Cars (Part 1)

A recent conversation with my kids about the current popularity of big trucks got me started thinking about my first truck. I drove a 1971 GMC half-ton, 8-foot-bed, from 1971 until sometime around 1990, as near as I can recall. Manual transmission, “three-on-the-tree” shifter, 307 cubic inch V8. The only “options” it had were disc brakes, and a heater. I screwed a Radio Shack AM/FM radio to a piece of wood which was shoved under the driver’s seat, and wired to a speaker and antenna. At some point I dubbed the trick “Mescalito”, a curious reference to a lyric from a song called “Panama Red”, a drug-related song by the New Riders of the Purple Sage. (Curious, since I really didn’t “do drugs.”)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps the first question is, how did I wind up with a pick-up truck?

As a careless, car-less Ga Tech student, I rode the Greyhound bus between Atlanta and Columbus for the first few years, a three-hour trip through a bunch of small towns. The walk from my dorm to the bus station was about a mile, and my parents would meet me at the station in Columbus. I was not particularly in the market for a vehicle, but sometime around 1971, I purchased 50% of a 1963 Austin Healey Sprite for $25. It was parked, dead, in the right west-bound lane of North Avenue sorta near Moreland. It belonged to a roommate of Alan Hoskins (see my music history, 1969), and he was happy to get rid of it for $50, as-is, where-is. I went in on it with my former dorm Resident Advisor, a fellow Physics major who had become a good friend, Dyches V. Boddiford from Sylvania, GA.

We used Dyches’ big Oldsmobile and a rope to pull the Sprite from North Avenue to the parking lot of the Ga Tech Physics building, where I was “working” part-time in the machine shop. The first problem we discovered with the Sprite was that I had tied the tow rope around a radiator pipe instead of a frame member, so that needed to be repaired.

The next day was a brisk Fall day, so I started by adding some warm water to the battery, and cleaning its terminals, and it actually cranked! But it made an awful racket. In my hasty wisdom, I decided that the clutch needed to be replaced, so over the next few weeks, I figured out how to pull the engine out using a hydraulic lift, only to discover that the clutch was fine.

Over a couple more weeks, I re-installed the engine, and eventually discovered that the noise was due to a loose pulley on the generator. (Another lesson learned.) Once I replaced that, it ran fine. Well, mostly.

I pretty quickly bought out Dyches’ share, drove it around Atlanta for the next few months and learned a lot. Like that I needed to add oil frequently. And that using American brake fluid instead of Castrol in a British brake system ruins all the rubber parts, requiring the whole brake system to be drained and the rubber parts replaced.

One day I loaned the Sprite to roommate, and eventual brother-in-law, Bunchie, and he almost got flattened by a semi as he tried to enter the downtown connector at the North Avenue on-ramp, which had no merge lane. (At the time, the connector consisted of just two lanes in each direction!) The Sprite didn’t have near the pickup of Bunchie’s old GTO.

Eventually, I summoned the nerve to drive it a hundred miles to Columbus. Cool: no Greyhound for me! Except I had to stop several times to add fluids, resulting in the ill-fated brake fluid incident. But I made it home in one piece! When my safety-conscious Dad saw the Sprite, which really was a small vehicle complete with a cloth top, that’s when he decided to pay me for a couple of Summers of house painting and electrical work by buying me a somewhat safer vehicle.

Which explains how I came to drive a 1971 GMC. My best recollection is that the price of the brand-new truck right off the dealer’s lot was right at $2,000.

I don’t remember when I learned about tags, titles and insurance, but eventually the truck was fully mine, with all that implied. I soon built a removable plywood box to cover the bed, and didn’t learn until someone rode in the back that the roof would bow up at any speed above 40 MPH. I think that was the same trip we discovered that the truck’s exhaust system had a leak that heated up the front edge of the bed hot enough to melt plastic.

My first “load” in the truck was a keg of beer that someone asked me to deliver to a second-floor of a warehouse for a party. I made a couple of rookie mistakes: I didn’t check out the route by walking it first, and I decided to back up the narrow ramp to deliver the keg. So I ended up burning out my clutch trying to back up the narrow ramp, only to discover that there was plenty of room on the second floor to turn around. And it would have been wiser to drive up and back down anyway!! Braking on the way down is much less wear than trying to clutch on the way up. Several lessons learned.

I ended up replacing the clutch in Hankamer’s back yard, with help from his wife Barbara who pressed the clutch pedal so I could align the throw-out bearing from under the truck. (More about Hank here.)

The whole time I owned the truck I frequently used it to haul stuff (apparently in contrast to most modern truck owners.) At the time, there was a popular but snarky bumper sticker that said, “Yes, this is my truck. No, I won’t help you move.” That was not me. I remember hauling a heavy old tractor engine bolted onto an angle iron stand for my Uncle John, and of course I hauled a fair amount of music gear.

One notable Saturday morning in 1974, I loaded up the truck bed with sound and music equipment for Revelation, the youth singing ensemble I was playing guitar and bass for at the time. We were going to downtown Atlanta that morning to set up and practice for a big evening gig. As we were about to leave the church in Buckhead to head downtown, the singers were all piling into the church van. John Condra, the Minister of Music, casually said, “Carl’s by himself — does anyone want to ride in the truck?” And this cute little lady named Jayne said, “I like trucks. I’ll ride with him.”

We got to the downtown hotel, the group set up and rehearsed, and then they all dispersed to go back home. I looked around for Jayne, and someone said she had gone to the pay phones to call her Mom to come pick her up. I sprinted to the row of payphones, put on my brakes as I rounded the corner, and casually as possible, sauntered up and volunteered to take her home, and she accepted.

We talked the whole way to Doraville, where I met her Mother and her Aunt Dot. She picked up her Revelation outfit, and we drove back to my apartment in Buckhead to kill time before the gig. She washed dishes while I played guitar and sang folk songs for her.

We rode downtown, did the gig, and then rode back to Doraville. We really hit it off, talking constantly about things I can’t even remember.

After seeing her at church the next day on Sunday, I asked her, “Would it be overdoing things if we went out Monday night?” She replied, “Yes, but let’s over-do it.”

By the way, she quickly learned to drive Mescalito’s three-speed transmission. What a gal.

So Mescalito and a music minister turned out to be the catalysts for a relationship which has lasted for more than 4 decades.

There are obviously more car stories to tell, including an explanation for my affinity for Chevy Astro vans, but I think I’ll save those for Cars, Part 2.

One Response to “Cars (Part 1)”

  1. Josh says:

    Funny enough, I seem to have an affinity for Astro Vans as well. Looking forward to part 2!

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