The First Vehicle I Drove

This truck was huge. Imagine an old dump-truck with a flatbed.

“You remember the old blue truck?” Uncle Jason asked me the other day on the phone.

Do I remember the old blue truck? Do you forget your first kiss? Do you forget your first dog? Do you forget the first time you accidentally used buttermilk in your cereal?

The old blue truck was an old Chevrolet that had been converted to run on propane. I’m not sure if that conversion would be economically sound with today’s fuel prices but in the early nineties it made a lot of sense. This truck was huge. Imagine an old dump-truck with a flatbed. It was built before commercial driver’s licenses were a requirement, but I doubt you could drive a modern equivalent without a CDL. That’s how I remember it anyway. I’m sure some automobile enthusiast could tell you a lot more than you’d care to know about it. For years I thought it was an International.

I was either in the second or third grade when Pop was waiting for me when I got off the school bus. I had enough time to drop my school books off and “get into my work clothes” before being whisked off to the hayfield.

It was Uncle Jason who showed me how to drive Old Blue. Basically I was given a crash course on shifting between neutral and low. The only pedal I was authorized to touch was the clutch. No gas pedal or brake needed. I couldn’t even fiddle with the manual choke. Just clutch, steering wheel. I didn’t worry about anything else.

And go easy on that clutch, we don’t want this hay falling, but push it in as far as it will go.

Just hold the steering wheel steady and don’t run over any hay bales.

Press that clutch in when you hear us holler, but don’t stomp it.

The instructions always came with an addendum.

Dad showed up at the hayfield around the time he normally got home from work. It was before cellphones were common. So I am imagine there was a message waiting for him to come meet us in the hayfield.

After surveying the operation Dad asked, “Who’s driving?”

“I’ll never forget the look on your Dad’s face when he saw you in the driver’s seat.” Uncle Jason tells me over the phone. I hear him pause to make a facial expression that somehow I can still see clearly, although it is on my Dad’s face and not Uncle Jason’s. It’s a look of shock mixed with pride.

I was so proud as little boy to have driven that big old truck, and to have gotten paid for it. There is a feeling that you can only get by having done work. It is one of the best feelings in the world and it gives you a sense of pride and satisfaction. I did something worth doing today.

Zane Wells, age 7, professional hay truck driver.

“How could I forget Old Blue?” I replied to Uncle Jason.

“Well I passed it the other day on 278, not far from your house.”

“You sure that was it?”

“No doubt in my mind.”

I believed him. But I went and checked just to make sure.

Old Blue
I remember the bed of this truck being taller than me.

Sorghum Syrup

My brother has asked me to write about the time we made sorghum syrup.

“I wasn’t there.” I told him.

“Yes you were,” He said, a little hurt.

“I know that I wasn’t there Zach.”

“You were too! You helped me load the cane in the mill. That mule almost kicked you in the head. We drank the juice straight from the tap.”

“That was you and someone else.”

“You was there Zane! We went with Pop. Twice!”

I wasn’t there, but I don’t think that discredits me from being able to take you there. After all, Mark wasn’t there and we count his book as Gospel. This is not a work of fiction, although I was not a firsthand witness. Either that or it was such a bad experience that I’ve suppressed it in my memory.

Most of the time when Pop picked us boys up we were going to work. There were a few occasions where Pop picked us up for an event that maybe he found entertaining, like a parade, or making syrup. No matter what mask of entertainment these activities donned, Zach and I had been around enough to see through the thin disguise and identify work. Alas, we hadn’t much say in the matter. So when Pop picked us up to make Sorghum Syrup, we were not under the illusion that we were going to merely observe the process of making syrup. We were going to be very much involved in that process.

Sorghum is a naturally growing plant in the South. If you cultivate enough of it, you can make sorghum syrup. I think it yields about three gallons to the acre. Sorghum syrup is a very thick and dark syrup with an acquired taste. There is a process for getting the syrup from the plants. First you need to gather the plants, or cane. Then you put the whole cane into a mill, which presses out the juice. You cook the juice which gives you syrup. As long as the syrup doesn’t burn, you can mix it with equal parts butter and put it on your biscuits and it’s delicious. Well I think it’s delicious, but I also eat Lengua and Cabeza at the Taco Truck. Zach thought it tasted like burnt motor oil.

The process sounds pretty straightforward, until you find out that you have to manually load the cane, or even worse be the mill engine. Fortunately, someone had already gathered the stalks into a trailer. All we had to do was feed it to the mill. Do you remember in Sunday School when you learned about the blinded Samson grinding at the mill? That’s what Zach had to do. At first there was a mule hitched to the mill walking in circles, but it almost kicked Zach’s brains out while he was feeding cane to the mill. In the end Zach ended up walking in circles to power the mill like a medieval serf. They did let him drink some of the pure sweet juice that was running out of a tap on the side of the mill.

This juice flowed through an open channel over a heated metal plate a few yards long. By the time it made it to the end of the line it was sufficiently cooked enough to be canned. They used what looked like old coffee cans to package the syrup. I’m sure it was great fun to Pop and all the old men that were sitting around at the end of the line talking and laughing while Zach worked like a borrowed mule. At the end of the day Zach was exhausted and grimy with sweat and dust after doing the work of a mule. As a token of their gratitude, the old men in charge gave him a can of syrup. I think I ate most of that syrup, but I know that I wasn’t there.

The Liar’s Bench

Does your local gas station have a bench out front?

Back when I was in the hay and fence building business with Pop, we would often stop for fuel and refreshments at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, the base of operations, or “Barn”, was located half a mile from the store. Second, and perhaps more important, Watson’s Grocery was the only store in town.

We often frequented the store at the crack of dawn when working men filled trucks with diesel and filled cups with black coffee, and while old retired men sat on a bench outside to fill everyone’s ears with their good natured banter. My Dad told me that was called the Liar’s Bench. He said it in an official way, as if it were an elected office.

Anyone could sit on the bench, but not everyone could operate from the office of the bench. Similar to how having your picture taken sitting in your congressman’s big leather desk chair does not give you authority to lower taxes. In order to fill the office of Liar’s Bench, and not merely occupy a seat in front of a gas station, I believe that there were a set of unwritten requirements. It seemed like you needed to be an old man. You had more credibility (if indeed there was any credibility on the Liar’s Bench) if you were retired. It also didn’t hurt to have a nickname, like Jitter, or Buddy. If you couldn’t swing a nickname, an informal prefix like “Big” would do.

You also had duties, you couldn’t just sit and not talk. You had to be willing to engage every person you saw come to the store with a chiding remark about getting a late start or something like that, but not in a mean manner. You had to have a laugh rate of at least 90%. If the customers were clearly out of towners, it was ok to just nod your head at them. When people came out of the store you had to engage them again, this time with a heartfelt inquiry about their family, like “How’s ye mom’n’em?” This is when you found out who was in the hospital, who got fired, who got arrested, who had a heart attack and important things like that.

Above all, you had to be an entertaining talker to occupy a place on the bench. Some of the best hunting and fishing lies were told there along with ancient jokes. Every once in a while you meet people that can read the phone book in an entertaining way. Such were the men of the bench. As Jerry Clower said, “They didn’t tell funny stories, they told stories funny.” I found myself grinning and chuckling just overhearing these men talk.

I think they became great talkers because they didn’t sit on the bench to seek solitude, they sat on the bench because they wanted to talk to someone. Perhaps it was loneliness that got those old men up at the crack of dawn to sit in front of a convenience store and stare like puppies at the work trucks pulling in to fill up. They’d brag about being retired when they saw the weary looks of the working men on Mondays, but I think there was something in them that wished they could pile in the truck and go to work. Just like there was something in those working men that wished that could sit on the bench and waste the day away.

These worlds met briefly each morning and communed together at the Liar’s Bench. It was the Roman Forum of the community. A place where the local news and gossip were disseminated. I strongly doubt there were many original ideas, or great breakthroughs in ingenuity ever developed on the bench. But you might get a different answer if you drive out to Vandiver and ask one of the men who currently hold down a seat on the Liar’s Bench.

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Bicycles

I will say that I do not recommend taking a bicycle on the railroad tracks.

You probably remember when you first learned to ride your bike. Maybe your Dad had been running behind you, holding on to the banana seat, and you looked back to see that he was standing twenty feet back with his hands on his hips grinning at you. You panic and then crash. This is repeated until you don’t crash, and that’s how a lot of people learn to ride their bike. Others never started out with training wheels, and were told to just go ride it. My Uncle Tony taught me to ride without training wheels at Gram’s house. It was a faded blue bike with gummy white rubber grips on the handle bars that left a tacky feeling on your hands. He was running behind me as I peddled, until he wasn’t, and I kept right on going. I’ve only met a couple adults who never learned to ride a bicycle. It’s difficult to imagine childhood without bicycles.

It seems like I wore out and outgrew bikes like I outgrew shoes. It probably didn’t help that we left our bikes laying in the yard to get rained on. My Dad would just shake his head when he saw this. When you got a brand new bicycle for Christmas it was easy to haul it up onto the porch and use the kickstand, but the new wore off pretty quickly after one good winter mud puddle. It never occurred to me to clean my bikes. The only maintenance I ever thought about was air in the tires and oil on the chain. Dad would catch the spent motor oil in an old kitchen pot with only one handle whenever we changed the oil in the family vehicles. After crawling out from underneath the truck or van, he would tell us to fetch our bikes. He flipped the bikes over and we would work the pedals as he poured the gritty black oil over the moving chain. You could feel the whole drive train working more smoothly as the lubrication was applied. This usually made a glorious oily mess as much of the oil splattered all over the rest of the bike. We didn’t mind though.

I had a bicycle with cement tires. It was already old when I got it as it refused to be worn out. Not many people I’ve talked to have heard of cement tires. There is a reason cement tires never caught on. Imagine riding on a pothole riddled road in a car without shocks at full speed. That almost gives you the same feeling as riding that bike.

Not content with standard issue, every boy in our neighborhood felt the need to modify his bicycle. The junkyard of worn out bikes at each house usually supplied us with adequate parts. Sometimes, probably most times, the modification did not make the bike any easier to ride or better. It was the feeling of seeing an idea come to life that gave us satisfaction. Adam Bryant put a go cart steering wheel on his BMX style bike. It was the hardest thing in the world to steer. Zach and I put bicycle tires on a scooter. It went a lot faster, but the bigger tires raised the platform to an uncomfortable height for anyone who actually wanted to reach down with a foot to scoot. Jared and Creed put roller blade wheels on a pair of two-by-four studs and pulled them behind their bikes. I’m not sure why, and when I talked to Creed the other day, he still wasn’t sure why. But they did it, and when they rolled up into our yard each with a makeshift trailer rattling behind them, their face shown with pride because of their ingenuity, and they wanted to share their success with us.

I will say that I do not recommend taking a bicycle on the railroad tracks.

We rode bikes everyday until one of us got a car, and our bikes sat out in the rain and rusted until one day a man that Dad knew came and picked them up for scrap metal. We didn’t realize it at the time but as I watched him drive away a chapter closed in my life.

To combat the sedentary nature of my desk job, I recently purchased a proper adult bicycle. I’ve ridden 225 miles since I started three months ago. The changing temperatures that you feel as you ride through the shade and the hollows of Alabama takes me back to being a child on a bicycle. Having a wreck on a bike as an adult however, is a completely different experience.

I’ve tried sporadically over the last year to teach Wesley how to ride his bicycle without training wheels. At times I’ve felt like a failure as a Dad because I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to devote to this task. Other times I felt like he almost had it, but he stopped short. A few days ago while I was at work, he got on his old smaller bike, and told his mom, “I’m going to practice riding my bike without training wheels.” Without any help on that particular day, he figured out how to ride his bicycle.

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Go Carts

A set of powered wheels is something that most boys dream about. He thinks of ways to power his bicycle, perhaps with a weed-eater motor. He numbers the days until he can get his learner’s permit and start driving. “You don’t need a license to drive.” My dad used to say. “You need a car.” Although I got plenty of driving time in the hayfield, it was still work. There was no freedom. My Dad eventually got Zach and me a riding lawnmower, but we were unappreciative. What we wanted was a go cart.

Jared and Creed had a blue one. Creed, unsatisfied with the lack of speed recommended by the manufacturer, was smart enough to remove the governor which made the go cart dangerous enough to be really interesting. Due to a combination of rough terrain and hard driving, their go cart was frequently out of commission, and more frequently out of fuel. When it was operational we would race wide open around the perimeter of Mr. McDaniel’s property, getting slapped by the briars and brush that had obstinately sprouted since the last time the land was cleared. We would ride it until someone wrecked it, or we ran out of fuel. There was only room for two, one steering and one holding on for dear life. The other two stood and waited impatiently for their turn, hoping that the fuel would hold out and the cart would come back in one piece.

Uncle Tony offered Zach and I the deal of a century, $50 for a faded red go-cart with a fighter pilot steering wheel and a dirt dobber nest in the engine. We went in 50/50 at $25 a piece. We loaded her up in the back of Dad’s truck and stopped by the BP to fill up the tires and the fuel tank on our new rattle trap go cart. We couldn’t wait to get home and give her a spin. Somehow I got to drive the go cart first. We pulled the starting cord and the old engine coughed out grey smoke. I climbed into the driver’s seat and gripped the steering wheel, this was living. I gunned the cart down the hill and toward the cemetery. I reached the agreed upon turnaround point and whipped the little racer around without giving much thought to traffic, which was virtually nonexistent on the cemetery road. As I began up the hill the engine begin to whine, then choke and sputter, I was losing power. My brother was waving his hands frantically and running toward me. I couldn’t hear him over the unmuffled roar of the malfunctioning engine, I pushed the accelerator all the way to the floor. By the time that Zach reached me the engine died and I slowly started to slide backward down the hill. We pushed the disabled go cart up the hill to give Zach a turn. The go cart started up, but wouldn’t budge. I had burned out the clutch before Zach ever got a chance to ride it.

We ended selling it to a man in our church for about what we paid for it. I don’t know if he felt sorry for us, or just wanted to fix it up. I really didn’t think about go carts again until I was grown, and only then because one of the kids in my youth group got a brand new one. It had a roll cage on it. I thought that was neat, but I bet Creed would have figured out how to remove it to reduce drag. The excitement of driving a vehicle without a license was missing once driving became a chore. I guess some things are meant to stay in your childhood, and go carts was one of them.

I got a phone call from my Dad around that same time. He had just seen a two grown men pull up to the red light in the middle of town in a little blue go cart. It was Jared & Creed.

Roller Blades

For the first eight or nine years of my childhood the road transitioned from asphalt to dirt almost immediately in front of my house.  About the time that roller blades became popular in rural Alabama, they decided to extend pavement all the way to the cemetery, with brand spanking new black top. Fortunately, they didn’t mix in the gravel with the black top for better traction. There is nothing quite like skating on fresh clean black top. All of us kids thought that they had paved that road for our personal use. We probably used it way more than any of the cars. Aside from funeral processions, and a man who visited his twin brother’s grave every Sunday morning, we didn’t see many cars go by.

That first summer we did a lot of skating. I remember wearing out a pair of roller blades. The wheels wore down to a wedge. As the cars began to travel on the freshly paved road they brought little rocks that peppered our skating rink like buried land mines. If you have ever hit a rock with your rollerblades while skating down a hill full speed you probably will not soon forget it. After a few of these wrecks, we began to look for smooth, level concrete. We found it at the Baptist church. It was a wonderful place to skate. Sometimes it was shaded, and there was even a built in water fountain if you didn’t mind bending down and drinking out of the faucet.

But nothing gold can stay. One day I skated full speed into the faucet and knocked it off the wall, water sprayed out in profusion. Jared and Creed attended the Baptist church and got in touch with the church leadership. We all stood around and watched the water spray out of the broken spigot until an adult came by to shut the water off. I think he was more annoyed about missing the Alabama football game than having to fix the broken faucet. I’m not really sure if our skating privileges were revoked, but I don’t remember skating over there anymore. I think I outgrew my worn-out skates not long after than and I never replaced them. I don’t think that I’ve skated very much since then.