Curt's Wheels by Barbara Ziemke

There are many things that come to mind when thinking about Curt, but the one thing that has been constant throughout his life has been his love for anything with wheels. He even started out in life in a basinette that had wheels. And, of course, his stroller had wheels. But he was probably three years old when he became fascinated with those little round things.
On any given day I could pretty much find him kneeling down in front of the sofa with his hand on a Hot Wheel or Match Box car. He would drive it around with accompanying sound effects to indicate speed, slowing down, flooring it, turning corners on two wheels, stopping on a dime and even crashing. His head would be right down there even with those wheels as they turned this way and that. It was fun to watch him as he was absolutely captivated with those little cars. He had cars, pickups, trailers, you name it. It was probably here that he learned to do what most people on the planet cannot do--back up a trailer.

Soon he graduated to a tricycle. At one point, a big kid sat on the handlebars and they broke. So Grandpa Ziemke repaired it with a single handle in the middle. That didn’t stop Curt. He could maneuver it like a pro. Next came a Big Wheel with wheels made of plastic that you could hear coming and going lickety-split up and down the street. What a racket that thing made. But, boy, did he have fun with it.

He also had a similar vehicle, but that one had rubber wheels. The rear wheels eventually broke after Curt rode on two wheels by leaning to one side. Again, Grandpa Ziemke came to the rescue and fixed it with dual wheels on each side and away Curt went.
Around that same time Grandpa found an old metal pedal car that he painted red for Curt. It was amazing how fast he could pedal that little red car.

Curt even played with the neighbor’s vehicles. The Dunigans next door had six daughters who were not interested in their boy toys so Curt had free reign with their fire truck and toy Mustang.
Meanwhile, Curt could not resist riding a two wheeler, so his sister Beverly’s blue and white Schwinn Strand Cruiser was pressed into service. He was too short to sit on the seat so he rode it standing up. He was probably five or six at the time.

The first bike of his very own was red with a banana seat. He learned to do wheelies with it. One day, while the front wheel was in the air, it fell off. When he came down he flew off the bike and bent the front fork which had to be replaced. He had minor scrapes after that one.
Curt was not only interested in his own wheels but he can remember almost everyone else’s, too. He talks about his dad’s 1950 red truck that “smelled good.” All vehicles have a certain smell which he says can come from the rubber, the seat covers, and whatever is in that particular car or truck. My best friend, Joan Parker, down the street had a Ford Cortina, he remembers.

Curt loved anything with wheels, including the shopping carts at Alpha Beta Market. He preferred those because they had fixed rear wheels and could slide around corners real nice, he says. As opposed to those at Lucky’s Market that had four wheels that all swiveled. He definitely knew his wheels.

Curt wasn’t fussy when it came to wheels or their size; just as long as they would allow him to speed around the neighborhood. He even wore Beverly’s white shoe skates. They had metal wheels and he would jump off curbs or ramps and land so hard he made the wheels flat on one side.

When he was in second grade at St. James School, his teacher often sent him to her car to retrieve something or other. He remembers that she had a turquoise 1966 Olds Cutlass. He can also remember the smell and sound of that car. Yes, sound! While getting the supplies he would jump into the driver’s seat and start the car! (Believe me, I’m just finding this out.) He still remembers the “smooth, round ignition” which was on the dash. Fortunately, his teacher never found out about this.

From third grade on, Curt went to Carl Steel Elementary School near our home. While there he competed in a number of bicycle rodeos. The entrants had to demonstrate all manner of agility and balance tests. He won many trophies and awards, including a $50 Savings Bond, during the years that he participated.

He had a blue Schwinn Scrambler, a moto-cross type bike. He remembers it cost $158. One night he and his friend left their bikes in the driveway and ran inside for something. When they came out both bikes were stolen. After that he bought a cruiser from his friend Chris for ten dollars. He says it was “ugly spray-can green“. It soon got a flat rear tire and Curt rode it on the rim to see if it would make sparks. “It didn’t work,” he says. Then he bought a red bike with gold rims from his friend, George Kudo, that he owned for a long time.
For a number of years, Curt’s Dad, Don, was involved managing teams at Tordondo Little League. About the time Curt was in fifth or sixth grade he helped Don mow the grass at the field. Of course, Curt couldn’t resist the two yellow mowers that he could ride and steer up and down the field. “That was great fun” he remembers.

Curt loved to ride his bike with his friends. One night he slept over at his friend Darren’s house, who lived four houses down. (At least we thought they were sleeping.) The boys were in sleeping bags in the living room and when the house was quiet, they slipped out and rode down to Torrance Airport where Darren‘s dad kept his airplane.

They really didn’t have a plan when they got there so they decided to return home. On the way back, they were stopped by a policeman who asked them their names. The policeman told Darren to go home and tell his parents that he was going to call and they had better be home by then. So the boys rode like the wind to beat that phone call. It never came.
In the seventh grade Curt and his friends took the basket off of a shopping cart. Curt sat on the lower rack while another boy rode his bike and pulled it with a rope. They went around a corner too fast and Curt hit a parked car. The car didn’t get hurt but Curt had a few bumps and bruises. Don found out and made the boys put the cart back together and take it back to the store.

One day during that same year, Curt went with Don to Security Pacific Bank. Don left the keys in the ignition and went into the bank while Curt stayed in the car. That was too tempting for Curt. He started the car and backed it up and pulled it forward a number of times right in the parking space. Don came out sooner than Curt expected and caught him. Don never hit the kids but Curt wasn’t taking any chances. He said he never got so close to the passenger door in his life. He was like “wallpaper” on that door.

Beverly saved up money and bought a little white Datsun. Curt often rode along with her to the store. He stayed in the car so he could “listen to music.” Naturally, the keys had to be in the ignition for this to happen. Of course he started the car and would sit there revving up the engine while Bev did her thing.

In middle school, Curt often went to Shamrock Skate Rink on Friday night with his friend, Ray Schott. He remembers that he had black shoe skates with green cryptonic wheels. He became an excellent skater who could spin around, skate backwards, and do all manner of things wearing those skates.
Curt had great balance. He could do one continuous wheelie all around our block. He says the bike was easier to balance when the front wheel was spinning, which he called the “gyro effect”. When the wheel started to slow down his friends rode their bikes beside him and spun his wheel to keep him going.

For eighth grade graduation Curt got a Schwinn Strand Cruiser bicycle. It was blue metallic with white wall tires. He rode it everywhere including down by the beach were he and his friends enjoyed cruising the Strand at Redondo and Torrance beaches.

Don said he didn’t have the patience to teach the kids to drive so I taught them all in our 1967 Volkswagen Bus with a standard transmission. It had a maroon body and light grey top. (Eventually we had it painted yellow as I considered it a taxi for all the times I dropped off and picked up kids.) All five kids learned to drive in the parking lot at West High School in Torrance and soon progressed to the street. We had a lot of fun and laughs during those lessons.
Curt was a fast learner and was very observant. One day, when he was riding along with me I noticed him watching my feet. What he was doing was observing how I stopped the car at intersections. I would let off the brake just a little before stopping so it would be a smooth stop and my passengers would not move forward a little in their seats. I was amazed that Curt even noticed.

I’ll never forget the day I let Greg, our oldest, drive his four siblings to the beach in our VW Bus. They were told to be back by 2:00 sharp! Not one minute later. Well, 2:00 came and went, then 2:30, and 2:45. By 3:00 I was frantic. I had no way of going out to search for them. And, of course, this was before cell phones. I knew how difficult it was to gather them to go anywhere let alone when they were having fun at the beach. Nevertheless, I said 2:00 and I meant it. By the time they did get home I was both extremely relieved and wanting to wring their necks at the same time. I vowed to never let them go anywhere together again.

On the next block lived a man named Louie Rodriguez. He took a liking to Curt and his friends and he often paid them to wash his big Kenworth lumber truck. Louie somehow came into possession of lots of firecrackers and somehow the boys came into possession of them, too. Unbeknownst to Curt’s parents, Curt often dropped lit firecrackers into trash cans at West High School. You can imagine the noise that made. The faculty realized who was doing it and called him into the office. Of course, he feigned innocence. But the jig was up when a custodian was summoned to open Curt’s locker where he found a bag full of firecrackers. Our sweet, angel child was suspended the last six weeks of his sophomore year and ended up at North High School. The upshot of this story is that it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Curt because by then he had his license and was able to drive our VW to school every day. It was “no pain, no strain” according to Curt. He returned to West High School the following year where, thankfully, there were no more firecracker incidences.
(By the way, Louie is still a friend to all the boys. In spite of the firecracker incident, he is a dear, kind man and has been a good friend to all of us for years. Besides, he used to give the boys the most delicious tamales! Who could be upset with a person who does that?)

After Curt got his driver’s license and before he had his own car, he often asked his brother, Mike, if he could drive his classic 1968 Ford Mustang GT. Mike let him drive it a number of times. But one time, after bugging Mike for a long period of time, Mike said that if Curt ate a whole jar of Jalapeno Peppers he could drive his car. Curt, who would do anything to get to drive, ate the peppers, drove the car for only a short while because he began to get a headache from the peppers and had to return home. He was sick for days. I’m sure Mike feels guilty about that to this day.

Another time, Curt hankered to drive his brother Bill‘s 1970 Chevy Camaro. This time, however, he skipped the asking permission part. So, one night after everyone was asleep, he pushed that heavy car out of the driveway and down the street by himself before he felt it was safe to start it. He drove it around town doing who knows what and put it back where he found it. Don and I were blissfully asleep upstairs in our bedroom right above the driveway. We didn’t hear a thing.

While Curt is an excellent driver, he has been known to put the “pedal to the metal“ as they say. I have to admit that he inherited the speed-demon gene from me. And I got it from my Dad. My husband used to call me “Lead-foot Lisa.” When Curt was in middle school, he often called me “Mama Lisa.” When I think about it now, it’s a miracle we all survived those years before seat belt laws and without those humongous car seats for the kids.

Curt isn’t the only one with a car story to tell. Before Beverly had her own car she borrowed our VW Bus one evening. She was late getting home and decided to turn off the engine and coast quietly into the driveway. It sounded like a good plan until the car didn’t have enough power to go all the way up the driveway so it rolled back and the front wheels stopped in the gutter. She couldn’t push the car so she had to start it right there under our window. Unfortunately for her, Don heard it and she got in trouble.

It seems no car was safe around Curt. Greg had a 1965 Ford Mustang convertible which Curt loved to sit in. He would raise and lower the top until the battery went dead. (Now I know why that car was inoperable most of the time.)

Curt’s first car of his own was a 1965 Volkswagen Baja Bug that he bought with a $3000 loan from our church credit union. By then he was working at a Union 76 gas station. And, in the true Ziemke tradition, he never missed a payment.
Our garage was always full of boys as Curt was continually working on his car. One time, unbeknownst to us, Curt put his Baja Bug’s engine in our VW bus. Don drove it somewhere and couldn’t believe the power our old VW had all of a sudden.

Curt wonders how we allowed him to work on so many cars in our driveway. The answer is that we always knew where he was and who he was with. He had a group of very nice friends who were respectful to us and helpful to him. How could we refuse?

It was about this time that everyone in the family had a car or two. One day, I realized that everyone and their cars were all home at the same time. I ran across the street and took a picture. With so many cars we were mindful not to infringe on our neighbors’ parking spaces. We parked three in our driveway, three on the street, and two on the lawn. By this time Greg and Bev had moved out or there would have been more cars. Parking was at a premium in our neighborhood as there were four kids on one side of us and six on the other. Ironically, the only place we didn’t park a car was in our two-car garage!
When Curt was 18 or 19 he bought a 1981 black Chevy step-side truck with four shades of silver stripes along the side and a blue pin stripe as well. He paid $7,100. The payment was $130 and insurance $132 per month. It’s amazing how he remembers all those details. Again, he did not miss a payment.
After he sold that truck to an importer who shipped it to Japan, Curt bought a 1971 Chevy truck with a self-contained camper for $3000 cash. This would be the first RV that he would eventually own.

Curt began working at American City Pest Control the first Monday after high school graduation. For the next 25 years he drove various company trucks until he became ill.

Curt married Cindy on June 4, 1988, when they were both 22. Before, during and since that momentous occasion their vehicles amounted to six trucks including two with campers and three motor homes, the famous Baja Bug, two Crown Victorias, two Ford Tauruses, one Buick Apollo, one Ford Windstar, one Ford T-Bird, two Excursions, two Suburbans, and a Honda Odyssey mini-van.

In addition to that, Curt has had one mini bike and 12 motorcycles. What with the family having seven quads, six motorcycles, two sand rails, and one dune buggy, that should satisfy anyone’s love of wheels. In fact, when they went to Glamis to traverse the sand dunes they had to maintain 26 or more tires. If you count all of the farm machinery that Curt has used at the Lake over the years, it can wear a person out.

And don’t forget his various boats. While boats don’t have wheels themselves, they did get to Lake Nacemiento, or to the Colorado River, or to some other beautiful body of water on a nice set of them. That’s where Curt’s skill backing up a trailer really shined and impressed anyone watching.

Curt has promised Cayden that he can have his big white Chevy crew-cab four-wheel drive truck next February when he turns 16 and gets his license. Cayden can drive it now with a licensed driver with him. I’ve even done the duty but I needed a step stool to get into it. Curt has been helping him get the truck teenager ready. He has guided Cayden through the installation of a special chrome exhaust and a gadget that makes different sounds like a cow, ice cream truck, etc. He also installed an air horn that sounds like a train. With my fingers in my ears Cayden demonstrated his new horn. He says his friends can hear him coming several blocks away. No argument there.

And now in this chapter of his life Curt also uses wheels to get around. While these wheels are not allowed on the freeway or even on city streets, he still gets around lickety-split in his power chair that he has mastered like only he can do. (I went to Lowe’s with him one night and he left me in the dust.) Actually, his chair is a loaner until his own chair is built to his specifications. His neighbor, Bob Knapp, was kind enough to put in ramps so Curt can enter and exit his home through the front and back doors.

While I’m on the subject of kind souls, others are also helping to make Curt’s life easier. For instance, his friend, Jim Beedy, attached bars in their bathroom for Curt. His sister, Beverly, has attached Velcro to some of his clothes so he won’t have to deal with buttons. She attached metal rings on zipper pulls making it easier for him to grasp them. She made a cloth bag that he attaches to his chair for his wallet, phone and keys as he has difficulty getting those things out of his pockets. His brother, Bill, will do anything to help him and he calls or texts him frequently with words of encouragement. And many of you have done the same and have done many other acts of kindness not only for Curt but for Cindy as well. All of it means so much.

And now, Curt has a beautiful wheelchair-equipped van that is a deep black cherry color. He calls it the “cherry bomb.” He is able to get himself and his chair in and out of it and he can drive the van by himself. (This child of mine never ceases to amaze and inspire me.)
After Curt’s Dad died in 1995, Curt took his place in our family. Curt is the hub of the wheel that we all revolve around. He is the rock, the one with the most common sense, the go-to guy that we seek out for answers and advice. And now, there are many more spokes to that wheel as all of you have joined our family as we continue to revolve around him in order to keep that wheel spinning.

With much love and gratitude,



Melissa said...

It was amazing reading the stories and seeing all of the pictures. Thanks Barbara! In one picture, Curt looks exactly like Corbin and in another, he looks exactly like Cayden. Cool!

nasaman said...

An incredible "scrapbook" of Curt and his lifelong passion for everything that transports people! Beautifully written & memorable photos, Barbara!

amy shepard said...

i loved looking at the pictures! going to costco with him was pretty funny watching him circle around a few times and zoom off. i guess his love for wheels never dies. i love and miss you guys and cant wait for the next visit:)