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The Black Pickup

by Vern Zielke

Actually, the pickup was not always black. It is likely that it came from the assembly line with a coat of brilliant red.  Born sometime in 1935 or1936, it was purchased by my dad, secondhand, at about the time of the second big war. When this acquisition was made I was eight or nine years old. Why it became black I do not recall, but I do remember that the paint job was done quickly and quite efficiently with a can of black paint and a big brush. It would be fair to say that the pickup and I grew up together, although it had a bit of a head start when you consider the average life span of a 1936 Chevrolet pickup truck.

Every farm needs a truck. Our farm needed a truck, and had up to this point relied mostly on trailers to haul things. If things were too large for the trailer then someone would have to be called to facilitate the moving of whatever goods were in need of transport. Wheat, during harvest, was hauled by Uncle Hank's truck and by Fred, an itinerant hauler who came around to work for us in this capacity for several summers. I was Fred's seatmate and confidant on many a trip to town and back.

The black pickup was not a large truck. It was a half-ton model with a four-speed transmission, built for light work. By putting sideboards on the box and using oversized tires, it was possible to haul forty-five to fifty bushels of wheat. By mounting a homemade, wooden stock rack on the sideboards, the vehicle could transport pigs, calves, or even a steer to market. By stretching chicken wire over the box, it could be used to take a load of chickens to Klien's in Dodge City.

These were all utilitarian uses for this truck. But as I said, the pickup and I grew up together. More to the point, the pickup contributed to my growth into young manhood by allowing me more independence than my parents may have been aware of. After all, when a boy can operate a vehicle designed for adult use, he tends to develop a bit of an attitude somewhere between self-confidence and a mild form of arrogance.

My first experience as a motor vehicle operator came when I was very young. I was so small that, as I sat in the driver's seat I could only see blue sky through the windshield. My task was to drive slowly along the pasture fence while my dad stood in the back and dropped new fence posts where replacements were to be made. This gave me lots of practice in starts and stops and produced a few tense moments when the left front fender grazed the barbed wire fence.

From this rather shaky start I progressed rapidly. I was soon driving to and from the field and on different errands to Uncle Hank's farm or even to Uncle George's place. I became somewhat of an authority on the performance of a '36 Chevy. I, at various times, tested how fast it would run, how effective the brakes were, and how accurately it could negotiate corners at fast speeds.

Harvest time was, of course, the most glorious of times for a young wheat hauler. I made many a trip from the combine to the granaries on the farmyard, and just as many from the combine to the grain elevator in Meade or Fowler. No driver's license was required during these carefree times, and no one was surprised to see a small boy come wheeling onto the scales in a black pickup. It was harvest, and everyone was expected to help in whatever way they could. I recall no mishaps of a serious nature and in retrospect, I question how I passed unscathed through these years.

When I reached the ripe old age of fourteen, the time came to consider a mode of transportation to and from high school. My school was seven miles away, and the dirt roads were often muddy, drifted over with snow, or deeply rutted. My dad thought the black pickup would make a keen school bus if he would design and build a topper to fit over the box. This was before anyone had ever, at least as far as I knew, thought of such a thing. He proceeded to build a crude affair made of tin, which would provide a cover for a number of passengers. Thus the old Chevy made its contribution to the education of several young students by getting them to the right place more or less on time. I do not recall that a lot of consideration was given to the comfort of the passengers and it seems now that it must have been cold and lonely under this canopy on a bleak winter's morning.

It was during this time that my maternal grandmother had to move out her house because she could no longer live by herself. Her sons and daughters decided that it would be well for her to move from place to place among the siblings, spending several weeks at each place in turn. It so happened that on a cold winter's day it was time for her to make the move to our house. I was instructed to pick her up on my way home from school since her time at Uncle Abe's house had expired. The roads were very muddy, and deep ruts had been carved into the roadbed by passing vehicles. The going was treacherous and I was not sure if the pickup would be able to make it home. I was faced with the question: what do I do with grandma if I get mired down? I had just one remedy: drive as fast as possible and keep the wheels spinning. Grandma hung on for dear life as the pickup pitched and yawed, clawing its way through the mud. Grandma had been through much in her life, including a stormy sea journey to these shores when she was a child. She may have considered this experience just another phase in her rather tumultuous life. She had no comment. As for me, I was glad to get home, and rather proud of my ability to navigate under difficult circumstances.

Using the pickup as a school bus lasted for one year and in subsequent years other modes of transportation were devised and agreed upon, one of which almost led to my demise. That, however, is another story.

  Possibly the greatest role that the pickup had in shaping my life was that of providing me with transportation in my hunting expeditions. It was in my fourteenth year that I acquired a gun. My father did not own a gun. He said that he did not see a need for a gun and that if he needed anything shot he would call Uncle Hank. Some of my friends had guns or they had the use of their fathers' guns. It so happened that one of my friends wanted to sell his rifle and offered it to me for $10.00. I became the proud owner of a Remington single shot bolt action rifle and my dad reluctantly allowed me to keep it.

It so happened that a portion of our pasture was home to a rather large population of prairie dogs. They were great fun to have around and one could spend hours watching their antics as they popped out of their burrows, stood up on their hind legs, and barked messages back and forth to each other. Farmers, however, considered them a menace. The towns, which they developed, could turn an otherwise lush pasture into a barren waste. They were among the first developers to convert good agricultural land into urban housing. Much time and money was spent trying to eradicate the pests. The most common method was that of forcing poison gas into the burrows, but this was only mildly effective. Because of the network of tunnels, which connected their subterranean living space, the gas often did not reach much of the population.

The obvious solution to the prairie dog problem was to stalk them and kill them one by one. The black pickup became my steed, from which I could patrol the entire expanse of prairie dog land. To facilitate efficient shooting I removed both doors so as to make it possible to get off a quick shot from either side. I spent many hours playing the sniper, trying to outwit the wily dogs. It was only on rare occasions that I could actually retrieve my prey because even if I hit one of the little rodents, they would dive into their burrows and either live or die. While this saved on disposal concerns, it did make it difficult to get an accurate body count.

Prairie dogs were not the only targets. Sparrows, rabbits, skunks, and even occasional coyotes were hunted and shot at from either side of the black pickup. The rifle and I became almost constant companions. No stray bullets ever found their mark in livestock or people or passing cars, although the roofs of the neighbor's farm buildings may well have harbored a bit of lead. I was very much aware that the box of shells, which I bought at the hardware store, contained a warning statement, which informed the user that the range of a 22 long rifle bullet was one mile. I considered myself a hunter who put safety first and I am pleased to say that nothing serious ever occurred.

The day came, however, when the black pickup was traded for a 1949 Ford half-ton truck. It was almost new and I didn't miss the old Chevy too much as I drove this newly acquired vehicle. As for the rifle, it stayed on the farm when I went to college, and I would get it out when I came home on vacation or in the summer. Somehow it was not as much fun to shoot things anymore.

I decided to keep the old rifle and teach my boys to become marksmen when they were old enough to learn. As time went on, however, I became more and more convinced that the world had too many guns as it was, and that a familiarity with them was no great virtue. One day a man offered to buy it from me and I gladly let him have it.  And so my dad was mostly right after all, as he so often was. He never did push his point very hard, but the drummer he marched to sometimes played a slightly different beat. After all, he did invent and install the first pickup topper I ever saw. And, oh yes, he did use my rifle sometimes to shoot a young rooster rather than trying to chase it down when mom sent him out to procure the main course for dinner.

The black pickup and the rifle, among other things, contributed to my coming of age. Conveyances of all kinds, be it a horse or a camel or something with wheels, have always given a measure of freedom and independence to the young. The urge to move away from the nest seems to be the way the world works. I shall always remember my black pickup.

 

(copyright Vern Zielke)

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