Sometime in March of 1963 (Spring for most of the country but the tail end of Winter in Laramie) the Old Man put a long-gestating plan into action.
A year before, wanting a powerful vehicle to pull his boat, he had bought a four-wheel-drive Chevy Suburban. But he didn’t like it. I think the Old Man always pictured himself as a kind of James Bond type – classy, confident, and unruffled. Would James Bond hitch his sexy little runabout to a big, bulbous, bright yellow tugboat that his kids nicknamed “The Canary?”
In a small town, there is a business understanding, a quid pro quo, especially among the professional people. The Builder who fixes the Lawyer’s roof is also the Lawyer’s client, The Plumber’s daughter is sent to have her tooth filled by the Dentist who previously hired the Plumber, and the Doctor (my Old Man) buys his power boat from a Salesman who happens to be one of his patients. This patient, in the office because his gall bladder is giving him trouble, tells the Old Man that he is branching out and will soon be selling cars from a relatively unknown Japanese manufacturer, Toyota. One of the vehicles in this new line is called the Land Cruiser.
When the Old Man drops by the sales room and sees the pictures of the Land Cruiser, it looks a lot like the classic English Land Rover. Suddenly he pictures himself not as Sean Connery in a tuxedo, but as John Wayne in a bush hat roaring across the African veldt. The only remaining problem was how to get his wife’s approval.
“The ashtrays are barely full in the Canary and now you want to sell it and buy this new Japanese toy?” he could almost hear her asking.
Now he could, he knew, just go ahead and sign for it. This was, after all, back in the days long before Gloria Steinem ever set pen to paper. But if Mom didn’t agree and he did it anyway there were a myriad of ways she could, and would, make him pay afterward. No, the solution was to get her on board first. And so he hatched his plan.
“Honey, I’ve been thinking,” he said one night. “What you really should have is a nice, easy-to-handle, four-wheel-drive vehicle so you can go out in the mountains and paint anything you like.”
She looked up at him with interest. The Pontiac station wagons she’d been driving for the last twelve years (bought not from a patient but from an old Army buddy) were really not suited for any road that was not paved. And she’d developed a strong desire to get out in the boonies and paint scenery that few others had ever seen. She had even tried it once or twice in the Canary, but the beast was just too big and clumsy for her. After looking at the brochures and considering it, she said that she would love to have a Land Cruiser as her painting car. But with one stipulation – she wanted the car to be painted something other than plain old stock tan and she wanted to pick the new color.
Delighted at how well it all went, the Old Man agreed and ordered the car, making sure it would come with a sturdy hitch and large side mirrors “just in case” he wanted to pull the boat with it. When it was delivered, Mom had it taken to the local body shop where it was to be painted with the colors she had chosen. They kept it for a few extra days to make sure the paint was dry. During that time and unbeknownst to the Old Man, a hired sign painter came in to do some special work on it.
One sunny day in late April, the Old man finished his rounds at the hospital and headed home. And there, parked in the driveway, was a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser sporting a two-tone paint job. The roof, the sides and the rear of the cab showed a warm, cream color. The rest of the car was pink. A bright, bilious, Pepto-Bismol pink. Even the wheels were pink. Across the back of the cab was lettered, in an Oriental-style script, “ROTUS BROSSOM.”
The Old Man just stood there slitty-eyed and staring at it. What he really wanted to do was to lose his temper, stomp into the house, and raise hell about it. But to do so would be admitting who the car had actually been purchased for. He had been well and truly snookered. All he could do was say, “a little loud, isn’t it?” and bury his head in the evening paper.
The Old Man tried to tow the boat out to Lake Hattie with the Rotus Brossom, but the giggles, winks, and stares were more than he could handle and he began to look for some other way to get his boat out to the water. My Mother offered an olive branch when she said that she’d fallen in love with the little Land Cruiser and it would be fine with her if he sold the Pontiac station wagon and used the money to buy some kind of a truck.
What the Old Man found was a 1949 Chevy pickup that he bought for a song because it had a blown engine. He then bought a working engine that came from a wrecked truck, and he and my older brother Chuck spent the next month of evenings and weekends swapping one engine for the other. And by God, it worked! I was there when the Old Man turned the key on, pressed the starter button, the engine turned over a few times, and then caught. Much cheering ensued. It seemed like the old family malady – the Pelton’s Something for Nothing Disease – had finally been defeated
All the small things and minor touches, such as hooking up the gas gauge and the speedometer, were pushed to the back burner in favor of what the Old Man considered the essential next step – changing the color. As purchased, the original color – a faded green – was only visible on the parts of the truck that were somewhat protected. The roof, the front fenders, the hood and the bed had a lovely brownish-orange patina of rust.
The truck was parked on a large tarp in the driveway and the three older brothers – Chuck, Lewis, and I – spent our afternoons during the next week sanding and then masking off everything that was not going to be painted. On Saturday, with a borrowed spray rig, Chuck sprayed primer on the truck. On Sunday, we were ready to paint. I say “we” even though my job was mostly to stand around and be ready to offer help if needed. Lewis was working in the garden in the back and Donald was mowing the side yard.
Chuck and the Old Man were having a hard time getting the white paint thinned to the right consistency for the sprayer. Finally, Chuck held up the spray gun, pulled the trigger, and the paint came sputtering out in fat globs that splattered and ran. The Old Man picked up a paint brush and spread the white enamel out into a large patch.
“After it dries, we’ll come back with the spray gun and fill in the brush marks,” he explained to me as Chuck was trying to clean out the tip of the gun with thinner.
Once more the sprayer was tried, once more lumps of white paint spattered across the truck, and once more the Old Man chased them with the brush.
“Tim,” the Old Man said, his jaw muscles flexing in frustration. “Run into the house and ask your mother for a paper clip.”
By the time I returned with the clip, they had taken the tip off the spray gun and were peering through the aperture. The Old Man unfolded the paper clip and used it like a miniature ramrod to clear some dried paint from the opening. Satisfied, he and Chuck reassembled the rig. Aiming at a fender, Chuck pulled the trigger and out came a fine mist of paint. We all grinned at each other as the primer-gray steel turned a pristine white.
Then the gun coughed, sputtered, and once again began belching heavy blobs of paint. There was a moment of silence, then the Old Man said through clenched teeth, “Tim, go get a paint brush from the rack in the garage. Chuck, keep spraying and we’ll spread it out as well as we can.”
Within a few minutes, the spray gun had become just the delivery system for the brushes. And the enamel, being somewhat self-leveling, didn’t look too bad if you stepped back a few feet. About that time Donald had finished mowing the large side yard and was looking forward to finishing the small yard next to the driveway so he could go watch cartoons. We were too busy to notice him or care what he was doing until he made his first pass all along the length of the driveway. Our mower was not fitted with a grass catcher.
A steady fountain of freshly-cut grass shot out of the mower and embedded itself in the fresh paint. One side of the truck was green and fuzzy from the headlight to the rear bumper. The Old Man’s cry of agony was palpable. Donald, hearing the shouting over the sound of the mower, stopped and looked back. Deciding that whatever it was had nothing to do with him, he turned back to his work.
The Old Man, like a condemned prisoner resigned to his fate, dipped his brush and began to entomb the grass clippings in the truck finish. Chuck and I shrugged our shoulders and followed suit.
The White Truck served us well most of the next few years and those times it didn’t were our own damned fault for not finishing those pesky details that had been relegated to “the back burner”. For example, the time that Chuck, clinging in vain to the front fender, was dragged back down the launch ramp into the lake. The emergency brake handle he had set before jumping out wasn’t, in fact, connected to anything. Another time, the Old Man had bought a used camper to put on the back of the truck and he was driving down the highway to Seminoe Reservoir when a blur of motion off to the side caught his eye. He looked over in time to see the boat that was supposed to be hitched to the back of his truck skimming down the middle of the ditch. Had he bought and installed mirrors to see around the camper, he’d have seen the trailer come off the hitch long before the safety chains ground through on the asphalt.
One day when I was on leave from the Air Force, I drove North out of Laramie toward Rock River accompanied by two friends and a couple of six-packs of beer. Since the dashboard gauges had never been hooked up, we had no idea that there was a drop in oil pressure. At least, not until there was a loud “bang” and the engine died. We hitched a ride back to town and the White Truck was towed directly to the junkyard, never to run again.