That old truck: It ain’t so bad.

Last summer’s Cash for Clunkers program sure got the old wheels turning around here. Not that we were seriously in the market for a new ride. It’s just that “cash” and “clunkers” are two words guaranteed to make any farmer’s brain light up on a CT scan – “cash” because it is the rarest of agricultural commodities and “clunkers” because any farm worth its salt has at least one piece of wracked-out machinery sitting around.

When we heard the government was willing to kick in $4,500 on a new vehicle if you traded in a less fuel-efficient older vehicle, well, naturally we thought of the farm truck. I’d never be so ungrateful as to suggest that our trusty steed is a “clunker,” but let’s just say the old boy has been around the block a time or two. Thousand.

Ah, well I remember the day my husband’s 1996 Ford half-ton pickup came into our lives. Harvey spotted it in one of those classifieds that sound too good to be true: a 5-year-old truck with not terribly high-high mileage for a suspiciously low price. We drove an hour to a house on the remote outskirts of Baton Rouge to check it out. Sure enough, the cab had been wrecked, and it needed a new driver’s-side door, bodywork and a paint job. Such not-so-minor drawbacks might have scared away a lesser soul but not a farmer. Heck, equipment that just needs a little work and a coat of paint is a farmer’s idea of mint condition. For Harvey, it was love at first sight.

That day lingers in my memory for other reasons. First of all, the seller insisted on using this one particular notary public to finalize the sale. I swear, we must have driven 15 miles and passed at least 10 other perfectly good notary offices before finally arriving at the home of this chosen notary. We pulled up in front of a creepy house in a dumpy neighborhood. A strange old codger let us inside, where it was incredibly dark. We had to strain to read the bill of sale under the single bare bulb suspended from the kitchen ceiling. Probably due to the dim lighting, something got signed in the wrong place, and it took weeks of hassling with the Office of Motor Vehicles to get it all straight.

I also vividly recall that experience because I was six months pregnant, and we were trying to get everything in order before the arrival of our first baby. The baby? He is now a fourth-grader. And the truck – now 14 – is still parked in our driveway.

I have no idea how old the truck is in people years, but, frankly, we’d rather not call it “old.” We prefer to think of it as an authentic piece of vintage Americana. Somehow, that just sounds better than “rode hard and put up wet” or “don’t laugh – it’s paid for.”

These days, the number on the truck’s odometer resembles a nice lotto jackpot. There’s a big dent where a careless farm employee pulled up alongside it in a tractor and dropped a heavy hay cutter on it. As far as the dents in the roof, your guess is as good as mine. Then there’s the bumper that just sort of dangles after a run-in with a deer on a dirt road. The formerly dark-green hood has weathered to a lovely grayish patina. The exterior stays perpetually caked in mud, even though the truck gets washed every two years whether it needs it or not. And Harvey is the only man alive who knows how to lower the tailgate.

The interior likewise boasts a 100-percent genuine distressed finish. Take the greasy bath towel, a rag from Harvey’s workshop, artistically arranged to cover the gaping rip in the driver’s-seat upholstery. The radio has had issues ever since a shade-tree mechanic fixed the steering column, otherwise known as “The Day the Music Died.” The horn is history, too. Fortunately, the truck still has cold air – as long as it’s moving really fast in wintertime with the windows down. And the door locks work great. So great, in fact, that once locked they cannot be unlocked.

By far, however, the most charming feature of our vintage farm truck is the knob that operates the headlights. Not that, you know, there is one. It gave up the ghost a number of years ago. What’s left is the little metal stick on which the knob was once mounted. To turn the headlights on or off, you have to twist the metal stick using a pair of pliers Harvey keeps on the dashboard. But hey, that’s no problem! No problem whatsoever unless it’s dark, you’re in a hurry, and the pliers aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Then, somebody’s goin’ down.

Whether we want to admit it or not, our truck’s days are numbered. But finding a replacement is harder than you think. It takes patience and time. We want something better but not something so snazzy we’re afraid to mess it up.

That, in itself, rules out a new truck, even one that Uncle Sam helps us buy. We just snicker at TV commercials depicting these $50,000 get-ups with heated leather seats and XM stereos as “farm-tough.” Please. Those pretty boys wouldn’t last two weeks around this place, even if we were crazy enough to spend that kind of money on something that is destined to be trashed.

Nor am I so sure Harvey is ready, emotionally speaking, to part with his running buddy of nine years. He’s a sentimental guy. He gets attached. Plus, unlike me, he’s not that concerned about keeping up appearances. He takes a kind of rebel’s pride in not being like everybody else. I mean, this is a guy who jokes that if he ever strikes it rich, he’s going to keep driving his same old beat-up truck just to aggravate everybody in town.

Of course, buying a new truck would be so much simpler than keeping our road warrior on life support while we wait to run across the perfect “pre-owned” one. But how much fun is that? You just walk into a clean, well-lighted place; point to the one you want; and sign your name a few times. You don’t get a story about a notary public straight out of Hitchcock. You don’t get the pleasure of knowing that your personal transportation is an affront to decent folk everywhere. And you certainly don’t get a free pair of pliers with every purchase.
 

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