When my parents settled here in Acton back in the mid 1960s, they had just left a middle class life in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Around every corner a shopping center waited patiently and convenient for them to use. Multiple avenues of sensory stimulation were available by short drives or minor adjustments of the TV or radio dial. Everything they needed, or thought they needed handy and only a stones throw away.
Now they were in rural Maine. As rural goes by Maine standards, Acton was and still is only considered semi rural I guess. The closest grocery store is only 9 miles away. Acton has a gas station. Portland is a short 45 minute drive away. The Boston area can be reached in two hours if you hit the traffic right.
My mom hated it immediately. My dad knew he had found his final resting place. Mom liked the city. I don't think my dad knew what he liked until he came to Acton. To him and the rest of the family, no place had ever seemed like home. We certainly moved around enough to support that idea.
Dad immersed himself in the retired old guy rural gig. Puttered in the yard. Grew plants of all kinds and edibility. Built his Heath kit electronic gizmos. Expanded his woodworking skills by making my Aunt(his sister) a custom made doll house and all the furniture. And he bought himself his first pick up truck. A brand new 1971 baby shit brown Datsun Pick Up. Cost $1900. And even though the good ole boys of Acton raised their eyebrows over this wannabe Chevy when he went to the dump, he didn't care. He loved that truck.
Because he loved it, he couldn't leave it alone. He just had to improve it. He began to yank things out and put new things in. He was less than impressed with the ignition system, so he found some guaranteed to be better kit that was gonna make it hum and he put it in. By the time he was done, that little sewing machine four cylinder engine growled.
This is where I come into this tale. During this period of acclimating to the rural scene, I had been doing the school boy thing 600 miles away. I finished out military school and immediately went to college. I only visited Acton during holidays and in the summer. In the Spring of 1972, I brought Tom, my college roommate home for Easter. And my dad, the retired military guy, was ever so happy to have some troops back and under his command. He put us to work. Yard work, dub work, etc. Our reward was allowing me to go to the dump in his new truck.
I don't know what it is about certain vehicles and their affect on certain personalities. But the first time I sat in that truck, I knew I had found the kind of vehicle I was meant to drive, own, exist in. Without hesitation, I understood that Mike and Pick Up truck shared a common unbreakable bond. I loved that little truck I think more than my dad did.
So, we load up for the dump. I pull out the drive and head down to the corner to go right to the dump. At the corner, the Datsun stalls. No problem. I just fire it up and.......er er er er er. Shit! It won't start. Now it might have made sense to walk back up the hill the 200 yards back to the house to get my dad. With some dads, that would indeed be the right thing to do. But I knew my dad. Somehow, the failure of the truck would be my fault and the rest of the vacation would be suffered under the evil eye of a man who blamed me for hurting his pride and joy.
So I do the next best thing. Tom and I get out and we pop the hood. "Christ on a crutch Mike", Tom says, "What the Hell is going on in here?"
Under the hood is a mass of odd wires, strange boxes attached to this or that. It looks like no engine compartment we had ever seen. Of course I had not seen many. I was not into engines. But I knew the basics. And what sat in that compartment was not basic. "Uh, Well Dad did say he had fiddled with it to get more out of it."
At this point Harlan Wilson, the Acton Postmaster, wanders over from his house on the opposite corner. "What's up boys? Having some trouble?"
"Oh hey Mr Wilson. Yeah, I got here to the corner and it just quit."
"Get in and turn it over."
I climbed back in the truck and turned the ignition. "Er er er er er ka chik, ka chik er er er."
Mr Wilson turns on his heel and says, "I'll be right back." Tom and I look at each other. I am thinking Mr Wilson must have some old fart wisdom that will get us going and I relax.
Tom starts in about foreign vehicles, especially the junk coming out of Japan and how his dad, a gas station owner, hated them. "Those Japs just don't get it", he said. I want to get defensive. After all I had fallen in love, but the current status of the little Datsun kind of made any defense of it seem weak and ill timed. So I sat quiet and waited for Mr Wilson. I hoped he would solve the glitch. We would go to the dump and return with the truck. My dad would never have to know.
Minutes passed. Tom and I passed the time just sitting with the doors flung open and enjoying the warmth of an early Spring day in Maine. Finally Mr. Wilson came hobbling over on his bum legs with a spray can in his hand. I had no idea what it was. Written on the label were the words "Starting Fluid". Okay. I guess that is what it was. Mr Wilson set the can down and unscrewed the air filter cover. He removed the air filter and said, "When I tell you to, turn it over. But if it doesn't catch soon, stop. Okay go!"
And I turned the key. "Er er er Ka Chik Ka chik, Cough cough,, er er er." And I stopped. No go.
Mr. Wilson looked puzzled. "Damn Jap cars. My Ford would have started. Let's go again."
"Er er er Ka Chik Ka chik, Cough cough,, er er er." And I stopped again
"No Mike, keep cranking it."
"Er er er Ka Chik Ka chik, Cough cough,, er er er........ "Er er er Ka Chik Ka chik, Cough cough,, er er er.............."Er er er Ka Chik Ka chik, Cough cough,, er er er. Harlan Wilson stepped back shaking the can of starting fluid. "Well, I guess it needs more than I have." He had turned around and rubbing his head all I heard, "Goddam Japs, why anyone would buy their crap, mutter, mutter", and he gimped back to his house leaving Tom and I sitting there.
My shoulders slumped as I got up and began to trudge up the hill to my house."Come on Tom, let's go tell the ole goat I broke his truck."
A few minutes later we entered the kitchen. Dad was where he always was on Sunday morning. Sitting at the kitchen table doing his cross word puzzle. He looked up at us over his half lens reading glasses. "Dump still there?"
"Uh dad, well, we didn't make it to the dump. The truck stalled down at the corner and well Mr Wilson tried to help, but he gave up."
The change in body language was profound. The look he had switched from friendly to unfriendly before I even finished the tale. "You let that idiot Wilson do something to my truck? What the Hell were you thinking. I was only 200 yards away. You know he blew up his snow blower last year trying to start it with starting fluid. The fool thinks starting fluid is some kind of mechanical genie in a can."
The look on our faces must have told him what happened. "No, tell me you did not let him use any starting fluid?"
"Well", Tom started, "yeah, better part of a whole can he sprayed into the air intake."
My dad got up. At five foot ten he was not particularly tall, but he was this morning. He pushed past me and fetched his jacket and hat from the front hall closet. "Let's go see what damage you have caused."
We followed my father down the road. He walked with purpose. He walked with a straight back. I imagined he was trying to calm himself before he viewed the wounds his baby had just endured at the hands of careless children. Reaching the truck, he walked around the front and stuck his head in the engine compartment. He fiddled with some wires, reinstalled the air filter and cover, and slammed the hood closed. Climbing in behind the wheel he started in on me. "You have to treat machinery with respect. I don't know what you did, but I am sure it was ........blah blah blah." He turned the ignition key.
"Er er er Ka Chik Ka chik, Cough cough,, er er er.' He stopped. Waiting a moment I guess for the starter to cool and all the while continuing his rant about useless teenager kids and how they never pay attention..... and then he fires it up again.
"Er er er Ka Chik Ka chik, Cough cough,, er er er ...er er er uh k chunk......BOOM!"
And massive volumes of smoke come billowing out from underneath of the truck. My father sitting there with the door flung open turns to me and his face has gone white. His eyes the size of saucers. None of us speak.
Tom is the first one to compose himself. He kneels down and looks under the truck. All I hear is "WOW!" Tom stands up. He does not say anything. His face is a puzzle. There appears to be pain but he might look like he is trying to keep a straight face.
"Well", my father finally snaps back into the here an now, "what happened?"
"Geez General Macrum", I can tell Tom does not or cannot say what he has to, "It looks like someone stuffed a grenade into the muffler and it blew......." Suddenly Tom cannot contain himself and he begins shake and snort. It is obvious he is trying not to laugh.
Disgusted, my dad looks at me, "Mike, take a look."
I knelt down absolutely afraid of the damage I would find. The muffler indeed looks like it had taken a direct hit. It was basically gone and one piece sat insolently on the ground. The tail pipe swung free as if it were a pendulum. I started to laugh. I didn't even try to hold back. I just let loose. The father anger, the march down the hill, Mr Wilson. And now this wonderfully blown up muffler. It was just too much. I stood up and just hung on to the bed of the truck and let it rip. Tears shot out of my eyes as I shook with laughter.
" I'm glad you two think this is funny," my dad says. But his mood had changed. He did not appear angry any more, just disgusted. "I guess that takes care of the starting fluid", and he turned the ignition key one more time.
"Er er er Ka Chik Ka chik, Cough cough,, er er er.....VROOM." The damn truck fired right up. It was loud, but it was running. A serene look came over him. Even the noise of a blown muffler did not seem to break his calm. His pride and joy still worked. That was all that mattered.
He slammed the door closed. He looked up at us through the window. "Never ever let that dumass Harlan Wilson near anything of ours that has an engine in it. He thinks starting fluid is the answer to all mechanical problems. You know, he blew up his snow blower last winter. You two can walk home." And he turned right and headed to the dump. Engine blaring loud and proud with an occasional backfire. He disappeared around the corner as the tail pipe swung back and forth.
I ended up inheriting that 1971 Datsun Pick Up eight years later when my father passed. It had only 12,000 miles on it. I put another 60,000 miles on it before I just got fed up with fixing the body. I gave it to Crispy. He has it on blocks in his garage half torn apart. He is currently rebuilding from scratch every part of it from the frame up. It was my first Pick Up. It was my dad's only Pick Up. And even though it was a rot magnet, everyone of us who have owned it, loved it.
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