Ailing veteran’s pals ride to rescue, restore hot rod

By Dave Kern, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Ten years ago, “Wild Bill” Keller bought a 1927 Ford T-Bucket.

A mechanic all his life, Keller figured he’d rebuild the classic.

But cancer got in the way. Keller is a hospice resident at the Vancouver Veterans Administration Community Living Center.

One week ago, Arnie Kuchta took control of the Ford and called in his mechanic friends.

“I worked at my shop on the engine and transmission,” said Dale Vermeire, who owns Dusty’s Machine Shop on St. Johns Road. Asked who helped, he said: “A lot of friends and a lot of people who don’t even know Bill.

“In six days, it went from a basket to this,” Vermeire said.

More than 50 friends, many of whom brought classic cars and motorcycles, were there Sunday when the Ford was brought in on a trailer.

They backed her off and Vermeire took the driver seat. The ignition caught and there was that throaty sound of a hot rod.

“We did this in six days, but we still went to work,” said Kuchta, who is head of maintenance at Fire District 6. He said many firefighters helped on the Ford.

Keller worked as a mechanic at Brattain International Trucks in Portland for many years.

Several of the men raced stock cars at Portland Speedway from about 1971 until 2001, Vermeire said.

Pat Trenda, Keller’s sister, of Parker, Colo, fought back tears as she watched Vermeire rumble off to pick up her brother.

“He has awesome friends, an awesome group of friends,” she said.

The brown and orange Ford is a classy-looking ride with a small block Chevy V-8 engine and a Corvette rear end. She’s an automatic with 300 horsepower and sports original kerosene lanterns on the windshield. There are traditional motorcycle wheels up front and big Mickey Thompson tires with Crager mags on the back. The orange three-port air scoops, often called “bug catchers,” offered a “here I come” greeting.

For flair, there is pinstriping by Paul Comeau and interior work by Lois Severson.

While Kuchta gave credit to many volunteers, Dan Dickinson said, “If it wasn’t for Arnie, this would not have got done.”

And what did Wild Bill Keller think?

Upon viewing the machine, he walked slowly around the beauty and said, “Dale, Dale, Dale,” shaking his head in amazement.

Then they took off around the grounds and later led a parade that passed in front of the living center. Veterans watched as the drivers in their classics, including Fuzzy Sheehan’s 1929 Ford Model A with magenta paint and a blue pearl finish, waved and burned rubber.

“I thought it was wonderful that they could put on a show like that,” said Reynold Mason, 88, who was seated in a wheelchair. He is an Army veteran and said he owns two Model A Fords.

As for Keller, 62, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, it was sweet.

“Words cannot describe it,” he said, seated in the Ford. “Took me way off balance. Never expected it. Good friends, real good friends.”

And how did he become Wild Bill?

“Long, long story,” he said, smiling.

And Vermeire made a promise: “Every day, depending on his health and it’s not raining, we’re going to take the T down there and take him for a ride.”