TOAL: 1996 Dodge Ram – The Truck Of My Lifetime

This is not a COAL about the truck.  If you want a detailed description of the T300 Dodge Rams, or an editorial on the impact it had on pickup sales in the U.S., Im sure there are plenty of articles available online somewhere.  Im not taking you on a ride like I did with the Road Runner, blare loud rock like I did with the Grand National or dazzle you with details about its cupholders or towing capacity, its what Ive been doing with my life for the last 23 years and where the truck fit in.

In addition to a Charger and a Road Runner, I always wanted a pickup.  Grandad had Chevy trucks on the farm but being a Mopar kid, I leaned towards the Dodges.

Back in around 1993, maybe even 1992, whenever the spy shots started showing up for the upcoming market-changing 1994 Dodge Ram replacement for the first generation “square body” D-Series trucks that had been around since 1972, I had pictures of it plastered all over my barracks room and I swore to anyone that would listen that I would own one someday.  What a great looking truck, and I think its the best-looking pickup truck ever.  There, I said it.

And if it was good enough for Chuck Norris….

…and could dodge flying cows with Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton……well then I needed to have one too.

And, I made good on that promise in April, 1996.

In the summer of 1995, I completed my first tour of duty in Uncle Sams Confused Group, and was honorably discharged with my first DD-214 in one hand and my GI Bill for college in the other.  I moved back in with my folks on Long Island, ready to start college full-time that fall and I stayed in the Guard as a drilling Reservist, with my plan to either get into a civilian law enforcement career or go back into the USCG as a commissioned officer.  At the time, I was driving a well-worn but still pretty reliable 1968 Dodge Dart GTS 340.

It was nowhere near this nice but it was blue with a white interior, it had 1980s-vintage Centerline wheels and it was a factory 4 speed/disc brake/A/C car/no vinyl top or stripe.  Im sure it got a well-deserved restoration at some point.

Having been away from home for the last 4 years, I decided I didn’t need the going-away-to-party-at-college experience since I had already had all that (and more) in the military, so I settled on a small college near my folks where I could commute to school.  The Dart, as it turned out, was fine while I was on active duty, as I only needed it a couple of days a week when I wasn’t underway or standing duty, but as an everyday commuter car dealing with Long Island traffic, it wasn’t going to hold up and winter was coming.  It was pretty well-worn at that point and I didn’t have the time or the money for the restoration it needed and deserved.

I had also picked up an equally well-worn 1967 Dodge Coronet convertible that summer to just cruise around in and have fun with at the beach.  Again, it was nowhere near this nice but it was gold with a black interior and top, had a great running 318, and I put a set of Cragars on it.  A great cruiser for a young single guy fresh out of the military.  But again, owning, driving and maintaining 2 nearly 30 year old cars weren’t going to cut it on just my reserve drill pay and part time work driving a bakery delivery truck late nights.

I sold the Coronet not long after I started classes in the fall and then not long after that, everything started breaking on the Dart at once; the clutch, the exhaust, the freeze plugs and the heater all broke one after another and I couldn’t keep up with the constant repairs while going to school and working 2 jobs plus the volunteer fire department.

One of my Coast Guard buddies and his Dad were big into building Fords and he had (what he told me was) a good-running ’69 Cougar with a transplanted 351 Cleveland that they had built and I could have it for $2500.  Sold.  That car didn’t last 3 months on the road before it spun a bearing.

At that point, my parents and my older brother had had enough of my sh$t with old cars, as I was constantly having to borrow their cars while mine were down for repairs.

Coming off of active duty, I was able to CLEP something like 50 credits, and my plan was to take enough summer classes so that I would be able to get my degree by the end of the Spring, 1997 semester, meaning that in the spring of 1996, I only had a year to go to graduate.  My parents said “enough” and gave me a down payment on a new car as an early graduation present with the condition that I would stop messing with old cars, focus on school and getting into a career, and I would make the monthly payments on my part time job salary.

So, my Mom and I went car shopping one warm Saturday afternoon in early April, 1996.

We looked at a couple of late model used cars first, including a loaded blue 1993 Jeep Cherokee Limited.  I always liked the XJ Cherokees but couldn’t see myself in one at the time, they were still a bit of a yuppie thing back then.

The last of the Impala SSs were on the lots.  Please mom, please?  No, they were too expensive and the insurance would have been ridiculous for a 22 year old male.

Besides, I wanted a pickup anyway, and while I really wanted a new Ram, Dakotas were more in my price range, and I always liked them.   A V8 Dakota would have been righteous but the only ones that dealers had in stock were fully loaded, 4X4 extended cabs that were just as expensive as a full-sized Ram, so that left me looking at a green over tan V6/5 speed 4X2 Dakota regular cab short bed at one mega-dealer.  We made an offer on the truck but they didn’t accept it so we walked out and went to another dealer.  The next dealer, the now-defunct Farmingdale Dodge, a nice little Mom and Pop dealer, had the identical truck in stock, same color and everything.  We made them the same offer and they accepted it.

We started the paperwork on the Dakota but then I noticed a black 4X2 regular cab short bed black Ram with the Sport appearance package sitting off by itself and I asked the salesman about it.  He said it was a special order and the customer never came back for it, and since it was a 4X2 and in New York, where everyone wants a 4X4, they were motivated to get rid of it.  So, we asked what would they let it go for and, honestly, I don’t remember what the number was-$20K maybe?-but it was right around the same number, or maybe just a little higher, then the Dakota.


Just after I got it in 1996.  It looked a little different back then.

Also not long after I bought it, another one of my Coast Guard buddies was getting married, and on my way to the ceremony, the engine made a quick thunk and died while sitting at a light.  I went to restart it and nothing, the engine locked up and wouldn’t crank.  I had it towed to the dealer and when they autopsy’ed it, they found that one of the piston rings didn’t seat right, causing it to break and pop out of its groove.  They replaced the short block and I had my truck back 2 weeks later.

In July, 1996, I was at a car cruise-in one night with the truck.  Interestingly, I ran into the guy that special ordered it at a car show a couple of months after I bought it; he cancelled the Dodge order for one of the all-new-for-1997 F150s.  I wonder if that truck is still on the road.

When I left the cruise-in, I was headed back to my folk’s house and there were dozens of police cars and fire trucks with lights and sirens on every major road.  When I got home, I turned on the TV and it was all over the news; TWA’s Flight 800 had taken off from JFK airport and then crashed in the ocean not far from my house on the South Shore of Long Island.  I called my Chief and he told me to head out to the scene to help so I threw on a uniform, jumped in the truck and hauled tail.

All of the roads leading from the highway to the Coast Guard Station were blocked off and I had to show my USCG ID to all of the cops at the road blocks and I remember one policeman yelling to another after they let me through a checkpoint, “hey that’s a NICE TRUCK!”

I checked in with the officer in charge at the scene and he told me to find a boat, any boat, and get underway to help the crews.   A few minutes later, a Coast Guard 41′ utility boat pulled up the pier, covered in blood, debris and jet fuel and victims were stacked on top of each other in the well deck of the boat.  I helped unload parts of the plane and parts of the victims and then got underway with the crew.  And for the next 12 hours, that’s what we did; recovered the victims and plane parts.

MORICHES, NY – JULY 9: A member of the US Coast Guard pulls a unidentified piece of wreckage from TWA flight 800 18 July about 10 miles off the coast of Long Island New York. The Boeing-747 passenger aircraft exploded shortly after takeoff with approximately 229 on board. (Photo credit should read JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images)

When I finally got a break the next morning, there were no barracks rooms available for me to get some rest, and even if there were, there was so much going on inside the station with the media and investigators, so I just went out to the truck to get a nap.  I started it up and turned on the air conditioner; it was so hot and humid.  As soon as I laid down across the seats, I got a whiff of the jet fuel and blood that was ingrained in my uniform, I threw up whatever was in my belly at the time, which wasn’t much since I hadn’t eaten in more than 12 hours.  I passed out until I had to go back on duty a few hours later.  That was my routine for the next 3 days until they cut me loose.

I took a few days off after that and went to see my brother in Virginia Beach.  When I got there, he had a stack of Virginian Pilot newspapers from the previous week and I saw that I was on the cover with my boat crew, hauling a piece of the plane on our boat.

In those days, there weren’t a lot of personal-use pickups on Long Island.  In 1996-97, they were still largely the domain of contractors and the East End farmers, and as was the law at the time for open bed pickups, New York issued me commercial tags, opening myself up to getting ticketed if I used certain roads or parked in certain areas.  Can’t say I miss New York.  But I did get a lot of compliments on the truck.

As scheduled, I graduated college the following spring.  I took a management trainee job with a Fortune 500 company, where I barely lasted a month and I decided the corporate world was not for me.   My pickup looked odd in the building parking lot among the luxury sedans.

Besides, I was already in the hiring process for an alphabet government law enforcement agency but like everything else in the government, it takes a long time to get through the hiring process.  Just before I shipped out for my basic training academy, I was rear-ended by contractor van.  The damage wasn’t too bad; I got a new rear bumper and tailgate and I got a chunk o’crap Chevy Lumina rental car for a couple of weeks.

I wasn’t allowed to have a car at the academy for the first few weeks so I left it parked in front of my parent’s house.  They told me that just after I left home, the tires and wheels were stolen and replaced by insurance.

I drove the truck to the academy in Georgia for six months and then on to a new career and life adventures in Texas from there.  I was young and single and everything I owned fit in the 6 1/2′ bed of the truck.  I got stopped by a crusty old Texas trooper doing about 85 on I-20 on the way out with all of my belongings in the back.  He laughed, told me to drive carefully and wished me luck in my new career.

I was stationed not far from the Mexican border and stolen late model pickup trucks, especially Dodges, were a thing, so I installed a fuel pump kill switch.

I met my first wife not long after I got there.  She worked for a church and on our first date, I picked her up in the truck after work and went to dinner.  After dinner, I dropped her off after we fooled around in the truck for awhile.  In the church parking lot.  He he.

One morning in 1999, I was driving to my reserve drill weekend an hour away and I stopped to get gas about 40 minutes away.  It was a chilly morning and I didn’t want to shut the heat off while I was pumping gas, so I left the truck running.  Of course, I locked the keys in the truck while it was running.  My girlfriend had spent the night at my apartment and I called to see if she could bring my spare key.  She said OK and headed out in her Blazer.  Unfortunately, she grabbed the keys to the ’69 Charger I had at the time.  She felt terrible and was worried I was going to get in trouble for being late to drill but that wasn’t a problem; I called and let them know.  I drove back to my apartment with her in her car and then drove back out to the gas station where the truck had been idling for about an hour and a half now.  My Chief had a good laugh and I made it up to my GF with a nice dinner.

I did a rancher a favor and had my first roadkill in the truck, a dumbass coyote on a desert road.

We got married a year later and the truck was the actual the star of the wedding after our friends decorated it with all of the obnoxious wedding decorations that usually adorn a newly married couple’s car.

She got pregnant soon after and one day late in her seventh month, I got a call from the doctors office.  At a routine doctors appt, she became preeclampsic and they were admitting her that day for an emergency C-section and I needed to get there right away.  I packed the truck with whatever baby stuff I could find and hauled ass to the hospital.  Not paying attention and on the verge of panic, what I thought was the baby car seat was actually the seat section of a swing.

She was a difficult baby.  She had colic, chronic ear infections and had trouble sleeping and we spent many hours in the truck driving around as often, that was the only thing that would put her to sleep.  This fall, it will be hauling her things off to her dorm as she starts her freshman year in college.

About a month before my daughter was born though, a good friend of mine was killed in the line of duty.  I drove the truck across Texas and back to his funeral and I had his picture taped to the dash for a while, both in his memory but also as a reminder for me to be safe at work.

All of this time, I had stayed in the Reserves and in 2001, I was selected for Officer Candidate School, was commissioned as an officer and finished 3rd in my class.  After I got home from OCS, I was so proud to get my blue officer’s base parking decal (enlisted is red) that I drove the truck around to all 5 gates on base just so the enlisted MPs at the gates could salute me.  I had a fragile ego back then I guess.

I immediately went on short term orders at my new unit to break in as an officer and learn the ropes.  On my last day on orders, I had just finished a review board and was about to pack up the truck and head home.  I was checking out with the XO when the whole crew got called into the conference room.  The news was on TV.

The second plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center, another had crashed into the Pentagon and a 4th plane’s whereabouts were unknown.  It was September 11, 2001.

The base went into lockdown and then we were all told to go home and await further orders.  As I was the only reservist there at the time, the XO pulled me aside and told me to go home, pack my bags and be ready to come back, probably for awhile.

I drove across the state of Texas, just me and the black truck, listening to AM news stations as much as I could, completely in a daze and wanting nothing more to get home and huddle with my new little family, thinking it was some kind of armegeddon was setting in, also realizing that the middle of Texas was probably the safest place in the country to be.

And that’s exactly what happened, 9/11 was a Tuesday and I was back at my unit the next Monday.  A week after that, I was deployed to Ground Zero, where I spent a few more weeks seeing first hand the evil that men can do.

The entire time I was in New York on my 9/11 deployment, working on the security of the Port and volunteering to help sift through the rubble, the keys to the black truck were in my pocket and it patiently waited for me in the base parking lot back in Texas.  I hung an American flag in the back window when I got back.

As a New York resident for so many years, I took the WTC for granted, they were always just there in the background.  My first 2 years in the Coast Guard were spent at Governors Island at the base of Manhattan, and there were the Towers, just existing as part of the landscape.  Interestingly, the only time I had ever been to the WTC was when I went for my medical exam for my first LE job after college just before I left New York for good.

And now they were gone, and I was standing staring at the holes in the ground where they used to be.

Anyway, I couldn’t wait to get home and settle back into my life, but no more than a month after coming home, my wife was diagnosed with Guillen-Barre syndrome.  So, for several months, I was both my wife’s primary caregiver and sole parent to our daughter while my wife went through several plasma transfusions and procedures.  A scary time, both in the outside world and at home, and for the whole time, my black truck was the workhorse, ferrying my near-invalid wife to countless doctors appointments or the baby to her caregivers.

But she made a full recovery and later in the year, I was hired by another government alphabet agency, into a job I had been trying to get for almost 2 years with a guaranteed transfer back to the east coast.  But first, I had to complete another basic training academy in Georgia so I was gone for another 6 months.  I took the black truck with me, where it turned 100K at only 6 years old.

While there, I made a trip down to Daytona for the Turkey Run car show and swap meet, where I picked up a set of knock-off 18″ Torque Thrust wheels.

While I was in Georgia, we had gone back to Iraq and I got a call from my unit telling me I was on the hook to go.  Yes, the Coast Guard was in Iraq.  I told my command that I was wrapping up my police academy and they agreed to let me finish it up, go home and spend a week with my family to get my affairs in order and then I would be on a plane headed east.

However, I had a surprise waiting for me at the Troop Clinic when I went for my deployment physical.  I had no idea that I had an inguinal hernia until the doc told me so and I needed surgery as soon as possible.  That wound up deferring my deployment for another 2 years, and I was OK with that.

USCGC MONOMOY (WPB-1326) on patrol in the Persian Gulf near the Al-Basrah oil terminal in 2005.

I recovered from my surgery, went back to work and now my wife was pregnant with our second child just as I had gotten orders to transfer to Virginia.  It was the summer of 2003 and my pregnant wife and 2 year old daughter had left for Virginia in early August in our trusty 2002 Durango and I followed a month later.  My Dad flew out to Texas to help with the move.  At the time, I also had a 1987 Ramcharger, so I drove my Ramcharger with my dogs and my Dad drove the pickup with the stuff we didn’t send with the movers.  I also had a ’68 Coronet and a ’72 Fury, both of which I had truck shipped and we made the trip in 3 days.  My Dad accidently tripped the fuel pump switch in the middle of Arkansas where we had gotten separated by about 20 miles and I had to turn around and rescue him.

As we were settling into VA and I bought TBT as the ‘family’ vehicle, I didn’t want to part with the black truck; the dealers wouldn’t give me anything on trade for it anyway, so I kept it as a ‘spare’ truck and sold the Ramcharger.

2 wheel drive, regular cab, short box.  Time to build a hot rod.

The Ford Lightnings had already become well known on the street as fast pickups and Dodge was about to release the SRT Viper Truck.  I wanted to build something to beat, or at least keep up with those monsters.

First, however, I would have to get my wife through the birth of our second daughter, where she was preeclempsic again, and this time the baby would need emergency surgery on an intestinal blockage a few days after she was born.  Again, black truck to the rescue, as I was running around from hospital to hospital, and did I mention we were in the middle of moving into a new house?  And that new house had just been damaged by a hurricane.

And then there was my new job, with a very difficult and demanding boss, who was more concerned about how quickly I was coming back to work rather than if my wife and newborn child might actually live.

So again, it was a bit of stressful time, both at home and at work.  But my cars were always there for my stress relief.

First order of business was to make it look cool.  Like I mentioned before, I think these are the best looking pickups ever, even over the early Fords and ’60s Chevys, so I wanted to give it a classic look.  It was already black and I added the Torque Thrusts so I wanted to add some classic, traditional hot rod flames.  I got loaded in my garage one night and drew an outline on the front end of what I wanted them to look like.  A painter buddy of mine came over the next weekend and we hand painted the flames that you see in the pictures.  In 2008, I picked up the Billet Specialties wheels at the Carlisle swap meet that are on it now.

So now that I had the look, I needed a powerplant to go with it.  The Chrysler Magnum small blocks are pretty capable engines even in stock form so in 2005, I built a 440-HP/520 lb/ft 408 cubic inch stroker engine with plans of later adding a supercharger. I was so proud of the engine but the blower never happened.  The engine itself ran strong, I had a pro-built transmission, and a custom programmed computer but the 3 never talked to each other they way they should have and I never got the truck dialed in right or out of the 13 second bracket; my goal was the 11s.

The 408 wiped out a cam and broke a piston with about 30K miles on it in 2011 and today it sits in a dark corner in my garage; perhaps someday it will find a home in a Duster or a Volare.  The truck was my negative learning experience in hot rodding modern electronic cars; I’ll stick with the old ones.

I don’t want to put any more money and time into it as a performance vehicle so after I blew up the 408, I put the original 360 back in it with the intake, throttle body and headers from the 408 and now it runs consistent 15.0s at 92 mph.  That’s quick enough for a full-sized truck and it can still tow my boat so its still a functional pickup.  If I want to go fast, I have other cars for that now.

Life continued on and the black truck remained a productive member of society.  Just after my Dad passed away, I drove it up to New York to help my Mom get his things together.  10 years after he helped me buy it, and in fact it was he that drove me to the dealer to pick it up, and now I was using it to help move his things after his passing.  That was hard, but at least the truck will always be part of his legacy to me.

My kids grew up with it and they always liked riding in the back (just on my property, never on the road.)  I cant even count how many Scout camping trips its been on, carrying all the camping gear.

In 2008, my civilian career wasn’t going in the direction I wanted so I went back on extended active duty for 5 years, the first 3 of which were at Camp Lejeune, which I have written about extensively in some of my other COALs.

It was a 4 hour drive through rural roads in VA and NC and I normally found it very peaceful.  The truck has a great Kenwood stereo that I installed in 2002 and I turned it up on my drive.  A lot.

In 2006, I was doing some work on my ’68 Coronet and I borrowed a buddy’s engine lift.  We loaded it, crane arm facing front, into the truck and I didn’t bother tying it down because I was only driving it about 3 miles so what were the chances of something going wrong?  A beat up old truck in front of me stopped short to turn with no brake lights or turn signals, forcing me to stop short as well and the crane arm came crashing through the rear window.

In 2010, I went to the gym before I had an overnight duty and I once again locked the keys in the truck.  Strapped for time, I didn’t even bother to try to open the door, I just kicked out the sliding rear window and reached in to open the door.  And then, of course, there was a massive rainstorm that night and I drove the 200 miles home in the morning with a wet butt.

Also that year, I got sent down to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, where I was assigned to Destin, FL.  While all of my Marine Corps friends were coming and going from Iraq and Afghanistan, I got deployed to Destin, FL.  Boy did I take a lot of ribbing for that!  Anyway, after a couple of weeks in Destin, I was rerouted up to Cape May, NJ, which is where Coast Guard boot camp is held, to work on a plan for recalling retirees and veterans with pollution response experience as the USCG was exhausting all of its active and reserve personnel resources in the Gulf.  I flew back to VA and then drove the black truck up to Cape May, the first time I had been back since I went to boot camp almost 2o years earlier.

A year later, my wife and I split after 11 years of marriage.  The same black truck that helped move us across country, helped with the difficult births of our children, the truck we took on our first date was now being used to move her things out of the house we had raised our family in.

But life went on and so did the truck.

I wrapped up my orders in 2013 and started a new job with another alphabet agency and, once again, had to go for additional agency-specific training in Georgia for another 7 months.

And once again, the black truck was there with me.

In 2017, 6 years after moving my X out with the truck, that same flaming black pickup moved my wonderful new bride in.  With her horses.  And a donkey.  And all of her stuff.

Wife #2 got pregnant shortly after we got married, and just like with wife #1, the difficult, preeclampsic birth and eventual homecoming of our new child was aided by the black truck.

225,000 miles have passed underneath the truck’s tires, all of which I can account for in its maintenance log.  Flipping through the log, I see its had 6 sets of tires, 4 batteries, 3 sets of shocks, a set of ball joints, 5 brake jobs, 3 serpentine belts, a radiator, and the headers blow exhaust gaskets about every 2 years.

Its travelled I-10 and I-95 in their entirety and I’ve driven it through 37 states.

I still use it like a truck; it tows my boat, hauls cars, and just this morning, it picked up a load of mulch.…and sometimes this happens on a truck that gets used like a truck with almost a quarter of a million miles.  Thankfully, it was just a bad ignition coil.


The drivers seat seam is starting to split on the side, the leather steering wheel wrap has long ago disintegrated and is now covered with a cheap but comfortable aftermarket steering wheel wrap, and the headliner needs to be replaced but the interior is otherwise in good shape and there are no squeaks or rattles.  Chrysler can screw together a good vehicle when they want to.

There is not a speck of rust on the truck anywhere but the paint and flames are starting to show their age.  At some point, I would like a nice, show-quality, professional paint and flame job.

The semi-original 360 still runs great, it doesn’t burn any oil or leak anything.  I never checked the compression in the cylinders since there really is no reason to.   The A518 transmission leaks fluid at the shaft seal but otherwise shifts fine; I’ll get to it eventually.

And so there it is, the truck of my lifetime.

And so this concludes the COALs of my current vehicle fleet, although I will write more stories on cars that have come and gone.  Some people say I have a collection; its not and I am definitely not a collector.  Collectors are wealthy guys with manicured and curated cars.  I just own a lot of cars and they are cars that are driven and maintained often, anywhere, anytime, and usually hard.   So thank you all for your kind words and compliments  and especially to Paul for providing me a venue like this fantastic website where, indeed, Every Car Has A Story.