Trading Cars and Big John Foster

For three years, I had a college roommate, Archie. His schemes were legion, and his persuasive talents commensurate. He was a combination of Tom Sawyer, who could have me whitewashing a proverbial fence, and Mr. Haney, the character on the TV show “Green Acres,” who was always trying to involve Mr. Douglas in some deal against his better judgment. I know how Mr. Douglas felt. It’s no wonder Archie had a successful career in advertising. 
In 1974, Archie and I both lived in Kansas City, and he had an impressive job with an international company that involved extensive travel. On a trip to New York, he made a connection with an automobile importer and arranged to buy a British sports car, a 1974 MGB-GT (a three-door coupe), at a discounted price. But he had to pick it up in New York . . . and I got a telephone call. “Hey, Whit, I’ve got a great deal for you.” 
The deal involved flying to New York City, staying at his hotel, eating at fancy restaurants, and helping him drive the new car from New York back to KC. He employed the technique coined by famous salesman Elmer Wheeler in the 1920s—sell the sizzle and not the steak—and it worked. In no time at all, I was on a flight to the “Big Apple.”
My first trip to New York City was a blast. We stayed at the storied Algonquin Hotel, and while Archie conducted business—the ostensible purpose of his trip—I spent two days sightseeing in Manhattan. I rode the subway from the Bowery to Central Park; window shopped on Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue to locals); and ate hotdogs from street vendors. 
At night, we dined at fancy restaurants, including legendary Gallagher’s Steakhouse, courtesy of the expense accounts of well-heeled executives. But for this Ozark boy, the food wasn’t any better than the bacon-wrapped filet mignon, baked potato (actually, deep-fried whole, with the skin on), and a salad at the Aztec Club in Willow Springs. Thumb and Lucy Horak owned the Aztec, located just east of town on Highway 60 in the 1950s and 1960s. By the way, the “baked” potato at the Aztec is the best I’ve ever eaten. It was like a baked potato wrapped in a French fry.
That Friday afternoon, after being stuck in a Manhattan traffic jam in an overheating car engineered for the cooler climate of England, we headed westward. The return trip was mostly uneventful, but as we crossed Ohio, Archie seemed to think he was Indy/NASCAR racer Mario Andretti and kept the “pedal to the metal.” 
My mind flashed back to the grisly, safety films produced in the 1960s in conjunction with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, with names like “Signal 30,” “Mechanized Death,” and “Wheels of Tragedy.” Troop G patrolman Lem Carter used to regularly show these in the auditorium at WSHS. Those films, which showed actual car wrecks with fatalities, traumatized us into slowing our driving speed for a week or so.
A year later at a Kansas City Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium, Archie struck again: “Hey, Whit . . .” For reasons that still defy logic to me, I again heard the sizzle and not the steak and agreed to buy the MG from him. For a while, the nifty sports car met my expectations. Cruising down Ward Parkway and tooling around The Plaza in KC was great fun, but the thrill was short-lived. I got a job in St. Louis and needed to tow a U-Haul trailer to move my possessions. The sports car couldn’t handle the job.
I arranged to trade the MG for my brother’s Chevy Impala for a week and drove to Willow Springs to make the switch. While in Willow, I stopped by Bailey Pontiac and happened to see Big John Foster, the father of schoolmates, John (WSHS, 1966) and Steve Foster (WSHS, 1967).
During my years in Willow Springs, John Foster was one of the city fathers I admired. A man of robust stature with a personality to match, he looked you straight in the eye when he spoke to you, and gave the impression there was nobody more important in the world. 
Born in West Plains in 1912, he served in the European Theater in World War II from 1942 to 1945, and returned to Howell County to operate the MFA Oil distributorship he had owned since 1936. He became a charter agent for MFA Insurance in 1946 and opened an office in Willow that he ran until 1974, when his son Steve took over the agency for the next 30 years.
What I didn’t know that day I saw Mr. Foster at Bailey Pontiac was that he was a car maven. Steve says his father, “loved automobiles and owned many, many different ones.” He recently told me, “Dad bought the first Pontiac that Bob Bailey [Wendell’s father] sold when he started his Pontiac dealership. It was a red convertible.” Now, that’s an interesting bit of Willow Springs trivia.
When Mr. Foster saw my MG, he gave it a quick lookover and asked if I wanted to sell it. His question surprised me. I couldn’t imagine he was really interested, but then he said, “I never lost money on a sports car.” I threw out a price that he rejected, and then he asked if I would be interested in trading for a Lincoln he had at his home. He insisted that I drive out to see it. 
At his place, a detached garage housed a mint condition, tan 1970 Lincoln Mark III two-door coupe. He opened the driver-side door and made his pitch, highlighting the leather seats, low mileage, and on the dashboard, he pointed out the Cartier clock. With an expansive gesture, he said, “This is the kind of car a lawyer should drive.” He must have read Elmer Wheeler’s book, because I was beginning to hear the “sizzle.”
I asked him if he wanted to trade even, and he said, “Oh, no, I’d need a few balls of fire.” No doubt, I had a confused look on my face when I asked what he meant by a “ball of fire.” In a tone that suggested everyone knew what the term meant, he said, “A ball of fire is $1,000.” I asked him how many balls of fire was he talking about, and he said he’d need at least three. The sizzle faded, and we didn’t make the trade. 
I suspect Mr. Foster never really had much interest in trading his prized Lincoln, and certainly not to someone who didn’t have three balls of fire. And, in case you’re wondering, my friend Archie is still making deals, and I still get nervous when he says, “Hey, Whit, I’ve got a deal for you.”
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