As far back as I can remember, our family had pickup trucks. I learned to drive on our camp beater truck that was old enough (circa 1949) that it sported a standard shift on the column, a key that was on and off only, and the starter footswitch was on the floor near the clutch pedal. It was a cantankerous old thing that took just the right touch on the pull out choke and a few flicks of the gas pedal to get it running. My first attempt at operating the clutch in first gear while trying to steer resulted in me driving straight into a clump of tag alders. At this point my ever patient father said, “You know, you are allowed to steer while you are letting out the clutch and stepping on the gas.” This was the same patience he displayed when teaching my kids how to drive his truck on the logging roads around camp. At age eleven, my driving opportunities were few and far between, but with the intricacies of clutching, shifting, and steering mastered, I was always on call to make the garbage run to the small dump near the end of Collin’s Road (which at the time was still called Papin Road).
I was sad when the old camp truck got traded for a car radio at Salmi’s Salvage yard in Clarksburg, but by then we were cycling through a series of Chevy S10 pickups that were my vehicle of choice whenever I needed to get from here to there. Okay, that is only partly true because there were those important events like high school dates that required use of the family whale of a car, our Chevy Caprice with the 350 cubic inch gas sucker engine. One did not pick up a date in a pickup truck (at least not if one had other options). The black truck that my brother decorated with a couple of STP gas treatment stickers came before I had a license, so I only drove that occasionally at camp. The next in line, however, was a sleeker, maroon colored number that was my go to vehicle in the days when we were hauling around our band equipment to all of the places we played before and after we became The Twig.
My dad still favored standard transmissions in his trucks (meaning: with a clutch on the floor and the shift on the steering column, not that new fangled ‘automatic’ transmission) so I was a little careful where I drove around hilly Marquette. The hills were not the problem, rather it was approaching hilly intersections from the downhill side. When starting in low gear with a standard, or manual, transmission vehicle while stopped on an uphill slope, one needed to do one of two things. Option one was to make a quick transition from braking to moving by popping out the clutch far enough to start forward motion and while stepping on the gas before the truck rolled backward. Option two was to ‘slip the clutch’ meaning one could keep the clutch part way up with the vehicle in first gear and let the engine hold you in place instead of using the brake (with the clutch all the way to the floor before performing Option 1). Both of these techniques took a little time to master so I avoided having to do either by fastidiously planning my routes around town to avoid uphill intersections (very much the way some people try to avoid the new roundabouts that have become vogue these days).
During the spring of my junior year in high school, my folks were on the road somewhere with the Caprice and I was left at home with the maroon truck and my trusted driving buddy Rusty (our truck riding obsessed dog). A buddy called and told me that Boerner Music Store (where I had purchased my drum set from five years earlier) was going out of business and everything was on sale. I wasn’t sure if that meant I would find anything to buy, but Rusty and I jumped into the truck and headed downtown. I was disappointed how little there was left for sale, so we headed home. I had my ‘no uphill intersections’ route home planned but ran into a construction detour that gave me no choice but to start climbing Fourth Street toward Washington (the main drag that bisects Marquette into north and south). In a minor moment of panic, I prayed that I would hit the green light but instead found myself in a pack of cars halfway up the hill when the signal changed to yellow and then to red. I remember the moment well because I didn’t have much time to think of which way to go (Option 1 or 2 above) so I gamely dropped the truck into low gear and released the clutch halfway. Step one meant I was letting the engine keep me from rolling backward without moving forward. Step two would be to smoothly release the clutch the rest of the way and rev the engine to move forward without stalling the truck. I kind of surprised myself that it went smoother than expected so Rusty and I made our way to the hilly streets west of Lakeshore Street. With less traffic in this residential neighborhood, I practiced a few more starts and stops while slipping the clutch just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. Rusty didn’t care. For him the longer the ride all the better!
Now that I had mastered the whole clutch and shift thing, I was a little dismayed when I came home one day to find a new black and white S10 with an automatic transmission sitting in the driveway. It was nice to see a new truck, but I knew I would miss the whole shifting thing. Again, Rusty didn’t care one way or another as long as he could prop himself up next to me and watch the world go by. Unlike the ‘hang out the window with tongue and ears flapping’ type of dog, Rusty prefered to sit on the seat right next to the driver. He would dutifully lean left or right into the turns and occasionally wander over to sniff the air coming in if the window on the passenger side was open a crack. I never had the window down more than an inch or so as he had managed to jump out of a half open window once when he saw another dog at an intersection we were stopped at. It was a good thing we didn’t learn this little lesson in window exiting while in motion!
How much did Rusty love riding in the truck? When my folks would be on the road, we found we couldn’t leave him alone in the house. He had been abandoned by his previous owners who had left him behind when they moved. He showed up on our neighbor’s doorstep and they brought him to us knowing that we had not had a dog for a few years. The first time we left him in the house alone, he tried to chew his way out of the kitchen door frame. When I had to go to school and no one else was home, leaving him in the house was not an option. I would let him out the front door to do his business and then slip out the back door to go to school. Living two blocks from the high school, I would walk home for lunch every day and find him sitting on the porch in bewilderment wondering how it was that I was coming down the street and wasn’t indoors where he had last seen me. After lunch, we would do the same routine until he figured it out and would run around to watch the other door when I let him out again (which meant I would then leave by the other door). This went okay until the little guy outsmarted me by sitting at the corner of the house where he could see the back door and the sidewalk at the front of the house making it impossible for me to sneak back to school. Once the jig was up, I would roll the windows of the truck down part way and open the door and he would gleefully jump in, ready to ride. That is where I would find him sleeping when I got back from school. At that point I had to take him for a drive somewhere because if I opened the door and said, “Come on out Rusty,” he would give me a sad “Hey, what about my ride?” look (this will sound crazy to non-pet owners but not to anyone who has been properly trained by their nonhuman family members).
Flash forward to the end of my last tour of duty at the Huron Mountain Club in the summer of 1973. I had complained a few times that summer that the beater Chevy Bel Air (with a free wheeling manual transmission, I might add) I was driving back and forth to the club was burning a lot of oil. My dad first suggested the idea of trading it in for a used truck so he would have a truck available when I was using his for band jobs. With him still on the road in his state job, it took very little time for him to find a used Chevy S10 for sale at a car lot in Iron Mountain. As luck would have it, he had a meeting there the next week, so he took the Bel Air and traded it in on the same trip saving me a missed day of classes. I was excited because I already knew it was going to be a standard with three on the the tree, but what he didn’t mention was the color. When I got back from campus, I found my new truck was what I can only describe as a garish ocher color with a dark green interior. It was mine and I wasn’t about to start repainting it, so I made up my mind that I would have to get used to it. It certainly made it easy for my friends to find me when we arranged to meet somewhere. Rusty still didn’t care because he now had two trucks to ride in!
The Ochre Beast was my main mode of transportation for twelve years. When it no longer had any rocker panels (rusted away) and the shift began hanging up between gears, it was time to part with my truck. One never knows how handy a truck is until one no longer has one. On the other hand, when one owns a truck, everyone who needs something hauled somewhere also knows you own a truck. I have been the later and am now the former. This is probably why I try to have friends who still drive pickups!
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