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The Lakeland Times | Minocqua, Wisc.

Jim Tait October

home : outdoors : fishing October 28, 2016

3/28/2013 1:30:00 PM
Trucks of a certain kind
Trucks like this 1976 Ford would get you into the hard-to-reach spots, maybe even stuck there. And build character along the way.Craig Turk photograph

Trucks like this 1976 Ford would get you into the hard-to-reach spots, maybe even stuck there. And build character along the way.

Craig Turk photograph

Craig Turk
Outdoors Writer/Photographer

Though I’ve enjoyed the benefit of fishing out of a permanent ice shanty a few times this winter, I’ve not had to fuss over one. Spoiled son that I am, I got to enjoy the comforts of Dad’s shack, while enjoying almost none of the work involved.

Work that requires a full-sized truck.

Dad and friend Roger deployed the shack, and even moved it to a supposedly more favorable location once. Then, as the legal deadline approached, had to remove it.

The shack had settled in, of course. It had become one with the ice. Its outer perimeter was iced in, and once enough ice was chipped away from the door, a flooded floor was revealed. Dad said he was thankful it was water, and not ice on the floor. Luckily, all parts of the shanty were removed from the ice while still remaining reasonably connected to each other.

It took a bit of work, though. After battling the snow- and slush-covered ice and the shack’s bond to it, Dad and company finally had the shanty skidding along on its way to its off-season home.

Our winter was definitely a slow starter, but mid-winter brought the winds of change. Snow and cold followed by cold and snow. Lake ice built, and so did snow depth. Dad’s little two-wheel-drive pickup, once adequate for the trip out to the shanty, hadn’t seen the surface of a lake in weeks.

The task at hand was accomplished with my brother’s full-size four-wheel drive. A man-vehicle for a man-task. 

As I squish my considerable frame into my own under-sized vehicle, I realize, once again, how much I like full-sized trucks.

The couch-like bench seat, the commanding view of traffic, that distinctly American feeling of power at your toe-tip. Horsepower enough to get you out of, or into, trouble.

As I manipulate a clutch, brake and accelerator within confines that are about the size of a silverware drawer, I often think about those trucks. Those living-rooms on wheels.

I recall my first full-sized truck, which I bought when I was 18. I took out a loan for $400 to purchase the beautiful beast. 

The 1973 Ford F250 stood in stark contrast to the four-cylinder Datsun car I was driving. It was everything the Datsun wasn’t. Big, powerful, American-made and expensive to drive.

It was a sweet ride, that Ford. The 360 V-8 had a mellow rumble that the Datsun lacked. It sounded like it meant business. I was impressed with the sound and also the response I got when I toed the pedal.

And comfort! From a too-small bucket seat supported from behind by a two-by-eight (the floor was a little rusty in the Datsun) to a giant bench seat. I was aglow with something akin to love. Until I purchased gasoline for my “new” and mighty beast.

“Huh,” I said as I filled it up the first time. “Seems like a lot.”

And it was. Used to getting 38 mpg on the highway and around 28 mpg in town with the diminutive Datsun, the big old Ford handed me some surprises.

The truck got about 12 mpg on the highway. It got single-digit miles per gallon in town. It was a bit of a budget-buster, for sure. But totally worth it. I had a truck.

The truck even won over my friend, Brad, who was a frugal sort of guy. He doubted my decision until he rode in the beast. Upon sitting on the couch-like seat, he agreed that a full-sized guy needs a full-sized truck.

It’s my own frugality that led to recent decisions to downgrade from full-sized trucks to more economical modes of travel. First a little pickup, more recently a small SUV (read “station wagon”).

I now long to sit behind the wheel of any one of the long line of full-sized trucks I’ve owned. Well, some of them anyway.

That first Ford was only a two-wheel-drive and I was a fair hand at getting it stuck. On frozen lakes, in mud, on level icy surfaces – wherever. Clearly, I could get stuck worse, though. So I moved on to a four-wheel-drive.

I also went back in time, buying a 1971 F150. This one sported a 390 V-8 and a 4-speed transmission featuring what was known as a “granny” first gear. I would own several with the same transmission over the years.

I pictured myself accessing remote fishing and hunting spots with the power of four-wheel-drive. And I did get stuck accessing these spots often enough – with that truck and a succession of others. Luckily, my friend Jimmy was usually available to retrieve my stuck four-wheel-drives with his own four-wheel-drive.

A cell phone would have been nice to have back then. My legs would certainly have fewer miles on them. We had CB radios, but I tended to get stuck out of radio range.

There were a few rough trucks among those old four-wheel drives. The ‘71, for instance, had no power steering or power brakes. It had a manual choke, too – a device that existed for the purpose of keeping a driver entertained while a vehicle warmed up in cold weather.  Because a clutch, accelerator, shift lever, steering wheel and push-button AM radio weren’t enough to play with.

Sometimes, I’d have to give instructions if someone else needed to drive one of my trucks. A ‘76 Ford I owned was one such truck.

“Throw it in neutral or it’s gonna stall at stops. Pump the brakes and start braking way sooner than you think you have to. It pulls to the right. Don’t fill it much more than quarter-tank – it leaks at the seam. If it’s cold, pump the gas a lot before you start it. If it’s warm, don’t touch the gas – you’ll flood it. If you go through a puddle too fast, you’ll have to pull the distributor cap off and dry it. That’s what the dirty sock on the floor is for.”

Sometimes, man-points can be earned with a truck such as that one.

One day, Jimmy was towing my dad’s van, which I had borrowed and somehow broken, and Brad had to drive my ‘76 Ford out to my parent’s house, because I was steering the ailing van that trailed behind Jimmy’s truck.

When we arrived at my parent’s house, Brad quickly exited the cab of my truck and ran over, hand extended.

“I’ve got to shake your hand,” he said.

I obliged, looking at him quizzically.

“Anyone who drives that truck every day is a real man in my book,” Brad explained.

Well, of course. That truck and others of its ilk were character builders. That’s why I tolerated a long line of them, I realize now.

Another truck, a year newer, was a pretty solid vehicle when I purchased it. The body was relatively sound, it rode and drove decently. By happenstance, on the rutted back roads of the Northwoods, I modified it into a more manly vehicle. 

Then I had to give it up after a state trooper pulled me over and handed out a list of warnings that demanded it undergo modifications that would render it far less manly. Lacking the funds for the makeover, I (sniff) parted ways with the truck.

It wasn’t all fun and games with those old trucks, though. Many times I played shade-tree mechanic or body man with these high-mileage man-makers. On one truck, I had to cut a small hole in the floor and route part of the transmission shifting linkage through it, because parts that connected it to the shift lever on the steering column had failed. Rather than praising my ingenuity, my friends laughed.

I secured the flapping sides of a rusted pickup box with L-shaped brackets on another occasion. It worked well until winter’s salt enlarged the screw holes.

Expanding spray foam and body putty filled many a rust hole. Beer cans reinforced rotted sections of exhaust pipe. Clothes hangers can also hang mufflers.

Sometimes I had to give in and buy parts. I replaced a couple of the floor-mounted dimmer switches, for instance. When a floor pan itself rots, the floor-mounted dimmer switch is subjected to a corrosive environment. And things like brake shoes – which have no feasible substitute.

But if you want to bail into the brush-choked regions of the Northwoods without concern for paint and other expendable parts of a truck, you buy one like the long line of character builders that I owned. Hopefully, you’re friends with Jimmy, too. You’re going to need him.

The sardine can I currently drive gets good gas mileage, doesn’t pull one way or the other on the highway, runs quietly, and inspires no one to label me a “real man.” It blends so well into traffic, that one might assume it’s invisible. Basically, it’s disappointing.

I will admit, though, that a state trooper probably isn’t going to pull me over and produce a laundry list of safety warnings. Probably none, unless the disorganized mess of ice fishing gear in the back is somehow a safety hazard.

I’ve got a couple of aces in the hole, though. A pair of old trucks that need extensive work, or a few band-aids, depending on how you view it. I could drive one of them now if I’d charge the battery, air up two tires, crimp a brake line and plan on feathering the throttle at every stop. It’d sound like it means business, too, because it has shed much of that encumbrance known as an exhaust system.

I’d roll it out tomorrow, but I haven’t spoken to Jimmy in a long while, and, really, he should be prepared.

Craig Turk may be reached at cturk@lakelandtimes.com.

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