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April 15, 1997

In the aftermath of last week's torrential April showers, water was running swiftly and fairly deep in several streams that drain the city from west to east. One of the most interesting, to me, was the broad, muddy flow that swirled to the east behind Perry Plaza, then bore south in the low flatland behind Perry Memorial Hospital and the armory, reaching out to a width of perhaps a hundred feet or more. It went on beneath the Burlington Northern railroad trestle, then turned east again in twin streams separated by a small land mass on the south wide of Lions West Park. From there it proceeded on to Cow Creek and on north leading out of Noble county.

Such streams only appear nowadays after heavy rainfall, and they quickly vanish once the skies clear up. There was a time, however, when the area behind Lions West Park held a sizable amount of water year around behind a sturdy concrete dam. It was a favorite fishing spot for many because of its accessibility to city-bound anglers. The lake was considered an emergency reserve supply for use if needed during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. Before the Municipal pool was added to the park after World War II, many boys and girls used that small lake for unsupervised swimming.

I remember another purpose served by the lake in wintertime. When an occasional prolonged spell of sub-freezing weather occurred, the surface would turn to ice. If the cold temperatures continued long enough, it would become sufficiently firm and thick to support daring ice skaters as well as others seeking outdoor recreation.

Robin Johnston was the only son of Henry S. and Ethel L. Johnston. He and I were classmates at Perry high school in the early 1940s, and neither of us had any money to speak of. Moreover, his parents and mine did not own an automobile, so we thought it was our great good fortune when someone in town offered to sell us a two-seater Model T Ford at the bargain price of $25. The old cars were still plentiful at that time although they had been out of production for a decade or longer. Mostly, they were considered junk or curiosities. But to us, a Model T represented wheels for transportation.

By cashing in our separate postal savings accounts, Robin and I each scraped together $12.50 and took joint possession of a hand-cranked little roadster. I'm sure no legal title came with it, but since Robin's dad was an attorney and a former governor, we figured we couldn't get into too much trouble with litigation. I know for sure neither of us had a drivers license.

Our joint ownership arrangement provided that each of us would have exclusive rights to the car on alternate days. Robin was mechanically gifted, whereas my sole contribution to the partnership was adding miles to the odometer, if there had been such an instrument, and gasoline to the fuel tank at the end of my 24-hour stewardship. When Robin had the car on Saturdays, he honed his automotive repair skills by completely tearing down the battered old vehicle and repairing or replacing everything that didn't seem quite right. That meant the Model T was always in first class condition when the keys were turned over to me.

One winter day when it was Robin's turn to drive, he joined a group of teens at the West Park Lake with our car. The ice seemed capable of bearing great weight after several days of very cold weather. It started out to be an afternoon of skimming over the ice while accelerating in our open-air Model T, climaxed by jamming on the brakes to create a free-wheeling and breathtaking spin at the end. A few others were indulging in the same pastime.

The combined weight load eventually caused a crack to develop in the ice but it was unnoticed by any of the kids until Robin, performing one of his death-defying spins, felt the rear wheels of the old tin lizzie begin sinking into the icy water around him. The front end and driver's seat were still on firm ice when he realized what was happening, and he quickly exited the vehicle before the whole thing disappeared beneath the ice. He got away from the spot safely, as did all the others, so the only loss was a smidgen of his pride and our prized Model T. We were philosophical about it in time and agreed that it had been a good experience, generally.

The cost of hauling it out of the water would have exceeded the value of the car and it would have been worthless, anyway, so it remained there until some 15 or 20 years later when the West Park Lake was drained to eliminate a problem with mosquitoes. When the lake bed was exposed, there sat the sad remains of our car, along with many other interesting, if undefinable, pieces of junk. I have no idea what became of any of that stuff, but I still miss our Model T.

Tomorrow brings the annual Progress Club coffee to benefit Perry Carnegie Library. As a member of the library board, I can tell you this is a welcome tradition, one that has added greatly to the library's collection of books. It starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 11, and at 10 a.m. there'll be a story telling demonstration in the children's library. Coffee, cookies and assorted goodies will be served throughout that time, so take your break Wednesday morning at the library. You'll be glad you did.