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More Tales of the '63 Chevy Pickup

Warren Brown's many columns on the gas guzzling habits of American drivers were helpful to me when I wrote that piece for Outlook on the cars of the future. Warren, however, didn't care much for my article, and said so straightforwardly in a column he wrote a couple of days ago:

There are many journalists, especially in the eastern media, my Washington Post colleague Joel Achenbach among them, who find big trucks evil, stupid, wrong, an egregious insult to the environment. Joel said so last Sunday in a column, "Why We Keep on Truckin.'"

It was typical East Coast media blubber on the matter of big trucks, the people who buy them, why and how they drive them. It was the kind of stuff written by journalists raised in cabs, transported on subways and deposited into a "walkable community" where minimum-wage guest workers truck in food to feed the community's families or truck in mowers and garden equipment to tend to the community's lawns.

But such anti-truck rhetoric is not what you'll hear in the mining and farming towns of West Virginia, or in the ranching communities of Texas and Wyoming, or at the Covanta I-95 Energy/Resource Recovery Center, locally and vernacularly known as the Fairfax County dump, which is where I spent much of my time in the humongously powerful 2007 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali crew cab pickup.

My 11-year-old daughter Shane read that and burst out laughing.

"Dad, this is completely wrong! It's like the opposite of the truth! You came from Gainesville, which is, like, nowhere! Well, not nowhere" -- she is always sensitive to the possible hurt that her words might cause -- "but there's like two houses and a McDonald's."

I certainly found the column provocative. I hope my Mom doesn't think that I view trucks as evil -- I called her this morning but couldn't reach her, probably because she's driving around in her pickup somewhere.

Warren's column triggered memories of my own trips to the dump in Gainesville, in the 1963 Chevy pickup that was our all-purpose source of income in the mid-1970s, as I wrote in a recent Rough Draft column:

We turned to hauling furniture, 25 bucks a load, everything piled high and roped down in the back of our 1963 Chevy pickup. We bombed around town looking like the Clampetts on their way to Beverly Hills. We branched out: Somehow we found free sources of sawdust, wood chips, horse manure. Often it would be just a pile of stuff out in the piney woods. We'd shovel it into the back of the pickup and sell it to someone as mulch for 25 bucks a load. We went to the place where they made telephone poles, loaded up the discarded stumps, split them back at the house with an axe, then sold the stuff as firewood for, yes, 25 dollars. Arguably, we were kind of stuck on 25. The breadth of our entrepreneurial vision was awesome, though perhaps not the height.'

What I didn't mention in the column was all the scavenging we did. My stepfather, Jim, had a keen eye for valuable detritus. He believed in recycling before recycling was cool. The university had a dump out near Archer Road, and you could drive right in and take whatever you wanted. It is hard to express how much pleasure you can find in life if you perceive dumps as a place where things are not discarded but rather obtained.

We found all manner of potential infrastructure: windows, pipes, lumber. Appliances that almost worked. Lamps that could become plausible in a home with a little love and care.

We once dragged home a culvert. You know: A big concrete thing. We placed it upright, filled it with sand, put a grate on top, and Presto! we had a patio grill. It remains rooted in place to this day, a monument to our dump runs. Archeologists will someday puzzle over this object, the way they study the giant heads on Easter Island.

Jim once tore down an entire dormitory at the university and trucked it back to our yard. I kid you not: A dorm. It became stacks of doors, windows, lumber, whatnot. He was going to use the stuff to build a structure he called his studio. I am pretty sure most of it never budged from where he stacked it. It gradually returned to the Earth. The dorm became compost.

Warren mentions minimum-wage workers trucking in food and lawn mowers to affluent communities. For the record, we worked for a set fee, not an hourly wage. (I actually worked for nothing, just my supper.) The real money wasn't in mowing lawns, but in rototilling. Jim bought a tiller and would crawl it up a couple of planks into the back of the Chevy. People all over town were happy to fork out good cash to watch Jim wrassle that tiller through the sandy soil of North Florida. My own tilling was comical to behold, as the machine lurched and pivoted and bucked and bounced while I hung on for dear life.

Back then a pickup truck was as essential to life as cellphones are today. Mostly they were used for hauling children. Back then, grownups would load children into the back of a truck as if they were bales of hay. I spent roughly half my childhood in the back of the Blitches's VW pickup, heading to ballgames, football practice, the swimming hole, etc. It's fun to ride in the back of a truck for about five minutes, but then you start to get so windblown you lose roughly 1 IQ point every minute.

As for being raised in cabs and transported by subway, I remember the first time I saw a big city up close (unless you count Tampa or Jacksonville). It was 1973 and my Dad was getting married to an elegant lady named Coventry. We called her Covey. Prior to the nuptials in New Jersey we all made a trip to New York City. I knew the place only from Marvel Comics, and indeed, that's where I headed, up Madison Avenue, discovering to my dismay that the Marvel Comics office was just a bland office behind some unremarkable doors on the fifth floor of a fairly generic skyscraper. I didn't have the guts to knock. (What if Stan Lee answered? What would I say???) But the city itself was mind-blowing, and I was fascinated in particular by the subway system, the vast subterranean infrastructure, the heroic engineering. To this day, when I go to New York City I love to walk around for hours and marvel (as it were) over everything.

So, thanks, Warren, for writing a column that stirred up a lot of happy memories.


Our motorsports correspondent, bc, tells us about his weekend.

By Joel Achenbach  |  May 29, 2007; 6:52 AM ET
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