The Stutz


An icy winter wind bits Jack’s face as he cranks down his window and gazes at Wagontire, the place where he lived his childhood. Swinging his Ford pickup onto the shoulder, he let it roll to a stop in the gravel. Switching off the ignition, he grabs his field glasses and scans the isolated village. Changes have occurred. Slow, deliberate changes. His dad’s Shell station where he pumped gas during World War II is now Texaco. Its corporate red and white adding color to the high desert scene. His mother’s grocery store is now a Star Mart. The post office where she served as postmistress is gone.

Laying his binoculars on the seat, Jack hits the ignition switch. The V8 flares, and he continues toward the wide place, the scar on the desert floor called Wagontire, and parks on the south side of Star Mart. It’s like so many Texaco convenience stores, the cold drinks along the north wall. At the east end, where the Pepsi display starts are the prepared sandwiches – ham and cheese on rye, salami on wheat, and egg salad on white bread.

Pleased to find a small table with seating to accommodate four, he claims a bench where he can sit while he has a ham and cheese and a bottle of orange soda.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” asks an old man who has crippled in from outside. Before Jack can respond he adds, “Mind if I join you?”

“Of course not. Sit,” says Jack, gesturing, a palm up. Jack recognizes him from before he went off to join the navy.

The old man is silent for a time, gathering his thoughts.

“Can I get you something, Frank?”

“How’d you know my name? You remind me of someone,” the old man says.

Well I remember you. Frank Sluter? Have I got the name right? You wrenched for my dad when I was a kid here in Wagontire.”

By cracky, that’s why I thought I knowed you. You’re Jack. A spitting image of your dad, you are,” says the old man, reaching across the table to shake. “I haven’t heard anything about your folks for years. Are they still alive?”

They both passed away a few years back.”

That’s too bad.

Do you remember the fellow with the Stutz Bearcat?”

That red one. The fella that bought gas here during the war?”

Yes. Him. There was gas rationing and folks were only allowed three and a half gallons of gasoline each week. But this fella always had a rationing book chucked full of gas stamps. He always filled up when he was going south and he filled up again when he was headed back north. And he always gave me a nickel so I could buy a candy bar.”

Dad said we could set our calendar by the days he came each month.”

What do you suppose he did. Where’d he get all those gas stamps from? He must have worked for the government, don’t you think?” the old mechanic ventured.

Maybe, but we’ll never know. It’s been too long. One day while Dad and I were setting in the station office, after the war was over, he asked me if I’d seen the guy in the red Stutz. I hadn’t. He’d quit coming by and we hadn’t noticed. Dad always kept track of details. He went to the desk calendar and started flipping through the pages. After a few minutes he turned and looked at me with an expression I’d never seen before. Stress? I don’t know. But he finally explained that the fellow had stopped coming by about the same time the Atom bomb exploded. He said he thought that guy was carrying plutonium from Hanford.