When Joe Turner’s father, Hubert, decided his 1936 Chevrolet Business Coupe had about had enough, he didn’t put it out to pasture. He drove it underneath his raised Creole cottage in Citronelle, Alabama. That got it out of the weather, but it also put the car under the nose of young Joe, whose imagination would soon enough inspire him to ask his daddy could he tinker with it. Joe was 14, and the car had been gathering dust and spiderwebs for 20 years. Hubert told Joe he could try to get the Chevy running.
Tell that to a kid coming up on a learner’s permit and see what happens.
Soon as Joe got out of school for summer, he enrolled in some automotive classes at Southwest State Technical College on Dauphin Island Parkway, in Mobile. He learned there what makes a car run. Pretty simple back then, it was compression, fuel, a spark and air. Getting those things in the right sequence at the right time is what a mechanic does. You must have a calling to get it right.
Interview in the Suburban
When I called Joe to ask could I come see him at his East Bay Automotive in Daphne and talk to him about his calling as a car mechanic, he wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know, we’re awful busy around here,” he said. “I don’t know where we would sit down together to talk.” I knew he’d figure it out. After all, this man had taught me — how many years ago, now? — to perfectly adjust and balance twin downdraft British S.U. carburetors on a 1965 Volvo 122 sedan. While today Joe’s known by some as a hard-ass, I got to know him, as most of his loyal customers have, as a patient and generous sort. Up to a point. You gotta pay attention and don’t ask stupid questions.
And you shouldn’t keep him waiting. He called me out for being 15 minutes late to his shop. I didn’t offer an excuse. Wouldn’t have worked.
He washed his hands of grease from a Dingo he had pulled apart. That’s not a car, it’s a walk-behind front end loader like landscape companies use. And Joe also puts his hands into outboard engines on boats. Sometimes even a lawnmower if he likes you. He dried his hands, and I asked about the wooden sailboat in the last bay at the south end of his building, and another one under canvas. “I don’t know,” he said, “that’s my brother Winthrop’s operation down there.” There’s a lot going on, on this two-acre corner, but most of it’s cars that need fixing. And one or two that are for sale out front, owned by customers.
Some part of the busy operation distracted me for a minute, and when I turned back around, I didn’t see Joe at first. Then I spied him pulling underneath the awning in a long 1999 Chevy Suburban. He waved me over from behind the windshield and nodded for me to get in. This would be our private sitting spot for the interview. The thing was jam-packed with stuff, from a rack of hunting firearms to hand tools and power equipment, and some mystery items. He had the air conditioner cranking full blast, and we settled down to business.
Then a man came calling at Joe’s driver-side window, the landscape customer about his Dingo, and Joe told him it’s down to getting in the parts. Now, the window slides back up — and, yep, we’re interrupted again. By a young woman this time, who wants to know, among other things, if she buys a 2018 car can Joe still work on it? He hesitates. Modern vehicles aren’t so much cars as computers, and he doesn’t want to invest in diagnostic systems. Joe likes contact points and spark plugs and carburetors.
And, in fact, likes best working on outboard boat engines. That’s work he can do at chest level, out in the open air of the canopy section where the gas pumps used to be, what Joe calls “his space.”
Joe’s gray-painted block building with its four roll-up door service bays still carries the lettering from when Gene and Pat Young owned it: EAST BAY AUTOMOTIVE & MACHINE SHOP. In fact, it was them who tempted Joe away from his full-time job with a cabinet supply shop in Mobile.
They’d come to know Joe at their Rudy’s Auto Parts store in downtown Fairhope (where Honey Baked Ham is now) as he came in and out on a regular basis for parts to keep his own vehicles in tiptop shape. In due course, Gene asked Joe would he come take over East Bay as their new manager. He agreed, and he’s been there ever since. That was 1992, and in 1998 Joe bought the building that had originally been owned by Daphne’s former mayor (1964-76) Glen Jordan, who operated it as an Amoco service station.
Fine Motor Skills
Now Joe’s the captain of a big domain — he even has the grizzled look of a weathered skipper — with a hardy and capable pirate look-alike crew of mechanics. There’s his son, Alex, with a giant beard; and Joe, who has a full-time job with a tree service, but loves helping out Joe when he can; and Ian, with his long white hair and British accent — they call him E; and Terance, T for short, with his bald head. All hands are on deck with jobs to do, and Joe brags about what each man brings to his operation. “Nobody here is afraid to work,” Joe said, and everybody works to the same ethic: Take care of the customers.
And get it right. Joe’s daddy instilled that in him when he’d show up with a 6-foot spirit level and check the walls for plumb-and-square at the house they were building before he’d approve quitting time.
I was about to ask Joe where he learned the ropes for cars, how his skills were sharpened for fixing engines, when we got another caller at the Suburban. The window slid downward for a lady who’d driven up in a strikingly beautiful, all original 1966 289 V-8 Ford Mustang. She’d been driving it for 16 years, and Joe had kept it running sweet and smooth for the same number of years. When her ride showed up, I got to ask Joe my question.
He told me his dad’s ’36 Chevy was the first step. He not only made that car crank, he kept it running for a number of years while a high-schooler. He was good at fixing cars. Around engines, Joe had intuition and an expert’s luck. He told me about taking a job in the Texas oil fields and about meeting the Big Boss on his first day: “So, Shot, they tell me you can work on engines.” Shot was what the boss called Joe from the moment they met. Joe answered that he could fix most anything. But, truthfully, he was nervous and not so sure he would measure up.
“The guy takes me out in the oil field to a broken down Ford tractor, a six-cylinder gas engine. I told somebody to hit the starter.” Joe says he wound on it and the engine turned over easily, but it wouldn’t crank. Joe reached for the coil wire, thinking maybe it was loose and wasn’t delivering a spark. “My hand touched the coil and it was blazing hot, from just trying to start the tractor. I told the boss, there’s your problem. You got a bad coil.” They got the part, he installed it, and then the tractor ran like a top. “After that, I could do no wrong,” Joe explained.
So, why’d you leave that job, I asked. “Linda,” Joe answered. “She missed home, and that was that.” They moved back, bought family land south of Fairhope and built a house, not very far from where Joe spent boyhood summers on Mobile Bay. Joe and Linda have been married 42 years, so something clicks between them. And it was Linda who was big on Joe taking the manager’s position at East Bay, told him if he was ever going to make a change from sales, back to cars, then this was it.
Joe built up his business on one order to the men on deck. “Learn what is wrong with the car, before you order parts. I don’t have to have a new house and a new car or boat, but I gotta sleep at night,” Joe said. “We will not diagnose a car’s troubles by replacing parts and overcharging the customer.”
And, for now, until some rich businessman stands at the counter of East Bay Automotive and makes Joe Turner that offer the movies say cannot be refused, his two acres in Daphne are like a good safe harbor for broken engines.
I mused to Joe that I could not see him perched on a condo balcony, waiting for something to happen. He then confessed to pulling seven days a week at his shop that’s only open for five.
Like when Paul McCartney recently asked Willie Nelson was he thinking of retiring, Willie asked him back, “From what?”
“I’m doing what I love,” Joe said. “Look in the back of this Suburban,” he said. “If it’s not in here, maybe I don’t need it.”
Sonny Brewer is the author of the novel, “The Poet of Tolstoy Park.” He is finishing a memoir called “A Boat to See Me Home.”