Anyone who knew Jungle Jim Liberman will most assuredly have stories to
tell. Jungle was a "one man show;" he was the driver but also his
own mechanic, his own crew chief, his own manager, and most of all his own promoter. And,
being such, he "tested" those he met to see where they were coming
from -- to see if he could trust them. This is the story of how I met
Jungle, and how he "tested" me.
It was in 1970, and I had been working as the "sign painter" at
Dick Olsen and Don Kirby's paint shop (in Bellflower, California) for
probably a year or so. I was "new" in the business, and while most
of the "big name" jobs would go over to Tom Kelly's for lettering,
Don and Dick would do their best to talk their customers into letting me do
their signs. My work then was limited to non-touring "local cars,"
guys like Gary Densham, Mert Littlefield, Pat Johnson, John Garrison, Pete's
Demon, and Solano & Van Sant's "Invader."
One fall day, Kirby comes out of the office to tell me that Jungle was on
the phone and wanted to talk to me. This was the first "big name"
racer who'd ever asked for me, and I was excited.
Jungle tells me he's in California for the winter building a new car. He
wants to know if I'll come to his shop and letter it. "Sure," I
tell him, "how do I get there?"
In those days, the touring "pros" would spend their winters in
California and stay near Disneyland. It was "centrally located" (as
we had OCIR, Lions, and Irwindale all in operation), plus it was fun. The
infamous "Marco Polo" and the "Pitcairn" were the racer
motels of choice.
Jungle's winter race headquarters was in a shop operated by Jack
"Bear" Green and Rene Blixt in Garden Grove (adjacent to Anaheim). It
was amongst a row of nondescript little industrial buildings on Anabel
Street, and directly across from another race shop known as "The
Cave" (where the Beebe Brothers and Tom McEwen kept their cars).
When I arrived, Jungle showed me the new body, glistening in its fresh coat
of candy red lacquer, recently applied by Bear. Jungle says to me, "I
want the gold leaf (name on the doors) to look just like the old car ... the
exact same shape, the same size, and the same position" (as he pointed
to the war-worn Chevy II sitting in the corner). I said, "No problem," and started to work, tracing a pattern off the old body.
Now, as was the custom in those days, a card game was in progress across the
street at The Cave, and although Jungle was intensely involved, he would
walk back every hour or so and silently check on my progress.
The application of 22K gold leaf, like on Jungle's cars, is an exact art,
and the job can quickly go from "spectacular" to "disastrous"
if one does not use the right materials and precise timing. I had learned by
watching two experts -- Jack Burr and Steve Feinberg -- and my "Jungle
Jim" was looking good.
The gold leaf was on and I was starting to hand paint the black outline and
add "drop shadow" to the lettering when Jungle came back and told
me, "You're gonna have to take that off!" I was dumbfounded, and
asked, "Why?" Jungle said, "I told you it had to be just like
other car," to which I countered, "It is!"
Jungle then pointed out to me that I had painted the name 1/4 of an inch too
low on the side of the car; the bottom of the "Jim" in Jungle Jim
was in fact a quarter of an inch below the break in the body, where it was
even with the break on the old car.
Although I could have "corrected" the mistake with the black
outline, Jungle was technically right. I said, "You're right." I
picked up a rag, doused it with paint thinner, and washed the gold off the car. I
told him I would go get some more gold leaf and come back the next day to
Jungle took a huge wad of cash out of his pocket, handed me about twice what
I needed, and said, "Here, this is for the leaf."
The next day, I got more materials and returned. When I walked into the
shop, Jungle looked up and did a "double take," exclaiming,
"I didn't think you'd come back!" I simply replied, "It wasn't in
the right place," and went to work.
If, in the years to come, calling me in the middle of the night and playing
his harmonica meant we were friends, then I guess I passed Jungle's
"test" that day.
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