It’s been more than 40 years, and James “Doc” Anderson now lives all the way across the country.
But when Doc’s mother sent him a recent “Woog’s World” column, his mind double-clutched back to Westport, high school, and especially his passion: cars.
The story his mom sent was about Charlie Taylor — a Staples grad with a long career in music — but this line caught Doc’s eye:
(Charlie) joined the Downshifters, a hot rod club whose members included Mike Douglas (now known as “Michael” — yes, that one).
Doc was a Downshifter too. He emailed me from his Seattle home, and asked me to call. He picked up the phone, and immediately described that very formative time in his life.
Doc graduated from Staples in 1967. By then the Downshifters had died — victim of both a changing Westport and changing auto industry. Doc and president Flip Webb put their club jackets up for sale. Doc joined the Drag Masters — a smaller, younger club outside of Westport.
“The Drag Masters had a club car everyone worked on,” Doc recalls. “By that time, kids in Westport no longer worked on their own cars. Everyone drove their parents’ cars. It was when Westport started becoming a rock-star community. With affluence came less interest in cars.”
Plus, Doc notes, cars themselves became more specialized. It got harder and harder for teenagers to work on them.
But even in its dying days the Downshifters — a huge part of Staples life in the 1950s — meant a lot to Doc.
Meetings were held at the Y, he says. Members brought their girlfriends — but they sat outside.
Inside, there were formal presentations on cars. Doc made one on carburetors; a friend talked about brake systems. Dues were collected, officers elected and minutes recorded.
The Downshifters “had something to do” with the Dover Drag Strip, just across the state line in Dutchess County.
And Doc remembers Corky Cookman running his dragster on “the asphalt near Mahackeno” — presumably, what’s now Sunny Lane. (Presumably too the statute of limitations has long since expired.)
Doc went on to Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia. He spent more than 6 years as a Navy pilot and instructor, then became a commercial pilot for over 2 decades with Wien and Alaska Airlines.
He’s now in his 2nd year of retirement. He sails a catamaran in Washington waters, and says life is good.
But can anything ever compare to the hot rod days of high school — even if those days were spent as one of the last Downshifters in the rapidly changing suburban town of Westport?
I certainly remember the Downshifters. I believe they actually had club jackets and used to hang out at the Crest Driveway, next to Saugatuck Congregational Church. Also, if not them, many “dragsters” used to race down Roseville Road. Needless to say, there were some accidents. I played Little League with Michael Douglas on the 1958-9 Cardinals. He was a shy kid back then and didn’t interact with many and attended Choate during the school year. Some nice memories. Thanks.
I recall the Downshifters, too, Dude, and Doc. He was a good fullback ’64-66. The Downshifters were nearly gone by the time we arrived in as sophs in ’63 and seemed to be kept alive and visible by Lanny Howes ’66, who recited his epic poem, “The 10-Speed Mack,” during an asembly days before our graduation. Mike D and I became friends during a summer I spent at Choate in ’62 before his senior year there. He got me, a lowly incoming freshman, on the summer varsity baseball team where my assigned (by Mike) nickname, of course, was “Westport.” He was way more voluable by then then as a Cardinal in ’58-’59.
As a youg cop during the reign of the downshifters, I remember them as a very responsible group of teens. Sammy Arciola, Karl Gajdozik, Corky Cookman, Freddie Fable were all members and their adult advisor was Bill Etsch. If we happened to catch one of the members on a motor vehicle violation, it always made more sense to forget about the ticket and make a phone call to one of the members we knew. That would result in a club trial and punishment far more effective than a simple fine from the Town Court. That they were a great bunch of kids is evident.
The Downshifters was actually an outgrowth of the YMCA Car Club. Following a hurricane in 1955 or 56 an insurance agent donated a flooded car to the Y. Bruce Jameson, Boy’s Work Director, talked Ebb Nash (Think Nash’s Warehouse on Riverside Ave & Nash’s Pond) to monitor the group of kids in finding out how the car worked and was put together in a warehouse on Kings Highway. It was a great learning experience but some of us wanted more than just a car club and hot rod clubs across the country were doing things that excited and interested us. Since hot rod clubs were just a step or two above motorcycle clubs, we knew we had to do better.
The NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) had high standards, high class events and presented the image we desired. To join we wrote a constitution, bylaws and a board consisting of the Town Judge, Juvenile Officer, Police Chief, a lawyer and a YMCA official – anyone to make us look respectable. Getting the Y to sponsor us was simple since I had been working there for several years.
Ebb Nash was the original advisor but begged off. Don Buakites (Bill’s Smokeshop) knew Bill Etsch since he had his hot dog diner there many nights and asked him to be the club advisor.
My Y connection also helped get us a winter home in the Camp Mahackeno Rotary Pavilion.
Early activities included trips to Westchester Custom Car Show, Charleston R.I. Drag strip, Bangor Maine Drag strip, Westhampton Drag strip.
Check out some pictures at the 1960 reunion website.
Guess I’d better put the 1960 reunion website in case people don’t know. The photos are under Photo Albums — High School Years on the website http://www.staples1960.myevent.com. There are two articles on the Downshifters shown.
My foggy memory recalled that one of our early achievements that we were very proud of was being awarded “Club of the Year” by Parents Magazine – the Fall of 1958 seems to ring a bell. There was a big award ceremony with parents, friends and civic leaders.