The Star

The Star of Palmer Lake is the claim to fame of this small town in Colorado by the same name.  Built on the side of Sundance Mountain in 1934 and rebuilt in 1976, this 500-foot star shines above the city in December and on special occasions every year.  I got to see this local wonder in the year 2003.

Palmer Lake Star, Palmer Lake, Colorado, Christmas star, December star, mountain, star on the side of a mountain, star at nightRobert had a gentle spirit as a kid.  He talked less than his older brother and sister yet they often knew what he was thinking based upon the look on his face.  A stern look that made his face turn as red as a stuffed sausage meant that this little kiddo needed to get to the bathroom right quick!

Perhaps Rob was more sensitive than they realized:  the kind of kid who took in the good and the bad without saying much while growing up in a single-parent home.  Rob looked like his dad which may have given him some slight favor . . . or at least that is what his older brother, Mike and their mom would say.  But Rob was too young to really get to know his dad before he divorced his mom then eventually became estranged from the family altogether.  How did Robert Matthew Lech get to be so mechanically inclined anyways?  Decades later it became very clear that the instruction manual for the Motor City Gear Head that Rob became was in his DNA as well as from those years as a young child when his dad was still around tinkering with this and that in the basement workshop.  Just like his Dad, Rob could fix just about anything!

There’s one thing, however, that he could not fix.  Rob could not change the fact that his dad left without a trace until many years later.  All of the kids would be grown up by the time they learned that “Ted” was living in Florida.  The older sister had moved to Chicagoland and the older brother had returned from the Navy.  Rob had completed an aviation mechanic certification course with his buddy Karl, then never took the test to actually become certified.  Rob drifted a bit then became the Grease Monkey who could answer most any question when you dropped by to see him at the local NAPA auto parts store near Palmer Lake.  He would often help his customers fix their cars as well, no charge.  Rob had many friends for sure.  Many of them joined him at the bar of the bowling alley in the evening, much like the camaraderie of the 1980’s television show, Cheers.

Rob reached out to his Dad some time after receiving his Dad’s address from his mom.  It might have been when the family received notice of his Dad’s brother’s passing that they all saw Ted’s address in Uncle Fred’s legal paperwork.  Someone had found Ted!  Ted’s sister, Lori, went to visit and Ted reportedly shunned her.  But for some reason Rob needed to try to reach out to him anyways.  Something inside of him still needed to know his father, the one he had come to be like.  These things would be revealed many years later, of course.  No one got to know Ted just then.  Ted responded to the letter that Rob finally sent to his Dad, telling Rob not to contact him again.  Ted said that he had a mental illness and he had found a way to live with it which included estrangement from his family and everything in his past.  Ted slipped away into anonymity once again.  So very sad, really.

Rob was devastated.  Rob had another close friend, Dewey, who had passed away which was doubly devastating for this tender-hearted young man.  Rob never seemed to overcome the loss of these two important men in his life.  His drinking increased and his life crumbled.  Before he died he had started to ask questions about God and may have even attended a local church to find some peace.  Cans of food from a local food bank were found in his disheveled mobile home along with the slot cars from racing with his dad and brother at local tracks as a boy.  Ted Lech, aka “Mr. Motor” was a champion slot car racer and design engineer behind Dyna-Rewind:  the fastest motors in the cars on the tracks in the 1960’s.  Mike and Rob’s best times were shagging cars during competitions, especially those where their dad smoked all the other race cars every Thursday night!

Dyna-Rewind, Dyna Rewind, Ted Lech, Mr. Motor, slot car racing

Dad’s Slot Car

I found the letter from our Dad in Rob’s wallet when my mom, Mike and I got into town after Rob had died.  I was devastated.  I, too, carried big hurts from our Dad leaving us as children and so did Michael.  We needed our Dad and he could not be there.  I grieved the pain that my little brother must have carried to his grave.  I loved Robbie so much!  Then I found a picture in his wallet, the only one he carried with him every day.  It was a picture of me.  Oh dear.  My brother loved me too!  Sigh.

I am not quite sure why this memory is so tender for me right now.  I am not quite sure why it still hurts so very much.  I am not quite sure my little brother Rob knew how much I really loved him.  Oh Rob, how I wish you were still here!  I wish you could meet my really cool husband Steve and talk with him about cars and motors and carburetors and hemi engines and more!  I sure miss you Raaaaaabeeee!

It is quite possible that Steve and I will do some travelling West this Fall.  Lord willing, one of our destinations will be New Mexico and potential places north of there for us to live where the climate is dryer.  We just may have to visit Palmer Lake, Colorado too.

Rob’s ashes were dispersed at the base of one of the stars on the side of the Palmer Lake Star on Sundance Mountain in the late summer of 2003.  Mike and I climbed up the steep slope, hanging onto brambles, posts, and the cables that comprise the outline of the star while our mom waited and watched from the road below.  Two of Rob’s friends from the bowling alley lead the way for us while we huffed and puffed fighting altitude sickness to complete our mission to place Rob at rest.  His remains are part of the mountain that he called home:  the second light fixture from the upper right point of the 5-pointed star.  It’s also right next to the resting place of his friend and neighbor, Dewey.  Kind of poetic in a way . . .

I do hope that somehow Rob made peace with his past through the tender love of our Heavenly Father before he passed away.  I hope that I will see my little brother and his lanky frame, cute smile, and soft brown eyes when I reach the presence of the Lord someday.  Hey Robbie, you will always be a shining star in my memories, my heart.

man with cat, Robert Lech, Rob Lech, man wearing baseball hat, man in apartment, guy with cat, pet cat

And thanks again for fixing up that 1974 Nova for me too!  JJ

Mike and Me

I just found out that my brother (Mike) had a stroke and is hospitalized in Detroit, Michigan.  I’m calling on you, Gentle Readers, to please pray for Mike, Mike’s fiancé (Lisa), her son (Alex), and my husband (Steve) and me as we face this situation.

JulienMikecrop

I love you Mike!

Our grandparents, parents, and youngest brother (Robert) are now deceased.  Mike had just started a promising new job and got back in touch with me as interest in our father’s business (Dyna-rewind) resurfaced after almost 50 years.  My heart is heavy and sad as we all face the unknowns in the days to come.  I pray that I will be well enough to travel to see everyone in the Detroit area before too long.

Thank you.  More later.  Just Julie

The Genius Between Us

If you lived in the Midwest of the United States in the mid-1960’s chances are good that you knew about slot car racing.  It was the craze back then for hobbyists, car enthusiasts, boys, and the girls with brothers!

And if you were into performance slot car racing, then you would have selected either a Mura, Champion, or Dyna-Rewind motor to win.  Not familiar with it?  Check out these pictures:

 

Dad's Slot Car

Dad’s Slot Car

 

Dyna-Rewind Motor

Dyna-Rewind Motor

Typical Slot Car Race Track

Typical Slot Car Race Track

 

 

 

 

 

 

A slot car racing enthusiast in the mid to late 1960s would bring his best cars in a wooden gear box to a local track.  For about $.50 he (or she) could rent a lane and race whomever showed up that evening for 30 minutes.  Competition was always fierce with fans and racers taking turns spotting cars around the track that had spun out or flown off in the heat of the battle.  Each car had rubber tires, an electric motor, chassis, body, and plastic tongue-with-flat-metal-brushes on the bottom.  The cars ran on a track with a groove in the middle of the lane and tiny metal or wire filaments on either side of the groove (which conducted the electricity as it made contact with the metal brushes).  Each “driver” held a controller by which he (or she) could adjust the speed of the car by squeezing or releasing the lever on the handle.  If you went too fast your car would either spin out or fly off the track!  While the latter was quite spectacular it would often damage the car beyond repair — at least until the next Thursday night of racing!

Formal competitions and even professional drivers became legendary.  In 1966 one racer in particular began beating the pants off of everyone in the Detroit area and carrying off all the trophies with his car powered by a special motor.  Ted Lech had discovered how to make the motors faster by employing the adhesives, balancing principles, and rewinding concepts from his work at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren, Michigan.  Soon others were clamoring to purchase the motors.  Ted and his co-worker, “Bud” Stordahl created Dyna-Rewind and were quickly overwhelmed when orders came in from just about everywhere (including the UK and Japan) with each successive motor.  In an interview with Pete Hagenbuch in the Car Model magazine of July 1967, “Mr. Motor” as they called him reveals the genius behind Dyna-Rewind motors.  All was well and very exciting, however the slot car racing industry was beginning to diminish when toy manufacturers could not keep up with the performance output of the small-shop car guys.  But the small-shop car guys couldn’t support the overall industry either.  Then suddenly Ted Lech absconded with some of the business assets and vanished in 1969, never to be heard from again in the slot car racing world.  Bud Stordahl closed Dyna-Rewind.

What happened?  Well I guess you could say that not everyone handles success well.  Ted Lech was my father:  born March 30, 1937 in the Detroit, Michigan area.  He married my mother, RoseAnne, in 1959 and I was born 9 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days later.  We were living in a trailer park when I was born:  a red and white mobile home at the beginning of the block.  There was a sidewalk out front in which I rode my red and white tricycle with a bell and streamers on each of the handle bars.  I loved riding my bike.  Life was good for a 3 year old!

We moved into a house that my dad had selected in a new subdivision in Warren sometime in 1963.  Michael was 2, I was 3, and Robert was on his way into the world thus necessitating the move up to a 3 bedroom ranch.  We didn’t have much furniture so there was plenty of room in which we kids would play.  The best spot was the basement:  we could make all the noise we wanted to ’cause mom would just close the door at the top of the stairs into the kitchen!  We had the coolest toys with which to play down there too.  I remember a wooden train set on wheels that my dad had made where the cars hooked together and were big enough to hold each of us kids in our own train car.  When we were lucky dad would whoosh us around the basement, carefully navigating around the black metal poles supporting the house upstairs!  And if he would open the hamper shoot on us as we rolled under the hinged box he made in the ceiling, well that was really cool!  Splat!

My dad built Dyna-Rewind in the basement of that house.  I have come to understand that some of the operation was at the home of his business partner, Bud Stordahl, but I do not have any recollection of  him or seeing the part of the operation that was in his garage in Birmingham.  After all, I was a young kid back then.  What I remember is all of the wooden tables that my dad had built and the increasing amount of tools and machinery that filled the basement.  I remember playing with most of it, especially the rewinding machine, drill press, semi-circular magnets, black plastic display boxes with a clear lid, and even the motors.  On a good day my dad would take us with him to race at “The Groove Raceway” in Royal Oak or perhaps another local track.  In time he would take Mike and Rob more than me; perhaps I had developed other more girl-y interests too with my best friend who lived next door (Tammy Orlando).  My brothers had a blast during their time with my dad.  Mike became quite good at slot car racing and his ability to beat most anyone in games of all kinds continues to this day!

Flash forward to 2013.  Out of the blue, my brother Mike makes contact with a French gentleman, Philippe de Lespinay, who was writing a new book to expand on his first publication, Vintage Slot Cars.  Mike met with Mr. de Lespinaly, and shared the wooden gear box he had gotten from our dad containing a collection of Dyna-Rewind motors, slot cars, and my dad’s own hand-painted favorite too.  Within a year from now the LA Slot Car Racing Museum is scheduled to open in California.  I’m glad Mike didn’t sell out the family mementos, caving to Mr. de Lespinay’s repeated requests to both of us!  I have one motor with a wire still attached to it.  This was my memento actually from my brother Robert’s mobile home in Monument, Colorado when we were settling his affairs after he passed away in 2003.  I displayed that motor where I could see it each morning for a long time.  I already had several empty black plastic boxes like the one pictured above.  A couple of them still store my unused gum wrappers from my 300+ foot gum wrapper chain tossed out long ago.  Sure wish I had some of those magnets used inside the metal motor housing.  We used to see how high we could stack them up before tumbling over and . . .

My brother called me about the book after his interview with Mr. de Lespinay a couple of weeks ago.  So when Mike offered the opportunity for me to fill in my own details of this story I jumped in too.  Mr. Stordahl had misreported some facts and perhaps was still a little sore about the sudden closing of the business in 1971.  Evidently my father stole some of the business proceeds when he left with his technical genius as well.  I am sad about that.  The details of his leaving left scars with me too for a very long time.  He had gone to California with another woman and did not return for a few months.  The heartache for my mother and us three kids continued after his return to the Detroit area, through their divorce, and deepened when he left a second time:  for decades.  No one really knew where he was when he finally left Michigan.  When we did discover that he was in Florida (and I later learned that he had also lived in Texas for a time) there was really no need for me to contact him.  I had grown up, gone away to college, and moved to the Chicago suburbs to start my career in occupational therapy.  Life had moved on.  Sure I missed him.  But life had to move on you see.  My Heavenly Father filled in the gaps.

Flash forward about 30 years and our father has since reconciled with Mike and me.  In 2007 my mother passed away and would never have contact with him before she died.   She had moved on as well so I am not sure that it would have mattered to her anyways.  Thaddeus Lech Jr. died in his 30-foot travel trailer along the Gulf Coast of Florida in 2011.  He had become a renowned local fisherman; I can prove it with a few hundred photos I inherited of him holding up virtually every kind of fish that either spawned or was native to the Florida panhandle region of the Gulf of Mexico.  He was also renowned in the automotive industry:  inventor and co-inventor for Borg-Warner Automotive, holding over 20 patents for various types of clutch assembly and drive train components.  His genius had continued!  It makes sense that it would.  When I was a kid he’d crafted the most phenomenal gerbil cages you could ever imagine for our pets Agatha, Ralph, and Dee.  If I insert the word “sundeck” here you might be able to imagine the other rooms, elevated walkway, and security door too . . .

Everyone has a “past.”  Everyone makes mistakes.  Sometimes there are reasons for those mistakes and sometimes it’s simply the manifestation of sin in our lives.  My childhood is filled with a few more sad stories than happy ones yet gratefully the sorrow has faded away.  There is much more to the story of my father that could be written here to fill in the details.  Others have attempted to share the sordid details perhaps to give the retelling of Mr. Motor’s story a little more spice.  I do not believe that is necessary at this time.  When my father contacted Mike then me before my father passed away, we were able to both get re-acquainted and speak words of regret, words of forgiveness.  I got to hear stories I never knew about myself as a girl and about this adventurous, brilliant, complicated man.  His smile and sense of humor warmed my heart in a place I did not know existed when I had moved on so many decades ago.  To hear the words, “I love you” was a salve I did not know I was craving for when they finally came at just the right time.  Even my husband, Steve, was touched by my dad’s gentleness, incredible way of handling the characters of the travel trailer park he had managed, and sense of humor.  They hit it off well:  car guys always do.

I hope the sequel to Vintage Slot Cars is a success.  I hope that racing fans from around the world visit the LA Slot Car Museum and talk about the amazingly fast Dyna-Rewind motors.  As for the genius between my brothers and me in the photographs below:  I will always love you dad.  Thank you for the memories.  With my orange motor labeled with the foil Dyna-Rewind sticker and stray wire hanging by a thread, I’m good.

Ted Lech for Slot Car Book