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Every signature has a story

Local man collect veterans' signatures on his custom-built roadster


From a distance, it just looks like a rusty roadster.

But get a little closer. That artwork on the passenger door — of an Army gunner firing down on a bunker from a helicopter. It’s Wayne Swanson during his 395-day tour in Vietnam.

Those names on the body written in thick black ink from Sharpies. Each one represents a war veteran.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Vietnam War veteran Wayne Swanson built a rat rod with the intention of having veterans sign it. He calls it his tribute car.

Most names are accompanied by the name of a unit, where they served, years of service and maybe a branch of the military.

A few are followed by initials.

KIA.

MIA.

The people who write those initials on Swanson’s car often do so with tears in their eyes. They pour out their sorrow while spilling their stories. Of fiances who never came home. Of brothers who gave lives for freedom. Of fathers buried on foreign soil.

Swanson listens, as does Dana Price, who helped build the car.

It’s an honor to hear people’s stories and experience their emotions. “Many have never spoken about it at all,” he says.

To recognize a veteran’s service. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Wayne Swanson, left, got help building his roadster from friend and fellow veteran Dana Price, who also is a Boring resident.

To simply say thank you.

“It’s important for me, and I think it’s important to them,” Swanson says.

Swanson, 68, is a retired Gresham firefighter who grew up in East Multnomah County. When he was 10, he took his father’s new motorized lawn mower apart, put it back together before dad came home from work and his father never knew the difference.

He graduated from Gresham High School in 1962, and “then Uncle Sam got me.”

He was drafted into the Army. When given his choice of learning to fly helicopters headed to Vietnam or being an air traffic controller, he opted for the latter.

Swanson served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. In addition to being an air traffic controller, he served 40 combat missions in helicopters as gunner before being honorably discharged in 1971.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Wayne Swanson's signature is one of approximatly 300 on his roadster.

Price, 48, served in the Army from 1983-92, and is an Iraq war veteran. He served with the 101st Airborne Division during Desert Storm.

Both men love cars, and they were finishing up the second roadster they collectively built when the idea of a tribute car came to them while discussing their military homecomings. When Swanson returned from Vietnam, people called him a baby killer. Price, on the other hand, was welcomed by a throng of Vietnam veterans who vowed to never let another soldier return from war without being honored and thanked.

“They were the first ones to greet me when I came home, then my family,” Price said. “Because of that, they changed the course of history.”

People now separate the soldier from the war, acknowledging the service even if they disagree with the mission.

“So what you guys did lives on,” Price told Swanson.

The discussion turned to how to recognize veterans. How to reach out in solidarity and support. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Swanson had an artist friend, Larry Buckles of Oregon City, provide the paintings on the doors of his roadster. This one depicts a battle Swanson was in. That's him manning the machine gun in the helicopter.

And the idea for a tribute car took on a life of its own.

It took Swanson, with Price’s help, 90 days to build it using a 1924 Studebaker roadster body and a 1952 Packard engine.

He spent two weeks on the grille, which is from a 1937 Packard.

The license plate, “STR8 8,” which stands for Straight 8, is a nod to the car engine’s row of eight cylinders. A helicopter’s cyclic control stands in for the gear shift. The brake and gas pedals also are from a helicopter. And the convertible’s hood is made from an old Army tent.

About a year and a half ago, Swanson began taking the car to car shows and cruise-ins. Price comes too, when he can.

The car speaks for itself and knows how to draw a crowd.

“Are you a vet?” Swanson asks, looking for signs such as American flag pins on jacket collars.

The answers are all the same.

“I was.”

“Well, I used to be.”

“Sort of. I wasn’t in combat.”

Doesn’t matter. Military service is military service, plain and simple.

“If you’re a veteran, you’re a veteran,” Swanson says.

Then he’ll grab a Sharpie, one of 20 new pens stashed in the car before each show.

“Will you do me the honor of signing my car?” Swanson asks. “Sign right there on the rust.”

Cue up the dramatic pause. The blank or puzzled look.

At most cruise-ins, nobody wants to let anyone touch his or her cars, let alone write on them. So people are especially surprised when Swanson offers his vehicle for signatures.

“It’s interesting,” Swanson says. “You ask somebody, ‘Will you sign my car?’ and they say, ‘What?! You want me to sign your car?’”

To which Swanson responds, “Yes. Come over here and sign my car.”

Nobody has refused yet.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Veteran Wayne Swanson says every name on the roadster has a story. The license plate refers to the car's engine - an old Packard straight eight.

The older the veteran, they higher up they sign, usually on the canvas hood. Swanson helped local World War II veteran Art Iwasaki, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, out of his wheelchair and gave him the support needed to stand while Iwasaki signed. The combat team was a segregated unit that became the most decorated Army infantry group in U.S. history.

Younger, more able-bodied veterans tend to sign lower on the roadster’s body.

“Everybody asks me what color I’m gonna paint it,” Swanson says. “I don’t need no stinkin’ paint!”

What, cover up all those precious signatures? Never.

So far, about 300 veterans have signed the car. There’s room for another 100, maybe more.

“This is my therapy,” Swanson says. It’s been more than 45 years since he’s been to Vietnam, but he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I don’t see a psychologist and I don’t go to the bar.

“It’s an honor for me to have them do it, but it’s recognition for them.”

Price agrees.

“Every name on here, it doesn’t matter which one you lay your hand on; had they not served, lives all around them would have been different,” he says. “All of them gave one way or another.”




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