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Growing Up with the Automobile

Albert Henderson was interviewed by a WPA worker on February 10, 1939, in Charleston, South Carolina. The interview is contained in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. As a blacksmith, Henderson learned a bit about repairing automobiles. After trying a number of occupations, he turned again to being an auto mechanic. What was his experience as an auto mechanic? What were some of the funny little things he mentions that changed his life?

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"Not much use telling you about when I was a kid," he said. "I didn't do anything different from what hundreds of other country boys were doing all over the world - milking cows, chopping wood, going to school, and helping Mother with the chickens. I was luckier then most of the gang, though, for when I finished graded school my uncle - the same old geezer who used to give Mother his clothes to make over for us, sent me to a military school for two years. I could have finished the whole four year course if I had wanted to. But I didn't want to be a school teacher, and I didn't want to be a farmer. I wanted to be doing things with my hands. So I went to work in a blacksmith shop. . . .

"Well, I stayed on in the blacksmith shop for a year or two, learning the trade. Automobiles were just coming in then, and the owners of the only two in our village sent them to us for repairs, so I had my first training as an automobile mechanic right in that little old blacksmith's shop.

"But I didn't care about being a blacksmith all my life. While I liked to tinker on cars first rate, there weren't enough of them coming in to make it exciting, so I soon quit my blacksmith job, and went to work as a sewing machine salesman. I liked that fine! . . .

"Looking back it seems like I was determined to try out everything before I decided on my life work, for after my telephone job I worked as a hot house gardener; a cabinet maker; and even drove for a transfer company for a while, before I decided to be an automobile mechanic.

"It's funny what little things change a man's whole life. I expect I'd still be knocking around working first at one thing, then at another, if the transfer company I was driving for hadn't bought a ramshackle old car. I remember exactly how that car looked," he said. "It was just about falling to pieces, it had had such hard usage. It was minus a windshield; minus a top; and it had a chain at the side; but it sure looked good to me.

"Mighty few people in those days knew how to drive a car, much less repair one, and I was mighty glad that I had learned to fix them in that little old blacksmith's shop, when the manager of the transfer company sent for me, and offered me twenty dollars a week 'with board' to drive the car and keep it in running order.

"Well, you can bet your bottom dollar I didn't turn that offer down! Pretty soon I was having the time of my life driving drummers around in the sputtering old machine, that smelt like - well, I'd hate to tell you what that engine did smell like! And did the gals like to go motoring!"
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View the entire interview from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.