Building cars, building Airmen

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jenna K. Caldwell
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
“He smoked Marlboro Reds—cowboy killers,” said Master Sgt. Bobby McCrary, illustrating his grandfather.

McCrary, 22nd Force Support Squadron NCO in-charge of Honor Guard, grew up going to car shows and swap meets with his grandfather, who rebuilt classic cars. They would travel up and down the state of Texas together looking for parts and meeting other car enthusiasts who carried years of experience and irreplaceable pearls of wisdom.

“I feel the cars, in a sense, carry [my grandfather’s] aura around,” said Dustin McCrary, Bobby’s brother. “He had a great knack for restoring classic vehicles and finding gems in a pile of rust. Most of our memories with him involve a classic car or truck, as every weekend, from spring until fall, he went to car shows and parades.”

With his dynamic lifestyle as a child, the transition into an ever-changing environment like the U.S. Air Force was familiar to him. Bobby joined the Air Force in 2004 and continued on a family tradition of working on heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

“I would say that after restoring the vehicle and working with him, going into engineering was natural for me,” said Bobby. “I threw my first torch weld in the trunk of the Impala. It took about a week. It had a little rust in the trunk so I had to cut the floor pan out. Being my first weld, it was pretty bad. Before we sent it off to paint, he wouldn’t let me grind down the weld. He told me, ‘No. That weld is staying there. I want you to remember this.’”

When he was 13, he built his first car with his grandfather, a 1958 Chevy Impala. His grandfather was right—restoring the car would be an experience Bobby would never forget.

“I can remember laying face up on the concrete in the shop starring up at the car just overwhelmed with how much work it was,” Bobby described. “It was frame-off restoration. Every nut, bolt and piece of metal that was bent was rebuilt by us. [My grandfather] let me pick the color of the interior and the paint. It took us three summers to do it.”

From conception to fruition, the restoration of classic cars can be a daunting task. Most old cars, especially in Texas, are found in scrap yards or backyards, slowly rotting into the ground. With years of the elements weathering the vehicle, every bit of rust needs to be stripped off and almost every bolt needs to be replaced.

“First, we found the vehicle sitting on it’s frame—this was the foundation,” explained Bobby. “We pulled it into the shop and cleaned it up. Then, we sat there for two hours just looking at it and coming up with the vision, what parts we needed and what we wanted it to look like in the end. Then, we just ripped it apart until there was nothing but a frame left. We labeled all the parts and started building it.”

Before arriving at McConnell Air Force Base, Bobby was a military training instructor at Joint-Base Lackland San Antonio, Texas. With all of his experience as an instructor, he explained the process of restoring a car from the ground up is very similar to the process of training new Airmen.

“You’ve got to start with a clear foundation,” said Bobby. “When I was a military training instructor and the trainees would come in, the first thing we did was break them down. [Now] here at honor guard, I tell the Airmen to forget all of the drill they’ve learned in the past, because this is very different. Then, we just start building them up, and at the end we throw a uniform on them and make them shine.”

It’s not just the technical training that Bobby learned from his grandfather, it was also the ideals of precision and striving for excellence.

“This [car] was one of my first major accomplishments, because I started something from nothing and turned it into a beautiful piece,” explained Bobby. “I found the importance of doing things right. One time, I was shaping the driver’s fender and I just couldn’t get it perfect. My grandpa wouldn’t let me go to the next step until it was. I spent hours and hours at night. Exhausted, I finally got it right and it paid off.”

Although his grandfather has since passed away, this is a mindset of patience Bobby still holds on to.

“I learned a lot about myself building this car,” said Bobby. “Anybody who has rebuilt a car will tell you it takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears and beers to get through with a vehicle. I learned to not make decisions when I’m aggravated. If you’re working on a screw that won’t go in right away and you start busting your knuckles, you’ll strip the screw. Calm down and come back with a better mindset, and that screw will go right in.”

The process of restoring a car is a long and arduous one. By the time the project is finished, restorers know the ins and outs of the vehicle, and as Bobby describes, it becomes part of your family.

“These classic cars, they all have soul in them,” said Bobby. “A lot of my blood is in that engine-well. I know the car like the back of my hand because I have touched every part of that car. When I get into my car and I push the gas, all the frustrations of the day disappear. You can actually feel the engine with the throttle; it becomes an extension of your body. I push the gas and nothing else matters. My mind goes blank and life is good.”

He built the Impala with his grandfather when he was just a kid and he still owns it to this day. Bobby emphasizes that he will never sell it because it’s an internal reminder of the memories of his childhood and of his grandfather.

“If you pop the ashtray, his cigarette butts are still in there,” explained Bobby. “My memories of him are three things: driving in a car with him, working on a car with him or him smoking a cigarette. So when he died and I went to fulfill his last request of spreading his ashes, I put some of his ashes in the gas tank.”

For Bobby, this classic piece of Americana is not just a symbol of his grandfather or a way to blow off steam from the stresses of the military, it represents his philosophy and way of life.