As promised, this week’s blog concludes the three-part story about how a 1946 Studebaker parcel van helped turn the summer of 1966 into one of the most memorable times of my life. Last week’s installment ended as my brother Gene and I had just picked up one of the van’s co-owners, Tom, and then drove to a remote campsite for the weekend. Enjoy the rest of the tale. Thanks for stopping by.
The Summer of 1966: The Big Yellow Truck Part III
The Coleman lantern countered the eerie darkness and illuminated the old van’s interior as we settled in. After finishing another beer and another hand of Hearts, Tom stepped outside to relieve himself. Now, Tom had a reputation for being impulsive and initiating impromptu games. His version of Hide and Seek, for example, meant that he’d unexpectedly vanish and, while others attempted to find him, he’d sneak up and scare the crap out of you.
After Tom failed to return to the camper in a reasonable amount of time, Gene and I glanced at one another and grinned. The game was on. The best defense: a good offense. We doused the light inside the truck, slid out the back door and spread out. Hunkered down, Gene and I were stunned when Tom announced, “Bring a light. There’s something crawling over here.” Camping in copperhead country, we each anticipated a slithery surprise. A flashlight and a long stick, however, revealed a line of hard-working carpenter ants parading beneath the leaves. PHEW!
The remainder of that outdoor weekend passed too quickly, but without incident. Sunday morning the three of us stopped for breakfast before dropping Tom at school, then Gene and I hit the road. We swapped driving chores on the trip home as we’d done before, while the Studebaker’s engine and tires harmonized their monotonous highway song.
A few weeks later, Tom returned home to attend a going-away party for his brother, Rich, who had joined the Marines. I’d just completed a minor electrical repair on the camper when the group arrived early Saturday evening. Rich and his girlfriend made it clear that they’d never ridden in the old Studebaker. So, following protocol established at the beginning of this tale, Gene decided another celebratory jaunt was in order. He’d previously packed a cooler of beer for the party and stashed it in the truck as a bench seat for Rich and his gal.
License plates on the yellow beast had freed triumphant outings from the back street confinement of our neighborhood to the bustling boulevards. Saturdays were cruise nights on the main drag, so we proudly joined in and rolled east on Gravois Rd. towards St. Louis. Gene turned right at River des Peres Blvd., a street that bordered the city and county, as well as the city-owned River des Peres Park. None of us bothered to notice the sizable sign that read NO TRUCK TRAFFIC.
In addition to being impulsive, Tom was also the acrobatic member of the group. As we motored down River des Peres and approached the park, Tom felt frisky and started to climb around the outside of the old parcel van. He sheepishly slithered back inside when the red lights started flashing behind us.
Once Gene pulled to the curb, he reached for his wallet but realized he’d left it in another car at home. Panicked, he asked for my driver’s license, which I dug out and handed to him. In 1966, Missouri licenses didn’t contain photographs. Although my big brother carried a few more pounds, our height, hair, and eye colors were a match. No problem, right? Wrong! Gene was the only twenty-one year old in the vehicle, who now had to pretend he was seventeen, while a cooler packed full of beer was riding in back. It was then that the consequences of the entire scenario smacked me like a right cross. I envisioned the cops issuing a ticket long enough to wallpaper the Studebaker’s interior posted on my record.
When the city police officer read my license, stated my name, and both Gene and I answered, “Yes, sir,” I felt certain we were all going to jail. Thoughts of my one-year old driving privileges being permanently revoked ricocheted inside my head.
Throughout the ordeal Rich and his girlfriend sat quietly atop the cooler, her loose skirt draped a bit broader than before to masquerade the ice-box handle. Although he’d pointed his flashlight inside the truck, fortunately the cop didn’t ask any of us to step outside or provide additional ID. Good thing ‘cause I was screwed––unless I pretended to be fifteen, without a license. But what name would I use? Gene, perhaps?
Fortunately, the city cop displayed both a serious and a generous demeanor that evening and dismissed us with a verbal warning. Maybe it was because he was city and we lived in the county and both factions challenged the border. Or maybe it was Tom’s antics that entertained or bewildered him––one more “You’re not gonna believe what I saw tonight” tale to share at the district office. Regardless, relief overwhelmed me when the officer returned my license unscathed. But relief rekindled panic when I nearly said “Yes Sir” again after the cop told “Gary” to be more observant, and to “keep your monkey on a leash.”
Tom and I exchanged wary glances. Gene stared at the rear-view mirror to ensure the police officer had returned to his vehicle, and then eased the camper from the curb. We all shared a sigh and a laugh as we relived the incident, drove straight home––where I immediately retrieved my driver’s license––and Gene parked the camper for the night.
In late fall of 1966 Tom remained in school. Gene and Bob followed Rich’s lead and entered military service––Gene in the Navy, Bob in the Army, each stationed in different parts of the world. Before he departed, however, Gene replaced the connecting rod bearings in the Studebaker’s engine, hoping that task might boost the oil pressure. Though oil pressure didn’t improve, the six-cylinder never faltered throughout that winter and on into 1967, my senior year in high school. Late that summer, however, the truck’s future changed.
From the time I was an infant, my parents, and brothers, and I attended an annual church-sponsored family gathering during the last week in August, held at Mound Ridge Presbyterian Camp. Everyone who’d previously shared the experience viewed Family Camp as a highly-anticipated occasion. Prior to the 1967 event, I suggested to Dad that we use the Studebaker as a transport vehicle for the entire group’s food and supplies. Was my motive based more upon the desire to hit the open road on my own? You betcha! Of course, Dad was a kid once too, recognized my intentions, and failed to share my enthusiasm. He reconsidered when I reminded him that the van had made a similar trip before, plus, my scheme would lighten the load in each of the other family’s vehicles. Dad was a sucker for logic.
Throughout the trip to Mound Ridge our group made good time on the road. The Studebaker hummed along amidst the convoy and never prompted a single delay. Later in the week the old workhorse further increased its utility by serving as retriever for the camp canoe that a young female and I guided well down river. It also transferred food, utensils, and a few privileged passengers to an annual picnic at Meramec Springs. The trip home to Affton, however, proved less fruitful.
The intelligent part of my departure plan put me on the road earlier than the rest of the campers, just in case Old Man Trouble shook his ugly fist my direction. In addition, 1967 was my first year of college. I needed to get home soon enough to unpack the truck, re-pack a suitcase, and then meet my ride to school that evening.
The old Studebaker’s tires hummed. Warm air breezed past the open sliding doors. I smiled and checked my watch. No problem. Plenty of time. Approximately twenty miles from Affton, however, a rattling sound interrupted my well being and sense of open-road freedom.
Rule of thumb: Hear a noise? Turn up the radio volume. Not to be outdone by that mantra, the clattering grew louder. I switched off the tunes to distinguish the rhythmic knocking of crapped out connecting rod bearings that rose from beneath the engine doghouse. The lengthy climb up Antire Hill loomed ahead. The truck wasn’t going to make it. Old Man Trouble won this round. I emitted a huge sigh, plus an expletive or two, and pulled to the shoulder along I-44 to wait for Mom and Dad. Hooray for planning!
When my parents arrived, I explained the dilemma and reminded them of my tight schedule. Without debate we transferred my clothes from the truck to their car and abandoned the old parcel van on the side of the road. Although never one of its official owners, I’d made my share of investments into the character and well-being of the vehicle. From the back seat of my parents’ car, I watched The Big Yellow Truck fade from view. A small part of me faded as well. That night Dad offered some relief when he called my phone at school to inform me that he and my oldest brother, Dave, had driven out to the disabled parcel van and managed to tow it to our house.
That same year the Missouri legislature passed a Motor Vehicle Inspection bill, which required mandatory safety inspections in order to renew all vehicle license plates. The old truck’s tires cracked from age. Its steering linkage and kingpins had further loosened from renewed use. And now, its engine required an overhaul. Though the new law wouldn’t take effect until December 1, 1968, repair costs to meet the state’s minimum requirements doomed all hope for the camper’s revival.
Gene, Bob, and Tom were notified by mail regarding the Studebaker’s demise, but they weren’t quite prepared to let it go. The Big Yellow Truck remained at the back of our driveway for several more years before a lack of time and opportunity encouraged the three owners to agree that the Studebaker’s last hoorah had come to an end. A few days later, Dad located a salvage yard that towed the old road warrior to its final home for free.
Neighbors, friends, and relatives who rode in the truck or contributed to its resurgence were sorry to see it leave. The parcel van had become a fixture in our neighborhood with a reputation for inspiring fun.
At the salvage yard, The Big Yellow Truck would receive a demotion to storage area––the same rank it held at the beginning of this story. For one glorious year, however, the automotive Senior Citizen had been rescued from its somber existence and revitalized to share one more fling with four enthusiastic partners. Conceding to return the old beast to its former routine wasn’t easy. So goes the circle of life. But for a small investment, plus a lot of hard work, we all had a great time.
More importantly, The Big Yellow Truck inspired four young men to share an experience that would lead to lifelong camaraderie. Gene’s close friends had also become mine.
From my perspective, the Studebaker’s greatest gift was the deeper bond it inspired between me and my big brother as we worked side-by-side and created the memories.
Yes, the summer of 1966 was an extraordinary time.
This story was originally written in 2002 and published in the anthology WRITERS: Birthing Creative Writing and Capturing Random Memories, by Kathleen Spring. Revised April 2015, I offered it as a gift to my big brother, Gene, the special person who inspired the memories.–– G. R. Miller