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The Summer of 1966: The Big Yellow Truck Part II

In last week’s post I promised to relate a three-part story about my memorable summer of 1966, which focused on how my older brother, his friends, and I resurrected a 1946 Studebaker parcel van and converted it into a camper. I’ll begin Part II with the closing line from last week’s installment.

Enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.

The Summer of 1966: The Big Yellow Truck Part II

The camper van’s makeover neared conclusion. Still, there were a couple items missing from this project.

Number one: We needed music! But our 1946 vehicle used a 6-volt electrical system, which meant radios from 1957 or newer cars wouldn’t work. Tom filled that awkward void with an outmoded tube-type radio he’d pulled from a 1940s vehicle. An eight-inch speaker enclosure he had laying around completed the package. Tom mounted the radio under the van’s front package tray on the right, powered it from an empty toggle switch on the control panel, and then ran wires to the speaker he’d placed on the back wall. Voila! We had tunes.

The final issue: Parcel vans have only one seat––the driver’s seat. Where were passengers supposed to park their fannies? We needed furniture.

Once more Mom came to our rescue by providing a pair of used, wicker chairs. Tan with black trim woven into the wrap-around arms and back rests, the seats weren’t the most appropriate for a vehicle, but they still sat pretty well. With no obvious method for attachment, we strategically place the chairs near the interior walls, pressed and wiggled their legs into the carpet, and hoped that anyone sitting in them would remember to hang on.

The old Studebaker looked marvelous inside and out. A license plate and the convenience of a conventional starter remained the only challenges left unconquered.

To this day––other than idle curiosity––I don’t know what possessed me to grab the wrenches one morning and head to the camper to remove the cylinder head from the flat-head 6 and inspect it. But I did. Lack of funds remained a key issue, so I worked cautiously when removing the gasket in order to salvage it for re-use.

My premonition proved to be a wise decision. Thick layers of carbon caked the piston tops and combustion chambers. I sat back and beamed. “No wonder the damned thing won’t crank. The compression’s too friggin’ high.”

With lofty hopes to cure our starting woes, I poked at, scraped, and brushed away the thick deposits that coated the piston crowns, valves, and cylinder head. Satisfied with my cleanup efforts, I carefully installed the original gasket, replaced the head and torqued the bolts. After refilling the cooling system and checking for leaks––and leftover parts––I flipped the ignition toggle, pulled the choke, and depressed the starter button. The engine cranked and fired like it was supposed to, then idled smooth as silk. EUREKA!

Gene and Bob were at Tom’s house that morning. Thrilled by my accomplishment, I phoned Tom’s place, explained what I’d done, and that bump-starting was no longer required. Now, because Missouri is well-recognized as the Show-Me state, and because all of us were born and raised within its borders, the co-owners unanimously agreed they’d have to “see it to believe it.”

When Gene, Tom, Bob, and Bob’s girlfriend arrived, the engine was humming at idle speed. I endured their doubtful stink-eye for several seconds, then switched off the ignition and waited for the engine to coast to a halt. After flipping the ignition switch on again, I stepped on the starter button. The skeptics no longer disbelieved. To the delight of us all, I repeated the procedure several times with equal success. YES! Another celebration tour around the block was in order.

Because the truck had yet to achieve street legal status, whether lengthy or brief, our festive journeys were still confined to the back streets of our neighborhood. Bob commanded the excursion this time and chose a different route––down Daisy Lane, a ski jump-like street that crossed Gravois Creek at the bottom and then rose again to its juncture with Niles Place. Bob and the truck performed well together, until we reached the stop sign at the uphill intersection. A gentleman in a shiny, late-model Cadillac pulled up behind. Bob saw the Caddy in the rear view mirror and feared the truck might roll into it as he slid his right foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator while easing out the clutch with his left. Twice Bob released the clutch too fast and stalled the engine. Following a third unsuccessful attempt, the driver behind us grew impatient and honked his horn. Witnessing Bob’s frustration, I took over and promised to get us out of there.

Perturbed by his poor execution, Bob stood hands on hips at the front of the truck to observe my technique. When I hollered “Hang on” and dumped the clutch, however, he neglected to find a handle.

The steering wheel spun fully to the right, verifying that the front tires were airborne once more, as the truck lurched forward. Gut-aching, teary-eyed laughter immediately broke out behind me. Unable to see why, I concentrated on steering, shifting, and getting the camper back home.

Parked in our driveway once more, Gene, Tom, and Bob’s girlfriend continued to laugh as they related the stop-sign tale. It seems that when I dumped the clutch at the intersection, Bob’s feet rose from the deck as centrifugal force folded and tumbled him backwards like a towel in a dryer. As gravity took over, Bob landed on the inner wheel well, and then bounced into a distorted ball of humanity at the rear of the camper. A spectacle of misguided gymnastics skills he neither knew he possessed, nor wished to ever display again. Though Bob survived the incident with little more than a bruised ego, his performance also crippled one of the wicker chairs. If the old truck hasn’t outlived its usefulness and been pounded into a scrap metal cube, I’m certain the wheel well still carries the dent from the collision with Bob’s butt.

With the truck totally driveable, title transfer and a license plate represented the crowning glory toward the ultimate goal––road trips. Low-budget (okay, cheap) remained the key word to influence all decisions about the camper, so Gene opted for the least expensive tags Missouri issued at the time: Local (“farmer”) plates that cost $10, but also limited travel to a twenty-five mile radius from the titled residence. But nobody’d notice or care, right? Damned good thing insurance wasn’t a requirement or the camper project would never have gotten this far.

The first official outing took place early that summer, when we finally showed-off our combined talents and used the old parcel van as a camper. Gene, Bob, Tom, and I planned a visit to Missouri’s Washington State Park to inner-tube float on the Big River––kind of a reward for a job well done. After packing our gear inside the truck, we considered the inner tubes.

Tom said, “We should inflate ’em before we leave so we don’t waste time pumping them up once we’re ready to hit the water.”

An excellent idea, until the first heavy-duty, truck-sized inner tube was aired up.

“They’re huge,” Gene said. “And there’s no hooks or a roof rack to tie ’em to. Where do we store ’em during the drive?”

The budding engineer, Tom’s genius prevailed. “Why not stack ’em on top of each other inside? Ya know, squeezed between the floor and ceiling in back?”

Why not indeed? With swollen tubes squished inside the van, we ventured forth, arrived at the park that afternoon, and claimed a site at the end of a campground loop. Unloading the tubes was easy––open the back door and give ’em a kick. Trouble was other campers in the area didn’t see the humor in big, black doughnuts bouncing and rolling all over their campground. Apologies were extended as we corralled the wayward rings and coaxed them back to our site.

Following a successful rubber roundup––none kidnapped or punctured, and no threats to call park rangers––Tom, Gene, Bob, and I walked to the river, each planted our butt in the middle of a tube, and enjoyed the water’s refreshing coolness. Upon our return, we noticed several other campers had vacated their sites. Ooops! Sorry.

Supper that warm summer evening consisted of steaks grilled over an open campfire, and potatoes baked in the glowing coals––minus the aluminum foil someone forgot to pack. A beer or two cleansed the ashes and charred potato skins from our pallets. Gathered around the picnic table, assorted guy topics provided dessert, along with more alcohol and a few lewd jokes that lasted well past midnight. Like I stated before, we were young and…

That night––or early morning, I suppose––we each slept well inside our new camper, but awoke to chilly rain showers. We’d never considered foul weather, so a hardy breakfast cooking on the two-burner Coleman stove also proved to be an auxiliary heater and nicely warmed the van that nippy, wet morning. The aroma of bacon crackling in the skillet, followed by searing flapjacks and freshly brewed coffee permeated the interior with an odor I still retain––along with memories of a headache encouraged by either too much beer, or carbon monoxide from the gas stove. The accompanying smoke created the need to open a door, which purged the CO, but cooled us off in a hurry. Thank God for hot coffee. After breakfast, Tom and I patrolled our campsite for trash and stirred the soggy fire pit one more time. Hey, we may have been rowdy, but not totally irresponsible. Gene and Bob packed our gear and deflated the tubes, then we headed for home.

The three amigos and the old Studebaker survived several more weekend jaunts together throughout the summer. I missed many of them, but after all, the camper was theirs, I just made it run. Did that sound like sour grapes on my part? A little perhaps, but I also recognized my odd-man-out status as the “little brother.”

As late summer set in, outings faded and the camper sat idle. Gene and I decided to remedy that situation by visiting Tom, who had recently returned to college in Rolla. Driving down Interstate-44 at sixty miles per hour for more than two hours would be the elderly truck’s longest expedition and, therefore, its greatest test, which brought to light three issues: 1) Would the aged Studebaker survive the trip? 2) Would anyone with a badge question our “farmer” plates? 3) Would we survive the trek? After all, parcel vans weren’t buses. Long-term passenger comfort was never a consideration. Then again, buses didn’t have wicker chairs to sag into or plush carpeting to stretch out on.

Because the truck was a 1946 model, it also boasted a hand throttle, a feature that would ease the drive-time burden and, more importantly, it still functioned. No constant foot on the gas pedal for us, we had a poor man’s cruise control that worked great motoring down the freeway. The abundant uphill grades of the Missouri Ozarks, however, prompted intermittent accelerator dances to compensate for the lack of modern automation.

Over the twohour drive that Friday evening, Gene and I planned to share time behind the wheel. After piloting for nearly an hour, Gene asked, “You wanna get out of that wicker chair and take over?”

Dumb question. “You bet,” I replied. Of course, I thought swapping positions included pulling to the shoulder and stopping. Silly me.

As we crested a small rise and began to descend a downhill stretch that bottomed at the Bourbeuse River, Gene stood, held the steering wheel with one hand, and said, “It’s all yours.”

The sun cast a red-orange glow through the Studebaker’s huge windshield as I scrambled into the driver’s seat and assumed command. Gene stepped aside, grabbed something to drink from a cooler, and then sagged into a wicker chair.

Darkness prevailed when we made a similar exchange near Rolla, then followed Tom’s written directions to his dormitory. After Tom loaded his gear, he recommended a remote, backwoods camping spot he knew about.

The truck’s headlights illuminated a single-lane, dirt road that tracked deep into the forest and dead-ended at a tiny clearing encircled by tall oak trees. When Gene switched off the headlights, the black silence of our surroundings was ominous.

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