My first day with the truck is a good one: I’m woken at about 8 am on a Saturday morning by a phone call from Vince, the long-hauler who brought me the truck and whose semi is now parked on my street, the Ford already disembarked and sitting, lonely, too far off the curb but not quite in the middle of the road. I sign paperwork for Vince, who gets back into his truck and makes his way back to I-24, where he will continue east and then south towards Atlanta. We are now alone, the truck and I, and I am anxious. He brings out the Animist in me. The truck is defiant, a huge, bulbous hood, the tapered cab, that cowcatcher-ish steel grill like a lower jaw forward-thrust, it’s momentarily intimidating, and I wonder what I have gotten myself into.
I stare at the truck for a few minutes; I circle. He looks like he has weathered the 2,100 mile trip fine. It must, I think, be awfully confusing to spend a lifetime in front of a double-wide trailer at the end of a dirt road, only to have someone pack you up and ship you off to some unknown extended family in the middle of Tennessee. Here he is, alone, trying to appear confident and unaffected despite all his possessions in the glove box or on the rusty passenger side floor pan. What I mistook as aggression only moments ago I now see as uncertainty and the image of the set jaw reminds me instead of Chairy from Pee Wee’s Playhouse. It’s time to get to work.
An Army base is a self-sustained community. Mine, Ft. Campbell, has a grocery store, several gas stations, a liquor store, a Wal-Mart type general store, houses and duplexes, and barracks for the single soldiers; a bowling alley, gyms, chapels, day care, a YMCA, softball fields, a football stadium, police and fire stations, schools, swimming pools, and a golf course. The Army goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure Soldiers and their family members have what they need, and plenty of opportunity to take up and perfect hobbies, like woodworking, arts and crafts, or auto repair, and here is where I drive myself, the Ford sputtering and threatening stall at every stop light, this Saturday morning. I make it to Gate 6, it’s still early, the base relatively empty due to deployments and, in all likelihood, hangovers. I’m the only one passing through so I can keep my foot on the accelerator and the clutch slightly engaged. My plan is to hand my ID card to the security guards, say hello, and get my card back without ever stopping. But there are two guards – one has come over from the next lane over – and they eye the Ford. “Nice truck” he says, but pauses between words, emphasizing, each a one-word sentence in and of itself: Nice. Truck. A grin creeps from the corners of his mouth; he is old and white and grizzled, and wearing huge unwieldy ski gloves and I think the smarter and more appropriate picture would be him inside this truck and me outside with the gun on my hip, but here we are. My plan to keep moving is foiled, he and his friend want to chat, and after a few words I make it out without the engine dying.
The self-help auto shop is just about a mile away. I drive through the open gate, park, and walk in through one of the big open garage doors, the smell of gas and oil and other things unidentifiable to me permeating the air. There are ten bays, four of them with hydraulic jacks to lift your vehicle off the ground, and small tool lockers at the head of each bay. The floors and walls are clean, and because this is an Army base, and because we are a family show, I take note of the deficit of out-of-date calendars featuring moderately attractive bikini-clad girls hawking Snap-on or Rigid tools or Holley carburetors. There is a dirty-blond, middle-aged woman behind the counter, territorial and aggressive in a way that makes it clear she is in charge, but you can tell there is compassion lurking nearby. I tell her about my truck, rambling and inefficient and unconfident with my words and she does not even pretend to care. “Do you need a lift?,” she asks, and I say I don’t know.
“CHUCK! DOES HE NEED A LIFT!”
Chuck, wide hips and narrow waist and belt cinched so tight that it pulls the loops on his jeans together so they are touching one another, strolls over and asks what I want to do. I tell him I don’t know, but I that I have a ’62 Ford, it was my grandpa’s, he had it almost the whole time but bought it off a friend of his in ’64 or ’65 and I want to make it reliable and maybe make it look nice but nothing like a car show.
“What,” he drawls in an odd what I find out later to be a Virginia hillbilly accent, “is your level of knowledge?” I’m not sure how to answer this, and I think of the doctor’s office pain chart. Am I a zero? Pain free, aw-shucks grin, post-coital eyes? A six, which should reflect some pretty serious pain but instead looks like I woke up an hour earlier than I wanted to? A ten? A reddened-face, sweaty, agonizingly teary-eyed emoticon conveying far more emotional damage that physical pain? I wonder how to translate this into my comfort with an open-end wrench. I’m better than my mother, for sure, who is probably damn close to zero, but I’m certainly not as good as the guy who has joined our group, he with an earring in each ear, and ponytail and goatee and name in cursive stitched onto a white patch on the pocket of his shirt, a pack of Marlboros peeking over the top. The truth is that though I took auto shop in high school, I seem to recall spending more time trying to make out with Jeanna Whalin in the tool room than I do learning how an engine worked.
I tell Chuck I feel OK doing things on my own, but I have no idea where to start. He has me drive the truck into one of the bays, extends the lift arms so they sit just under the frame of the truck, and raises it. Chuck grabs a shop light, walks underneath, and begins his analysis: Mmmm. Yep. Hmm. Look at that. He is talking to himself, or perhaps the truck, but certainly not to me, and his coos and warbles are, I think, a good sign. Decades of desert air have apparently been good to the truck, and Chuck can’t stop telling me what great condition it is in. He says he can tell that my grandfather took good care of it, and that I’m lucky, and that it is a prime candidate for a “frame off resto.” I ask if this means we can make it so I can drive home without it stalling.
We lower the truck, and Chuck does something with the carburetor where he changes the fuel air mix while I just stare at the engine, one foot up on the bumper, trying to absorb as much as possible of what Chuck says and does. I nod my head occasionally. Other people working on their cars – there are only men here – frequently come over and stick their heads under the hood with me, staring, laconic, all of us joining in this manliest liturgical in existence surely since Henry Ford or Otto Daimler or whomever first decided to put the engine in front and put a hood over it and to make an open back end for hauling around your crap that you never really use. Sometimes they ask me a question – “is that a 302?” and I answer with “nah, it’s a 292 Y-block” at which point I have exhausted my knowledge of my vehicle.
Chuck finishes and sends me on my way, my first task to get a new gas tank. I spend the next weekend first removing the bench seat (the gas tank is behind it), then disconnecting fuel lines and electrical wires and rubber hoses and brass fittings and even the fuel pump and filter and the tank itself and I replace them all. I make, in total, five trips to Auto Zone over the weekend but by the end of it I have a brand new fuel system, from tank to engine, and the truck fires up the first time I turn the ignition. There are no leaks, and the fuel flows beautifully and clearly where before it was stunted and chunky and honey-colored.
This is a victory, I want to revel in it, so decide to take the truck for a deserved victory lap. I make sure the truck is in gear, turn the engine off, then move to kick out the wooden blocks I have propped behind the wheels while the truck sat on my declined driveway. The first, on the driver’s side, comes out easily, but the passenger side block takes more than a few kicks. The weight of the truck is clearly heavy on the block, but my powers of deductive reasoning have been squashed by my joy in my first success in making it run, and my arrogance has prevented me from realizing that there’s a problem here: when I removed the bench seat, I knocked the four-wheel drive stick shift into neutral, therefore negating the usefulness of ensuring the truck was in gear in the first place, and after swinging my foot back to give the block one more kick, I realize, simultaneously with swinging my foot forward, that there is about to be nothing keeping this beast in my driveway. The truck immediately begins rolling backwards, and I move around to the back to try to stop it. My truck weighs almost two tons, and I unsurprisingly have no effect. There is, I see, a car parked across the street behind me, and another coming down the road towards me. I run around to the driver’s side, and, running backwards, open the car door, crank the bus-sized steering wheel (no power steering) clockwise, jumping into the cab at the same time and applying the brake. I have missed the parked car behind me by a long shot, and the oncoming car passes by me without slowing down. My heart is pounding, and I take the lesson: don’t park on declines.
Replacing the fuel system successfully emboldens me to make other minor improvements, to buy new wheels and tires, to even drive the truck in to work a few days a week. I stay in the right lane on the way in, driving the speed limit not because the truck lacks power, but because I am in no hurry. I drive leisurely, downshifting and braking early once traffic lights come into view, occasionally leaning my entire chest against the giant steering wheel, arms crossed so my right hand is at 10, my left at 2, wind whistling through the poorly sealed vent windows. At work, we talk about the truck. One of my young sergeants calls it an “eyesore,” and, seeing my hurt, follows quickly with “but I don’t really know about old things.” This same Soldier once asked me if I liked Kylie Minogue because that’s the music her mother liked. Another, not knowing it was mine, called it a “beater,” but these are the exceptions. The truck, I find, is smile-inducing and is gender, age, and race neutral. The black security guards, my administrative assistant, the senior attorney in my office, who flew helicopters in Viet Nam; young Soldiers in Punisher t-shirts or wearing flat-billed hats; the ladies who walk at lunch hour, they all have a comment and a smile about the truck or a story from their own past. It might have been their own grandfather, or their dad, or the one whose much older brother had a truck, just like this one, with a bench seat so clean and slick it would cause him to go sliding against the door every time his brother made a hard left turn, a game to both of them, a way to so clearly express your love of your little brother or your idolization of your big one without having to say it.
This, too, I share, this love without having to say it. Every time I get into the truck, I shut the heavy door solidly, metal on metal, my concerns and worries and stressors dropping and my love and endorphins increasing, swapping levels like a canal lock. It can sometimes seem that I deal with badness all day, every day. If I know your name, it’s likely because you did something wrong, or someone suspects you did something wrong, or you’re probably about to do something wrong and I have to go tell someone else what they should do about it. It is a system, and one that works, and one into which I have wholesale bought, but it can be exhausting. But every time I get into the truck – whatever my temperament or mindset – and close the door and turn the key and hear the engine ignite, first turn, I am listening to goodness and I reconcile accordingly.
When I’m driving any other car, it is simply a vehicle, and a vehicle in the strictest sense: something to get me from here to there. But the Ford is a machine. It is here, generically, to make my life better, as a machine is supposed to. But also something more, something essential and of consequence. We turn a key and move the vehicle into drive and turn on the cruise control and the radio and the DVD player for the kids and continue to be preoccupied by things mundane and banal and low but, inexplicably, consuming. But the truck is different. It is simple, yet demands your attention. I pull the choke and turn the key and can see the mechanical fuel pump pushing fuel up through the carburetor where the choke plate is minimizing the air flow but increasing the amount of fuel pulled to the engine; I listen to the idling rumble to know when to push the choke back in, letting me know that it’s okay to engage the clutch and slide the stick shift into second gear, revving the engine to get rid of that sticky pedal, heavy on the first step like a double-action pistol on the first pull, easing the clutch back out to slowly, smoothly accelerate into third gear, and then fourth, where I then rest my left arm on the door sill, steering with my left fingertips while my right rests casually on the cracked shifter knob, holding my speed with a sensitive right foot. If I turn, I must remember to move the signal back into the center position; the soft “click-click, click-click” reminding me if I forget.
I am not so maudlin to think that life was better in 1962 when we didn’t have cruise control and in-car DVD players, I know every age has its own historical and personal challenges. But today, in 2011, this 1962 Ford does, in fact, make life seem easier. I have an identifiable goal, an end-state for the truck that I can envision as if it were sitting here in front of me, shiny and new. There are little goals I need to achieve in order to reach that final one, and each step I take, each time I get the fuel gauge to work, or see the instrument panel lights flicker to life, or successfully remove the manifold exhaust, I feel relevant. I feel connected. The truck has a smell and feel so familiar to me now, already, that I don’t know if the nostalgia is, in fact, nostalgia, or I’ve just convinced myself of it, like a childhood event memorialized in a photograph you’ve looked at so many times you’ve confused the reality of the actual event with the picture of it, the two to never part again.
I spend an hour or two cleaning the underside of the truck, fifty years of dirt and grime and oil grown solid so I can scrape it off in layers. Then new windshield wipers, new exhaust manifold gaskets, new sun visors, new hinges for the tail gate. I end the evening sitting in the bed of the truck, a cigar in one hand and a Negro Modelo in the other, Kristian Matsson on the stereo, he about five foot seven but ambitiously calling himself The Tallest Man on Earth; he is of 2010 but sounds, appropriately, like 1962.
We are all products of our times, at least to some extent, and my grandfather was Depression Era, no doubt. I go through the papers he has left in the glove box of his truck, the original operators manual, and old insurance documents from as far back as 1980, and an emergency blank check (number 3453) and maintenance records scrawled neatly in pencil on an amalgam of papers, a Sahara Hotel and Casino scratch pad and Consolidated Freightways receipts and even on meticulously clipped-out squares from magazine pages. He changed the oil on August 2, 1992, and also on April 2 of some unknown year. He packed the wheel bearings in November of 1985 and on a date unrecorded he sketched out a wiring diagram for the trailer lights. This I will keep.
There is a drizzle slightly increasing and sunlight simultaneously dissipating behind a clouded sky. The sunset shows amber, the sun itself absent but its nimbus prevalent. A woman walks by with her dog, short-legged but long and heavy-bellied, him on leash but holding it in is mouth, as if it is he taking her for a walk, not the other way around.