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The Best Trucks Don’t Glisten in the Sun

00:00AM Sep 15, 2008

You just can't buy these "extras” when you trade for a new one
By Dan Anderson, Iowa farmer
I knew the end was finally near when she could barely turn over one chilly October morning. It was a long-time coming, and I hated to admit that the old pickup had finally reached the end of her road. Even my wife pleaded with me, asking if I couldn't save her just one more time.

The end came one evening as I drove home after combining corn all day. When I downshifted to pull into the driveway, she gave a cough, shuddered, then coasted to a halt with a horrible clunking sound. There was no need to attempt resuscitation. My faithful old farm pickup was dead.

There may be those among you—probably are—who don't understand my attachment to a junky old truck. But I come from a long line of farmers who know the true joy and value of having a junker as part of their farm equipment. It's fine to have a nice truck for farm sales, chasing parts and driving into town on a hot summer night for an ice cream cone. But when it comes to serious farming, we park the good truck and head for the old beater waiting patiently out by the machine shed.

It's equipped for farm work. The dashboard serves as a combination bookkeeping department and veterinary supply house. In front of the steering wheel are feed bills, scale tickets and repair-parts receipts for the past seven months, as well as five or six free pens and pencils courtesy of the generous feed and seed salesmen.

On the passenger side of the dash are the vet supplies, which usually include two or three disposable syringes with bent needles that are "just fine if you do it right.”

An empty vaccine bottle is usually way over in the corner against the window where it serves as an invaluable warning signal when chasing cattle through pastures. If the empty bottle comes rattling across the dash or falls back onto the seat, the truck is on such a steep slope that it is in danger of flipping over.

Besides syringes and that impromptu "slope indicator,” the vet section usually has a sheaf of handwritten vet instructions on how and when to dose some sick critter. There are three or four rusty razor blades and an old steak knife stolen from the kitchen, which represent the surgical tools necessary for emergency surgery and castration.

Powdered hog wormer that leaked from its bag coats the dash. The bag was punctured by the syringe needles.

The rest of the cab serves as a combination tool chest and wardrobe closet. Obviously, the first layer on the floor is mud, manure or a combination of the two. Then come alternating layers of clothes and tools, with an occasional paper feed bag thrown in for texture.

There is always a pair of coveralls in case of a sudden cold snap, as well as three or four right-hand gloves and one left-hand glove with holes in all the fingers. A hooded sweatshirt usually completes the selection, unless you count the five-buckle overshoes crammed under the seat and the flannel shirt that covers the hole in the seat behind the steering wheel.

Ideally, tools are carried in the toolbox in the bed of the truck, but inevitably a large number find their way into the cab. Delicate tools such as feeler gauges and voltammeters are stuffed into the glove compartment. Big tools that can fend for themselves join the coveralls on the floorboard.

The lockjaw pliers clamped to the sun visor could probably be added to the tool list, but they hold the visor on and are more accurately part of the truck, as is the screwdriver that wedges the heater control shut through the summer.

The box of the truck is an amazing catalog of good intentions and equipment breakdowns from the past year.

There are coffee cans full of nails and fencing staples, as well as three steel posts meant to patch a hole in the pasture fence last summer. The two basketball-size rocks were picked up while I was filling planter boxes last spring. A half-dozen worn out cultivator sweeps rest atop water-soaked seed bags.

Under a layer of old straw and baler twine is a spare tire, flat of course, lying in the box because the mechanism for storing it underneath was torn off by a stump two years ago while driving to a secret fishing hole.

A true farm truck has a distinction, aside from what it carries, that sets it apart from the shiny, Sunday-go-to-meeting truck parked up alongside the wife's car.

First, it is probably one of three colors: red, black or brown, depending on what color the soil is in that area. The only chrome visible is the shiny spot rubbed clean on the door handle. The rear bumper has one corner bent back and up, from attempting to pull a neighbor's good truck out of a snowdrift.

The front grille is caved in as a result of persuading a reluctant cow to hurry up after a five-mile chase through the neighbor's cornfields one Sunday morning in late May. Traditionally, the radio antenna is a loop of baling wire.

Tires are a personal matter. Some farmers prefer bald mud and snow treads, while others swear by whatever was on sale at the co-op. This may result in a mud-and-snow on the right front, two radial snow tires on the rear, and a bias-ply passenger car tire on the left front. The resulting peculiar handling characteristics are minor compared with the thrills coming from missing one front shock absorber and having a sprung left-rear rim.

All these accessories and unique dents and scratches blend together to create a personality for the typical farm truck. Since the farmer is the only one to drive this vehicle (the only person who wants to), he soon develops a rapport with his machine. He can start her in freezing cold or boiling heat because he alone knows just how to pump the accelerator while pulling the piece of baling wire that is hooked to the choke.

He understands that the rattling sound can be ignored, but the clicking sound means the engine oil level is low. He is aware that quick stops require two pumps of the brakes, while emergency stops need four pumps and shutting off the engine.

Sure, it's a little tricky to drive, but he knows deep in his heart that this truck will jump more snowdrifts, plow through more mud, and handle more abuse than any new truck on the dealer's showroom floor.

Ask him about his beat-up, banked-up old friend and he'll cuss and holler, but he'll swear "they don't make ‘em like this anymore!”

In the annals of farm-truck history there are many classic examples of truly junky vehicles.

My father had a '55 International that taught me the value of having an old beater. We added oil to the crankcase every time we filled the gas tank, doing away with the need to change oil. The engine always ran on new oil.

The battery was strictly ballast, so the truck had to be parked on a hill every night to ensure starting come morning. Brakes were a rumor, at best. Stops were accomplished by vigorous pumping of the brake and calculated downshifts.

When Dad started farming he didn't have an extra tractor to run the elevator during corn picking, so he welded a PTO stub onto the rear axle hub, backed the truck alongside the elevator, jacked that tire off the ground, and ran the elevator with the pickup. A wagonload of corn could be unloaded in record time, once that truck got up into high gear.

Perhaps the ultimate farm pickup wasn't a pickup at all. Our neighbor transformed a late-‘50s Ford sedan into a farm truck. Bill kept cattle at several farmsteads and had to haul hay and supplement between farms every day. So, he pulled out the back seat and removed the trunk lid to make more room for his supplies.

Eventually that car/truck became a legend in this part of the county. With a straightpipe for an exhaust, its roar could be heard for three miles on a quiet morning, sometimes punctuated by the wail of a police siren that Bill had installed for amusement.

Most of the windows were knocked out. Bill got his tires from the local gas station's trash pile. There were no brakes, just a pedal that lay limply on the floor. He stopped it by much downshifting, a process complicated by a gearshift linkage held together with baling wire and several nails.

If the speed was still too high when the corner arrived, Bill would simply get a firmer grip on his cigar, grin and do a four-wheel power slide.

A good junk truck. That's what my truck was, reliable enough to depend on, temperamental enough to have a personality. As much as I hate to admit it, with no brakes, a dropped valve, four bald tires, a drive shaft supported by baling wire, and a four-speed transmission with five notches the gearshift will go into, I'm afraid she's beyond saving this time.

I feel like an unfaithful lover as I unload eight years of receipts, bills, tools and Pepsi bottles—as well as an amazing array of cracked combine belts, sickle sections and worn-out plowshares. It was a good truck, but nothing lasts forever, I guess.

My wife shrieked and fled to the house when she saw me transferring my treasures over to the "good” truck.

Farm Journal, May 1986