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Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang
By Peter Golenbock
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Peter Golenbock
All rights reserved.
Bobby Allison, who kept his memories locked inside him, carried one photograph in his wallet. "This tells the whole story," Bobby says. The picture was taken in the spring of 1992 while his sons were sitting together at dinner. Clifford is holding up two fingers to make a "devil sign" in back of Davey's head.
"There's Davey doing what he's supposed to do, smiling for the camera," Bobby says. "And there's his little brother, giving him a set of horns and loving it, and Davey doesn't know."
It wasn't supposed to end like this. At one time, Bobby Allison, racing champion of 1983 and winner of eighty-five Winston Cup stock car races, was the toast of all of stock car racing. Then he almost died in a horrific crash. After that, the tragedy that followed him and his wife, Judy, is almost unimaginable. And yet, despite all the heartbreak, Bobby's deep faith and his inner strength have made him an inspiration for all Americans.
People have compared Bobby Allison to the biblical figure Job, who is the poster boy for suffering and trouble.
Bobby himself says he is no Job.
"Job was an entirely different kind of man," he says. Only because, unlike Job, Bobby refuses to forgive those who he feels have wronged him.
Bobby's priest, Father Dale Grubba, suggests Bobby had it tougher. "Job never had a head injury, with all the frustration, the confusion, the self-doubt to come with it. God left Job his clarity, so that he could reason through his trials."
Bobby's story and that of his brothers, Eddie and Donnie, his sons, Clifford and Davey, and his friends, Neil Bonnett and Dale Earnhardt, may be less catastrophic than that of Job, who was tested time and time again by God, only to keep the faith. Like Job, Bobby and Judy had to suffer indescribable loss and pain. Miracle is a tribute to their faith and courage.CHAPTER 2
Pop and Kitty
"Daddy could fix anything, and he passed that on to us."
— Eddie Allison
You'll be surprised to learn Bobby Allison's dad was not a Southerner. Rather, he was a Yankee from Pearl River, New York, a town a stone's throw from the northern border of New Jersey. Bobby's mom came from Park Ridge, New Jersey, on the other side of that border. They were both devout Catholics, and they met and fell in love.
Edmund J. "Pop" Allison rode motorcycles as a teen, but his love affair with his Harley ended after he ran into the back of a car, flew over the top of it, and was injured badly.
He then turned his attention to cars. A master mechanic who could fix anything, Pop Allison opened a car repair shop in Pearl River.
In 1935 he went to help a friend who had a garage on Staten Island fix a car. While working on it, he was almost killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. His doctor told him he needed to live where he could get fresh air. His parents and brother had moved to Miami and highly recommended it, and so shortly thereafter Pop Allison and his wife, Kitty, moved to South Florida.
Pop and Kitty Allison faced tragedy early when their first baby died in childbirth. After a daughter, Claire, was born, Patsy came next, and then came a son, Eddie, born on September 19, 1936. He was soon followed by Bobby, born December 3, 1937, and Donnie, born September 7, 1939. More children would follow: After Tommy Mrs. Allison suffered the loss of three children in a row. Stanley lived four days. The cause of death was a mystery. Then came Mary Catherine, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and only lived nine months. The next sister, Margaret Mary lived to be sixteen She, too, had cystic fibrosis.
"We thought she would make it," said Eddie. "There's no telling how much money Daddy spent on medicines to keep her alive. Even when she died, you never heard him complain. He was a fantastic man. I didn't have any trouble burying him, but I sure do have trouble talking about him, because he was so great. And he doesn't hold a candle to the woman he married."
Jeannie, Aggie, and Cindy followed, and adding to the din of the Allison home were foster children.
"My mom and dad took in children from Catholic Charities, a boy here, a girl there," said Bobby. "They would try to give them a little bit of a home life. Those children had to do their chores like we did. They had to go to church and say grace before meals. I would say over the years there were ten or twelve. I haven't seen any of them in a long, long time."
Every Sunday afternoon two large tables were set for dinner. For many years the two-story house would be filled with the laughter and horseplay of children.
"The family always ate meals together, and every meal started with grace," said Bobby. "Dad worked a lot at night. He built and repaired gas stations, and in his business he would do the repairs at night so the place could be open during the day. If my dad worked all night Saturday night, he'd come home Sunday morning and bathe and put his suit and tie on — he always wore a tie to church — load us up in the car, and we would all go to Mass. Then he would come home and go to bed."
When Pop Allison moved to Florida, he started a company that supplied service station and garage equipment. As part of the construction he installed gas pumps and tanks.
"My dad was a healthy, six-foot, 190-pound, very strong man physically," said Bobby. "He worked very hard."
The work included the laying of concrete floors.
"He was a master at concrete finishing," Bobby said. "He could lay a large slab of concrete and finish it without a flaw on the top surface. His concrete jobs were supersmooth and superstraight, and he was always very proud of that."
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and war was declared, Pop Allison wasn't drafted because he had so many dependents. But he did not shirk his duty. He went to work for the navy at its base at Opa-Locka, a town near Miami. To take advantage of his expertise, the navy placed him in charge of the fuel systems of the Black Widow fighter planes. Before he arrived, the planes would regularly crash after takeoff. When he got there, he determined there was a problem with the purity of the fuel, so his first order was for his men to go down into the gas tanks and thoroughly flush them out. Problem solved.
He also devised a new fueling system. It took three sailors on the wing to hold the nozzle, because the hose acted like a whip when the fuel was shut off. It took the strength of those three men to keep it from knocking them off the wing. He solved that problem, too.
When the war ended, Pop Allison resumed his civilian work installing gas pumps and tanks. One of his jobs was to install the first service station lift to pick up a car on the island of Key West, Florida. The Boca Chica Bridge had yet to be built, and he had to ferry the equipment there.
In 1948 he helped build and equip a local Firestone store, and as part payment, he received one of those newfangled television sets.
"We were the only family on the street with a TV," said Eddie Allison, "and when the TV broke, Daddy didn't call a repairman. He fixed it himself. Daddy could fix anything, and he passed that on to us. I, myself — there is nothing I can't do. I could have been a rocket scientist if I had wanted to. A rocket scientist is just a man. You do what you want to do."
After the war ended Pop Allison took his young boys to work with him. Though Bobby was a small child — he didn't grow tall until he was nineteen — early on, when he worked for his dad, he became proficient at digging holes.
"One of the really special people my dad had working for him a long time was an old colored fellow by the name of Sam Hepburn," said Bobby. "Sam was nearly as tall as my dad, and he really knew how to dig. He made sure every shovelful he picked up had a good amount of dirt. And he never had to go far with it. He figured out how to move the most dirt with the least amount of work and effort. He showed me how to do that, so I became really good at digging small holes for my dad, even though I was small myself."
Above all, Pop Allison set an example for his children. He believed in spare the rod, spoil the child. Eddie and Bobby at times feared him but always respected and even revered him.
"My dad always set a very good example," said Bobby. "I never heard my dad say a cussword — never. As I was getting older, I was still a little bitty guy, but I would work with the colored laborers who he hired from a street corner in downtown Miami. Sam Hepburn would govern their work production. They would jump on the truck and work hard, digging a ditch or a lift hole, and the colored laborers used a lot of bad language. Those guys didn't have any language rules.
"One day I was digging a ditch, and I was practicing some bad words, damn and hell, not really bad stuff. I was digging this damn ditch and throwing a damn shovel of dirt over. My dad walked up behind me, and I thought, Oh no, I'm going to get murdered. Because I was a little bitty guy, and my dad was a big and strong man, and when he'd lose his temper, he would swing. Instead of a spanking, it would be a beating. If you did something wrong, you would get hurt.
"I'm not sure I had ever done anything as wrong as this up to this point. And I had already gotten hurt. He put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, 'Come here with me.'
"We went behind a big pile of dirt where a dump truck had left it. I was really concerned.
"He said, 'Let me tell you something: There's a proper word for what you're trying to say. Why let the whole world know how stupid you are by using that kind of language?'
"And it impressed me to such a degree. I thought, Here's the biggest, strongest, and best man I've ever known, and he's telling me why should I let the world know how stupid I am? It really helped me. I've always appreciated that, and I've told that story to youngsters along the way."
If Bobby worked hard for his dad, his brother Eddie worked harder. Eddie began going to his dad's jobs when he was as young as five years old.
"Eddie was very, very industrious and very dedicated to our dad," said Bobby. "He worked a lot of nights with Dad even when he was still in high school. He would work late into the night and occasionally all night long. Eddie picked up on mechanical things quickly and got interested in the mechanics of automobiles even before I did.
"Eddie was always wanting to take the lawn mower apart. My interest was the outboard motor. Dad had an outboard motor and a little boat, and I would drag that motor down to the canal, which was a block and a half to the Miami River from our house. It was a 3.3 Evinrude, little, but really heavy, and it was a lot of work to drag it to the river, but I would do it. I made a deal with a guy in the neighborhood for a dump of a little boat, a real piece of junk, but it floated, and I would put that motor on that boat, and I would go up or down the river to fish or to look around, while Eddie was over helping dad."
"Daddy didn't believe in doing anything but right," said Eddie. "It's our forte. Why did we work the way we did? Because of our daddy. And then my mother made sure we stayed straight. She beat our butts if we didn't.
"We were taught how to live the way people are supposed to live. That's what made us what we are. We could whup the world because we knew how to live in the world. As we were doing it, we didn't think we were doing such a great thing, but when you get to be our age and you look back ...
"They raised us as perfect as a man and a woman could raise a family," he said.
After the war, Pop Allison rented property where he kept his service station and garage equipment. He decided that as long as he had the space, he should start a business in which he bought junked cars and sold car parts.
"He built it into a major operation," said Eddie.
"My dad always wanted a junkyard," said Bobby. "It should be called a used auto parts facility, not a junkyard. He really felt that was a great business. He had a great interest in cars and the mechanics of cars. That facility was something he always had as a special dream. It was a way to allow him to get away from the hard labor."
The city of Miami was a terrific place for the Allison kids to grow up. Miami was a tropical playland. The weather was ideal, and in the mid-1950s it was safe from crime.
When the boys were growing up, no one locked his doors. The Allison kids didn't even have a key to the house. Eddie would walk down the streets of Miami with a cigar box under his arm, selling chances to raise money for his school. "I never worried that somebody was going to touch it," he says.
When the temperature and humidity rose, the boys were never far from the water. There was a canal a couple of blocks from their house, and the boys had the little dingy "to mess with." Eddie, Bobby, Donnie, Tommy, and their friends would head out onto Biscayne Bay to fish or just enjoy themselves.
The brothers Allison were tough kids who were always up for a challenge, no matter how daunting.
One time Eddie, Bobby, Donnie, and Tommy decided they would ride their bikes to a spot where they were sure to catch the largest bass: the forty-Mile bend on the Tamiami trail. All four brothers got on their bikes, and they tied a rope to six-year-old Tommy to make sure he kept up. It wasn't long before their dad got wind of what they were doing. Dad went out and retrieved Eddie and Bobby. A friend in another truck went and got Donnie and Tommy.
"Not a lot of words were spoken," said Eddie, who added, "You have no idea how much fun our life was. And we did it all with nothing."
Their home was located at the corner of Northwest Fifteenth Street and Thirtieth Avenue in the northwestern section of the city of Miami, a stone's throw from the Miami airport. The Pan American Airlines office was three blocks away. The property had a large field with palmetto trees scattered every ten yards. The boys used it as a football field.
Across from the Pan Am offices was an electricity plant that supplied the power to the neighborhood. It was privately owned by a man named Ware, the inventor of aluminum storm windows. Ware put the wires underground, so when hurricanes hit, no one lost power. The plant had three cooling pools for the generators, and the boys would fish there for bass.
"It had fish you couldn't believe," said Eddie.
The boys lived within a couple miles of the West Flagler Kennel Club, a dog track. They loved to go watch the grayhounds when they ran schooling races, practice races during which there was no betting.
When Eddie was ten, eleven, and twelve, he was a batboy for the Miami Sun Sox, a minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After Brooklyn completed its training at Vero Beach, the Dodgers would travel south to Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami to play their spring training games. They brought their own batboys, but they hired the visiting batboys from among the locals. Eddie retrieved bats for the visiting players from 1949 through 1951. On April 12, 1951, Life magazine published a picture with a caption that read, "Leo Durocher and his son." But it wasn't Durocher's son. It was Eddie Allison.
"I knew it was me," said Eddie. "It was a black-and-white picture, and I didn't have a uniform on, but I was wearing cleats, and my cleats had yellow shoelaces, so in the black-and-white picture they really stood out." Eddie's mom had the picture on her walls for years.
The visiting player Eddie remembers most fondly was Stan "the Man" Musial, the star first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.
"It was 1950, and I had worked all summer for my dad, and I made two dollars," said Eddie. "The Cardinals played three games, and before they left, Stan gave me five dollars.
"The next year, when the Cardinals came back, I was in the tunnel going from the home clubhouse with a double armload of towels and wash rags to put in the locker of the visiting team. Stan came bopping down that tunnel from the other direction, and he grabbed me and said, 'Hi, kid.' We shook hands, and he had one of those wind-up hand buzzers, and he shocked me, and he laughed, and then he gave me another five dollars. Stan Musial was a fantastic human being.
"I had a fantastic life growing up," said Eddie.
Pop Allison made a decent living, but there were so many kids to feed and clothe there wasn't much money for frills.
"There were eight or nine kids to raise," said Eddie. "It was such a neat life for people who didn't have any money. We had no money. Absolutely no money. We had enough clothes to wear, enough food to eat. Back then you wore shorts and no shirt and you didn't have shoes. Your feet were tougher than shoe leather. You could walk on the asphalt without wincing when it was ninety-five degrees out.
"Right above the Hialeah racetrack was a dairy farm, where Mom and Dad drove to get the fresh milk. My mother was a real shopper. She knew how to grocery shop. We ate everything on our plate. Even today, I love leftovers. Bobby can't stand them. But that's different personalities. I could eat food until it's gone."
Excerpted from Miracle by Peter Golenbock. Copyright © 2006 Peter Golenbock. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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