John Dillinger’s Car
Not The Get-Away Car I Imagined
By ‘Doc’ Rivera
As a kid, I grew up around the Drago shows, a wonderful, small show that played primarily around Indiana. The problem with a small show in the Midwest was that due to the cold Indiana winters it opened up on the first of April and closed in October leaving me without a home or visible means of support for about 5 months. I was 15 when we played the last date, winterized the equipment and put it in the barns for its cold winters sleep. As luck would have it Gooding’s Show was playing a street fair in Auburn, Indiana a short distance away and I knew I could find a weeks work and a place to sleep sweeping counters in Bill Bell’s bingo but after that I would be on my own as this was their last spot of the season as well. All went as planned and as the date in Auburn drew to a close I tried to figure my next move.
Luck favors fools it seems. I passed by a ragged front built from what appeared to be scraps of plywood and packing crate assembled on an old rusty semi-trailer. In fading red letters with a torn, dirty bally cloth flapping in the chill breeze, the legend JOHN DILLINGER’S CAR glared garishly back at me. An artist rendering of the infamous car speeding away from a bank, machine guns blazing from its rear windows filled both panels of the aging front while a sign out front promised the princely sum of ten thousand dollars if not the genuine article. What caught my eye was the hand-lettered sign tacked to the sagging ticket box with “drivir wanted” unceremoniously misspelled on it.
The old man who answered my knock on the door of the living quarters in the back of the truck glared dolefully at what he mistook to be another inquisitive “town mark” and growled “whaddya want kid” I told him I’d come to ask about the driving job and asked where he was heading.
“California” he replied “Soon as this spots over tonight. Job pays five dollars a day and one meal a day. You ever drive a big truck before?”
I stuck my chest out and told him I’d been driving the kiddie ride truck for Paul Drago for the whole season, which was the truth. The problem, I informed him, was that at 15 I didn’t yet have a drivers license.
“Probably won’t need one anyway” he dismissed the idea with a simple wave of his gnarled hand.” I’ll drive ahead and when you have to stop for fuel taxes and such, I’ll just stroll in and take care of it myself”
I was elated. My problems were solved, at least temporarily. I could get away from the chill of Indiana, spend the winter in sunny California and, best of all, get paid to make the trip. Life was good, I entertained visions of basking on warm beaches and picking coconuts from palm trees.
My elation was short lived however the next morning after the show was torn down. I stood in shock with my meager belongings staring at the oldest, most dilapidated wreck of a truck I’d ever seen in my short life. Rust seemed to be all that held the dented cab together. The trailer that held the infamous John Dillinger’s “Get away car” appeared to be constructed mostly of scraps of plywood hastily nailed on the frame of an old flatbed semi-trailer that had clearly seen better days decades ago. Everything seemed to be held together with yards of dirty, knotted manilla rope.
Not to be thwarted by what seemed to me to be an obvious challenge I got into the cab of the old truck and carefully unrolled my sleeping bag over the sharp, rusty springs that stuck through what was left of the driver’s seat to avoid being impaled and studied the Spartan features of the interior. A patchwork of taped wires hung from beneath the metal dashboard and a large round hole was testament that there had once been a speedometer. The couple of cracked gauges that remained looked as if they hadn’t been used in years. This was obviously a truck one drove by the “seat of their pants” I figured.
“Don’t worry about the windows, we’ll be out of Indiana soon enough and by the time we get into that Texas desert you’ll be glad they’re gone” the old man assured me.” Then you’ll be glad that crank on the windshield works so’s you can roll it out and get some cool air.”
The ancient engine turned for what seemed an eternity against the old 6-volt starter and finally coughed to life in a cloud of oily smoke. It sounded like a washtub full of rocks. I finally found a gear that set the creaking rattle trap in motion and headed down the narrow two-lane roads that dominated the Midwest in those days. Despite the chilly air that seemed to assault me from every nook and cranny in the beast as it gathered speed, I was grateful for the missing windows as the fresh air that blew in lessened the acrid fumes that immediately filled the small confines of the cab and made my eyes water. As I headed down the first hill I observed that the brakes probably went the way of the errant speedometer sometime in the past and I learned a valuable lesson in physics. The amount of time needed to stop a large truck depended on the speed and degree of slope one was attempting to overcome. There was no question of “downshifting” with the old straight toothed transmission. You were lucky to get it into any gear at all, even double clutching, and if one was foolish enough to pull it out of gear once they got it there they would be forced to stop completely in the middle of the road and start the shifting process all over again.
The miles flew by at a blazing 45 miles per hour. Occasionally I would have to stop and check the oil which seemed to mysteriously disappear into the blue cloud that belched from the rusty exhaust pipe or pick up a piece of the plywood show front that had been blown off by the wind. Despite the angry curses of the hapless drivers who got stuck behind this traveling trash pile for miles on the narrow roads the trip began to take on a pleasant harmony as my hearing degenerated from the sounds of the noisy engine and the loud rattles of the cab that seemed to come from everywhere.
By the second day, we’d changed three tires, poured a five gallon can of bulk oil into the old cast iron engine and replaced a fan belt. We almost always stopped at night since the dim six-volt headlights were barely bright enough to see fifteen feet in front of the vehicle. Still, we rolled onward toward the land of sunshine. The old man had a pretty good system, he’d probably had a lot of practice perfecting it over the years from the condition of his rolling stock. He would drive up to a scale house or tax collectors shack that sat on the state lines ahead of me and pay the guy the fees plus a little “extra” for his trouble. Most of the time they just waved the smoking beast by and on those rare occasions that I did have to pull into a weigh station it was just to assure the guy inside that, yes I was only passing through the state and not staying to desecrate their highway system with this wreck.
All went well and as we crossed the Texas state line a full moon shone it’s friendly face to light the highway through the long empty stretches of sagebrush and sand. The lights of oil rigs punctuated the night as we laboriously racked up the miles and it seemed that the old truck took on a new life on that long expanse of lonely road. Later into the third night at a truck stop, the old man held us up for about three hours while he made several calls from a greasy pay phone inside the restaurant. He came back to the table where I was enjoying my fifth cup of coffee and grinned broadly exposing his yellow, ill-fitting dentures.
“I got good news” he heralded.” I got us booked into Phoenix at the State Fair!”.”Now the thing is, we got to be there in two days or they’ll give our “loke” to somebody else.”
I tried to figure the distance to Phoenix Arizona from where we were and how much time we had to make it in. Considering the average speed of the truck was somewhere around 40 miles an hour and allowing for gas stops it didn’t seem possible. Especially considering the fact that the old truck could breathe its last gasp at any given moment and one of the tires was showing a large “eye” of cord in its center and probably wouldn’t make it through the next day.
“I got it all figured” he assured me. “We can do this if we don’t stop for nothin’ and drive like crazy!”
Just driving this thing at all had seemed crazy enough to me but he promised to double my pay to ten dollars for the rest of the trip and get me a good “hole” in Phoenix for the 10 day run there. It seemed worth a shot to me, besides I reasoned, we’re already heading that way anyway
We gassed up and I pointed the front bumper of the old beast west. All that night I herded the rig through the desert, wrestling the wheel against the worn out steering that seemed to give the truck a mind of its own. By now the muscles in my shoulders were on fire from almost four days of battling with the wheel and constantly shifting the cranky transmission every time we had the smallest hill to climb. The bad tire finally gave it up at dusk the next night and we wasted about two or three hours finding a spare that looked little better than the one that had blown out in a small gas station in the middle of nowhere. By midnight we had crossed into New Mexico. Perhaps it was a lack of sleep affecting my judgment (I hadn’t closed my eyes in almost two days) but our distant goal actually seemed within reach. After a few hours, I began to get drowsy as the endless stretch of moonlit highway disappeared into the blackness of the night ahead and I found myself dozing at the wheel. I pulled over and informed the old man of the problem and assured him that with a couple hours of sleep I would be good as new again.
He would hear none of it. He argued that the two hours we stopped to sleep combined with the time we had lost on the tire would make him too late. He stomped around in the darkness cursing and shouting about how this would cost him thousands of dollars. He called me ungrateful.
“Look kid,” he said finally “Lordsburg is just up ahead about forty or fifty miles”. We’ll stop there and drink some coffee and you’ll be fine, you’ll see, just get this thing into Lordsburg and we’ll see about resting there.”
I knew he was using the old carrot and stick ploy on me but it seemed fruitless to argue in the chill of the desert air along a dark highway so I relented and climbed back into the old truck and started towards Lordsburg.
They were in the beginning phases of constructing the Interstate system along the highway at the time and the edge of the road sat about a foot above the gravel shoulder that had not yet been brought up even with the road’s surface. I had been fighting sleep for the past twenty miles, sporadically waking to muscle the wheel over and bring the big truck back on the road. I was losing the battle and I knew it as the intervals between dozing and reality began to get longer. Finally, I awoke to the sound of gravel crunching under the tires and I instinctively wrenched the wheel of the beast over to bring it back to the pavement. It probably would have gone without mishap but the angle of the rear duals of the tractor couldn’t overcome the foot of height needed to get them back on the surface of the road and simply slid along the edge. This caused the truck’s cab to become at a right angle with the trailer and create what’s commonly referred to as a “jackknife” in truck jargon.
The world seemed to turn upside down as the truck rolled over in the darkness of the desert night. Metal screamed in protest as the old truck died in a cloud of smoke and sparks and it sounded as if hell itself had descended upon me as the windshield exploded into a shower of glass in my face. At first, I just lay across the wreckage of the overturned cab. The seat had broken loose and had my leg pinned against the dashboard. I wondered if I was dead then decided from the pain in my leg that I was not. The smell of gasoline brought me into reality and I remembered in my foggy brain that we had filled up the two saddle tanks with a hundred gallons of gasoline only a few hours before. I managed to free myself from the tangled mess of the trucks seat and dangling wires and climbed out the empty hole that had housed the windshield. As the Chill of the desert night slowly brought my senses back I observed in the fading moonlight the wreckage of what had carried me so many miles in the past few days. The trailer housing John Dillinger’s car had come completely apart in a collage of wood and metal. The dark underbelly of what was left of it lay across both lanes of the highway facing oncoming traffic. What was left of the tractor had come undone from the trailer as it flipped over, probably saving my life but the gasoline I had smelled was coming from the two fuel tanks that had broken loose themselves and now lay against the wreckage of the cab leaking onto the highway in an ever-widening pool. It was then that I heard the sound of a large truck off in the distance. I knew that if he ran into this mess the results would be catastrophic and I had no desire to see the outcome of what was unquestioningly my fault become fatal. I limped in the direction of the sound of the oncoming truck who’s headlights began to take shape in the gloom of the false dawn that signaled morning was near. The driver seemed startled to see a dirty, oil stained apparition materialize directly in front of him and immediately locked the brakes on his big rig narrowly avoiding the impending outcome of the disaster ahead. He climbed down, obviously shaken, and after determining that no one was seriously injured set out his emergency flares a safe distance from the wreckage. I started back towards the wrecked truck and it was only then that I noticed the old man sitting in his car along the side of the road. He made no sound as I approached him and I thought for a moment he’d had a heart attack or something. Finally, as I tapped on his rolled up window he shook his head and got out of the car. He remained speechless as he took in the chaotic scene in front of him then, after a few minutes, he got back into his car and closed the door without uttering a single word.
It seemed like hours before the cops arrived to assess the damage and write their reports. I sat on a small hill of earth that one of the construction crews had bulldozed earlier and surveyed the damage I had wrought in the early light of morning.
The scene looked like a small tornado had occurred. The plywood front and most of the two by four framing littered the highway in splinters. Tattered canvass across one of the truck’s wheels gave the whole scene a macabre appearance. The twisted cab of the old truck looked as if no one could have survived its demise. Oil and gasoline stained the brand new surface of the white concrete highway as the twinkle of broken glass reflected the brilliant rays of the early morning sun. The most astounding feature of the scenario was John Dillinger’s car itself. The old 1931 Cadillac had been armor-plated (obviously old John had a problem with authority figures and felt the need for personal protection). It had been thrown clear when the trailer had flipped over at 45 miles an hour and gone sailing through the night to land on it’s top almost a hundred feet away in the soft desert sand. It looked unscathed from my perspective although in the early light it seemed to resemble a dead dog as it lay there on it’s back in stark testimony to its ill fortune.
The Cop, a big burly guy, finally made it over to where I was sitting and after assuring himself that I was alright physically asked me for my chauffeur’s license.
I grinned sheepishly at him and told him that I didn’t have one.
“Well, then, let me see your drivers license” he returned.
“Don’t have one of those either” I informed him.
His face seemed to turn from friendly to that look cops get when they know they’re dealing with a problem.
“Well, why the hell not?” he demanded.
“Well” I stuttered not knowing quite how to answer him “Because I’m only fifteen and not old enough to get one yet”
He seemed ready to explode like the old trailer in the middle of the highway when he found out I’d driven the truck all the way from Indiana. He wasn’t sure how many laws had actually been broken but he was sure it had been, to say the least, many.
As it turned out, because of my tender age I was deemed blameless for the entire incident and although I was given a stern warning by at least three more cops against driving another truck until I was much older I was treated with kindness and driven into the town of Lordsburg to make sure there were no undiscovered injuries or permanent damage to me from the accident.
The last sight I had of the old man was of the big cop, leaning against the fender of the car, writing him tickets that he was tearing off so fast they seemed to resemble a roll of toilet paper.
I never saw him again and I doubt very much that he ever paid any of the tickets. He didn’t seem much like the type to worry about such incidental things and probably avoided the state of New Mexico for the rest of his days. Back then it wasn’t a problem.
I knew that the cops wouldn’t just let a fifteen-year-old kid wander around loose without some answers and I didn’t want to spend time in their jail while they figured out what to do with me so as soon as I got to the hospital in Lordsburg I ducked out the back door and proceeded to the rail yards of the Southern Pacific where I caught an empty boxcar on a westbound freight train and continued my journey to California (minus all my possessions that were still entombed in the wrecked truck.)
As for John Dillinger’s car . . . hell, I don’t know. It may be there still . . .
John Dillinger was one of America’s foremost highwaymen and Robin Hood bank robbers during the bleak depression years of the 1930’s.