Down on the Farm · The Last Half Century

You Call That a Truck?

I recently read a review of a truck in a newspaper. When I looked at a picture of the cab interior I felt like I was looking at a living room in Architectural Digest complete with leather recliners, end tables with cup holders and a big screen television. This wasn’t even close to the trucks I grew up with on my dad’s farm in the 1960s and 70s. Those trucks were battle worn, proven worthy of the title truck.

One my earliest memories of our farm truck was the 1950s vintage yellow Ford. I recall sitting on the passenger side of the bench seat with springs visible through torn vinyl, my legs dangling above a rusted out hole in the floor where I could see the pavement passing below us. The dash was dusted with a layer of road and grain dust. Bolts and wrenches strewn along the dash rattled with each bump. It created an image for me of what the interior of a truck cab should look like.

A dozen hogs were crammed in the pickup bed behind us. As the hogs jostled in the back, the pickup would sway a bit, sometimes enough to require my dad to take corrective actions with the steering wheel. Tall wooden, hand-built sides and a back on the pickup bed kept the hogs contained. It was one of the many trips my dad took to the livestock auction in town when it was time to thin the herd. When we returned, the bed had to be cleaned of its manure and straw. There was no bed liner, only a scratched and dented floor and sides.

The yellow truck had a column shift placed just below the steering wheel. You can tell someone’s age if they remember driving a car with a column shift. An automatic transmission was an expensive option in those days — something only a pampered truck would have, not a real truck. Under the hood there wasn’t just an engine, but an engine room. When my dad popped the bulbous hood on the truck to service it, his whole body almost disappeared inside the engine compartment.

What the yellow truck lacked in safety features, it made up for it in the sheer mass of its steel frame and heavy steel fenders. Those fenders resisted cattle, heavy bags of fertilizer and wayward farm equipment. But those fenders couldn’t protect us kids from our own foolishness. Once our brother took us out for a spin in the truck with a bunch of us riding in the back. I remember the truck fishtailing around a corner and seeing my sister fly out the back into the ditch. We screamed for him to stop, but he couldn’t hear us. When we informed him what happened on our return home, he quickly retraced his route and found her walking home with a bruised bottom and perhaps her pride, but fortunately nothing worse. (It showed me why no one should ever ride in the truck bed.)

When the yellow truck was finally retired, it was recycled, but not like we think of it today. My dad promptly disassembled the truck and used the rear axle to replace the REO car axle on one of our farm wagons. You read that right. Years before he and my uncle disassembled a REO car and used the frame and rear axle topped with a wagon box from the Sears catalog to create a farm grain wagon. The remaining old yellow truck frame, fenders and parts were added to the “just in case I need it” pile of spare parts. (Not to be outdone, later my dad bought a wrecked travel trailer RV and converted the frame into a flatbed trailer.)

The replacement for the yellow truck came with some assembly required. My dad purchased a used wrecker truck minus its towing apparatus. He promptly fitted it with a flatbed over its dually rear axle. Then we crafted wood sides to enclose the flatbed, creating a huge box with no wheel wells. At planting time, we loaded the back of the truck with a couple tons of bagged fertilizer and towed the old REO car farm wagon full of seed. It looked like something that came from the Island of Misfit Toys on the old Rudolph television show.

This was the vehicle I used to hone my driving skills a couple years before I had my driver’s license. I was just big enough to depress the clutch and grab the long shifter mounted to the floor. I became fond of this truck. The truck driving skills I acquired on the farm served me well in college. I landed a job driving a truck for the university, making food deliveries all over campus to the various dorm cafeterias. Backing up to a loading dock was simple compared to backing up a truck with a wagon hitched to it.

These trucks from my growing up years shaped my image of what a real truck should be. They were bare bones right down to the cab with a metal dash, basic vinyl bench seat and an AM radio that could pick up the farm report and the local weather forecast. They were all business, ready to get down to some serious work. The only accessories added were wrenches on the dash, jumper cables behind the seat, a spare quart of oil, maybe a note pad with a pencil and a nice layer of grain and road dust scattered throughout. You knew the truck was well broken in when a cloud of dust filled the cab each time you plopped yourself down on the seat. Maybe that’s the real measure of a truck — that broken-in feel.

The other day I was talking to my nephew about his truck. He was relaying to me how when he unloaded rocks from the truck bed, he tried to toss a big rock over the side and it promptly landed on the fender, leaving a big dent. I smiled at him and said, “Now you have a real truck.”

© 2022 CGThelen

2 thoughts on “You Call That a Truck?

  1. ‘64 Rambler station wagon.
    Up the steepest hill.
    Stop mid hill.
    Start again.
    Could barely reach the clutch. Three on the tree.
    My dads idea of drivers ed!!

    Never driven anything but a stick.
    Still love it.

    Thanks for these terrific memory joggers!

    1. Thanks for sharing those memories. Oh yeah, “three on a tree” — good ole column shift. Starting uphill with a stick shift is quite the driver lesson! I never could quite get the heel-toe move — one on the brake with the other on the clutch.

      Good to hear there are still loyal stick shift followers. They are getting harder to find on new cars. I had to abandon the stick shift when my knee began to protest all the clutching in city driving.

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