CC Auto-Biography: 1979 Ford Bronco – A Disaster Averted, A Dream Deferred

017 - 1979 Ford Bronco CC

I saw this second-generation, 1978 – ’79 Ford Bronco on my way to the drug store after deboarding my CTA Red Line train back to my neighborhood after work a few years back.  I want to state from the beginning that the disaster in question had nothing to do with the Bronco itself.

When I see this particular generation Bronco, it doesn’t remind me vaguely of something sordid from the 1990’s involving a slow-speed freeway chase between a police department and a retired football star.  Instead, I’m transported to a childhood trip from Flint, Michigan in the family Plymouth Volaré to a Ford dealership in Detroit in 1979.  I was about four and a half years old.

Our family had planned to move to my father’s country, Liberia, in 1980, to be near Dad’s side of our extended family.  Dad was a professor, so I assume today that his plan was to teach in one of the universities in the capitol city of Monrovia.  We had made all kinds of preparations – listing our house for sale, saying our goodbyes, getting our affairs in order.

My folks had started me in Kindergarten a year early, at age four, anticipating some adjustments we’d be making to life in that part of western Africa.  Below is a picture of me taken spring ’79, doing my best Clint Eastwood with a water pistol next to my beloved Schwinn, probably from right around the time my parents told me we’d eventually be moving to Liberia.  That’s our ’77 Volaré coupe in our garage behind me.

Joe Dennis with 77 Plymouth Volare, April 1979

The part I had struggled with the most was saying goodbye to the family, friends, places and things I loved here in the good, old, familiar United States.  I was an American kid, and I loved my McDonald’s, Toys ‘R Us, Matchbox cars, Lucky Charms cereal and Saturday morning cartoons.  And when would I get to see my (maternal) Grandma & Grandpa and their pretty, peaceful farm in rural Ohio again?  I took comfort in the fact that I had my two brothers with whom to share what would certainly be an adventure.

011 - 1979 Ford Bronco CC

There was the matter of purchasing a tough, reliable vehicle that would be able to withstand the mountainous terrain of upcountry Liberia, with no paved roads for miles and miles.  Pathways that were often sloping, narrow, and/or muddy with large, slippery ruts carved by torrential downpours during rainy season were the rule and not the exception.  It wasn’t going to be just a romp through the swamp.

Neither Dad nor Mom knew a whole lot about vehicles and in hindsight, it makes sense to me now why they had decided that a big, American, Ford truck-based Bronco would be just what the Dennises needed to navigate the paved streets of Monrovia and the rugged terrain of upcountry.  In theory, the Bronco would be well-suited for both worlds, as a no-nonsense machine with a touch of civility and room for us all.  Most of the folks we knew in Liberia who were living away from the capitol city were driving J40 Toyota Land Cruisers, with only a handful of J60s being driven by the more affluent and missionaries.

I remember the Bronco we looked at being beige or tan, with the white roof section on the back.  It seemed like a very nicely-appointed truck – in my mind’s eye, I think I remember seing an AM/FM radio in the dash.  Mom said it even had A/C, and that it was a factory-ordered vehicle.  We ended up not buying this Bronco in Detroit that day, much to the chagrin of the salesman, according to Mom.  Parents shield their kids from certain, unpleasant things, and apparently, this salesman really gave my parents the business in his office, rightly or wrongly, for not making this purchase.  Water under the bridge.

674 - My First House CC

We were mere months away from getting ready to leave our old house in Flint (pictured above, in February 2011) which my parents had sold, when Liberia went into one of the worst, longest-lasting civil wars in its history beginning on Saturday, April 12, 1980.  In the interest of avoiding politics (which is far outside the scope and intent of this forum, and probably just boring to some), I’ll summarize by saying that Monrovia, Liberia’s then-modern capitol city, was basically reduced to ruin, and that finding a new vehicle to navigate Liberian roads was no longer a concern for the Dennis family.  What’s true is that if we had moved at that time, it’s about 98% certain I wouldn’t be alive to type this today.

Joe Dennis in Liberia 1983-84

We did eventually live for a year in my grandfather’s ancestral village of Vahun near the border of the neighboring country, Sierra Leone, several years later when I was in the fourth grade (1983 – ’84).  The picture above is of me with some of my friends and fellow Mende tribesmen, with a toy plane my buddy, Saa, had made for me.  I rode in many F40 and F60 Toyota Land Cruisers during that eleven month period, and to this day, the sight of any old Land Cruiser can transport me back to the days of thinking it was actually pretty fun to be riding in one as it slid, basically sideways, down a slippery, muddy mountain “road” at what felt like a thirty degree downward slope.

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I thought of Dad when I saw this Bronco.  I thought of his crushed dream of returning to live in the place he considered home.  I also thought of how much differently my life would have turned out during a time and in a place when and where this Ford would have been a regular sight for me.  I believe that everything happens (or doesn’t happen) for a reason, and also that I’m exactly where, what and who I’m supposed to be, flaws and all.  My father has since passed on, but the sight of an example of this two-year-only (1978 – ’79) style of Ford Bronco SUV will probably always remind me of a childhood road trip to the Motor City to test drive a truck our family ultimately didn’t buy, for a permanent move we never made.

Bronco photos as taken by the author in Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Monday, November 5, 2012.