Hot rod labor of love for friends of cancer-stricken veteran

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FERNDALE, Wash. — As the 1940 Hudson Business Coupe roars to life, Jim Stilts roars along with it and then grins as the gunmetal hot rod stalks its way out of the garage before hitting the street.

This day has been months in the making - turning a beat-up old car into this growling machine with impeccable curves — and it’s a moment of pride. But Stilts just wishes the car’s owner, Vietnam veteran Tom Elbrecht, was well enough to take it for a ride.

Elbrecht was diagnosed with two types of leukemia in May, and though he’d been planning to drive the car Thursday, he was too sick to make it out of the house. About 20 friends still gathered at Elbrecht’s garage across from his Trigg Road home to see the car come to life.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Presley “Bear” Thompson, who met Elbrecht through Combat Veterans International, a nonprofit association that assists veterans. “It goes from almost scrap to a brand new, awesome hot rod.”

Thompson is one of about 30 people who have helped rebuild the car since last June, with many other businesses and individuals making donations. Elbrecht had bought the Hudson with dreams of turning it into a hot rod a few months before he found out he had cancer. When friends and fellow veterans learned of his diagnosis, they made it their goal to rebuild the car for him in the time he had left.

“I’m losing a very good friend. He wanted a hot rod, and that’s the way we feel. By God, we’ll build him one,” Stilts said. “He’s a good person. He’s always been there for whoever needed help.”

Elbrecht is the kind of guy who would give you parts for your motorcycle and the shirt off his back, the men said.

“That car is an expression of love from us to him, not just because he’s sick but because we love and respect him,” Thompson said. “That’s the spark of this project. Everyone wants to see his dream come true.”

Elbrecht’s wife, Marilyn, said she and her husband have been touched to see that so many people care about him enough to drop everything to make this project happen. Guys have been working on the car in their shop seven days a week, she said, with Tom Elbrecht visiting and hanging out when he’s able.

“It’s been really fun actually. They’re always messing around and being funny. They love each other,” she said. “They’ve all got funny stories to tell, and they pick you up no matter what’s going on.”

Brad Keen rode his motorcycle from Montana as soon as he heard Elbrecht was sick, and he’s been staying in a trailer at the Elbrechts’ place and putting in long hours since June. Friends say he was a driving force behind the project.

“I’m not here to build a car,” Keen said. “I’m here to be with Tom more than anything.”

Keen and Stilts have both loved getting to see Elbrecht’s excitement as new parts come in and progress is made on the car.

They’ve laughed a lot throughout the project, but there have been rough times, too, when Elbrecht was too weak to walk home across the driveway and the guys had to carry him.

“We’re losing a really good guy, and there’s nothing we can do about it, not a damn thing,” Stilts said. “He’s going to be gone. We don’t know when. We appreciate and love every moment that we get with him, but we’re going to lose him.”

Now that the car is about 90 percent done, the feelings are bittersweet all around. In February Keen will be heading back to Montana, where his wife has been waiting patiently. He feels like the rebuild has been giving Elbrecht a purpose, and he’s worried that once it’s over, Elbrecht might not have much time left.

“I’m torn between feeling good about going home and feeling really bad about it being over because I’ll be losing my buddy,” he said. “It’s super high emotion and super low.”

Even when the car is done, that doesn’t mean that friends will stop coming by, Thompson said. The car has never been the main attraction.

“Tom’s our excuse. He’s our excuse to come over,” Thompson said. “Been doing it for years, and I’m not going to stop now.”

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