Today’s TV ads boast vehicles that watch for hazards, brake on their own, and parallel park by themselves. Our family’s first truck, a 1936 quarter-ton Chev, did none of that though it had a mind of its own.
Dad had once been approached by a cop as he stopped at the gas pump in front of our town’s general store.“Did you know your tail light isn’t working?” the Mountie asked, gentle as you please.
Dad feigned surprise. “It was working when I left home.” We kids stayed silent.
“Be sure to get that repaired,” the cop said.
Dad allowed he would. And did. Many times. For even at his top speed of 25 miles per hour potholed roads periodically frayed wiring and detached retinas. Between repairs, the Chev ‘s firefly tail light restricted him to our property from sunset to sunrise like a criminal on probation, even though in the 1940s patrolling RCMP on Saskatchewan highways were as scarce as browsing buffalo.
As the truck aged it amassed other faults.
The truck’s previous owner had involved it in a highway ‘incident’ that left the driver’s door drooping like the wing of a grouse during its mating ritual with a window crank that didn’t, and teenage brakes that worked only if they chose. If the brakes failed unexpectedly to restore sufficient pressure in the brake line to at least slow, he madly pumped the pedal like Buster Keaton propelling the jigger in “The Railroader”. He carried a quart of brake fluid behind the seat just in case.
To keep his driver door closed, Dad steered with his right hand, left elbow hugging the door to him like a matron clutching her purse in a smorgasbord line.
The cardboard headliner, originally snug to the convex curves of the cab, sagged over the driver affording storage space for Dad’s work gloves and inches of road silt. Bumping over a badger hole in the cow pasture halted you until visibility returned and choking subsided.
The bench seat’s ‘oilcloth’ cover wore away, replaced with a tanned calf hide. Cotton padding sloughed off, and coil springs insinuated their way up through the sisal and burlap until sharp snapped ends waited to skewer you like a kabob.
The floorboards, too, wore out. A gaping gash developed beside the gearshift, air conditioning the cab and entertaining us as we watched road zip by underneath. The middle passenger – often the smallest in the cab – sat twisted sideways so knees didn’t obstruct the gearshift, feet braced on either side of the gap to hike you back on the slippery calfskin.
Under the hood dwelt a distributor touchier than a mother-in-law. I was a teenager before I learned some automobiles drove through puddles and kept on going. Our Chev’s motor would stall coasting over dew-drenched pasture. Before the engine would snort the distributor had to be thoroughly dried with a cotton handkerchief.
To cope with a horn that wouldn’t cease sounding once activated owing to the collapsible rubber part becoming too old and dry to release, Dad stowed the horn in the glove compartment. Designed to perch in the centre of the steering wheel, two wire prongs protruded from the horn’s underside and dropped into corresponding holes in the steering column. When a toot was called for, Dad reached across, popped the lock on the glove compartment, snatched the horn, and fitted it into the steering column, all while watching the road, more or less. Tooting over, he chucked the horn back into the glove compartment .
Today’s cars offer every push-button comfort and convenience but lack the personality of that green truck on which all of us learned to drive a stick shift.