In spite, perhaps even in direct defiance of being a child born in the digital age, I harbor a deep love of simpler automobiles that rolled, decades ago, from the factories in Detroit. I’ve grown up connecting with kin while under the hood of Pennsylvania Iron, and it only takes a short drive to see that we are a dying breed. So when I found myself broken down in my 47 Dodge pickup the other night I was relieved to have received help from someone who also had a warm spot for antique iron.
I had been heading back home from a cruise in on the outskirts of town, when a snap, a cacophony of thuds, screeches and finally, silence, landed me on the dusty shoulder. Before the truck even stopped I knew what had happened; since my truck’s just a cab sitting on a boxed thirty-deuce frame I watched the fan belt snap and launch away from the pulleys. After leaning over the radiator to make sure there wasn’t any other damage, I made my way towards the back of my rod and took a seat on the rear cheater slick. With a sigh, I consulted my mental map to determine in what direction the nearest garage or parts store might be. Dusk was coming on fast, so the nine to five joints were quickly struck from the selection.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve regretted living the “old skool” life faithfully. The first had been when my first real girlfriend dumped me because of how unpopular my rolled up blue jeans and white t’s were among her friends. Apparently she thought she could change me. Anyway, being without a cell phone while broken down halfway home from a 50 mile trek through Spartan territory took the cake.
At first I thought the sound was just the wind blowing across dry, open land; dust devils tended to whir when they got big enough. But then a sound like someone blowing over the lip of an empty beer bottle became louder and changed pitch until I recognized the harmonic hum of exhaust being funneled through a catalytic converter-less system. I looked up and saw two yellow glowing globes of incandescent headlights growing brighter and getting larger.
No sign of him slowing down I thought, as I heard the steady resonance of the motor. I stood up from the tire and took a step and a half closer to the edge of my lane. Just as I could make out the silhouette of an old, stock pickup, I threw up a hand and starting waving. Still the old motor churned steady. My knees started to quiver with worry until I heard a pop and saw a quick, small plume of orange fire exit one of the side pipes. He’s slowing down!
I could hear the truck downshift into low gear and when it was only a few dozen yards before me the truck’s own headlights illuminated the chipping navy paint job and oxidized F1 hood plaque.
The old drum brakes stopped the truck a short gallop beyond my truck and so I started running after it. There were cracks in the original red plastic lenses where little slits of white light escaped into the twilight. Now at the passenger window, I could see an old man behind the wheel. He had a long, curly gray beard and a greasy John Deere ball cap perched atop his hairless head. He made a motion with his arthritic hands for me to open the door, and so I grasped the heavily oxidized chrome door handle and twisted it upward.
“What seems to be th’ problem?” the old man said with a gravely voice.
“Broke a fan belt,” I said.”
What size ya needin’? he asked.
“I dunno” I answered, and instantly realized how ignorant I sounded in spite of having built the truck from scratch and taught myself how to chop its top.
“Then how’d ya ‘spect to get a new one that fit, son?” he asked, scratching his chin through his beard.
Before I could answer, the old man launched into what must have been an oft-used homily. “Kids these days, mm, mm, mm” he said disapprovingly. “Wasting their time in front ta’ computer screens and not botherin’ ta’ grow themselves no common sense. Why, back in my day those shoe laces woulda’ been unlaced and tied tagether and routed ‘round everything I needed ‘ta drive with tha’ belt so’z I knew what size I’d be needin’.”
I looked down at my dusty Converse and instantly felt myself blush in the presence of such an obvious first step. I told the old man I’d just be a minute and ran back to my 47 to measure. I pinched the spot where the aglet overlapped the excess lace and walked back to the truck.
“There’s a measure in th’ glove box.”
Now seated on the worn out bench seat that was covered with an old wool blanket, the old man extended a grimy hand and introduced himself as Harold.
“Yessir, they shoulda’ never stopped makin’ ‘em like this” the old man said on the ride, stroking the metal dash. “Back then, a man could fix whatever went wrong.” I nodded along, agreeably. He repeated himself, “shoulda’ never stopped makin’ ‘em like this.” He was right.
Lost in my own thoughts for longer than I realized, I suddenly became aware that we had reached our destination: Harold’s garage. A coincidence? I wondered.
“Here ya are,” the old man said, holding in the clutch and dropping the truck into neutral. “Ask for Tim once ya get inside. He’ll take care of ya.”
I thanked the old man and rushed inside the office part of the garage, anxious not to keep him waiting any longer than necessary. I walked into the one bay garage, bypassing the dark office to look for Tim. I called his name and soon he rolled out from underneath the import parked in the garage’s only bay. I told him what size belt I needed and followed him back to the store room.
“A ’47 Dodge, huh?” he asked.
“Pickup,” I responded.
Knodding approvingly, Tim said, “Yessir, back then’s when they made cars. Easy to work on, and fun to drive.” I smirked and nodded. “Nowadays there’s cars that park themselves!” Tim showed the same disdain for new technology as everyone I had been in the company of that night; it was refreshing.
Still talking, we walked back to the front of the garage. My eyes searched for the incandescent glow of Harold’s F-1, but it was nowhere to be seen.
“What’s a matter, son?”
“My….my ride left!”
I walked out into the gravel parking lot and looked in all directions, but the low growl of Harold’s truck was gone. It was pitch dark out now, and just as I turned to walk back towards the garage to impose upon Tim for a ride, the garage’s floodlights came on and caught the faint reflection of the oxidized chrome door handle just right. I craned my neck and saw the flaking blue steel of Harold’s truck shoved up at unnatural angles. The passenger door was hanging open, glass broken. The hood hung crumpled like the lip of a foil pie pan, the box heaved up exposing the frame.
Just then I felt Tim’s large palm fall on my shoulder.
“Yup, that was another good old one. Dad taught me everything ‘bout fixing on that there old truck of his. Once he landed ‘er in a ditch after having a heart attack I towed it here hoping to do something with it. I’ve got a lot of good memories in that old truck and besides, I just hate to see old iron go to the crusher. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” I wasn’t sure if the man was talking about the truck still, or if he was talking about Harold. Either way, he was right.
A week later Tim delivered the twisted remains of his dad’s truck to my parents’ farm. As I unbolted the mashed fenders and crumpled hood to get to the mostly undamaged cab, I remembered watching Harold feather the clutch and let the slack in the steering sway his gnarled hands back and forth. I realized that it didn’t matter if I looked the part of a hot rod rebel or not. The important thing was appreciating old iron because they represent more than just some counter-culture movement or rebellion against the age. “Old skool” has a deeper meaning; one that harkens back to a bygone era. Living for old cars and loving to work on them is a way of honoring the past, and of keeping the memory of people like Harold alive.