All Hail the Pickup Truck!
To tweak that famous line from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's 1825 foodie classic, The Physiology of Taste, "tell me what you drive, and I shall tell you what you are." A gray Accord or Camry says you read Consumer Reports, listen to NPR, and contribute faithfully to your IRA. A red Corvette says you read Playboy and are one comb-over away from hair transplants. A parti-colored twenty-year-old Volvo wagon suggests a familiarity with tofu, Birkenstocks, and contra dancing. A shiny new SUV suggests a familiarity with middle-school soccer, an unfamiliarity with unpaved roads, and a determination not to lose a right-of-way dispute with an erratically driven Cadillac from Massachusetts.But a pickup truck . . . A pickup truck says that you work. That you live beyond the boundaries of curbside rubbish pickup. That you cut wood, plow snow, haul horse poo for the garden or lobster traps to the wharf; tote chainsaws and clam hods, paint cans and ladders, sawhorses and power tools, gas cans and diesel tanks; that you have a deer rifle in the back window and you know how to use it.
Pickup trucks are a badge of belonging, an emblem of serious (or at least symbolic) participation in the workaday world. They are country-and-western songs with wheels, and they strum your heartstrings in ways an antiseptically efficient Camry never can. If Maine had a state vehicle, the pickup truck would be it.
The first store-bought pickup was the 1925 Model-T Ford, basically a runabout roadster with a factory-built pickup bed instead of the standard turtleback trunk. It sold for $300 and pumped out a fearsome twenty horsepower from its 176-cubic-inch engine. When I was a boy, my great-uncle Flea drove his "T-Model" truck into town every weekend to sell his tomatoes and corn to the garden-deprived and swap knives and lies with his friends on spit-and-whittle corner. He'd bought that truck new back in 1927 and kept it until he died in 1971, and I never knew it to fail him, or him to wash it. All that dirt, his theory went, kept the paint from fading.
My first pickup was a 1964 Ford bought from a friend who'd bought it from his father. He must have washed it a lot, because the sea-blue paint was chalky and faded within twelve years of its manufacture. Cosmetics aside, it was as sure-footed and reliable as any vehicle I've ever owned. Doubtless that's why I sold it for $500 when an inspection-sticker attempt revealed it needed new tires and springs and shocks. Would that I'd put $500 into it instead, because for the next twenty years I'd see it chugging around Waldo County, still working hard, still that same faded blue glaze with a thin but not fatal patina of rust, still an unforgiving uncle accusing me of youthful stupidity and fiscal irresponsibility long past the time I'd gotten the message.
My second pickup truck was a 1952 Chevrolet razed by rust and indifferent carpentry into a flatbed. It ran great, once the booster battery wired to the starter through a dashboard button got the engine spinning fast enough to fire, and it had a funky panache that the new retro-replicant Chevrolet SSR tries a little too hard to achieve.
Its downfall was more olfactory than mechanical. In those days I lived twenty miles from the sea and stored my lobster bait aboard, and the considerable sloppage of herring brine had soaked into its oaken body and become, as Uncle Flea would have said, a dite high. To my knowledge, it was the only
vehicle ever banned from the parking lot of Belfast's City Boat Landing Restaurant as a health hazard. Which was
particularly irksome at a time when the fumes from Belfast's waterfront grain mill and chicken-packing plants faded the paint on tourists' cars fleeing past on the Passagassawakeag Bridge.
Its replacement was a beautifully repainted 1972 Chevrolet that ran well but had an unfortunate habit of freezing irrevocably into neutral while shifting from first to second, and of shedding badly Bond-o'd body parts from beneath its shiny paint as it rattled down the road. Then poor decision-making on several fronts put me out of lobster fishing and into lobster hauling, and the trucks I drove thereafter mostly weighed upwards of 30,000 pounds. I didn't own another pickup until the late 1980s, when I bought a two-year-old Toyota four-wheel-drive that I drove everywhere from Tennessee to northern Quebec for fifteen mostly maintenance-free years, until a desperate attempt to avoid a flotilla of Stanley Steamers issuing unconcernedly from a Route 1 convention sent me into the shop for a brake job, and a trip up the lift revealed a bit more rust in the frame than seemed safe in a world filled with conventioneering Stanley Steamers and Massachusetts drivers.
When I traded it for a four-year-old Toyota of the same style and color, I asked the dealer what he meant to do with my old one, and he said it would follow along with all the other older four-wheel drive Toyotas from New England and be shipped to the Middle East as deck cargo, and if I kept my eyes peeled on the evening news I might see it with a machine gun mounted in the bed where my slide-in camper used to live.
The new truck I'm finding as trouble-free as its predecessor, but I confess I miss my '52 Chevy, with its Greyhound-bus-like steering wheel and its straightforward straight-six engine encumbered only by a perfectly logical carburetor and distributor and none of today's unfathomable rat's nest of plumbing and wires. And I miss, most of all, the smell of lobster bait and the cloud of flies and the memory of those long-ago days before I became a writer and an editor. When I had a purpose. When I had someplace to go. When I actually worked for a living.