”Our school had a Diversified Occupations program,” Stripling says, “and there was a list of various jobs we could choose from. A new water treatment plant had just been built about three houses down the road from us, so I checked the box for ‘Water Filtration Operator.’” By his senior year, Stripling had earned his state certification and was working at the plant full-time, pulling a 2-to-10 shift after his schoolwork was done. His father, meanwhile, was superintendent of the Fayette Country Club and Terry, from an early age, worked summers with the grounds crew. “I actually learned to drive on an old Ford tractor,” he recalls. “Cutting the fairways, bush-hogging the rough, that sort of thing. One day I parked the tractor in the shop and shut the engine off, and there was an older gentleman working there named Mr. Savage. He said to me, ‘You’re getting pretty good with that thing.’ And I told him, ‘One of these days I want to own a tractor, exactly like this one.’”
Stripling’s choice of “Water Filtration Operator” led him, during college, to a job at a new water plant in Jackson, Ala., up the road from Mobile Bay in Clarke County, and later — after homesickness became a factor — to a job as manager of Jasper Water Works, from 1990 until his retirement a few years ago.
His boyhood pledge to own a duplicate of the country club’s tractor, though, turned out to be more complicated than he’d expected. “I was born in 1954, and that was the year I wanted,” he says. “I started scouring the country for one, but I found out that there were very few of those made. Ford had an 8N tractor that was made from the Korean War onward; there are thousands of those, everywhere. In ‘53 they made the Golden Jubilee, ‘54 was their Jubilee, and at the end of ‘54 they started making the 600, 800 series and there were only 10,614 of that series made. But I did my research and found that although it was a 1955, it was manufactured in 1954. You could only tell the year by the serial number.”
Stripling had an Internet program that scoured Craig’s List offerings across the Southeast, and inquiry after inquiry turned up serial numbers that lacked the magic ‘54 designation. At long last, he located the Holy Grail of tractors in Mars Hill, N.C., and drove up the same weekend to bring it to Jasper. It’s the next vehicle on his list for restoration.
Already in his garage are three other completed examples of his handiwork: two tractors and a Model A Ford. Stripling is seriously into symbolism for the model years of his vehicle projects: the 1972 tractor commemorates his wedding anniversary, and the 1929 Model A represents the year his father was born. The only exception is a 1952 International Harvester tractor — no personal significance to the year, but the wide-front model is one that Stripling had admired from afar for a long time, and was not easy to come by.
He keeps a photograph album handy, with before-and-after snapshots of his projects, and to call the differences “dramatic” is an understatement. The original shot of the 1952 tractor shows its trademark red paint bleached almost to clay color from the sun. “It hadn’t been cranked in eight years,” Stripling says. “I bought it on Nov. 29. It didn’t have carburetor, distributor, nothing.” But after just 308 hours of work — he keeps a logbook of the time invested in each job — the tractor, finished in April, looks like the bright glossy red, showroom-floor version that sits in his driveway.
But, he’s started with worse. Such as a Model A pickup that he’s now working on in his garage: “I looked and looked, and finally found one on eBay in Udall, Kansas. I bought it, and a buddy went out there with me to get it. It was in pieces. We brought back two 4-foot by 4-foot crates of parts, and the cab and bed were sitting on an Isuzu chassis that the seller had. ”Since then I’ve bought a model A frame from a guy in Birmingham, and bought a ‘97 Mustang that had been in a wreck. I took the engine, transmission, and rear end out of it and put it on the Model A frame. I’m working on the cab, now. It had some rust, so I’ve bought new panels. So that ‘54 tractor got pushed under the shed, while I’m working on this one.” Stripling finds that the restoration jobs often include a free history education, as well. The hard-to-find, wide-front International Harvester, for instance, was designed for terrain so hilly that it threatened to flip over the traditional “tricycle” style, or three-wheeled, tractor. And Stripling’s 1929 Model A is classified as a station wagon. It was named for its use by hotels, for picking up guests arriving at the train station. Luggage was stacked on the rear, and one accessory for the vehicle was a set of curtains, made from an isinglass or mica material that snapped onto the vehicle’s open sides to keep out cold air.
Riding across town in Stripling’s Model A is like a trip in a time machine, particularly with him dressed in the vintage 1920s costume he often wears to car shows: suspenders, plus-four pants, and a newsboy-style cap. He describes the features of the car to his passenger: “Windshield wiper,” he says, grasping a small silver-colored metal knob that’s attached by a handle to a single wiper blade on the outside of the glass; twisting the knob makes the blade move across the windshield. “No electric motors,” he adds. “Everything’s manual.”
If the oil and fuel indicators seem to vary a bit while the car’s in motion, that’s because they’re strictly float-style pieces of actual cork, like fishing bobbers except larger, suspended inside the tanks and connected to the display by lengths of wire.
”Air conditioner?” Stripling adjusts a hinged control that extends the windshield out several inches to create a gap letting a blast of air blow directly into the driver’s and passenger’s faces. ”There’s no engine that sounds quite like a Model A’s,” he says, as the four-cylinder vehicle sits idling at a red light. “I believe I could pick it out anywhere, even over a telephone.”
Stripling sees a pedestrian on the roadside, and reaches for a control alongside the seat: “Ah-OOH-gah, OOH-gah!” the horn resounds, and the walker smiles and waves. ”There’s something about this model of car that just makes people smile, every time,” he says.
It’s also the only one of his vehicles with a name. Stripling and his wife — who’ve been acquainted since first grade — recently celebrated their 40th anniversary. Etiquette books say the official commemoration for that occasion is a ruby. So, Ruby it is. One of Stripling’s favorite memories is of driving his grandkids in the model A (in non-vintage, full regulation safety seats) in last year’s Christmas parade, the vehicle rigged with a wreath and lights, their electricity supplied by a reverse voltage converter.
Back at home, Stripling gives a visitor a quick tour of his workshop. Portions of vehicles are spread out in various directions, alongside shelf after shelf of parts, tools, and paint bottles and cans.
”Since I’ve been retired,” he says, “I’ve got so much to do that I don’t see how I ever found the time to work all day. I don’t know that I’ll ever even finish all these projects.” He laughs. “If I don’t, maybe somebody else will.
”Sometimes I’ll come out here and start working on one thing, and then another, and not go back to the house until dark. It’s really enjoyable, really peaceful, to go that long without a single worry crossing my mind.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org