When I was 10 we began making annual winter trips to Florida to visit the Fishers. John Fisher was on the high-school basketball team with my father. He lost his right arm in an industrial accident at Material Service when he was a young man and moved to Florida with his wife Grace and two daughters, Betty Ruth and Georgia Ann, in the mid 40s. Mr. Fisher was in Real Estate in Florida and lived in a dream home on Lake Florence in Winter Haven, just a quarter mile from Cypress Gardens. These annual trips were like fairy-tale experiences for my sister and me.
For one thing, John Fisher owned an orange grove. That's where my experience with jeep #1 came in. You needed a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get through the sand in the grove. On that first trip when I was 10, I became the "official" jeep driver. I must have been an awful pest, because I lived for those trips to the grove.
In those succeeding years when I was 11, 12, and 13 the trips to the grove became even more often. Mr. Fisher had a fruit-shipping business, and we would go to the grove and pick, wash and pack oranges and grapefruit into bushel baskets. When you picked the fruit you had to be careful not to "plug" it. Washing was accomplished using a machine with rollers that scrubbed the fruit. I remember the sound and smell of that machine.
Out there in the grove, Mr. Fisher had another side business going. He was raising rabbits, and there were rabbit pens right next to where we washed the fruit. My dad and Mr. Fisher would go off to Barstow every now and then to get more rabbits. The rabbit business meant that we had to go to the grove more often, which was fine with me.
I of course began dreaming of the day when I could own my own jeep. Back in Illinois, I kept my eye on the newspaper ads. One day when I was 17 I saw an ad for a used jeep at Ray Kinney Motors in Joliet. They wanted $600 for it, and I bought jeep #2 with money saved from my church-organist job.
The jeep came with a wooden top that I immediately took off and threw away. After that, my jeep was topless rain or shine. It soon was obvious that the engine burned too much oil. A little research indicated that the pistons in the engine needed new rings. Since winter was approaching, I removed the engine from the jeep (really!) and spent the winter overhauling it.
When spring came it was time to reassemble everything. With all the parts back in their proper places, the big moment of starting the engine had arrived. It wouldn't start! And it wouldn't start! And it wouldn't start...until I figured out that I had the fuel pump connected backwards. After that, the engine actually worked like new. What a kick!
The jeep became the bus for the Jimmy Stephenson Swing Band. Two years later, when I left town to attend Purdue, Tommy Nelson became the bus driver. It wasn't practical to take a vehicle that didn't have a top to college. One day I received word that the engine had "frozen up." That was the end for jeep #2.
More than 40 years would go by before I owned another jeep. Jeep #3 is red (of course), stick shift (naturally!), soft top (what else?). It does have air conditioning---a small concession to comfort.
My two-year-old grandson Wesley is a fast learner. His transportation preference is to "go in zeep?" Below: family reunion in jeep #3 in July, 2006. Elliott Chan is driving.