The old Chevy truck had so many dents they overlapped. The various layers of paint applied over the years had given way to desert sunburn induced rust.
The haze of blue smoke rolling from the exhaust pipe, as well as from the various holes in the muffler hinted that the old motor was pretty tired, and the knocking sound emanating from under the hood sound like a death knell for the old workhorse. Judging by the hard lean to the passenger side it was a fair bet there was at least one broken spring and that the shocks were shot.
The old dog in the back mirrored the truck with his asthmatic wheezing, missing patches of fur, and broken tail. The driver mirrored the dog and the truck with his deeply lined face framed by grey whisker stubble and a battered hat that offered few hints of its original shape or color.
The heavy sweat stains on his shirt served as evidence that it had been worn for a bit more than a day or two and the jeans stuffed into well used high topped boots had been worn slick. You didn’t have to look to hard into those washed out green eyes to see more than a hint of crazy and the faint white scars on the battered knuckles hinted that this fellow was once a real scrapper.
Still, beggars can’t be choosers and after almost a full day of basting in my own juices under a broiling Arizona sun while trying to thumb a ride to Silver City, that old truck and its crazy driver seemed like the greatest thing since pop top beer cans. So, when that old boy stopped and asked if I wanted a ride there was little hesitation as I tossed my gear in the back with the tick infested dog, and climbed into the cab.
As if the truck, its driver, and the dog weren’t enough of a hint that this ride would be one to remember, there was the offer of a warm Coors, a gearshift held in high gear with a bungee cord hooked to the exposed seat spring, and what appeared to be a couple of petrified dog turds on the floor. But the best was yet to come.
At what I guessed to be about 45 miles per hour, that old truck shook so bad I couldn’t focus through my vibrating glasses. You might be able to imagine what it was like when he punched the pedal to the floor to pass a car on a double yellow line but the cacophony from that engine, that gear box, and the rear differential sounded as though demons had created a concert of mechanical torture.
With the flick of a bony wrist he whipped the old truck back into the proper lane without spilling a drop of his beer and missed the bus by at least a couple of layers of paint. It was about this point in time I began to seriously miss my spot in the gravel under that blazing sun back at the junction with US 666.
I suppose if I had the sense God gave a shiny brown rock, and wasn’t in such a hurry to get to Silver City, I would have spent the night in Safford and tried again in the morning. But when he asked me to take the wheel, after he topped off the tank and picked up a few dozen bottles of beer, my doubts vanished like ice cream in Amboy on a hot July day.
Over the years I had owned my share of derelict trucks but this one made them look like new Cadillacs. Third gear was pretty well gone and the clutch slipped so you got it rolling in second, wound it up pretty tight, and then double clutched to get her into high. Then the trick was to cinch it down with the bungee cord before it popped out of gear.
The speedometer didn’t work and there was a pair of vice grips on the door as a replacement for the long gone window crank. I prayed the oil pressure gauge wasn’t accurate as it hovered some where around ten pounds. While I was at it there was a prayer for the temperature gauge as it seemed to be stuck at around 220 degrees and another that the looming thunderheads over the Peloncillo Mountains wouldn’t begin dumping rain as the one windshield wiper arm on the passenger side was missing its blade.
Steering was another matter entirely. Trying to keep that truck in one lane was allot like trying to herd cats with fifty pound weights tied to your arms. But, as I found out when we came to the junction at Guthrie, it was the brakes that were the most fun of all.
On the first try they went to the floor sort of like stepping on a grape. On the second try the pedal only went to a point about an inch from the floor and then the steering wheel whipped to the right. On the the third try the truck stopped on a dime but in a sort of sideways manner as one wheel on each end of the truck grabbed hold.
As bad as things were I wasn’t about to spend a night under the stars at that lonely junction. It was only about forty miles to where we would part ways as he was headed for Cliff and I for Silver City.
Now we had just started the long, steep climb to the New Mexico line, an endeavor that necessitated intermittent switches between lugging the engine in high and winding it up tight in second, when my well intoxicated passenger awoke from his slumber and let out a blood curdling yell. I about jumped out of my skin and my instinctive jerk of the wheel had me all over the road.
The yell was proceeded by his banging a fist on the dash and yelling at me to stop. Now, as noted this old truck didn’t exactly stop, it sort of waltzed for a bit before gravity on the grade took hold.
I suppose we were still rolling at about 15, or maybe even 20 miles per hour when he opened the door and sailed out into the deepening dusk. To say I was surprised would be just a bit of an understatement.
I got the truck stopped, shut it down, and as we were on a steep grade, set the parking brake (put a rock under the wheel). There was an eerie silence that was only broken by the ticking of that hot engine.
Now, I will be honest. At that point in time I really didn’t have a clue as to what to do. As it turned out, the decision was made for me when he came strolling up the road whistling like a song bird.
With the exception of a scrape on the face, a long rip in his jeans, and skinned knuckles, he seemed no worse for wear. Apparently when it came time to get rid of used beer he wasn’t a very patient man.
By now it was full dark and as there was no moon, it was blacker than ten foot up a water hose. That and the little matter of being parked on a very steep grade on a road with very narrow shoulders made the fact we would have to roll start the truck a bit disconcerting.
With my passenger on board and nursing another bottle, I pulled the rock from behind the wheel, rolled back a short ways, whipped the wheel to get the truck facing downhill, and let her fly. On the first effort she popped and snorted but refused to start.
By now were picking up speed at a pretty fair clip as this grade is in excess of seven percent and if the increasing shimmy wasn’t an indicator of that, the blur of the bushes illuminated by the one headlight surely was. I dropped the gear shift into high, slipped the clutch, and for that effort was rewarded with a bang of gun shot decibels.
There are few things on this earth that will give you reflection on what it means to meet your maker more than a truck with one light, no brakes, steering that seemed to be for novelty use only, careening through the night on a steep mountain road with a cackling passenger.
I really don’t remember much about the last mile or so. All I can tell you is that the road made a steep drop, a sharp bend, and then went over a small hill before making another sharp turn along a sand wash.
I can also tell you that old Chevy trucks make really poor gliders and that few things will a slow a truck down quicker than launching it nose first into a sand wash.
To this day I like to believe it was a beer that exploded on the seat. I also like to think the goose egg on my head had something to do with the selective amnesia.
When I last saw my crazy benefactor he was sitting on a rock next to his broken truck, sipping on a beer when he wasn’t laughing, with his dog at his feet. To this day I don’t know what happened to him.
As for me I set out into the night across the desert toward the lights of Clifton a half dozen or so miles to the north with the absolute conviction that in the morning I would call my brother in law in Silver City, and offer anything and everything if he would come get me.
The steering wheel shaped bruise on my chest, and the bruise on my head served as temporary reminders that not everything that seems like a blessing really is. The bent finger reminds me of that to this day.