The Heinz and The Stainless Steel Car

| April 6, 2012 | 0 Comments

In 1999, I was asked to take The Last Parade to the Heinz Museum in Pittsburgh. I had been to Pittsburgh many years before but never to the Heinz.  Pittsburgh has a unique community spirit, strong and determined.  I was scheduled to speak to a gathering of Vietnam veterans.

As Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, a decorated Viet vet in his own rite, was the first governor to establish economic ties to Vietnam.  He asked his staff members to read The Last Parade before their upcoming expedition to Ho Chi Minh City.  That was an unexpected benefit of the appearance.

Tony Accomundo was the fearless and creative leader of the Vietnam Veterans For South Vietnam Education initiative.  He had enlisted the Governor to help with his cause.  Tony and Tom were paying it forward in pretty special ways.  They both found comfort in their relief efforts.  Tony’s goal was to raise money from Americans and Vietnam Veteran organizations to be spent building schools in rural areas in what was South Vietnam.  By the time I arrived in Pittsburgh, Tony already had two schools in progress.

Americans were not permitted to work on the projects.  We were only permitted to provide funding, design plans and materials.  Tony was up to the task.  He graciously offered to build an elementary school in the Village of Ben Cat, the village in The Last Parade.  I was to accompany him in late 2000 to inspect the elementary school and see completed projects.

Unfortunately, I had a heart attack in September and could not make the trip.  Tom sent me photos of the new village, where a fallen American tank sat beside the front gate as well as pictures of the school and of the remains of the old village.  My reaction to the photos surprised me.

Anyway, I arrived in Pittsburgh on a Saturday and went promptly to the Heinz.  When I entered the building, there was a magnificent antique car on display in the center of the entry hall.  The car was dazzling and completely mesmerizing

I approached the car and began to read its history.  The car had been built in 1936 and was one of just eight stainless steel roadsters that were manufactured.  The stainless steel roadster was a collaboration between Allegheny Ludlum Steel and Ford Motor Company.  I thought it coincidental that it was manufactured the same year that my parents were married.

Stainless 2

Stainless 2

It did not take long to discover that stainless steel bodies were used in two 1960 Thunderbirds.  The 1936 cars and the Thunderbirds all logged 100,000 miles.  The car I saw looked like it would need a tank of gas to get out of the parking lot, but it was a spiffy car. Stainless steel bodies were later installed on three 1967 Lincolns.  Allegheny Ludlum still has two of the Lincoln models.

I spent a fair amount of time at the Allegheny Ludlum plant in Watervliet but I had never seen anything like this.  When Papa converted his badminton court into a Memorial Library in memory of Hiland Garfield Batcheller, Jr. I spent some time with him there.

Papa loved stainless steel and titanium and, of course, steel.  Believe it or not, he was most proud of a model airplane that two engineers built for him.  On the wings were two large cells.  The model was fueled by sun harvested by the cells.  The model was too heavy to fly, but when the plane was in front of the window, the propellers would accelerate rapidly.  As soon as the model was away from the window, the props would stop rotating.  I can remember him saying that “this is where it will all end up.”

When I think back now about what must have been going through his mind, I am awed.

Anyway, after my trip to Pittsburgh, I could not wait to get home to tell mother what I had seen.  I had been tempted to call her but I wanted to describe everything to her.  As soon as I was unpacked, I called and asked if it was a convenient time to visit.

When we were comfortable and I had answered the many, many questions mother always had, I reported that the very first thing I saw when I entered the Heinz was the stainless steel Allegheny Ludlum – Ford car.

I was very surprised that she did not offer an excited response.  After a few silent moments, I began to describe the car.  Mother kept shifting her position. She was clearly uncomfortable.  I thought her out of sorts.  As it was five o’clock, I asked if she might enjoy an Old Grand Dad.  That was an affirmative.

With mother and Old Grad Dad, success was a very precise recipe.  Four cubes of ice.  Exactly 1.5 inches of bourbon only to be poured from a stainless steel jigger made by Allegheny Ludlum and a very, very miniscule drop of water.  Once poured, a stainless stir was a must.  After the first sip, she would pucker up a bit and sigh “Ahhh, Perfection!”

After she sipped the drink, she whispered, “The car had bad, bad brakes.”

I thought I had not heard her.  “What, mother?  What about the car?”

She would not look me in the eye.  “The stainless had bad brakes.  It was too heavy.”

“Really?” I asked.  “How do you know?”

She moved back in her chair.  “Well, I drove it through the barn wall.”

“What? Are you kidding me?  You?  I don’t believe it.”

She finally looked at me.  “Yes, it would not stop.  I drove it through the barn wall.  The cows were scared to death.”  She hesitated to capture the scene.  Her ever-present twinkle was not there.  “Daddy was very unhappy with me. He never let me drive it again.”

“Wow! I never heard that one before.”

“The car was too heavy and the brakes were bad.”  She said, raising her chin in a defiant posture.

End of conversation.  We never discussed the stainless roadster again.

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