Man and machines

Thursday, January 5, 2012
Neoma Foreman/Special to the Daily Mail Ralph Zartman was an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Air Force, having enlisted in 1968. Stationed in Mississippi in 1969, Hurricane Camille destroyed his car and he and his wife Wilma purchased the first car they'd selected as a couple -- a 1969 Impala. Much has happened since, including Ralph's tour in Vietnam, but finally he's brought another 1969 Impala home and is restoring it, above.

The Zartman family came to the Vernon/Cedar County area in 1878 from Pennsylvania and their first two-storied house was built in 1880. They farmed, milked and expanded their acreage as more families were established. From this heritage, Ralph Zartman continues to own and operate County Line Farm. It straddles the eastern line of Vernon County and western side of Cedar County where his family began all those years ago.

As a youth, Ralph helped his dad overhaul all their tractors as they did all of their mechanical work. "I've also milked cows most of my life, too," Ralph said.

After graduating from El Dorado Springs High School in 1966, Ralph continued to work on the farm. On Jan. 15, 1968, he enlisted in the United States Air Force. He was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for basic training. Next, he went to tech school at the Shepherd Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas.

Stationed in Mississippi in 1969, Hurricane Camille destroyed his car and he and his wife Wilma purchased the first car they'd selected as a couple -- a 1969 Impala.

On July 3, 1968, Ralph returned home and married the sweetheart he had left behind--Wilma J. Hillsman. They moved to what would be his home base for the next two and a half years. It was the Kessler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Miss., where he trained to be flight mechanic, and was part of the crew training South Vietnam pilots for twin engine planes.

"A student pilot was in the pilot seat, a certified pilot in the co-pilot's seat with me in the middle making sure they didn't do anything crazy. We did touch and go continually, and then we would go out over the gulf and practice. I would shut down one engine simulating engine failure and teaching how to fly on one engine. Then would start the engine in flight and we would do stalls, letting the training pilot learn to recover the plane. Quite thrilling!"

In August of 1969, Hurricane Camille hit Biloxi, and along with the other damage, the Zartmans lost their car. It didn't have a scratch, but the salt water totaled it. They went to the local Chevrolet dealer and bought a new 1969 Impala SS 427.

"We selected it because it had a big trunk," Wilma said. "He said I couldn't have anything that didn't fit in the trunk, so I looked for a car with a big trunk!"

This was the Zartmans' first new car purchased together. Wilma drove it around the base and when she returned to El Dorado Springs and stayed with her widowed mother while Ralph was in Vietnam in 1970 and '71,

Ralph was sent to the air base in Phu Cat, Vietnam. His office was at the Transit Alert. As a flight engineer, he was the crew chief with two others working under him. A C47 cargo plane was assigned to him and it was his responsibility to see that the plane was mechanically prepared for flight. He made very sure the plane was ready because he had to fly in the plane after the repair.

As a flight engineer, Ralph had to go with the plane to pick up parts to repair the planes. He was not flying the plane, but had to be on it.

"I was out of the country more than I was in the country. We flew to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Bangkok, Thailand and Singapore, among other places, getting parts. It would take one day to get there, one day to get the needed items, and another day to return."

Ralph remembered that the Christmas he was at the Phu Cat Air Force Base in Vietnam, there were 13 rocket attacks during that time. "The closest one hit between the barracks where I was, but that was close enough. They launched a lot of rockets, but thankfully most of them didn't hit anything."

In January of 1972, Ralph's time of service ended and he returned home to El Dorado Springs to farm. He also obtained employment at 3M in Nevada and later in the year, their son Ronny was born. They added another son, Robby, to the family two years later and sold their 1969 Impala and purchased a more economical vehicle in 1976. After working for 3M for 11 years, Ralph returned to the farm to milk the cows in 1983. His dad had died in a tragic robbery at his home and Ralph needed to help his mother. Wilma began work at the lab at Dari-Concepts where she worked for the next 25 years.

When their sons began reaching the driving age about 1987, Ralph purchased Ron a 1969 Mustang Coupe and they restored it. He drove it all through high school. A Mustang Mach One was purchased by Rob. "It was a piece of junk when we got it, but we took it apart and made a good one out of it. Later, Rob purchased a 1967 Chevelle Super Sport. Both our sons still have their cars and do some showing."

When their sons finished college, Ralph decided it was time to sell the milk cows and do something else less demanding. In 1998, he sold the dairy herd of Jersey/Holsteins and they went to the state of California. He put all the row crop land to grass and runs beef cows. He bales the hay, combines fescue and maintains pastures.

Even with all of this work, Ralph was looking for another hobby. The remodeling of his sons' cars had started a desire to work on one for himself. He wondered what happened to the one they bought while he was in the service. In 2002, Wilma called the car dealer agency where they had purchased it in Biloxi. Since they still had the bill of sale, she was able to tell the secretary all about it. The woman became interested and called them back with the needed information, and with today's technology, the rest was easy. The owner was in Minneapolis, Minn., who had purchased the vehicle. They called him, told him who they were. He was very glad to talk to them, but wasn't interested in selling

Deciding that he would never get his car back again Ralph found a junker 1968 Corvette and restored it. He enjoyed that so much, he found a 1973 Corvette and fixed it up. Then they found a 1957 pickup which both their dads had owned one when they were youngsters. He repaired that, but in the back of his mind, he still hankered for his 1969 SS car.

On a trip to Minnesota to a car show in 2009, they took a GPS system and traced the address for the owner of the 1969 Impala and went to his house, but no one was home. They left a note on the door, asking him to contact them if they still had the car and was interested in selling it.

They got back to Harrisonville and the phone rang. The man still had the car, but he was working on it. He wanted to fix it up himself, but he would call them if he decided to sell it. He'd already had it for 20 years and hadn't fixed it so they had doubts he ever would.

Discouraged, Ralph tore into a project which pleased his wife of building some oak cabinets.

In September 2011, the man called and said he was ready to sell, but wanted to wait until spring, which would give him time to put it together. Wilma told him she had a husband who needed a winter project and convinced him he should sell it back to them. He agreed and Ralph and his sons had the car home in one week. He is happily taking everything apart on it and redoing it. The Zartmans agree that this will be their favorite car even though son Rob thinks it looks like a boat.

Ralph Zartman, in Vietnam.

It's been quite a ride for Ralph Zartman from Virgil City, Missouri to Biloxi, Mississippi to Vietnam and back. He's thankful he returned safely and had the privilege of serving his country. An added blessing is being able to repurchase the car he bought during that time. This is definitely all the Christmas present he wants and much better than the Christmas in Vietnam when the rockets were flying, he said.

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