Street Smart

Wearing his trademark pith helmet (with chin strap) and an oversize pair of sunglasses, Ulysses Horatio Penelopi Poindexter C. Mortimer Alewishus Hale Gammill II regularly drives his Model T along Central Avenue to his Rotary meeting in downtown Phoenix.

The doors of the classic car he bounces along in are plastered with promotional words for his empire, the Sears Arizona School of Driving. On the front of the car, just below the little windshield, it says, "Our first training car." He cuts a striking figure. Almost traffic-stopping.

The name is something Hale Gammill's grandmother did to his father. She couldn't decide which of the family names to use, the story goes, so she used them all. Gammill says he knows the spelling of Alewishus is wrong. He also says the C. doesn't stand for anything, that it's just C.

Using his left arm, Gammill signals every turn, even turns in parking lots. Now seventy, he admits to receiving only one traffic ticket in his life. "Between 1967 and 1972, I was commuting between the San Francisco Bay area and Phoenix, three days here and four days there," Gammill says. "Somehow or another I didn't notice that my driver's license had expired. So I got stopped for I don't know what. Maybe it was a taillight or something. Of course, the officer asked me for my license. In those days, they gave you a ticket, and if you showed up in court with a driver's license, they'd usually dismiss it. It was a violation, there's no doubt about it. I don't know why I told you that last part. I guess it's kind of embarrassing."

The evening newspaper made Gammill's violation into front-page news. "The headline said, `Safety engineer in violation,' or some darn thing," he says. "I was doing a little work around the legislature at the time, some public relations work--although now you'd probably call it lobbying. I was ashamed to show up there. I was relieved that all of them thought it was a joke.

"For me to get into a traffic citation or violation and/or collision was far worse than for a rabbi or a priest or minister to be caught coming out of a house of ill fame dead drunk. It took a year before people could introduce me to a stranger and not tell that story."

Today it is a story Gammill clearly loves to tell. Possessed of a seasoned public speaker's self-confidence, he almost always manages to insert himself as the butt of each such anecdote. It is a sheepish, warm and quite sly style. First the eyes twinkle, then the smile opens wide, then something outrageous comes out. Meanwhile, Gammill's hair piece-cap hovers nearby. (There is no nice way of saying it: Gammill's wig is one awful piece of work. Maybe he was out walking somewhere, the rug fell from the sky and landed on his head, and he liked it. Who knows? Just barely vain enough to own a wig, he isn't vain enough to own a decent one.)

A prime Gammill yarn is the one about the time his wife left him over the Model T. This happened some time ago. Also, it should be noted, several wives ago. (He's been married six times, to five different women.)

He tells it: "I had been saying for years that some day I would buy her a car that didn't have a sign on it. She liked to sit cozy, you know, next to me in the car. Well, that didn't look too good in a training car, so I had managed to save up about $500 in order to buy a nice-looking car for my wife."

As Gammill recalls, it was Mother's Day. "It was kind of a dull day, and I was looking through the paper after dinner and saw an ad for a Model T Ford this fellow had for sale out in Wickenburg. So I packed the kids up and went out there. This fellow wouldn't let me leave. He wanted $3,000. I told him I only had $500."

But the sale was made. An hour or so after sundown, Gammill returned home--and to his waiting wife--with the ancient car. "Before we could get it down off the truck, I could see her glowering inside. She came out of the house. `Happy Mother's Day,' I said. That went over like a lead balloon. The kids ran inside and locked their bedroom doors, crawled under the covers and put cotton in their ears."

And the Gammills had it out in the street. "`That car goes or I go,'" Gammill says Mrs. Gammill said. "An ultimatum. That was stupid, because you can always get another wife. But a 1917 Model T for $500? Those are hard to come by."

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Dave Walker