Pickup trucks had back seats long before extended cabs were invented. Additional seating was conveniently located in the bed of the truck and, in the case of my dad’s 1950 Ford pickup truck, the back seat consisted of a two-by-six board positioned right behind the cab. It ran the width of the pickup bed and was supported by a pair of cinder blocks.
That was where my little brother and I rode most of the year back in the mid-1960s. Our two little sisters rode up front with Mom and Dad, sans car seats and seat belts, of course, and were in far more danger than we were in the back. Not from their lack of adequately secure seating, that wasn’t the problem. It was the floor-mounted gear shift that presented the greatest challenge.
Unlike the sleek shifters of today, this was a long, skinny stick that came up from the floorboard with a golf-ball sized knob on the end that in the course of a gear shift, could move close to a yard in any given direction. Anyone in the front bench seat was in danger of repetitive bruising from its wild gyrations and for a small child low on the seat, a concussion was not out of the question.
In the winter when the back seat was out of season and the front seat had to accommodate our entire family of six by utilizing laps and various vertical seating arrangements, the gear shift became even deadlier. Not to mention when Dad couldn’t get the truck into gear because any number of spindly limbs and little torsos were in the way. He’d yell, kids would cry and I’d yearn for summer.
As completely nuts as this may seem to the modern reader, situations like this were not unusual in the southern part of Surry County in the mid-1960s and quite frankly, it wasn’t considered all that trashy.
One night the truck was stolen out of the driveway. Not the sort of thing that happened every day on a dead-end street in Elkin back then. I doubt that it’s very common even today. Turned out it was stolen by a couple of Dad’s moonshiner cousins who were on the lam. We got the truck back pretty quickly but it was all quite mysterious. Kids weren’t included in adult conversations back then, and it was never clear to me just what happened and who was involved.
I never understood just how, or even if, Dad was related to these criminal masterminds/lowlife losers. Nor if they broke out of prison or were released on probation. Or possibly, had just wandered into town, got drunk, spent all their money and procured a ride back up to the mountains, knowing a relative would never call the law on them. One of the many things I wish I had asked Dad about before he died.
Even this rather low-falutin’ episode was considered more glamorous than trashy by my school friends. Perhaps my lack of details on what actually happened permitted a bit of dramatic license when recounting the story at school. I couldn’t say.
But when the starter went out on the truck and she had to be pushed off and jump-started, there was no denying we had entered the land of trashy, or at the very least, trashy-adjacent.
But we kids thought it was great sport. There was quite a process, especially when Mom was driving. Dad could push the truck himself and hop up into the seat and pop the clutch, hardly missing a beat. Mom needed my little brother, who was about 7, and me, at around 9, to push from the back while she worked the pedals and that cantankerous gear shift. After we’d picked up enough speed for her to get the truck started, she’d stop and idle while we clambered aboard and scrambled up to our bench in the bed of the truck.
Naturally, since my brother and I probably didn’t weigh a hundred pounds total, she had to be careful to always park on a hill. Not much of a problem since they don’t call this area the foothills for nothing, but a problem did arise when a car would park directly in front of her. Then we had to wait on them to finish their business, whatever it was, and move their car. That was definitely not fun. Far from it.
After a summer of these adventures, Mom finally broke down and bought a new car. “Brand spanking new” as I proudly told every single person who had ever seen me pushing that old truck around town, which was everybody I knew. I hadn’t been ashamed to push the truck, it was great sport and a lot of fun, but I knew this was a step up. Even if it was a stripped-down Chevy with no bells and whistles, a “brand spanking new” car was a big deal.
The new car may have been short on optional equipment but it did have seat belts. It was a 1967 model, the first year of mandatory seat belts and they were standard. From that moment on, we rode strapped in, sometimes two or three kids to a seat belt, but strapped in, nonetheless.
The days of open-air riding in the back of the truck were over. I did miss that. Perhaps that explains my life-long addiction to convertibles. Riding with the wind blowing on my face brings back my carefree youth, even though my freedom is now curtailed by a seat belt.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.