Cool trucks

I've always admired trucks. The big Kenworths and Macks and Internationals have a certain majesty about them. In my view, they outclass any luxury sedan ever built just as an ocean liner outclasses a canoe. Maybe it's because all trucks -- even pickups -- are purposeful and no-nonsense. Every line is functional, and you know that a truck is tending to business. No frivolous errands for trucks. They have places to go and things to do. People depend on them. Trucks do their share of the world's work.

I never realized how powerful my feelings were until I had a chance to get a truck of my own. A farmer had bought it new in 1966. Soon after, he scaled down his operation so that he seldom needed the truck. Except for an occasional trip to town to pick up the Sunday paper, the truck rested in a garage. It was almost as if it had been waiting for someone.

When the farmer decided to sell his truck, I didn't hesitate, although the single load of firewood I haul each year hardly justifies a truck in my suburban garage.

When it's time to take my truck home, it seems odd to climb up into a cab rather than stoop to crawl behind the wheel of a sedan. It's different, but I like it.

I jam the clutch pedal to the floor, and I'm surprised at how hard it shoves back. The three-speed gearshift presents no mystery. It's exactly like the car I learned to drive some 30 years ago. I realize that a stickshift is like swimming or riding a bike -- once you learn, you never forget.

``They don't make 'em like that any more,'' declares an admiring friend back home. He's right. At least no one would mistake this truck for one of the toylike pickups they import from Japan. This is an honest half-tonner. It's got no need for racing stripes or hub caps that should've been put on a sports car. You don't have to guess at the country of origin. Every line says Detroit.

The truck towers over the yews along my driveway, looming up like a switch engine on a siding. No adman would think to christen a truck like this ``Brat'' or ``Luv.'' It's a C-10. If it had a name, it would be something like ``Gristle.''

Monday, I plan to drive my truck to work. It happens to be the coldest day of the year. It's too cold to go bareheaded, and this is trouble. I like to wear a hat. But has anybody ever worn a hat while driving a truck? The prospect is ludicrous.

Rummaging about a closet, I find a red cap with ``Lafayette Cartage'' printed on the front. Not quite as good as ``Cat Diesel Power'' but good enough. The only trouble is that this cap is a summer model with an open mesh top. I need something warmer for this winter day. Finally, I choose an old hat of fake fur. It's the best I can do.

Up in the cab, I remember to pull the choke all the way out and pump the accelerator once. The engine roars on the first try, and I back smoothly out of the driveway. On the street, the illusion of mastery shatters as I try to drive away in third gear.

On the main street into town, the LeBaron ahead of me halts. Its driver can only guess why traffic has stopped, but I can see, over the top of his car and the others beyond, that the railroad crossing gates are down and the red lights flashing up ahead. I can see over the LTD beside me to the trees that line the street. Like a shepherd watching over his flock, I sit in the lofty isolation of my steel cab as the steamy breath of the cars drifts up and swirls away on the icy wind.

John Steinbeck once wrote a story about a boy who got a pony. Describing the boy's envious friends, Steinbeck said: ``Out of a thousand centuries they drew the ancient admiration of the footman for the horseman. They knew instinctively that a man on horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot.''

The horseman and the truck driver are surely brothers. Up in my cab, I can imagine how the faces of those boys must have looked.

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