Treasure Hunt

“My, how times have changed!”

As a young boy it didn’t take much to get my attention. A simple trip to the corner store, gas station, or better yet a wrecking yard turned my crank.

My initial adventure in an automotive junk yard happened in Wolfforth, Texas. A classmate’s dad at Reese Elementary School owned an automotive salvage company on the outskirts of town. I’d spend weekends at Ike’s house during summer months. The majority of time we’d play marbles or fish for crawdads at a nearby cattle pond. The small pool of water sat under a grove of scrub trees in a pasture. After landing a crawdad we’d toss it back. They were that ugly!

Our fishing expeditions could get exciting because an ornery black bull roamed the open grounds. We were charged several times yet thankfully never gored. A wood fence that Ike and me crawled under kept us safely out of harm’s way.

Ike would get his dad’s permission to go ‘treasure hunting’. That entailed scrounging the backseats and floorboards of wrecked vehicles looking for lost pocket change. I quickly learned how to remove the bottom section of a car seat using my butt as a pry bar. Ike was a pro at it.

We were warned to be on the lookout for snakes, especially young ones because they were most venomous. I suppose the serpent’s mother told them to be on alert for nosey kids.

On one wrecking yard treasure hunt Ike found an Indian head penny. It was the first time I’d viewed such a coin. I was so excited, thinking it was extremely ancient with that early 1900’s date. The penny might as well been pirate treasure. A faded bronze Indian on front was totally realistic in appearance. Evidently my friend stumbled across these coins quite often. He seemed unfazed. From that moment on I was hooked. I wanted my own Indian head penny.

Ike and I were lucky on several occasions striking it rich in the lost change department. My pal always kept the money which was fine. My brother and I earned our spending loot by collecting pop bottles and turning them in for deposit. We also mowed and raked lawns.

When I became interested in old cars, automotive recycling facilities were a necessity. Some parts I needed were no longer available, with the only place to find them being a “junk yard”. These days automotive dismantlers no longer use that name. I suppose part of the reason being the undue political correctness sweeping our country.

The term ‘recycling facility’ is much more appeasing and green. I visited one such establishment where a large sign out front advised customers not to use the junk word. It didn’t indicate what would happen if you did, but I suppose the price of parts immediately escalated, or you were tossed off the premises.

Hilltop Auto Salvage in Chugach, Alaska became a popular hunting ground of mine during my high school years. Hilltop was owned by a fellow named Leonard “Tiny” Gardner. “Tiny” served with my dad in the United States Air Force during the 1950’s. They remained good friends afterwards. “Tiny” nicknamed me “Hacksaw Hankins” for good reason.

I visited his business one cold winter day needing a column shifter clamp so bad that I hacksawed it off, ruining several good components in the process. Ultimately I paid for the mistake many times over, as Tiny was the only wrecking yard within 300 miles of Anchorage having 1954 Chevrolet parts. After that blunder, each and every time I stepped foot on his property the price of my parts automatically skyrocketed.

Dad told me I was paying the piper as he called it for my dastardly deed. Looking back, I think not only did I pay the piper, but I paid the drummer and guitarist as well. Rightly so!

I always wondered if “Tiny” found an Indian head penny in the back seat of a vehicle but never asked. More than likely he didn’t. The majority of cars and trucks in his yard were from 1950 and up. I suppose there were plenty of lost wheat pennies floating about.

Hilltop Auto Salvage in Chugach, Alaska has grown significantly over the years.

The first time I traveled to Kansas I brought along a list of needed car parts. My girlfriend at the time (now wife), told me her mom during the high school years, dated a classmate who now owned a wrecking yard specializing in antique vehicles. When I heard the news chills ran up and down my spine.

This place in Junction City is called ‘Easy Jack & Sons’ after the owner.  Joleen had her mother call Jack Welsh and see if it was okay for us to stop by. “Easy Jack” told Bonnie he’d be more than happy to accommodate her guests.

We were given the royal tour. “Easy Jack” had rows and rows of Model A and Model T Fords to show us. There were old Chevrolets and Dodges as well. He owned just about any brand and model from 1910 up through the 1960’s. There were several 1953 and ’54 Chevys. He even showed us a few of his personal antiques. The dark haired man took time to answer my questions with one of them being,

“Have you ever found an Indian head penny?”

Jack Welsh said he’d discovered not only Indian head pennies in vehicles, but buffalo nickels and pure silver Mercury dimes. One of the first things Jack did when an older car arrived besides unload it, was search in the trunk and under the back seat for treasure. We were definitely on the same wave length.

“Easy Jack” evidently took a liking to me because on every junket I made to Kansas, the kindly man let me roam through his yard unaccompanied. I suppose much of that had to do with not having a hacksaw in my right hand. It was a good thing “Easy Jack” Welsh didn’t know “Tiny” Gardner.

“Easy Jack” Welsh on left with son Jamin on right.

I carried my camera plus a notebook on each foray into his facility. To this day I believe “Easy Jack” should’ve charged admission just for looking. There was that much cool stuff lying around. Much of it was very rare.

I received birthday cards from Jack Welsh for many years as a member of “Easy Jack’s” Birthday Club. Joleen’s mom said that only friends and special customers were on the list. During my yearly trips to the Sunflower State I’d haul back to Alaska a suitcase full of Chevy parts. My tab with Jack was generally less than a hundred bucks. I think he gave me the family discount.

As years went by more and more of the better preserved cars and trucks disappeared from his lot. The popularity of restoring antique vehicles depleted Jack’s inventory. There came a day when the old man turned his business over to a son and grandson. “Easy Jack” died a few years later.

I’ve slowed down a bit working on old cars and trucks. I no longer need to scrounge wrecking yards like I once did. Reproduction parts are readily available online. They’re a simple phone call away. Most of the ‘repop’ parts made in China lack the quality of an original item. In some cases OEM (original equipment manufacturer) items are as rare as hen’s teeth. I don’t like using Chinese parts but sometimes have to bite the bullet.

I never discovered an Indian head penny in the backseat of a vehicle like my buddy Ike or “Easy Jack”.  At this point it’s unlikely to ever happen. I was able to purchase several of the unique pennies from a coin shop.

Something tells me that kids of this generation would not become excited like I did finding loose change on the floor of a car in a junkyard. Sadly, most would equate an Indian head cent to being just another worthless penny. Now if it were an iPhone or Xbox that they came across in a car trunk that would be another story.

“My, how times have changed!”

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

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