(By Alan Heath)
The story of this truck is the story of the man, and his son, and his son after that. It’s funny that all his friends called him “Pap” because we, his grandchildren, called him by his real name: M. H. (or an approximation in our North Alabama dialect that sounded more like “Mache”). He was an imposing man—tall, 6’3” or so, bald, missing a few teeth, and possessing what appeared to be an eternal scowl. He had served in the navy during WWII despite his young age by lying about his birth date. All my friends were scared of him, but to me and my brothers, he was Grandaddy Mache, and we loved him and he us. So how could we not resurrect his old GMC?
M. H. Heath, Jr. had gotten a good job with Alabama Power in the late 1940’s despite his education extending only through the sixth grade in a one-room, rural school house close to his childhood home. He had lived in the city, Gadsden, at the time, near the steam plant where he worked until his parents sold him the old home place on the dirt road, and they moved to their new house on highway 278. His mother’s family owned thousands of acres in eastern Etowah County, and he had purchased the fifty acres with the “old” house on it, next to the chicken houses and hog lot. He and his wife tore down the old house and used the lumber that was salvageable to build the four-room house that would expand with the family throughout his lifetime to a four-bed, four-bath two-story.
But the truck. It was the first brand new vehicle he ever bought in 1967. He was on strike and determined not to let the Alabama Power Company higher-ups think that he was down and out. Without consulting my grandmother, he went to work one day in his tired early 50’s Ford truck and returned in the sparkling, aqua GMC stepside.
The sparse appointments of the GMC spoke more truthfully of the family’s true economic status—no carpet, no radio, no cigarette lighter (he had his zippo anyway), in-line six 250 (with plenty enough torque to pull a cattle or hay trailer), and three on the tree.
It was a man’s truck, if not a man’s color. He later admitted that the color was a choice made due to the truck being the cheapest one they had. My nineteen-year-old self is responsible for the forest-green color change. In retrospect, I wish we had gone original, and the trade-school paint and Bondo job is already sad and peeling.
Within a month of purchase, my father–Mache’s oldest son of three–borrowed the new truck and promptly slid off the dirt road within seeing distance of the house, crinkling the front right fender. Dad was terrified, expecting Armageddon from his father–a hard man–but Mache simply pulled him out of the ditch and said, “Eh, it happens.”
He drove that truck daily to Gadsden until he became dam operator at Weiss Hydroelectric Plant several miles from home on the Coosa River, then drove it on the backroads to the powerhouse, stopping only at the little country store on the way to buy White House tobacco and rolling papers. He was essentially an engineer with no degree—how times have changed. The seats wore to threads and then springs, the paint oxidized and then turned to rust, never being washed or garaged—it was a truck, not a Cadillac. The truck hauled cattle, hay, manure, feed, gravel for the driveway, fertilizer, always in third gear, barely above idle. Who knows when the speedo quit working—the milage read 67,000. He had put a big sticker on the tailgate that was a large arrow pointing down, reading “Slow Down, Save Gas.”
It was with the GMC that he and my father had pulled the overturned Massey Ferguson tractor off of his youngest son (17 in 1980) when it flipped over on him on an embankment killing him as my grandmother stood watching, holding me (a newborn) and my older brother (2). Not long after, thetruck was relegated to farm-only duty as my grandfather had procured a 1978 Subaru GL (proudly proclaiming “front-wheel drive” in script across the front fenders).
The rotted wood bed was replaced with a diamond plate steel section from the powerhouse which helped with traction, but not appearance.
It may have been the forty or fifty hand-rolled cigarettes he smoked daily, or the morning breakfasts of eggs cooked in bacon grease, or the hard life of working all day and farming all night, but in 1991, when I was in sixth grade, I arrived home, riding in mom’s 1987 Nissan Van (yes, we had one of THOSE) to see the ambulance across the road in Grandma and Mache’s driveway. Stroke.
He could no longer speak except when so angry he cursed. Funny how that works. He was paralyzed on one side and had to be fed through a tube in his stomach. He wore diapers. The strong man who intimidated all my friends would never again shoot us a snaggle-toothed grin and say “C’mon boys, time to play cowboy,” which meant we would go slingblade fences or catch cows in the barn to give shots or shovel manure. Playing cowboy with Mache was never much fun at the time, but I wouldn’t trade it now for a hundred years of playing cowboys with my friends running around the pasture.
He held on until ’93. Another one did him in for good. The old truck sat forlorn in the yard rusting away, leaking and using more oil than gas, although it still got occasional farm duty, and I even pulled the newer Massey Ferguson out of the swamp with it once when Dad got it stuck, but slowly the brittle rings lost most compression and the sides of the bed started to separate, being held together by the tailgate which read “Slow Down, Save Gas.”
I was nineteen in 1999 when my dad came in with a Year One catalog and said, “Let’s restore the GMC.” It would be a father-sons project with him, my little brother, and me (my older brother was already 21 and too far into “adulthood” with classes, jobs, girls to have time to help, and I think dad regretted not starting it sooner when he could have helped). I regretted that too because it was only a year later that our leisurely rebuild came to a halt. Cancer.
Dad didn’t smoke, rarely drank, and had no risk factors, but that nagging pain in his lower back became debilitating, so he gave in and went to the doctor. Prostate cancer had spread into his kidneys, bladder, and spine. Maybe two years they said.
The GMC went back to the barn, newly rebuilt engine, new, cherry-wood bed, new paint and exhaust, even some carpet. A Pioneer tape deck still sits on the top of the dash, never installed (we didn’t want to cut the dash for a CD player). Dad went from doctor to doctor, to M. D. Anderson in Houston, treatment to treatment, he beat the odds…for a while and at a cost. He too held on longer than most would have; seven years, I think. Heath men may die young, but not without a fight. In 2007, he finally couldn’t go on, and, just after his 57th birthday, Dad died of the cancer that had made life miserable for him for the last seven years. My phone went off as I was coaching a high school football game that Friday night, and I knew before I answered—funny what we think is important until that wake-up call happens.
He left the GMC to me. Eric, the oldest got the ’99 F150, Wesley, the youngest got the ’94 Chevy farm truck. Mine stayed in the barn, forgotten while teaching, coaching, and a couple of graduate degrees happened…
Until a couple of weeks ago, when a former player and student of mine (and current farmhand) called me and asked for my help. He was given his grandfather’s old ’86 Mazda truck and he needed help getting her running. He has been like a son to me since I was coaching him when he lost his father (ALS), not long after my dad died, so we gathered tools and pulled the old Mazda out of his grandad’s barn, which gave me an idea.
We got the Mazda running well in no time–great little truck, and he learned to drive a stick, something I’d been on him about anyway. Then, the next weekend, when it was too wet to work in the garden, we pulled the GMC out of the barn at my family’s farm. My 2003 Chevrolet 2500 pulled the truck to the garage where air in the tires, brake fluid in the master cylinder, gas in the carburetor, and a jump on the battery got Mache’s truck up and running in no time. Now I know what my farmhand, Tyler, and I are going to do on days when its too wet to work outside. Mache, Dad, and I think Tyler’s dad would all like that.