By Tim “Shoe” Sullivan
It was the summer of 1960.
To understand this, you must first have some knowledge of our neighborhood in Stevens Point. First of all, when many of us were about twelve or so, our neighborhood had lots of kids. There were kids everywhere. Lincoln School on Water Street was somewhat of a boundary. So was the backside of Lincoln on Elk Street. It was a weird set-up.
Our group of kids ruled the two blocks of Water Street. There were the three Stroik brothers, the Meronek’s, the Bronk’s, and the Brawley St. kids like the Gruba’s, Jensen’s, Sprouse’s, Frymark’s, etc. And my next door neighbors, namely Charlie and Ed Rossier.
We were into sports all the time, especially basketball on the outdoor court at Lincoln and softball in Stroik’s backyard. On the other side of Lincoln, to the north and east, was the “Keene Gang”. Some were our age, but most of them were older than us. There were the Keene brothers on Elk and the Paukert’s across the street from them. The Keene’s, especially Woody, were always tinkering with Model T Fords in their yard.
Down the block were the McKay’s and Aldrich’s. More of the Keene Gang. And to the north on Water were the Schwebach’s, Lepak’s, Suplicki’s, and some others. Keene Gang through and through. Other than J.Mike Suplicki and Tim Schwebach, who both were outstanding athletes, none of the Keene Gang ever picked up a basketball or swung at a softball. To tell you the truth, we had no idea what they ever did. Even though we were on the same block, the two groups of kids were a world apart.
So it came as a total surprise in the summer of ‘60 when our buddy Charlie Rossier gave us the news. Somehow, and nobody remembers exactly how, a challenge was issued. The gauntlet had been tossed. The Keene Gang would take on our group, headed by Charlie Rossier, in a soap box derby race down Elk Street Hill.
The hill started on the corner of Elk and Brawley (a totally neutral site) and ended at the next corner at Elk and Wisconsin. The crazy thing is that there really were no rules. We would build our car, they would build theirs, and let the best man win. The Keene Gang only had two kids take up the challenge. Frankie Paukert would be their driver and I think Richard Keene was his engineer/car builder. Charlie was totally in charge of our end, and he’d be the driver.
Charlie recalled, “Geez, we must’ve had ten kids working on our car for a good two months. We had someone running over to Kellogg’s Lumber across from Lincoln almost every day finding boards. I think Nick Meronek found us some wheels. We had guys working on that car all the time in our vacant lot.”
Boy, THAT was true! Our side really got into it. We’d find some nails, saw a board, found a little steering wheel, and do all kinds of neat stuff. But there was one little problem.
None of us, including Charlie, really knew what the hell we were doing. Charlie added, “Our group certainly got an ‘A’ for effort. That was the good thing. We must’ve put in 100 hours building that car. The bad thing was that it hardly went anywhere.”
The problem was that whatever we did never worked. We had the wrong boards. A wheel was kinda cracked. The car was too light. You name it, and something was always out of whack. Reminded me of World War II. Every time we’d bomb a German bridge, they’d put up another one. Same thing with our Charlie car. We would add something to it on a Wednesday and take it apart Saturday. All the time.
And this went on for two solid months.
The big race was scheduled for a Saturday morning in August. About a week before the gala event, I happened to run into Frankie Paukert. I asked, “How’s your car coming along?”
He shrugged and said, “We didn’t make one yet. We’ll probably start on it Saturday morning.”
Wow! This race would be a breeze. At least we had something that kinda looked like a soap box car. But two days before the race, Charlie wasn’t very satisfied with our finished product. Some things still needed to be done. Charlie recalled, “We weren’t ready yet. We had bent nails holding down the axles. Had to replace them. And our car was way too light. We tore apart the back of the seat and put a bunch of magazines in there to weigh it down. Field & Streams. Comic books. And maybe a brick. But we made it on time.”
And then the big day approached. Game time. The entire summer came down to this. A 10 AM starting time. People were lining the street. Someone set up a lemonade stand. At 9 o’clock, we were ready.
We pushed Charlie’s car onto the sidewalk on top of the hill. Charlie, wearing road goggles, gave the thumbs up. Bring it on, baby!! Frankie and his buddy showed up at five to ten. They had put together a little race car in about five minutes. Couple of two-by-fours, four wheels, a steering wheel, and …oh … a little go-kart motor. They lined up in the street. Frankie climbed aboard. His buddy smiled.
Somewhere in this land, on that fateful day, birds were chirping, and the world was filled with joy. Unless you lived on Brawley Street. Don’t even remember who yelled: “Okay! On your mark — get set —go!”
Frankie’s car took off like a rocket and reached the end of the street in about five seconds flat. His buddy smiled again. A cloud of smoke poured out of the back.
Charlie’s car made it about five feet down the sidewalk and a wheel fell off. Charlie and the car flipped over and his goggles went flying. The goggles went farther down the hill than the car.
We never raced those guys again.