Humans are predictable creatures. Even the least sedentary, those of us who thrive on surprise and impulse and passion, who cultivate an identity of impetuousness and spontaneity, travel, over time, in patterns insinuative of the loveliest childhood images you ever created on your Spirograph. But occasionally we hiccup, or have a chance encounter, or simply stumble upon something that catches our attention, causing us to roll back the scroll wheel of our life, shift to the left or to the right, and, upon dialing back in, discover some alternate society, an association of enthusiasts whose arms welcome you unconditionally, based solely on your shared love of, for example, 1961-1966 Ford trucks.
I discover, just 1.3 miles from my house, a junkyard. That I have spent almost two years in Tennessee not knowing this is unsurprising; that I find, the first time I visit, a completely restored 1964 Ford F100 in the parking lot, is. The young man behind the counter, after stamping my hand and having me sign a liability waiver, tells me the truck belongs to Anthony, that he is middle-aged and that he will be wearing jeans, and a blue zip-up hoodie, with thick glasses and a thick mustache and a bowl haircut, and that if I go past the Dodge trucks, and the Chevrolet cars, I will find him walking amongst the Fords.
I pass through a giant roll-up garage door and into the gravel-and-mud lot, acres and acres of cars and trucks in varying stages of disarray and dismantle; many tireless, amputated at the ankles, but all of them precariously elevated on rusty, horizontal rims, a pointed reminder that they may never walk again; yawning hoods revealing de-toothed mouths, guts occasionally spilling out over fender wells and under doors slightly ajar. I pass two young, rotund white teens, then a black man, my age, towing an oversized wagon equipped with oversized off-road tires and a small child, perhaps his son, pushing from behind. At the far side of the lot I find Anthony Jenkins. When I meet him he is crawling out from under a Lincoln Town Car, his blue zip-up hoodie wet from lying in the mud but otherwise meeting, perfectly, the attendant’s description.
I introduce myself to Anthony and, mentioning his truck, tell him about mine. Anthony says he has seen it – “a friend told me there was a blue long bed four-wheel drive around town, but I didn’t believe him!” – and we begin a question and answer session dominated by simple questions and inadequate answers; Anthony initially speaking to me in a language that may as well have been Urdu, but quickly dumbing it down to Restoration 101, walking me over to an engine, showing me exactly which four screws to undo, and how to take a straw to the interior of the carburetor to assist with stalls; or how to take steel wool to the stainless steel emblems, making them shine like new; or which wire to cut and where to attach it to make sure the brake lights work. Anthony gives me his phone number and tells me about his buddy who had seen my truck, a retired soldier with whom Anthony is thinking about starting a club, “not really a car club but something where we can meet and just take a drive, maybe the next town over and grab some lunch.”
And here is where I find my social network: Anthony, the former Nissan mechanic who took an early retirement in order to open his own, at-home auto restoration business, dispensing free wisdom to me on the side; Mitch, the retired First Sergeant, generous with both his time and parts and with the “sirs” not because I am an officer, but because he might be the politest, friendliest guy I know; Gary, a retired bridge-welder whom I meet after Mitch gives me a phone number to a guy who gives me a phone number to another guy who does not have the part I’m looking for but directs me over farm roads and up a hill to two big white garages where I meet three men, one holding a Busch Light tall-boy, wearing dirty sweats, a mesh cap and a red plaid flannel shirt, with a veiny, bulbous nose to match and what must be years of chin and upper-lip hair growth and who gives me more directions, this time by toeing the ground with the outsole of his boot. He too sends me up the road, where I knock on Gary’s door, unannounced, telling him the gentlemen at the two big white garages thought he “might be able to help me fix my cracked exhaust manifold, though someone else suggested I just put on some headers and get rid of the crossover pipe” – I barely know what I am talking about – but Gary rolls his eyes dismissively, contemptuously at the mention of “headers” and says leave it here, I’ll fix it for you no problem. He calls me back later and says he’ll be out-of-town, but that he’s left the manifold in the apartment above his garage, just knock on the door and Uncle Fester will get it for you. I have, fortunately, spent enough time in the South to know better than to automatically dismiss this as some Southern-sticks tomfoolery, and I retrieve my manifold a few days later from a white-bearded, slipper-wearing, pants unzipped and unbuttoned Uncle Fester.
I work on the truck a little at a time, though I have taken to pouring over truck-parts magazines, and Ford websites, and eBay and craigslist, and even to driving four hours, trailer in tow, to a Birmingham salvage yard in search of a hood but finding, to my bemusement, assimilation: with my filthy Carhartts, finger-smudged hat brim, and dirty t-shirt, sleeves rolled up, and but for my significantly smaller waistline and lack of a mullet, I am indistinguishable. I have also, I think, begun to feel like maybe, perhaps, learning how an engine works and trying to make it look like it looked 50 years ago is a pretty damn important thing to do. There are, certainly, moments of pause: removing the camper, where my grandfather spent so much time; purchasing a new seat cover, switching from brown to blue; throwing away the ragged, disintegrating mud flaps. Even cleaning the grime from the clouded, grungy grill causes me to stop, half-way done, and look: the grill shines, beautiful and new, one side what it was and one side what it will be.
On a Saturday it is cold and overcast and reflective, and my mood matches. I take the truck for a drive, turning right out of my neighborhood and then right again at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, March is MISSION Madness, down a road I have never been down before. Long and narrow, it is closer to an extended driveway than a road, nameless; no signs, no center stripe, no shoulder stripe and no shoulder anyway – the fields of corn and soy, just inches out of the ground, grow right up the road itself; a gray overcast sky turning the fields a verdant Playdough green. A country road, in a country truck, in a part of the country that is, without a doubt, country. For forty-five minutes I drive, passing just one other automobile, another truck, and we wave, simultaneous fingers lifted off the steering wheel but palm remaining in contact. A radio-less car on a country road is a recipe for thought, and I realize I have been here almost two full years; that my people, my Captains and Sergeants I admire so much, are almost done with their year in Afghanistan; that I have been in this profession just short of eighteen years. I decide to drive until I am lost, up to the point where I think I may be, in fact, lost, and remember that my gas gauge is stuck on one-quarter tank. I see grain silos vaguely familiar, set just off the road, amongst a pond and gently sloping hills peppered with black dairy cows and the stumps of trees cut down long ago. I wave to a stationary farm dog because it seems like the right thing to do. I wonder what comes next. Do I strap on a back pack and walk across Nevada or move to Africa and run an orphanage or drive a 1962 Ford F100 from one side of Canada to the other? Another right turn, another long, flat gray asphalt road, another soot-crusted tobacco barn next to another generational red brick or white clapboard house; a child’s red umbrella, opened, in a uniformly green and untrampled field; a one-horse Mennonite carriage, red safety triangle the only concession to progress. I want to go home to get my camera, but I know it won’t look the same when I return.