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  • January 10th, 2018

GOOD OL’ TRUCK

By Joel M. Vance
Our son Andy was in mourning, tears welling, a feeling of hopeless abandonment, an overwhelming sense of loss. His 10-year old pickup was headed for the crusher. It was not a choice—the truck became afflicted with terminal frame rust and was recalled by Toyota which planned to euthanize it into a cube the size of a portable dog kennel.
Andy spent 10 years and 100,000 miles turning that pickup into a bird hunting vehicle and now it was destined for Automotive Heaven. It joined my late hunting buddy Spence Turner’s ancient Volvo and my 1967 Ford Fairlane station wagon on the Celestial Compost Heap. There must be a special place in the Jalopy Junkyard for defunct bird vehicles because they have transcended the normal wear and tear of vehicular life and become something else—sort of automotive Rambos.
Oh, sure, Andy got a hefty settlement from Toyota which was suffering corporate embarrassment because of other recalls, and he acquired a new pickup, shiny, smelling not of wet bird dogs and the gaseous effusions from hunters who have lunched on stale baloney and rat cheese, but of Essence du Pick-Up Nouveau.
It wasn’t a hunting vehicle, not at first. Not until it has had its muffler battered by rocky high centers, its floor mats defiled by muddy boots, its seat covers stained by game bird blood and the vomit of carsick puppies. That takes time and careful attention. Calling a hunting vehicle names and kicking it is preferred as a repair procedure to using a set of wrenches.
The Fairlane became so rusty in its nether parts that you could watch the passing pavement (or more often a gravel or dirt surface) passing beneath your feet. Spence’s Volvo had so much detritus in it from countless bird hunting ventures that I suspect empty McDonald’s wrappers, blood-matted feathers, green-colored dog food residue and other impedimenta of the bird hunter’s life were all that was holding the thing together. But, like all vintage hunting vehicles, it had an engine that could have competed in NASCAR. A great heart transcends the weaknesses of everything else.
Spence’s Volvo was a work-in-deprogress, if there is such a word. The Volvo company began in 1927 in Gothensburg, Sweden, not exactly a capital of bird hunting and there’s no doubt that Gustaf Larsson and Assar Gabrielsson, who founded the company, both spun in their graves like roulette wheels when Spence’s station wagon reached its nadir of neglect.
There is no way they could have foreseen what would happen to the descendant of their first proud quality car. Spence’s hatchback had broken so it needed to be propped up to stay open, and a viscous assortment of unidentifiable items had accumulated throughout the interior, like driftwood in the wake of a hurricane. Then came the final insult.
Spence loaded two setters in a portable kennel which, like the rear hatch, was defective—the gate would not latch. No problem. He positioned the kennel against the Volvo hatchback and went hunting. Spence was fond of snack food and he brought a two-pound sack of chocolate-covered raisins to keep his metabolism at bay on the long road to the bird fields.
He was to work at a deer check station the next day, so he had a duffel bag with clean clothing on the passenger seat and, being Spence Turner who lifted untidiness to an art form, the bag was unzipped. Spence decided one dog was enough, so set out with the chosen one, leaving the reject howling in frustration. An abandoned bird dog, having glimpsed its master and kennel mate armed and headed for likely-looking cover, is a canine time bomb.
The spurned setter managed to scoot the kennel back far enough to push the gate open, wriggle out and over the kennel toward the front seat, venting its frustration en route by rending the headliner and seat padding. And then it discovered almost two pounds, less Spence’s intake, of chocolate-covered raisins. If Daddy wouldn’t take the dog hunting, at least he left a generous supply of snacks. The dog gulped the raisins as only a bird dog can.
Might as well have swallowed an armed hand grenade. When Spence returned he opened the door to a tattered interior and the awful smell of what the dog had deposited in his duffel bag. Spence was appalled. He considered the wreckage of his vehicle and cried in anguish, “He ate my chocolate-covered raisins!”
My very first bird dog puppy became carsick and demonstrated on our trip home from his birthplace that a five-pound animal can vomit seven pounds of awfulness. He never again was sick, but he didn’t need to be. He had forever marked the Fairlane with the faint ambience of dog whoops.
Andy baptized his Toyota long ago, learning the hard way that bird dogs need to be drained thoroughly, fore and aft, before you load them. No matter how eager they are to kennel up, until they have hunkered and leg-lifted they are not ready. And a bird dog, having misbehaved in the back of a pickup, will then do a fecal fandango that spreads the malaise like fallout from a nuclear explosion.
After such an event it’s a grand thing to have a hard fiber bed liner and a power washer, not to mention a deep head cold and a strong stomach.
A friend created a bird vehicle in one afternoon in a duck marsh. He left his Lab shut in a Blazer, along with an unopened case of shotgun shells. He returned to find the frustrated dog had destroyed the headliner and the seat cushions and had ripped open the case of shells and every box within. “Do you know how many shells there are in a case?” he asked rhetorically. The answer is 300, assuming a dozen boxes of 25 each.
It would make a good question on Jeopardy, but only if the contestants were sporting dog owners.
Another friend, Mark VanPatten, had perhaps the ultimate outdoorsman’s vehicle when he was a teenager. He was too young to drive legally, but given the state of the car that was a minor inconvenience. He and a younger friend lived in the deep Ozarks and made Huck and Tom look like housebound sissies.
They somehow acquired a decrepit 1962 Plymouth Belvedere which they used to prowl the backwoods roads (or sometimes off-road), hunting, fishing and camping, often for days. Then they decided to go to Woodstock, yes, that Woodstock. That the famed concert was a thousand miles from their Ozark home was a minor inconvenience.
That they were unlicensed also was immaterial. That there were no seats in the Belvedere and they had to use orange crates to sit on was a matter of adaptation. When they got back from the long trip (“Remember the scene in the Woodstock movie with the kids skinny-dipping?” Mark says. “That was my bare butt showing.”) they resumed their forays into the Ozark woodlands, fishing, hunting and camping out.
Ultimately the tires gave way and there was no money to buy new ones. But that was no barrier to backwoods travel as long as there were rims. But rims on cherty Ozark backroads is like scrubbing your face with sandpaper and it wasn’t long until the wheels were nearly down to the hubs.
Regretfully they pushed the plucky Plymouth into a shallow grave beside the road and here it squats to this day, a monument to Ozark ingenuity and tenacity.
We come now to my truck. Let me describe it (you might want to send the kids out of the room). It is 28 years old which in truck years, like dog years, is nearly a century and a half. It has interesting rusted out portholes in the bed which were not factory installed. That’s so the dogs can see what the road improvements are—except there are no road improvements where we go. So far the holes are not so big that the dogs risk falling through, but give it another hundred thousand miles or so.
The tailgate has a crease in it from where our daughter practiced her destructive backing technique, and the driver’s door is sprung because the mechanic who was fixing a minor ailment forgot to put the truck in gear when he parked it, left the door open, and it tried to escape and ran into a light pole.
The door panels are splotched with rust blossoms. There is no Clearasil to cure automotive acne, so I leave it alone. It gives the truck individuality and I could pick it out instantly from among a hundred Nissans.
The seat leans forward to give access to the space behind it, but I am half afraid to open that Pandora’s Box of surprises. A tangle of jumper cables is about the only identifiable object and, oddly, the only time I’ve ever used them was to start someone else’s vehicle.
This is a truck that defines a good ol’ vehicle. It starts instantly on the coldest day and I believe I could run it to the North Pole and back without an engine misfire. It does have four-wheel drive of the old style where you have to get out in subzero temperatures and lock the hubs with numb hands. I do have to confess that the good old truck has been retired and now is unlicensed, uninsured, and used only on our own place to haul firewood.
Four wheel drive, a friend once told me, is so you can go farther before you get stuck. Next to the engine, the most important equipment is a come-along. I was in four-wheel drive in a good ol’ Suburban one night when I hit snow-covered ice on a bridge, did a complete 180 and plunged into a 10-foot deep ditch.
Four bird dogs in two kennels and I stared at each other and took a simultaneous deep breath. “You don’t want to drive in four-wheel on ice,” a nice patrolman unnecessarily told me. But the Suburban, except for a fractured front axle, landed upright, the dog kennels scarcely moved and we all survived for many more miles.
As my truck aged so have the dogs. Several need help to mount the tailgate. In their early years they began their leap about six feet from the truck, cleared the tailgate and crashed into the kennel. Now they look imploringly at us for help.
These days my back hurts to the point that lifting a 40-pound Brittany is like taking a fungo shot in the sacroiliac from Albert Pujols. I may have to build a handicap ramp for the dogs and use a walker for myself when we hunt. There is little hope for remedy aside from a team of knife-wielding orthopedic surgeons shouting “Book the Club Med vacation!” to their receptionists. You can buy a new truck, but replacement bodies are tougher to come by unless you have a helper named Igor and your name is Victor Frankenstein.
The thought of buying a new truck is like thinking about the end of life. Not fun. We will stick with our shabby veteran until it coughs its last or until Mr. Nissan does what the Grim Reaper of Toyota did to Andy and condemns it to the crusher.
Meanwhile Andy is enjoying his sparkling new truck. If he’s lucky Millie or Mattie or Libby or Meg or Cap or will vomit copiously en route home from some obscure hunting destination the canine version of breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow at the launch of a battle wagon.
-30-

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