Shootin’ the Breeze

First a little history. In the year 1925, Ford produced the Model T-based, steel-bodied, half-ton with an adjustable tailgate and heavy-duty rear springs. Billed as the “Ford Model T Runabout with Pickup Body”, it sold for $281; 34,000 were built. In 1928, it was replaced by the Model A which had a closed-cab, safety-glass windshield, roll-up side windows and three-speed transmission. In 1931, Louis Cheverolet produced its first factory-assembled dedicated pickup, a vehicle built from the ground up as a truck not a modified car. They’ve been with us ever since.

This is about perhaps the most important use a farmer and rancher has for them. For most of my life they were a utility vehicle. They had a myriad of practical uses on the ranch. They were used to haul hay out to the pastures to feed livestock. They were driven down to the old Loomis Feed Mill to pick up salt licks, rolls of barbed wire, bags of fertilizer and sacks of seed. Old Ralph Kitchel would come out in his knee length leather apron and a handcart, load ‘er up and being it right out to the truck to be loaded. The bags were casually tossed into the bed right on top of the little drifts of hay and oats left from days past. Binder twine, rolled up in neat little hanks, the odd tool or shovel and please try and miss the dog.

The little truck was also home to uncle Jack’s ranch cats who slept in the safety of the cab or climbed up on the engine block where it was warm on a cold day. Occasionally dogs were locked in the cab to keep them away from bitches in heat. My brothers dog, a beagle lab mix taught himself to blow the horn until my dad got out of bed and went outside at 2:00 am, trailing blue clouds of swear words to let him out. “If you get yourself killed it’s your own damned fault, Fred.” Fred just grinned and ran off to join the others in the pack of hopefuls.

Dad almost never drove a the car. The pickup hauled produce to the docks where it was loaded on semi’s and taken to market in Los Angeles or San Francisco. He would load it up with enough bean poles to bottom out the springs and make the front end so light the wheels barely touched the ground. He would make me ride on the front bumper to put enough weight on them so he could steer..There was no job too dirty or too low for the little trucks. They slogged through the adobe mud in the winter and were slathered with dust in the summer. They never, ever got washed. Dad always said it was a waste of time and besides, “The dirt protects the paint.”

In the 1970’s the first of the four wheel drives came on the market. To some, that sounded great. Why they could drive into the fields or out to the pasture in the wintertime. “Stupid,” dad said, “Just tears up the road so’s we’ll have to grade it in the spring, nothing growing out there anyway, it’s winter.” On the ranch it didn’t work either, Herefords have enough sense to come down from the pastures at feeding time, don’t even have to call them, they know. “Seen a city farmer get his four wheeler stuck up a Big Al Coehlo’s place, stuck right down to the frame rails,” He told me, “Tried to pull her out in the spring and pulled the body right off the frame, had to get a backhoe to dig ‘er out.” He laughed right out loud.

You could nap on the front seat, bucket seats were in the future. The bench seats held the driver and his three sons on occasion, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, warm and loving. Going for a ride to check the creek on rainy days. Down to Kirk’s liquor for the morning LA Times and a Hershey bar for the sidekicks, there was purpose to those trucks, they worked hard and were utterly dependable.

If my dad saw a neighbor or friend coming the other way on one of the two lane roads around our valley he would simply slow down and the other truck would do the same and the two farmers would lean on the window sill and shoot the breeze for a bit, exchanging farm news, who was planting what and what the market was for pole tomatoes or in one case learning from Vic Burgia that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the war had begun. Country people knew how to just drive around. A man who lives on the land works awfully hard, seven days a week but between serious things that need to be done there is always a little time to “throw the bull.”

When the old girl gave up the ghost she was hooked up to the John Deere and dragged up to the back of the ranch to the gully by the old stage road and left to rust away alongside old cars and trucks. One old milk truck that had been there for decades. There was an 1920’s Ford tractor, some old disc blades and a John Deere two bottom plow dating to the teens. Each rainstorm in winter slowly helped rust thin the metal until it collapsed into a jumble of unidentifiable old rusty red parts. The old leather seats served as nests that were built among the springs for mice and little ground perching birds. Little boys with their twenty-twos used them for target practice. They served unto death.

Old abandoned Cheverolet pickup truck sitting in a field

Before pickups became something else, only about 6% are still used for real work, they were built close to the ground. It made them easy to load from the side and perhaps best of all. just the right height to put your elbows on when you were having a palaver with your neighbor. Imagine my uncle Jack’s white Chevy, he on one side and me on the other, our pickups parked one behind the other and Pat Williams, who parked his ranchers flatbed behind us. He got out leaving the door open, why close it, you’ll just have to open it again, and joined us, lying against the tailgate with his head hanging over and down he joined us talking about the various merits of Polled Herefords vs Back Angus cows. You could spend an entire afternoon before feeding time gently speaking, not really saying anything too important just basking in neighborliness. Time spent with two men, one your uncle and the other your neighbor whose family you have known your entire life. Whose father knew your father and whose grandfather and great-grandfather knew yours. Sometimes you can get a glimpse of a perfect world.

Just did it the other day talking to Fred Ormonde about his tomato crop up on Oak Park road. Seems like some things will never change. Good.

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