OF TRUCKS


I like trucks. There was a time in my life when I didn't, when they didn't "make any sense" to me, but that time is long gone. When we were exiled to College Station, Texas (where Hell is a quarter-mile away and the fence is down) I laughed at people who had a truck as their only vehicle: but once I got my own, I realized what I'd been missing, and I'll never be without a truck again. Anyone who is interested in any sort of outdoor activity needs a truck of some kind.

Over the two decades I've been a truck owner I have learned enough to have developed a philosophy about what a truck is and should be. First, it's important to realize that a truck is about hauling stuff, not people. I don't much care for "extended" cabs, and while I might buy a truck with one, I'd never get a "crew cab." I'd rather use that additional length to make the bed longer. I have friends whose trucks have 4-person cabs, but they use the back seat very little. So why bother?

Second, bed length matters. This principle goes hand in hand with the first, because a bed is for cargo. A long bed will allow you to carry much more stuff.

Third, four wheel drive is essential. Unless someone lives in a city where he will never, ever drive on unpaved roads, I can't imagine owning another 2WD truck for any reason. Even gentle pastures can have slick spots; even a light skiff of snow can cause traction problems. The 4WD truck takes these in stride, the 2WD drive truck lies down and cries in horror at the prospect of a wet slope.

Fourth: bigger is better. I have no use for Tonka-Toy sized trucks, or even "medium sized" trucks. My current F-150 is considered a "full sized" vehicle but in truth it's smaller than I desired. I preferred the big F-250 on that score, and if I could get away with it I'd buy one of those gargantuan F-350's Ford makes. A small truck is OK if the biggest thing you have to carry is a barbecue grill, but it's not much good for anything else. Even with the shorter-than-optimal bed I have now I can carry a full-sized chest freezer, a grand piano, a sectional sofa, or a ton of mulch. Yes, it's "overkill" for a deer, but it's just the ticket for a 16-foot canoe, an outboard motor, and miscellaneous boating gear.

Fifth: Gas mileage is unimportant. No real truck gets good mileage but that doesn't matter. Trucks are for short-haul trips for the most part. One rarely will drive a truck as much as 250 miles one way: usually the round trip is 20-25 miles or so. You can't save enough money by setting fuel economy as a priority for purchase to offset the difference in price between a big and a little one, which negates the chief advantage of a small truck. Trucks, by virtue of their design, aren't streamlined and they aren't fuel efficient, but they needn't be to be useful.

Sixth: An automatic transmission is acceptable, though a manual is preferable if you can drive one. In his delightful book First Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer Noel Perrin makes the case for the automatic by pointing out that in creeping over a field at very low speed, scanning for rocks, it's much easier to control the truck. I'll agree to this but point out that with a 5-speed (or even 4-speed) manual, low gear gives comparable slow speed handling.

Seventh: Power matters. There is no point to a 4-cylinder truck other than fuel economy. A 6-cylinder engine is good; an 8-cylinder engine is better. More power translates to more torque, and hence lower operating RPM at any speed; this means less wear-and-tear on the engine's innards.


THINGS EVERYONE SHOULD CARRY IN A TRUCK

You may not drive your truck every day (in fact you probably won't) but at certain times of year you may spend a fair amount of time in it. Therefore there are things it should have to ensure that it meets your needs, even unanticipated ones.

One of the first things to do is to install a gun rack in the rear window and a set of Cabela's "Indian style" seat covers, preferably the kind with the pockets in front where you can stash things. Inevitably if you use the truck for fishing or hunting, the cab will get dirty. Mud, fish scales, deer blood, worm dirt, leaves, squirrel hair, you name it: all that is going to find its way in.

In addition to keeping the seats clean for when you do want to part with the vehicle, most utility trucks have those execrable vinyl seats; good tight cloth seat covers keep you from sliding around on them. In the pockets of the seat cover, you should have pencils and pens, maps, and perhaps a smallish pistol (see below). While you're fitting up the cab interior get a couple of generic rubber floor mats that will trap mud and water and "preserve" whatever carpet is in place.

The window gun rack will at times be used for guns, of course, but in the interim periods keep a 5-or-6-foot-long piece of broomstick with a steel hook screwed into one end. This device is a real aid in getting stuff up in the front of the bed to where you can reach it from the tailgate. I also have a rough-and-ready walking stick there, should I get out on uneven ground.

Behind the seat, you will need at least 100 feet of stout rope, a fire extinguisher, and a couple of dog leashes in case you come across a stray dog (which happens to me every 6 months or so). In the winter you should have de-icing spray and a window scraper. A blanket is nice. Other must-haves include a half-hatchet (which doubles as a hammer), a roll of duct tape, some vinyl tape to seal hose leaks, at least one good flashlight, a roll of paper towels, and jumper cables.

All year long you should have a folding shovel. Assuming you may be driving into the woods, a decent folding pruning saw is worth having as well. By the way, a roll of toilet paper can save your day, by all means have one of those! A bale of assorted bungee cords and a nylon tarp big enough to cover the bed. A canteen or two of water. Whatever tools may be needed for running repairs: at least two quarts of engine oil. A spare serpentine belt, as bitter experience has taught me (see below). Optional items include a small broom to sweep out the bed, and whatever odds and ends you think might be handy.

No truck is really complete some bumper and window stickers. I have ones for the National Rifle Association, the Virginia Shooting Sports Association, the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, Virginia DGIF, the South African Gun Owners' Association, one saying "Fish Tremble When They Hear My Name," and one to indicate that "My Border Collie Is My Co-pilot." And of course I engaged in a little self-promotion with a couple of NRVO stickers that inform the public of "Squirrel: The OTHER White Meat," and "Squirrel: It's Not Just For Breakfast Any More." Finally I put one there advertising the local public radio station (to which I don't listen, but it keeps people wondering what kind of nut drives that thing).


Here's one other item you simply must have: a spare key for your door. I once managed to lock myself out of my truck on a zero-degree day, miles from anywhere civilized, on a road that sees almost no traffic. Had I not had a cell phone signal, and been able to call 911, my stiff, frozen corpse would have been delivered to my wife eventually. Even if your truck has the kind of key with a chip in it, you can get a "duplicate" that will at least allow you to open the door, and retrieve the functional key you locked inside. Put the spare in one of those magnetic boxes and hide it in a secure spot. If someone does find it they may be able to steal your stuff but they won't able to steal your truck.


TRUCK GUNS

Now, to this business of truck guns. Clearly, carrying any sort of firearm has to be done within the letter of the law. There are jurisdictions (such as mine, thank God) in which no law prohibits having an unloaded shotgun behind the seat, especially if it's cased. Other places are less liberal and it's up to the owner of the truck to find out what laws apply where he is and will be. That said, most places in the USA (with a few notable exceptions such as New Jersey and DC) are very tolerant about shotguns, while they may not be about other types of firearms. In New York, for example, you will not be hassled about a cased shotgun: but a handgun will land you a stretch in prison. Unfortunately, laws on the transport of guns are not uniform, and in some places even localities have rules different from those of their states: Chicago and New York City have far more onerous restrictions than Illinois or New York do on a state wide basis. New Jersey on the other hand, is uniformly unreasonable: that state will nail you to a wall for possessing any kind of gun, so be aware of traps.

Worse, even though Federal laws technically permit interstate transportation of unloaded, cased, locked guns through such places, very frequently gun-hostile jurisdictions ignore the Federal statute and will prosecute what they consider a "serious" violation. Know the local law and obey it.

It is worth pointing out that if you are stopped and the police officer asks for permission to search your vehicle, you should say NO. He has to have "probable cause" in the absence of permission. A cop will sometimes threaten to "get a warrant" to search the truck, in which case you should tell him to go ahead, you'll wait till it arrives. Why defy the police if you're not breaking any laws? Because you aren't breaking any laws, that's why. It's a fundamental right of all citizens to be free from "unreasonable search" and a fishing expedition by a bored cop is just that. Make HIM obey the law.


Assuming it's legal, every truck should have some sort of firearm on board, if at all possible at all times. I'm partial to truck shotguns because of their general flexibility and usefulness. Gauge isn't a matter of importance. One thing that is important is that it be a gun that can be banged around and left in less-than-ideal storage conditions (trucks get hot in Summer, cold in Winter, and damp when the windows are closed) and—regrettably it has to be said—one you won't mind losing in an accident or to a theft. It would be an act of insanity to carry an H&H or Purdey double behind the seat of your truck; but an inexpensive single shot or bolt action makes an ideal choice. The best way to carry it is behind the seat, out of sight, in a slip case. On the rack is fine going to and from the hunting field but not advisable if you plan to park the truck where people can see it and perhaps decide to help themselves to your hardware.

At times I find myself in a situation in which a little impromptu hunting is possible, and a shotgun is just what I need for that. And every now and then someone calls me (usually very early in the morning) and tells me they have a car-hit deer in the yard, would I please come and kill it?  I have never so far refused such a mercy errand. Once the call came from a farmer whose land I'd hunted for years, at the very moment when I was actually on my way out the door to hold a class but I wasn't about to say no to a man whose kindness I had enjoyed. He'd called the Giles County Sheriff's office who in their own good time sent a Deputy out. The Deputy had come to give him the required tag but wasn't willing to shoot the deer, someone else had to do that!  (That struck me as callous, to say the least.)

The deer had caught his right hind foot in a fence, got snared in the top wire, and was in extremis when I got there. He'd been there several hours, hanging upside down. It's hard to imagine the agony he must have been in.  I put him down with a slug fired from the shotgun I had in the truck. Given how many deer are on the roads it's entirely likely I might hit one some day myself. If that's the case I don't plan to finish it off with a tire iron!

In addition to the shotgun you should carry a box of ammunition (I mix slugs and birdshot), a good knife, and a copy of your hunting license. Virginia's on-line issuance system permits license holders to print out multiple copies: one rides in the truck and one in my wallet, as well as one in my day bag. (This practice has saved me from embarrassment when I left my hunting bag at home and had killed a deer). If you have room for a GI ammunition can all this stuff can go in that.

What about a rifle? Not so useful as a shotgun, but a viable alternative. A use-it-anywhere .22 such as an old Remington Nylon 66 would be a good choice. A .22 will finish off an injured deer if need be, and if it's accurate enough can be used for small game hunting. But a shotgun is better, in my opinion.


Many people will question whether the truck gun should be a handgun. To this I say, yes, if it's legal. As mentioned, some states will lock you up for it, some won't. Even in places like Virginia where "open carry" is legal and so long as the gun is in plain sight you aren't in violation of the law, keeping a handgun where someone can see it easily can lead to trouble. A recent case in Michigan (a state becoming increasingly unreasonable about handguns) saw a man who was perfectly legally openly carrying a handgun arrested and detained while police "checked on his mental status." I have personally been stopped by a trooper early in the morning while I was carrying openly, without any problems. The cop was very polite and very professional and knew the law allowed me to do so (though I have no doubt he was a tad rattled when he saw the gun). But that was in a very rural part of Virginia and I wouldn't expect the same treatment in, say, Fairfax County. I do have a permit for concealed carry. If you choose to have a handgun in the vehicle, and can legally do so, keep it concealed.

Again, it should be one you don't mind losing. Don't pack Grandpa's heirloom Colt Peacemaker. Any decent-quality revolver or autoloader in .32 caliber or larger will do. Assume you will lose it if the cop doesn't like the way you looked at him, or if one of the Rescue Squad people pulling you from the wreck decides he needs a "souvenir."


TRUCKS I HAVE OWNED

My trucks usually end up ugly even when they don't start out that way. The truck-of-the-moment starts out looking pretty good, but quickly enough, it gets beaten up because it's used as a truck, not a general transportation vehicle. I demand that it do things that ding it, bend parts, and scratch the paint. Bloodstains on the bed and dents in the doors are par for the course, signs of honest use. My wife is dismayed by this philosophy but she has come to accept it. I doubt if I ever will drive one that isn't an eyesore and an abomination in the sight of The Lord, sooner or later.


My first truck was a 1983 GMC Sierra 1500, a "pretty" one I bought from my father-in-law. He'd got it as a retirement present to himself. He was a meticulously neat man, the sort of person who washed, steel-brushed, dried, and oiled his garden shovel every time he used it. The idea of keeping a truck out in the driveway was anathema to him. Birds might poop on it. When he wasn't actually driving it, he kept it in a garage. But the poor man's knees gave out a few months and 10,000 miles into his ownership, and he never drove it again. It spent the next decade in the garage, coming to me essentially pristine.

My wife hadn't wanted me to get a truck at all: she was vehemently anti-truck. But sly devil that I am, I figured out the perfect argument to convince her that I needed a truck. I got her to insist that I buy a truck and that it be her father's. How did I manage this masterful piece of husband-cleverness? It was easy: in the Fall of 1992 I brought home a dead deer in her Honda Civic. I didn't get so much as a speck of blood on the car, thanks to carefully wrapping the deer in a plastic sheet, but the mere thought of what I'd done convinced her that I'd do it again if I didn't have a truck.


The GMC had a soft bench seat, a plush blue cloth headliner, a 4-speed automatic transmission, nice carpeting, power everything, and was a peculiar shade of iridescent blue that GM called "Midnight Mist," or some such name. Best of all, however, it had a honkin' big aluminum cap on the back with a roof rack that would hold my boat. I paid my father in law his very modest asking price and drove it home proudly.

It was 2-wheel drive, which meant that it was really a stay-on-the-road type machine, a sort of glorified roadster; but I was inexperienced and didn't know at the time that a 2-wheel-drive truck is about as useless a utility vehicle as could be imagined.


With time I became less enchanted with the GMC, but it had the virtue of making me more than ever convinced that I did in fact need a truck. The 2-wheel drive was a real problem, so was the weight distribution. At the time I was doing a lot of hunting on a farm that had steep grassy hills. I found that if the grass was wet, there was nowhere near enough weight in the back end to give me the traction to get up. Worse, it was so light in the rear that even on dry roads it had an alarming tendency to skid on curves, a process called "weathervaning," where the truck spins around the weight of the engine. One day I damned near killed myself when I braked incautiously on a back road and threw it into a spin that nearly sent me down an embankment.


In my hands it became ugly. A couple of years into its time with me it acquired a big dent in the right side where I clipped someone as I pulled out of a parking space. Over time it lost several pieces of chrome.

Eventually the headliner peeled off. I put old bath mats on the floor to protect the rug (ha, ha). It developed various splits and cracks in the dashboard plastic. I installed one of those plastic "consoles" on the middle of the seat, that you get at Wal-Mart for $3.00 because GM hadn't invented cup holders in 1983. It also eventually got a cup holder screwed into where the leather strap to close the door used to be. One window button was broken off, but it worked if you stuck a knife blade in it. By the time I got rid of it in 2003, it had lost all of its original posh appearance and taken on the Redneck patina a truck is supposed to have.

In short, it became a statement: my Change Of Life Truck. Blacksburg isn't Madison, Wisconsin, nor yet Ann Arbor, Michigan; but Political Correctness lives here in southwestern Virginia, too, especially on campus. I liked the idea of a Redneck truck with a senior faculty member behind the wheel and NRA stickers on the bumpers. One day I got out to fuel it at a Mom & Pop gas-and-go in the country, tricked out in camo with a belt of shotgun shells around my waist. The guy next pump over, filling up a Lexus, was the Provost. It's true: tenure means never having to say you're sorry.


Aside from 2-wheel drive that got me stuck more than once, and aside from its driveability issues, the thing was an out-and-out mechanical and electrical disaster, even when it was new. God knows what GM used for paint in the 80's but it was simply awful. It became chalky, it flaked off, it faded to primer, and all of this was accelerated by the rust. Not that paint is much of an issue for me, really, it sort of adds to the aura of "lived in." But it shouldn't start peeling with a few months of exposure to the elements.

But the worst aspect of that truck was its propensity to break down. In fact the only thing I could rely on was that it would stop running when I needed it. Much of this was due to it being a "transitional" vehicle, made at the very beginning of the conversion from purely mechanical control systems to on-board electronics. It had a very primitive "engine control module" that would whimsically take a day off, usually when I was driving somewhere. The truck would simply stop dead in the middle of the road. If I gave the ECM a while to think about things it would re-start, most of the time. When it didn't, it was time to get towed.

Once this ECM issue was diagnosed there wasn't much to be done about it. There were no new ECM's of the correct type to be had: they were only used for that one model year because shortly thereafter GM went over to fuel injection (my truck was carbureted) and changed the entire design. The only source was a junkyard...and there was of course no guarantee that would provide one that was any better.


One day the automatic transmission spontaneously self-disassembled at 65 miles per hour on Interstate 81 near Harrisonburg, stranding me 125 miles from home. It felt like I'd been hit in the rear bumper, and the beast juddered to a stop, the transmission totally locked up to the point where I couldn't move the shift lever. I had it towed to a nearby repair shop. As the tow driver was unloading at the garage, the mechanic remarked, "I bet you got about 80,000 miles on it." I asked how he knew that and was told, "Ahh...all them GM four-speeds do that at 80,000 miles." When I recovered it, $1300 and a week later, he handed me a 6-inch chunk of the ring gear that had snapped loose and jammed the rest of the gears up solidly.

I should have abandoned it then and there, but my wife was mad enough that she had to come and fetch me and later drive me back to get the truck: no way would I have been able to convince her to buy another truck right away. So I drove it home, wondering if (when) it was going to happen again.


Over the next couple of years it continued to nickel-and-dime me with repairs, usually electrical stuff. Finally I had had it: my wife's brother in law was then operating a candy-and-vending-machine company, and said he'd like to have it, so I gave it to him. He put $3500 into it—even having it repainted!—added a lift gate worth more than the truck, and it ended its days hauling pool tables and pinball machines around central Ohio. It may still be there for all I know, but I suspect that it's in the GM Organ Donor Program now. Good luck to anyone who gets the ECM from it!


For a few months I went truck-less, but Fall was approaching and something had to be done: by that time we'd sold the Honda Civic and acquired a brand new Volvo wagon; there was no way on God's Green Earth I was going to bring home a deer in THAT. Off I went to make the rounds of the used-truck lots for a replacement.


My wife can't drive a manual transmission vehicle, and I had been cautioned that if I were to buy a second truck, it had better be an automatic. I'm not a fan of automatic transmissions: I don't think you have the same control over the vehicle that a manual gives you. I dutifully looked at the available vehicles in a 15-mile radius, but everything with an automatic was priced out of my budget. There's a local shop that specializes in used trucks (I will call it "Redneck Motors") which was one of my frequent ports of call. One day they had a very nice looking four-wheel drive Ford F-250 Super Duty on the lot at a reasonable asking price. It was, however, a manual, a 5-speed. I asked to drive it. I liked it. I bought it. I broke the news to my wife.

That F-250 was considerably larger than the GMC had been, and one reason I bought it was that it had an 8-foot bed. The aluminum cap from the GMC would fit the bed, saving me the cost of a new cap. There was a time in this Fair Land when an "8 foot bed" was just that: and all trucks of all makes with such a bed were the same size. This is no longer the case, and today trucks are sold with "long bed" or "short bed" designations, which mean different things to different manufacturers. But the 1991 F-250 had a bed the same size as the 1983 GMC, so as soon as I got it home the cap went on.


As much as I liked F-250, it lacked some things I'd become used to, mainly power windows and door locks, but these were minor things: the cap was the essential feature. It turned the open bed into a sort of mobile storage unit for fishing and boating gear, and other junk that I like to carry around. All the miscellaneous objects from the cab were transferred to the "new" truck and I drove it until December of 2014, hauling many a dead animal in the back. I added a hitch ball to tow the boat trailer I'd bought by that time. The top of the cap was more than 7 feet above the ground; hoisting a 110-pound boat up there had become a bit much for me, hence the trailer.

My wife hated the F-250 even more than she hated the GMC. She couldn't drive it; the wheels were so large and the ground clearance so high she had trouble getting into it; and it was big, scary, and noisy. But it went wherever I commanded it to go, never once got me stuck, and affirmed my opinion that four-wheel drive is THE way to go.

One thing I never have understood, though, is the thinking of the designers who set up the transmission. In the Ford 5-speed of the time the hydraulic slave cylinder—a $25 part—is inside the transmission housing. To replace it necessitates removing both the transfer case and the transmission, and re-assembly: a job requiring $800 in labor! How do I know this? Because one day my slave cylinder went and I ended up spending that much and more to get it replaced. At the same time I went ahead and had a new clutch installed because, as the manual put it, "The cost of labor is much the same and it is worth while to do both jobs at once."

That was pretty much the only mechanical issue I had with it until late in its time with me. Over the years it acquired numerous bangs and bumps, including a bashed-in passenger side door that resulted from sliding into a fence on a snowy hill. The Bondo that had been used to build up pre-purchase bashes eventually fell out; the paint wore away and the wheel wells rusted. But even after 11 years of reasonably hard service with me, it ran well. In time I had the engine replaced with a Ford re-build, warranted for 3 years: and thereby hangs a tale of sorrow and injustice done.

In December 2013 I was out hunting in a pretty remote area when, driving home at dusk, the serpentine belt snapped because the air conditioner compressor had seized up. I was in a place where I couldn't even get a cell phone signal. I drove the truck to the Interstate, and along the way it overheated to the point where it simply shut down. By then I could call a tow, so I had it taken to a garage and had the radiator replaced, the broken A/C discarded, and...it still didn't run right.

This was 2-1/2 years after the engine replacement so it was still "in warranty." But when I had it towed to the Ford dealership in town, they refused to honor the warranty at all! Their argument was that I had purchased the engine through a different dealership and they weren't obligated to service it. A lawsuit ensued, and while I may have lost the case at least they were put to the trouble and expense of getting a lawyer and sending someone to the courtroom.

So there I was with a vehicle in which I'd sunk a lot of money but that I didn't dare drive lest it completely disintegrate. Something had to be done, and clearly what had to be done was to buy a replacement.

After some efforts to sell it, Redneck Motors came to my rescue. They bought it from me for about 10% of what I'd paid them for it 11 years before; I'm sure they made money on it because the brand-tires alone were worth more than that, plus the salvage value of the parts, assuming they didn't fix it up. I saw it on their lot for a while afterwards while I hunted for a replacement.

The quest for a "new" truck began. In early 2014 we'd bought my wife a brand new Kia van at a local dealership. All the dealers here participate in the on-line "display" of their used vehicles, and this one had a listing for a nice-looking Ford F-150: 4WD, A/C, stereo/CD player, power everything (including side mirrors!) and miscellaneous bells and whistles. It looked good. I went to see it, and pointed out to the salesman that I had three months before purchased a nice shiny new car from him, and expected him to take that into account in the price negotiations. He did. In the end we compromised at $1000 below his asking price and I drove it home.

It had an automatic transmission, however. This pleased me less than it did my wife. Moreover the 4WD was not manual but electrical, a knob on the dashboard being turned to engage the transfer case. I was dubious about all this automaticity but it's virtually impossible these days to find a full-sized pickup truck that has a manual transmission: I'm not even sure they're still being made in the USA.

But there were compensations, including those power side mirrors, and an A/C that really works well; four new tires, plus a couple of ready-installed hitch fittings for my trailer or a big tow-behind RV that I don't (and never will) have. Unfortunately it has a "short bed" all of 6-1/2 feet long, so my old cap was useless. Being made of aluminum, it was recycled and I now have an open bed.

This business of an open bed is something my wife likes. She can now make me haul mulch and brush by the ton, which the cap prevented. The "new" truck has already made many runs to the county landfill, excuse me, the transfer station, with yard waste and junk; it has dragged home a couple of tons of mulch (mulch is the Devil's Handiwork, but that's a theme for another essay) to spread on the yard. It will (just barely) fit through the gate to the back yard, which was way too small for its predecessor. And it has been on the job in the woods, too.

As I've aged getting a dead deer into the bed has become a Herculean task for this elderly, out-of-shape, ex-academician; but The Way has been found. I rigged up a "bridge" across the front of the truck bed, using two short lengths of 3"x3" and a piece of deck flooring. On this I mounted a 12 volt ATV winch whose power leads are long enough to reach the truck battery. 

God bless 4WD: last season I had to go in via a pretty rough trail over a steep hill to get to a kill I'd made, a matter of maybe a quarter-mile. In 4WD this was slow but easy. But a medium sized dead tree had fallen across the trail, hung up at one end so that it formed an obstacle that I couldn't get under nor go around. No problem!  I tied one end of a rope around the tree, tied the other end to the tow points on the front of the truck,  put it into Reverse, et voila, the tree was yanked free of the one holding it, and snaked out of the way.  After that it was clear sailing down into the bowl where I'd left the buck with a jaunty blaze orange cap on his antlers so I could spot him again. I attached the winch cable to the deer's head, laid him on the ramp, and up he came, slicker than snot.