A Day in the Life: Ronald Trammel of Henry's Radiator Shop keeps … – Tallahassee Democrat

It’s a day in the life of Ronald Trammel. But which one to choose of the 23,725 days the nearly 90-year-old has spent at the Tallahassee Radiator Shop (also known as “Henry’s”) on Monroe Street?
Which day to pick of the 65 years he has arrived at the white block building across from the Senior Center to attend to the broken radiators that in the “olden days” would number 30-40 repairs a day?
Which of the days that in recent years have seen the steady decline of a profession to which Trammel has devoted his life, and for which he now shakes his head sadly, to declare it a “dying art?”
Yet Ronald Trammel is anything but sad. Anything but bitter. Instead, with his full head of wavy white hair, his smooth unwrinkled face, strong arms and hands, and the memory and recall of a man half his age, Trammel is a member of the Greatest Generation who believes in personal discipline, devotion to his faith, and a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. 
Wearing a neat blue uniform, high rubber boots and blue plastic gloves, he looks around the interior of “Henry’s” — proclaimed on the weather-beaten sign outside — at the cracked cement of the floor, at the huge vats of muriatic acid used to clean and evaluate radiators, at the home-made plywood protective box for flushing the radiators with acidic water, at the piles of pipes, and old hoses, and ancient soldering equipment — and he seems to see old friends — inanimate helpers that have been his companions through the years.
More:Confidence boot camp: Marsha Doll models the way with genuine flair
And there is not a trace of bitter nostalgia. Instead, Trammel recounts how his early life led to an even better life as the owner of Henry’s Radiator repair.
Born in 1930, Trammel and his two siblings followed their father from Cairo, Georgia, to a variety of other Florida cities where the elder Trammel worked as an auto mechanic. From his pre-teen years, Ronald would lie beside his father beneath pre-World War II cars, pulling off brakes and adjusting the new ones. “By the time I was 13 or so, I could do a pretty good brake job,” he says. Settling in Tallahassee, he led a “boy’s life,” building with the “hammer, saw, and nails” his grandfather gave him and fishing each weekend with his dad.
When Trammel entered 10th grade, he found a program which appealed to him— ½ day school paired with ½ day work. With an auto-mechanic uncle he honed his own skills. After graduation, he added Aircraft Structural Mechanics courses. And then, as Korea loomed on the horizon for all young men, Trammel joined the National Guard, and later the Navy, serving for a total of six years here and abroad.
But in the meantime, there had been someone else building a career. Henry Lopez, the father of the girl Trammel would marry, had in 1932 opened a little service station with a mechanical bay at Tennessee and Calhoun. The shop moved to Tennessee and Monroe in 1944, and in 1946, just after the War ended, Lopez bought the land on Monroe at Seventh Avenue and hand-built the shop he named, “Henry’s Tallahassee Radiator Shop.” 
“It was two blocks outside the city limits at the time,” laughs Trammel. From the looks of it, it seems that Lopez’s son-in-law, who entered the business after the military in 1955 and bought the business and the property in 1972, hasn’t changed a thing since.
But during the “golden years,” radiator repairing was a steady business. Radiators are the car part that moves the heat caused from the little explosions created in a cylinder by a spark and gas that in turn, move pistons that turn the engine over.
Using water, and now water mixed with anti-freeze, the engine-heated liquid is circulated first into the radiator’s upper tank, then through a grid of copper baffles, called the core, where a fan cools it, and out a lower tank—then back again. But sometimes, the whole thing can get “gunked up.”
Trammel picks up a shiny black radiator about the size of a car’s front grill. It is from a 1948 MG.  Recounting the process he’s followed for over half a century, he’d first tested the unit for bubble-producing holes in an open vat of green-colored water to make sure it was worth repairing. Then came the soaking in the “stripper tank” filled with “caustic soda” — muriatic acid. Then he had removed the upper and lower tanks, and with a thin rasp, carefully hand-reamed out the interior core through which water is circulated.
Next Trammel had rinsed the whole thing in the “flush-out box,” re-soldered the tanks back into place, and painted it with high-heat enamel. All of it is hands-on and physical. He points at several huge plastic barrels. Greenish fluids slosh inside. “At the bottom is some of the “mud” that has been washed from the radiator’s inside, that will cake up and eventually dry out so it can be environmentally-correctly disposed of,” he says.
And then a little radiator humor.  Trammel whips out a small plastic bag.
“Wanna see something funny?” He opens the bag and pulls out something synchronously dirty, sticky, brown, and filled with… “This is cotton,” says Trammel. “And grass seeds.” He stretches the lump this way and that. “I pulled it out of the MG’s radiator. Mice had been living in there and they’d made themselves a nice little home for their babies out of cotton.” He says he’d once come upon a whole family of tiny hairless mice, preserved for eternity inside a radiator.
Then the phone rings again. There are still calls every day for Trammel’s services even though modern radiators, now made of aluminum and plastic, are often simply replaced when they go bad. “If you keep an older car’s radiator in good shape, it should last for the life of the car” he says. As he fields the call, Trammel fingers a Bible that lies right beside his antique address book. He says he gave his life to Christ when he was 17. “And Jesus is right beside me here every day. A psalm a day… 31. One for each day of the month… then you get to start over.”
For only a moment does Trammel become pensive.
There’s a man waiting in the parking lot who’s just brought in a Chevy radiator and Trammel has to go. “You know, I’ve trained 19 men to do this work. There actually used to be seven radiator repair places right here in Tallahassee. Now there’s only me and one other part-time guy in town,” he says. “Yes, it’s dying out. It’s sad. I hate to see it go.” He sighs, “It hurts.”
Then the man with the Chevy radiator appears in the doorway, and Trammel strides out to see to the problem. And over his shoulder, he turns and says with a smile, “Thank you Jesus. Thank you for just one more broken radiator.”
Contact Marina Brown at Mcdb100@comcast.net.
Never miss a story: Subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat.
The Tallahassee Democrat’s occasional Day in the Life series looks at a variety of working individuals in Tallahassee. They have different professions, but each is committed to the tasks they perform — those that most of us know little about. Here is another peek at what keeps Tallahassee going.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *