the years, we’d continued to go in different directions but we’d always seemed to talk a couple of times during the year. We hadn’t talked since I began my own medical journey but I was really saddened to hear of his passing.
All I can say is, “Don’t make the mistake of not talking to a friend or family often. It’s the stories that make up our lives and forever link our lives together.” RIP my friend.
What of that 396/375 Camaro of his? My Chevelle is long gone, but that Camaro is still sitting in Joe’s garage in still pristine condition. Just imagine.