Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Truck Drivin' Man

It's amazing, almost pitiful, what a chunk of metal does for your life.

By Paul Gerald

AUGUST 21, 2000:  There I was, careening down a bumpy road, my vehicle a symphony of pops, squeaks, and moans. I could hardly hear the radio's piddling speakers over the sound of gravel bouncing below my feet. Hot air was swirling around me; I have no-air conditioning. I could almost see the motion of the gas gauge falling. There was spilled root beer on the seat.

And all in all, I hadn't been happier in a long, long time. That's because after all these years and so many dreams, I'm a truck guy now. And since I'm a freelance travel writer, I couldn't even think about buying one of those gleaming roadhogs they call trucks these days, like that Ford with four doors. What the hell? Some of those things would seem to require a boating license.

No, sir. I got me a 1986 Toyota pickup with 129,000 miles on it, and I paid less than $3,500 for it. It's even got a small hole in the muffler -- gives it that rumbling sound, like it's got something bigger than a four-cylinder engine under there.

You see, I grew up in East Memphis, a child of relative privilege, and no matter how hard I try I'm still a suburban kid. I was neither Midtown Hip nor Collierville Redneck -- more like Docksider Dull. I've had a few cars along the way that used to be in the family, and in my wish that they were trucks, I treated them all with a complete lack of respect. It was some kind of rebellion thing, I'm sure.

I had an Audi in college. I drove it 36,000 miles the first year I had it and put 116,000 on it in four years. I didn't make real good grades, but I sure had fun. At the end, the Audi shuddered when the gear caught.

Then I had a thing called a Merkur, which nobody could really identify (much less work on) and which I destroyed by loading it with all my worldly possessions and trying to drive it to Oregon. The Merkur made all but 250 miles of that trip and was last seen driving mechanics insane in Pendleton as I boarded a Greyhound.

Then came a seven-year-old Maxima which I beat the hell out of on dirt and gravel roads, trying to get to trailheads. Something eventually went goofy in its transmission -- some kind of rebellion on its part to be relieved of duty as my car, I'm sure.

So it's gone, and in its place is this beat-up, rusty, clanking and clanging Toyota that used to live in Yosemite National Park. It's pre-abused! The door sticks, opening the windows is a workout, I'm never really sure it's going to start, it doesn't even have power steering -- but my mechanic says the engine is solid, and I think I love it already.

We Americans do identify with our cars, don't we? I mean, it's a chunk of metal -- an expensive, maddening, dangerous chunk of metal. But driving is the modern American dream, a symbol for everything we hold dear in our lifestyle: freedom, independence, vanity, decadence, speed, money, power, and sex. Admit it: You judge people, in part, by what they drive, right?

Our car sends a message. A BMW says, "I'm successful and I want you to know it." A minivan says, "I've got kids, and I vote Republican." An Accord says, "I've got a job, but not a great one, and this works for now." A Saturn says, "I'm just like everybody else." A 1960s Corvette, or a convertible of any sort, says "I'm a fortysomething male." A VW bus says, "I wish I was still on a Dead tour."

And my 1986 Toyota? It says something like, "Get out of my way; I'm not sure the brakes work that well."

It's like a whole new adventure in driving, a closer relationship with my vehicle. I try to plan my route to avoid backing up, parallel parking, turning left, or needing to accelerate quickly. The first time the seat belt whipped in the wind, I was sure the engine was failing. I find myself looking forward to my first dent.

Strange as it sounds, I'm happy to have given up my Maxima with the CD player for a truck that practically pre-dates CD players and whose tape deck doesn't even have auto-reverse. I actually had to pop out my, yes, Marshall Tucker Band tape to flip it over. It's like I've taken a step toward the primordial. And I'm practically giddy with glee.

And I will be until the truck fails to start on some remote road, or the window won't roll down on a 95 degree day, or the tape deck eats Jerry Jeff Walker's greatest hits. Then it'll be the same piece of crap that we all think our cars are most of the time. But for now it's nice to actually be a truck-drivin' man. I think I'll go see if it starts right now so I can run over something and see what noises it makes.

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