Lombardi and Kiekhaefer. It would not be unusual to find a framed photo of either icon in any tavern in Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago drainage. Each was a legend in his own time, each possessed an outsize personality and, decades after both have passed to the great beyond, each remains part of the region’s mythology.
For example, there must have been 5,000 altar boys who served Lombardi at Catholic Mass and will tell you about it today over a beer. And at least that many old men claim to have been impulsively fired by E.C. Kiekhaefer from a job assembling Mercury outboards. Or they watched Kiekhaefer fire the Pepsi delivery man.
And so, when I mentioned across the Lake View Inn bar my recent trip to Lake X, the fabled Mercury test facility in central Florida, I was not surprised that someone piped right up with a Kiekhaefer story.
“I once worked for the old man,” recalled my good friend Chuck Larson. “In fact, I was a test driver at Lake X.”
There was much eye rolling and groaning up and down the bar.
“No really,” said Chuck. “I have pictures to prove it.”
Chuck’s Lake X story begins with an ad in The Fond du Lac Reporter.
“It was 1963 and I was 19 years old, and Mercury ran this ad in the paper seeking young men to test boats, and it sounded like fun for the summer,” said Chuck. “Six of us got hired, and we piled into my 1957 Pontiac and drove to St. Cloud.”
Around-the-clock endurance testing was underway at Lake X.
“Being kids, we usually got later shifts. At night, I could see the eyes of alligators glowing pink in the boat headlights. And it was so boring. If you had a day shift, you’d take a book along to read. I was running an early four-cylinder sterndrive, and it didn’t go too fast. Every once in a while, Mr. Kiekhaefer, who they just called the old man, would land in a seaplane and check up on things.”
Ah, I thought, here comes the part where Chuck gets fired by Kiekhaefer, because that’s how these stories always tend to end. But that’s not what happened.
“After the night shifts, we had to try and sleep during the day in house trailers with no air conditioning, which was like trying to sleep in an oven,” said Chuck. “Then one day, as a prank, one of the older guys caught an armadillo, and he let it loose in the trailer while I was trying to sleep. I rolled over in the bunk and put my hand down, and it landed right on the armadillo. That was it for me.”
A few days later, I was at Chuck’s place and asked to see the photographic evidence of his Lake X employment. From a drawer in the den he pulled out an old picture postcard of an armadillo — Greetings from Florida! Because Chuck’s a Lutheran, he can’t tell those Lombardi stories.