Two and a half hours and nearly 140 miles can't separate a friendship rooted in old iron
I was at my very first big engine show in Freeport, Ill., last year, when I met Mike Healy and Kevin Hembrough. It was an extremely foreign world to me, but they made me feel right at home. They also didn't hesitate to point out my rookie status.
While I was taking photos, Mike asked me if I knew there were "working" and "non-working" sides to engines. (I must have looked like I didn't.) Nearly 10 months into this job, of course I knew that! But they taught me a great deal and Mike and his wife Janet were welcomed, familiar faces when I went to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. I was inspired by these men, as they epitomized to me what this hobby means to so many people.
Clockwise from bottom left: Kevin and Mary Hembrough, Mike and Janet Healy, Kevin's son, Richard, and Kevin's dad, Richard.
Thirty years ago, a bond began between Mike, of Fulton, Mo., and Kevin, of Jacksonville, Ill., that has since faced the tests of time, distance, engine restorations, marriages, children, practical jokes and even tears. Today Mike and Janet, and Kevin and his wife, Mary, have a load of memories brought to them by the great hobby of old iron.
Their story, however, did not begin with a bang when Mike met Kevin's dad, Richard, and Emery Funk at the Missouri River Valley Show in 1977. "Emery started off the discussion by beating the top of my 850 Delco light plant with his cane," Mike says. The two men were admiring young Mike's engines and invited him to supper that night. Being relatively new to the hobby, Mike was excited to have the opportunity to visit more. Emery and Richard mentioned that Mike should head to the Prairie Land show in Jacksonville. Later that year he went, and it was to be the first trip of many.
It was in Jacksonville that Mike met Kevin, and his first memories are, of course, engine-related: "One engine he had was a Fairmont motor car engine," he says. "This engine was equipped with spark plugs in the exhaust pipe, which, when the controls are adjusted, would belt out fire on both sides of the engine." This was a great ice breaker for the two young collectors, as Mike also owned a Fairmont and later on in life would have an avid interest in spark plugs.
Kevin had grown up with antique cars, tractors and gas engines all his life; to him it was not just a hobby. His dad started picking up engines for $2 and up in the early 1960s. "It got to the point that I would check the bed of the truck after school to see if we had a new find," Kevin says.
A few years after meeting, Mike and Kevin both found the loves of their life, who luckily supported their engine habits. Gas engine shows were even a part of Kevin and Mary's courtship: They had to wait for the show directory to come out before they set a wedding date. "You know, you couldn't hit a show date that year," Kevin says. "Also, on our honeymoon I was told I couldn't stop any more for engines - this was after I took three detours!" Yes, hobbyist's wives have to put up with a lot, from grease-smudged sinks to paint fumes in the house, from magnetos being rebuilt on the kitchen table to how to buy another engine when the budget is tight. But these are dedicated women. "Without our wives, Mike and I would always be late and lost because we never ask for directions," Kevin says.
One of Mike's strongest memories is of Mary and Kevin showing up at his parents' house with newborn twin boys, Richard and Ryan. "The twins were dressed alike in bib overalls and looked like they were ready for a gas engine show," Mike recalls. Several years later, the Hembroughs missed a show because Mary was due that weekend with their daughter, Megan. "Mary always says she told Kevin they could have come because their daughter wasn't born until later that week," Mike says.
The families are so close that the Hembrough children have an "Uncle Mike" and "Aunt Jan." The Hembroughs have always called Janet "Jan," as Kevin with his forgetful memory told Mary that Mike's new girlfriend's name was Jan - it was all he could remember. "She didn't tell us until years later that we were the only ones who call her Jan," Kevin says. "Now Janet just seems too formal a name."
Mike and Kevin call each other weekly, and Mike is often referred to as Kevin's girlfriend when he calls at 6:30 a.m., as Mary is leaving for work. And if Mike can be called Kevin's girlfriend, it is only fair to mention that Kevin has been called Mike's dad. While the two were unpacking at the Portland, Ind., spring swap meet and getting ready to sell, a man approached and looked at Kevin's parts and then at Mike's. "He told me that my dad's prices were sure higher," Mike says. Without missing a beat, Kevin says Mike responded with, "Yeah, you gotta watch that old man." They couldn't make eye contact because they knew they would have lost it. "Every year now I send my 'dad' a Father's Day card and tease him about being older than me when actually he's younger," Mike says.
These two have their share of running jokes. A few years ago, Mike started calling Kevin from shows, leaving messages on his answering machine of his engine running just to aggravate him.
Once, Mike tripped and accidentally threw rice all over a new car parked outside a Chinese restaurant. "The old expression about not crying over spilled milk didn't apply here," Kevin says. "We laughed so hard we all cried. Just the thought of Mike half flying, half falling with rice going everywhere still makes us laugh." Kevin says what he did next almost ended their friendship:
"I cooked rice and let it dry for two days," he says. "I included a note from the restaurant saying that they were sorry for the loss of the rice and wanted to help out in any way they could. I even used the restaurant's return address on the box. Little did I know that two days on the kitchen counter will not completely dry out rice, but three days in a box sure will turn it rancid. When Mike and Jan opened the box, they were greeted with a smell that filled their house and turned stomachs. Mike was going to ship it back, but couldn't because it stunk so bad. To this day, they don't laugh too much when I mention it!"
But despite their best attempts to make fun of each other, the Hembrough's large antique oak table is a favorite gathering place for the couples to visit, tell stories, discuss engines and enjoy Mary's homemade pies, for meals, as Mike puts it. "At our house, only strangers use the front door," Kevin says. "We always start the day off and end the day at this table, where no problem is too big and much laughter is heard." Kevin says Mike and Janet's house has the same feeling for them. "Mike likes when we visit because he knows the coffee will be ready when he gets up," Kevin says. "One good thing about being food friends is that you don't always have to do extravagant things to have a good time. A simple drive through the country and visiting are fun things to do with Mike and Jan."
Though Kevin and Mike have their own restoration adventures, they work on restoring engines together for shows. When they restored Handy Andy engines to show at Portland's 2005 show, it became a contest to see who could get their engine started first. "It got funny as we started cranking, adjusting and laughing as we tried to beat each other," Mike says. "Kevin did win, but my engine had the slickest paint job, so I had to let him win the starting race."
But in reality, the competition is all in good fun. "I think our friendship has grown because we are not competing against each other or jealous," Kevin says. "Instead, we appreciate what each of us has and we encourage each other." There is never a shortage of a helping hand with these two: While restoring the Handy Andys, they pushed, prodded and poked fun at each other until they were both finished. And there is always part-swapping going on. "Last spring I bought a truckload of flywheels, blocks and bases," Kevin says. "Mike laughed and asked me how much scrap iron was worth. Guess who needed a set of flywheels later on? Don't think I let him forget his comment!"
Mike is still amazed at the fact that the hobby of old iron has brought two families from two different states so close together. "We've been to many gas engine shows, auctions, weddings of family and friends, and funerals of loved ones," Mike says. "We've headed out on vacations together, attended baton twirling contests, volleyball games and proms. We've celebrated anniversaries, graduations and birthdays. We've laughed, cried and talked, sharing memories as our lives entwined. Through it all, we've shared our love of the gas engine hobby and have become family. Now with age, our rivalry has gotten to be who has the best cholesterol number!"
"The easiest way to describe us is like being two old farm dogs," Kevin says. "We're glad to see each other, excited when we're on a new adventure, but also enjoy those days when nothing happens at all. Just remember, despite anything Mike says, I can still out fish him." Mike says Kevin has yet to prove this fact to him, but common bonds and laughter are what this hobby is all about. "We both agree that if we lived closer together, we would always be in the shop or fishing," Kevin says. "Either way, our wives probably wouldn't like it as much."
So the next time you see Mike and Kevin at a show, tell them Erin from Gas Engine Magazine sent you. And tell them yes, I do know there are working sides to engines.
Contact Kevin and Mary Hembrough at: 1319 Merritt Road, Jacksonville, IL 62650.
Contact Mike and Janet Healy at: 4262 County Road 121, Fulton, MO 65251.