(Refined and expanded since first published January 2, 2013) You must be looking at this picture and saying, “A ’92 F-150! What in the world is so special about this?”
I agree as there is nothing particularly special about it. It’s a regular cab two-wheel drive pickup with an 8′ bed, a 302 cubic inch (5.0 liter) V8, and an automatic. Ford built a bajillion of them for ’92. So there is nothing special about it – at first blush.
What makes it special is what I have learned and realized in the cab of this pickup. Pickups seem to have an innate ability to bring people together and this one is no different. It was twenty years ago last week I made a day trip in this very F-150 with my maternal grandfather, “Albert”.
You have met Albert in various articles. These events involving him are all true. Today’s snippet of history takes place when Grandpa was 68.
Grandpa purchased this F-150 two days after Thanksgiving in November 1992. His 1979 Chevrolet Scottsdale’s 305 cubic inch (5.0 liter) V8 had died repeatedly prior to leaving the driveway on Thanksgiving morning and Grandpa had had enough of General Motors.
I had turned twenty in September of that year and life wasn’t all milk and honey; I had just transferred to a different university and my parents had separated a month after my move. A large part of my angst was from having to grow up so rapidly.
Part of my own personal fall-out from the new school and separation was getting a few less than stellar grades in multiple classes that semester. I knew one instance was bogus, so I decided to spend a day of my precious Christmas break to trek back to the university and correct it.
My grandparents live just south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Yes, if you listen to a particular talk-radio show on U.S. airwaves, you’ve likely heard of it as the host was born and raised there. I, too, was born there (in the same hospital, even) and grew up nearby.
I had transferred to the University of Missouri – Rolla (referred to as the “Harvard for Engineers” by some), a distance of 175 miles and about 3.5 hours from Cape. The route I took was mostly hilly and curvy two-lane roads, some of which meandered through portions of the Mark Twain National Forest. I asked Grandpa Albert if he wanted to go; not only did he agree, he even volunteered his new F-150 which had all of 660 miles on it.
I knew I was officially an adult when he told me to drive.
We’ve all likely heard the adage of how to best learn about a person is to travel with them. Whoever coined this phrase was a genius. I will also hypothesize that to learn about yourself you need to learn about your family. Everyone’s quirks are genetic to a degree and exposure to your family and childhood environment has certainly influenced you as a person, thus creating the rest of your quirks.
I had not had very many involved conversations with my grandfather while growing up. He is not a quiet man but he doesn’t babble, either. Knowing this, I didn’t quite know how the trip would pan out. Seven hours in a vehicle with somebody can be a painfully long time if there isn’t much talking. I got much more than I would have ever imagined.
Leaving around daybreak, the trip started off with small talk such as the weather and what drove him to purchasing a Ford.
“You know, I’ve bought nine brand new vehicles from General Motors. That ’79 pickup was a piece of shit after a few years. And that ’77 Impala…that thing must have been dropped on something at the factory as it never did drive right. It’s why I bought the two Dodge’s – the ’85 Aries and the ’88 Dynasty.”
I inquired if he had looked at anything else when pickup shopping.
“Chevy was out; the Dodge’s looked okay, but didn’t impress me. I went to the Ford dealer in Marble Hill and drove a Ranger. It was pretty basic. Hell, you know you long it’s been since I drove a straight shift transmission? I haven’t owned one since right after I married your grandma.
“Well, I got in that Ranger. Me and ma filled up the whole cab.” It should be noted Grandpa is 6’1″ and Grandma Iris is 5’10”; they are not overweight, but they are big-boned people. “That salesman said, ‘Mr. Lambert, you sure about this pickup?’ I said I’d give it a try and tried to take off. Killed the son of a bitch three times, then forgot and crossed my legs for the brake and clutch. I got out and told that salesman that thing was a tin-can deathtrap and I wanted to see a real pickup. So we went to look at an F-150.”
We continued on down the road, venturing into one of the more desolate locations of our voyage. Grandpa is one who can talk about anything, but for some subjects he has to be in the right frame of mind; any inquiries when he isn’t in the mood are met with your questions being shrugged off or ignored. He voluntarily hit upon one of his two usually taboo subjects – his childhood, in this instance – as we hit the hill country in the Mark Twain National Forest. His disclosures were remarkably well punctuated by the downshifting of the 302 V8 in the F-150 pulling some steep hills.
“Kids have things differently these days.” This was making me curious as he didn’t typically subscribe to such trite philosophies. “When I was ten years old, I had to collect rent on the houses we had in Cape. Trying to do that during the Depression was a damn joke. Damn people burned up 20 rental houses.”
What? I knew exactly zero about any of this.
“Yeah, mom, her sisters, and brother had rental houses on the south end of Cape. Damn people would tear out the interior walls and burn them for firewood. They would run outside with whatever rent they had and not let you see inside. Then after a while when I would see the roof sagging, I knew that was about the end of that house. I’d tell Mom and never would have to go back. There’s no telling what she would do at that point.”
My interest was at its peak as this was all virgin territory for me.
“Mom and her brother and sisters had the rental houses. Mom and Aunt Amelia really got the shaft in that deal. When their parents died, they left everything to Uncle Henry except the rental houses, which were to be split among the three of them. They figured dad and Aunt Meelie’s husband would take care of them. Nobody figured their husbands would die so early; hell, I was three when dad died. I don’t even remember him. So Uncle Henry came out pretty good, but the worthless bastard never drew another sober breath after getting everything.”
Grandpa reached over to turn the heat down a few degrees.
“How can a person go their whole life and never work a single day? Henry did. Hell, he drank up five sawmills and eight farms. One time, just before I got drafted, he came home drunker than Cooty Brown. He crawled down naked inside a feather mattress, fell asleep, and shit himself. Guess who had to pull him out? I started pulling and he started screaming. Come to find out he had a broken leg. Talk about a mess. There was poop and feathers stuck all over him – it was raunchy. All he was doing was fighting against me while yelling and screaming in German. Damn drunk.
“Mom always spoke nothing but German to Henry and her sisters. It worked out pretty well during the war for me.”
It was about that time we were coming into St. James, about eight miles from our final destination of Rolla. As Grandpa is sometimes prone to do, he will abruptly change the subject before follow-up can happen. He did so as I was merging onto the interstate.
“Damn, there’s a lot of traffic on I-44. Watch out so you don’t get our asses ran over.”
After a few hours of getting my business taken care of – successfully, I might add – we got back in Grandpa’s F-150 for the trip home. Despite being the same body style as an ’84 F-150 my dad had at the time – and which I had driven extensively in high school – the degree of comfort and power between the two was remarkable. Granted, Grandpa’s was the higher end XLT model whereas my dad’s was an el cheapo model. At the time, Dad’s only had about 40,000 miles on it (he would trade it in 1998 with just over 50,000 miles) and it was powered by a 300 cubic inch (4.9 liter) straight six. New or not, Grandpa’s pickup was light years ahead of the ’84. Ford did a great job refining the overall package.
Before we left Rolla, I asked Grandpa if he wanted to stop for fuel. The primary tank was not full when we had left that morning and it was getting low. I didn’t know if there was fuel in the secondary tank. As I joked he could get some cigarettes (he had quit smoking prior to my being born) the conversation turned to his other usually taboo subject – World War II. I quickly realized he was around twenty years-old, the same as I was at the time, when these events happened.
He had been an airplane mechanic in the Army Air Forces stationed in England, as he often puts it, “between Liverpool and Blackpool”. I have since learned he was actually within eyeshot of the small town of Freckleton. He was a witness and first-responder on that sad, rainy day in August 1944 when a B-24 crashed in the middle of town, hitting the elementary school and killing 61 people, including 38 children; a friend of his was in the Sad Sack Cafe across the street from the school. Also assigned to the clean-up detail at the school, he has told me some gruesome yet relevant details that won’t be found in any articles found about this event.
After the Allies had started to turn the tables after D-Day, he left England and was sent all over Europe in various support capacities.
“Cigarettes could be purchased pretty cheap during the war. A lot of them came in a wax wrapped carton. Hell, I always liked a little extra money, so I would heat up the package and pull the wax back. A guy could take each pack out and the shape and weight of the carton was about right for putting a couple pine boards in there. I’d then smooth the wax back and let it cool. Then at the next stop, right when the train started to move out of the station, I’d sell the carton to one of the well dressed people standing there. It was just right for me to see them open it up and discover their purchase as we pulled away…I could hear them yelling ‘You Yankee son-bitch!!!'”
For whatever reason, the phrase “Ugly American” zipped through my head as I heard this while flipping the switch to change fuel tanks on the F-150. I also learned he would then sell each pack of smokes on an individual basis. Prime are the opportunities the black market can present to a daring and enterprising twenty-year old who had never been far from home before.
“But I’ll tell you what…those folks in Europe were in bad shape. One Christmas Day, it must have been in ’44, I was in Germany and went deer hunting. I got a decent sized buck. As I was field dressing it, this Frau came up and asked for the entrails. I knew enough German from mom that I could do business with people. I refused to give her the entrails; she was not happy. I told her I had been raised poor and had never eaten the entrails, so she shouldn’t have to do the same. I told her she could have the liver only if she took a hind-leg and some other meat with it. I was going to split the deer with some buddies, but they had food and this Frau didn’t.”
I was speechless at this point. Grandpa was quiet for a brief time and you could hear the burbling of the 302 in the background. It was a cold, dreary late afternoon just after Christmas. As we were in the midst of the Mark Twain National Forest again, this story about the lady without food seemed doubly compelling.
Grandpa broke his silence as we came upon a wreck just east of the small town of Steelville. A log truck had spilled his load onto the highway and a car had hit one of the logs. We were having to wait.
“Is it me or is everyone around here driving a Dodge pickup? I saw the same thing in Rolla, too.”
I, too, had noticed the area was ripe with them. We agreed it was most likely a regional preference.
After general chit-chat while the wreck was being cleared, we continued on our way. I was lucky the few cars in front of me quickly turned; it was a forty mile jaunt to the next town and with the hills and curves, there was absolutely nowhere to pass what Grandpa called (and I now discover myself calling) the “drag-asses.” We had plenty of fuel and snacks for the trip back, which was still a shade under three hours at this point.
As we drove past the car that had hit the logs, Grandpa Albert changed the subject.
“It’s amazing how you can tear stuff up and it keeps going. When I was England working on planes, I would see those bombers come back from missions. Hitler’s boys were intent on blowing those fuckers out of the sky and they would come back looking like Swiss cheese. You’d get the boys off and then haul the plane to the scrap pile. The plane might have been brand new that morning.
“When the first jet was captured, that sure was popular on base. Everybody wanted to see it. Some general or colonel got mad and threw everyone’s ass out. Then we went to work to dismantle it and blueprint it.”
What? Did I just hear you right? You helped dismantle the first captured jet? My questions were met with a “yeah – so?” and changing the subject to his trip to Europe onboard the Queen Mary.
“That trip was awful. 3,500 people on that ship and it was storming the whole way over there. That boat was riding these hellacious waves and everybody” – except him – “was puking the whole way over there. Twelve hours you were confined to quarters, twelve hours you were allowed to roam the ship. That way you only needed half as many bunks. The bunks were four high and everybody wanted to be on the bottom. Not me. I don’t like being puked on and you could hear the puke sloshing on the floor as the ship went up and down. Out on deck, you’d see people hanging over the rails looking as green as a gourd; go into the mess hall and everyone was upchucking in their soup. Every once in a while you could hear the impeller on that ship make a whizzing sound as it was out of the water riding those waves.”
For whatever reason, I no longer desired a late afternoon snack. I shoved it back into the sack between the seats.
That day still stands out in my memory twenty years later. Grandpa Albert is still alive, and in phenomenally great health, at age 88 (now 92). He says it’s due to eating lots of bacon and eggs as well as being breast fed as an infant; who am I to doubt that?
This trip served as an outstanding lesson in perspectives. There I was at twenty years of age, grumbling about school, growing up, and poor grades. Conversely, my grandfather, at age twenty, was in Europe fighting a war and not knowing if he would make it back. He also told me of other wide ranging wartime experiences, from witnessing little boys selling the sexual services of their mothers and sisters to sitting in the main room overlooking the Alps at Hitler’s Berchtesgaden compound. These, along with some of the other instances presented, jolted me into realizing my then current circumstance was pretty damn minor in the big scheme of things.
The things I learned on this trip have long served as a point of comparison for the many life challenges with which I have since been presented. It also illustrated the benefits of removing emotion when unsavory tasks and situations present themselves. Both of these lessons have served me well.
As I get older and the cruelty of time starts to reveal itself as noisy knees and arthritic fingers, I am able to see pieces of my family in my words and deeds. For those of us over age 35, you can likely relate; for those of you under 35, just wait. It is both unnerving and soothing rolled up into one.
For instance, my grandfather has forever kept several German phrases in his speech. I will frequently have “was ist los” shoot through my mind when hearing a crying child. It is amazing how some things continue to live due to one’s early exposure.
As for continuing to live, what about the ’92 F-150 that served as the vessel for a large and significant step on my path to adulthood? This is it and Grandpa still owns it. I have neither driven nor ridden in it since at least 2000. It currently has 66,000 miles, has never seen a garage in its life, and has not been washed in at least fifteen years. Other than the front bumper, it is nearly rust-free. Our trip to Rolla that day was the furthest from home it has gone in its life.
When its fuel pump recently died and Uncle Ron gave Grandpa the diagnosis, he was skeptical as his pickup was still “too new” for that to happen. When Uncle Ron replied the pickup was 20 years old, Grandpa responded “Hell, I didn’t think I’d had it that long. I’m getting old.”