Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Mitch, Bertha and me…

Firehawk mentioned his big old Dodge truck, and I started thinking about ‘Bertha’. Mitch named that truck and I don’t really remember why. She was a beast though.

In the days before I bought her, she had been a farm truck. The farmer who'd bought her new, had traded her in at the dealership (where I went to work after I closed the garage) and they’d sent it back to the body shop for us to touch up and detail before it went out on the lot.

After working on it for about 20 minutes I went up front and asked the owner, Frank Ryan (Frank was Josephine’s brother and they were partners in the Dodge dealership), what he had to have for her.

He thought a little, I told him I was interested, and would come back at lunch, but until we talked I’d hold off on doing any further work on it. I figured there was no need to run the price up!

When I went back to see Frank at lunch, he was all set to deal. He had paperwork, coffee, pens, carbon paper, the works. We talked some; haggled a little, argued a bit, laughed a lot and eventually he sold it to me for $150 more than he had in it. I remember his margin, but not the exact price, but $1,300 seems like the number. As I recall, he took me to lunch at a place called the “White Elephant” after we closed the deal.

It was a 1973, 4 wheel drive, Maroon in color, full 8 foot bed and capable of being registered for 9000 pounds (gross vehicle weight). Exactly what I needed to keep the driveway clear in the winter and haul firewood all summer… She was perfect.

For about three weeks.

Then I began thinking about ways to put ‘a little more power’ in that power wagon. About three weeks after that I redid the top end of the motor, Sig Erson cam, valve job, Edelbrock intake manifold, Holley carb with a some tweaks by way of a ‘trick kit’, Accel distributor and a shift kit for the transmission.

A set of Doug Thorley headers and a custom bent exhaust system later and now she sounded as good as she looked. (Although the 30 mile drive to the muffler shop with open headers was an interesting experience in meeting the fine men and women of law enforcement).

I was as proud of that truck as a man can be.

For about 3 months.

Then I found myself longing for a ‘little more ground clearance’. So I started looking for wheels, tires and a way to add about 3” of ‘lift’. This was the late 70’s, trucks like Bigfoot were just coming into their own, but there was not a ready supply of reasonable and reliable lift kits yet.

I had a friend, Jimmy Greenfield, though who was managing a spring shop in Whitesboro, NY at the time and he told me he could re-arch the springs and give me the lift I wanted. So I bought the wheels and tires, tossed them in the bed and dropped the truck off on my way to work one morning.

When I picked it up that evening, she was sitting perfectly level, 3-4” higher than stock, and he’d added an extra helper leaf in the rear for load capacity. Now she was perfect.

I did some regular maintenance after that, but not much else. I plowed driveways in the winter, hauled firewood in the summer, building materials all year and on occasion would humble someone in a hill climb with their brand new Jeep, Ford or Chevy… it was a great balance of functional fun!

But now to the point of this rather long story. As you know Mitch lived next door, our street was fairly sparsely populated maybe six houses in the half mile from the corner to my house. So when Tim and Veronica Migon began preparing a lot across the street and a little north of my place, we all stopped by and offered our help and friendship.

They’d had the lot graded off the day before this one, and today the dealer was coming to ‘spot their new trailer’. They were excited, and Mitch and I had stopped over, with a cooler of beer, to watch, and in general share in this little bit of neighborhood excitement.

About an hour before the trailer arrived, it began to rain. One of those long, heavy, summer showers, one that you think initially will be over soon because it’s raining so hard, but then settles in and rains for several hours.

Needless to say, by the time the trailer and the set up crew arrived, the ground was very wet, muddy actually as the dozer had just finished the day before.

Undaunted the driver, and the crew set about making the turn into their dirt and gravel driveway, and lining up to place the trailer in the spot prepared. Unfortunately for that driver, about 5 feet off the driveway he got the tractor, and the trailer stuck. He couldn’t move back, couldn’t go forward, and had the driveway, and the road blocked off.

So Mitch and I are standing there, in the rain, soaked to the skin, torn between feeling sorry for Tim and Veronica, but laughing inside at these guys who certainly should have known better. Then Mitch gets this glint in his eye and says to me “Go get Bertha”. I laughed, at first, then looked around saw there was enough space between the trees to squeeze her in.

I walked over to the job foreman and asked if they’d like a little help. His reply was “Do you have a dozer?” I explained that I had a pickup truck, and if he wanted, I’d pull the truck and trailer out of the mud and help them spot it.

At first he laughed, dismissed the idea, told me there was no way I could get back there and a few other things I don’t remember, something about me not being very smart, or a ‘college boy’, or something. Anyway, as he was finishing up telling me all the reasons why I couldn’t do it, I simply asked him again “Would you like some help, or not?”

What could he say? Of course he wanted some help!

So I ran across the street, climbed up in Bertha, turned the key and fired that mother up.

As I slipped through the trees, the lope of the cam and the ‘wooden..wooden… wooden’ of the motor caused the whole crew to turn and look. I rolled on up in front of the tractor, Mitch and I hooked the chains to the frame rails on the Dodge and waited for the driver to hook to his truck. As he was, I noticed he was attaching the chains to the front axle of the truck.

I got out, walked back and suggested he might want to hook his end to the frame, not the axle, as I didn’t want to mess up his truck by pulling the axle out from underneath it. After a short discussion, where again he inferred I wasn’t a very knowledgeable fellow, he agreed, and we were set.

I climbed back in the Dodge, Mitch stayed outside to guide me getting the slack out of the chains and as they pulled tight, I dropped the hammer on Bertha. Mud was flying, that engine was singing and we were going… nowhere.

Mitch started slapping the side of the truck bed, I backed off the throttle, he walked up to my window and said “Hang on a minute”… Mitch walked over to the tractor, climbed up and talked to the driver a minute, climbed down from the cab and walked back over to me.

As he reached my window he said “Let’s try this again, now that he’s not in reverse” and walked to the back of my truck.

Again we pulled the slack up, I dropped the hammer and that old Dodge was dancing on the end of those chains… for about 30 seconds… then, as the tires dug down through the mud, and found some traction… we began to move… slowly at first, then a little faster.

I eased back on the gas, the grip got better, we kept moving and soon I had the trailer ‘spotted’ on the pad.

Mitch and I unhooked the chains, shook hands with Tim, nodded to Veronica and started for the truck. The big rig driver caught us before we did though, and started talking about how “that was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen”, my pickup towing his rig, and that trailer, in the mud. We all laughed a little, shook hands and Mitch and I headed back to our homes.

For months after that, everywhere I went locally, that was the story being told, about me, Mitch, and Bertha. I swear this is how it happened, about the only thing I didn’t do was dwell on the rain… but it was raining… the kind of rain that as dusk sets in makes it hard to see 20 feet. It was all good though, a few months later a fellow who’d heard about Bertha offered me about three times what I had invested in her, so he definitely wanted her more than I did!!

I sold him the truck, but I kept the memories.

Thanks again for reading, and feel free to leave your thoughts and comments before you go!


Firehawk said...


Great story. Glad my "old Dodge" comment may have helped dredge it up. However, my big old Dodge was actually a sedan, and many of the adventures I had were precipitated by it's questionable capabilities. It was a 1980 Mirada, and it had the original equipment slant 6 in it. Now, this is a big car, built on the same chassis as the Chrysler Cordoba. It was underpowered in the worst way, had no breaks to speak of, and was prone to, well, ideosynchratic behavior, to be kind. Still, I somehow got myself to and from with it for a good few years. It stranded me a time or two, but even those memories have a rosy light now.

Have a good one, man. Fond memories.

Beth said...

Nice story, Bill. Reminds me of the time my crappy little Ford Taurus pulled my husband's monster Explorer out of the mud. ;)

Spirit Of Owl said...

Great story, great writing.

You know, I absolutely love driving cars in mud. I know that's probably balmy, but there's nothing like a little bit of a slide to give me a buzz. Course, it'd be incredibly embarrassing to get stuck, or worse to have a prang!

Beth said...

Bill, I linked you up with my blog as well. Finally figured it out and wanted you to know! I did this with a few connected to you today. =)

Bill said...

Firehawk: Your comment definitely dredged it up! The venerable slant six! What a great old engine. They were a bit underpowered for cars that size, but man they'd go 150K before they even began to show their age! It's always been interestign to me, how we all seem to associate memories with our vehicles... I guess it just another of those universal things!

Thanks, you too!

Gardening Knitter: Thanks, I wish I could have seen that :)

and.. thanks for the link!

Spirit of Owl: Thank you you're too kind, but I appreciate it!

Naa, you're not balmy... everybody likes to get on a slick surface, mash the gas and get a little out of shape! 'cause its fun!

It's not embarassing.. if you do something very cool right before you get stuck!

Nic said...

You sure do love your cars! :) Kind of reminds me of my first car in highschool, being the mini powerhorse. I hung out with the guys on the football team, dated one of them for a year. My car was an '86 Ford Escort hatchback. More times than not my little car had 3-4 guys from the line squeezed in and 2 of my girl friends sitting on their laps in the back going to parties or to lunch or out to the lake... My poor car could haul that weight around pretty good. Had probably around 1,000 pounds or more in there at any time. I was HORRIBLE at parallel parking so the guys came in handy as they would pick up my car and carry it over to the curb. LOL.

I think the recipe would go very good with the tuna you have. By all means, use what you have! :) I hope you and your family enjoy it!

Bill said...

Hi Nic... so that was you hauling all those players around!

We used to do similar things with VW bugs... pick 'em up and put them in parking spaces no one could ever get out of!! Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Bill, thanks for you words of encouragment over on my blog.

good story about your good ole' Birtha. Sad that you gave her up. My first pick up, 'Thunder' was a 72 chevy, red and white full size bed with a cut skyblue cab. my parents still have it and use it as a farm truck, I loved getting around in that thing. It definately caught everyones attention, thundering down the road

Avery's mom said...

sorry, that comment before didnt take my name, and I'm sure you were wondering whose post you commented on.

it's me, pregnant chick from Texas

Avery's mom said...

sorry, that comment before didnt take my name, and I'm sure you were wondering whose post you commented on.

it's me, pregnant chick from Texas

Bill said...

Hi Robyn, and thanks for stopping by. Nice that your old truck is still in service on the farm.

Glad you could stop in.

erin said...

I have but one vehicle memory in my nineteen years of existence and it wasn't even my car... but I was honestly surprised to learn from it that the car wrapped around you can change your perception of the world and your place in it, if only for the length of the ride and for approximately one hour, I was the coolest nerd on the planet.

Bill said...

So Erin, what was this vehicle that made you the coolest nerd on the planet? Inquiring minds and all!

You're so right though, it can change not only how you see the world, but how the world sees you.

Strange I think... fortunately for me, the only one *I* need to think I'm cool is Mrs. Bill :)

erin said...

The car was a metallic blue 1966 Dodge Coronet 500.. It wasn't really a life-affirming event.. just the quintessential nerd in a muscle car experiencing a momentary bad to the bone kind of feeling.. my first and only... It was a great car.

Bill said...

Erin: What a great car! THose old Coronets, done right were definitely 'bad to the bone'!! Thanks.