Meet Jerry, the elder statesman of Sterling’s make-anything, fix-anything mechanical gurus — a man whose old Ford F-250 has real soul.
First, a note about prank season in Sterling.
Pranks aren’t limited to springtime here, but it is prank season. The college seniors are in high spirits and wanting to leave their mark. The young livestock are highly visible in the surrounding fields, and some youngsters may find it tempting to deposit them somewhere completely out of context where shrieks and mayhem will ensue. And very specifically, cars (usually small ones) tend to get resituated in unnatural settings and arrangements.
My mother’s own VW Beetle ended up rotated perpendicularly in our garage one time. Another Beetle found its way into the vestibule of the college library. Adhesive notes covered every square inch (including wheels in a fine concentric fashion) of a faculty member’s compact SUV not long ago.
The best ones defy easy comprehension (what-the…?, how-the …???). One bicycle impressively ended up at the very top of a football-stadium light tower before a home game. And one of the all-time greats was this VERY impressive prank perpetrated many years ago on Halloween 1966. The victim was a man named Jerry, the subject of this week’s Sterling dispatch.
[Editor’s note: Welcome to Sterling Dispatch, a regular feature by David Wilson, resident of the small 2,600-person town of Sterling, Kansas. The goal with this column is to make sure rural American car culture is represented on our site, as I feel it’s largely neglected among mainstream automotive media. -DT]
Jerry and The Propane-Fueled, Flatbed Christmas Truck
Jerry never discards anything of true value. Everything Jerry has – I mean, EVERYTHING – still works, and beautifully.
Jerry is simply a mechanical genius, and at age 91 he occupies the alpha-mechanic position in Sterling. This is an illustrious and influential role, akin in my imagination to American Indian elders, except instead of respect from a tribe, his respect comes from the town’s many impressive people who know how to fix, preserve, and enhance mechanical things. These skills are a big deal in small-town America.
How did Jerry get so wise? Well, he fixed things in the Army, then worked as a plumber, then he was a telephone company network technician building, connecting, testing, and diagnosing things all day every day literally for decades. He sank poles, lifted heavy components, and stretched lines all across central Kansas. There are four distinct and sometimes hostile seasons here, with extremes of heat and cold and wet and dry. Jerry was already profoundly and naturally blessed at making things work, and he worked hard, and educated himself, and he got even better. His workman’s pocket tee is now a super-mechanic’s cape.
Jerry’s daily driver is “Christmas Truck.” With the entire spectrum of automobiles well within his ability to command, a 1980 F-250 flatbed — propane-fueled and with bitching patinated — is Jerry’s choice.
Christmas Truck is so named because Jerry modified what once was a conventional green pickup by mounting up a red flatbed he picked up secondhand. This upgrade had nothing to do with holiday spirit per se; it was just how the colors, which were more vivid in the mid-eighties than now, randomly worked out. But the ladies planning Sterling’s Christmas parade that year seized the moment and drafted Jerry into towing a float. Because, Christmas parades are better with two-tone, red-and-green things.
Jerry says he drives it all these years later because it’s still extremely useful. I’d say: Christmas Truck is a vehicle that exudes a discernible soul — one inextricably linked to its driver, dependent on him for spirit. And yet, perhaps — time will tell — somehow separate, distinct.
One expects Christmas Truck to falter almost immediately at whatever point Jerry does — lose power, lower its idle, and sadden its exhaust note — not unlike spouses passing within hours or days of each other. That said, sometimes soulful things . . . take heart and live on.
The Way We Remember Cars Can be Unpredictable
Let’s list the cars that Jerry has owned through the years — something that I like to call his “carnology.” His is difficult to document, I must say, and not due to memory impairment or cognitive decline — trust me, FAR from it. It’s just that sequential neatness and the orderly march of time are not how Jerry organizes his thoughts. Instead, best I can figure based on my time with Jerry, things — and thoughts — from the past that are useful and interesting, or even pleasurable,seem to exist *now* and not in any particular order. For Jerry, the rest of things from the past…don’t exist and, for all anyone should care, never did. They just dissipate and vanish into the ether of space and time. Gone, and for all anyone should care, good riddance.
So, I did the best I could with his cars. This information came from Jerry as a stream of consciousness (these are my notes verbatim):
–36 Ford (bought when in Army 51-53)
–Chrysler, took four feet out of the middle and made a dune buggy. Ran on propane. Got stolen. Had a hemi. Railroad*
–Oldsmobile, after ’53, about ’57. Nice, not as nice as the 98
–Olds 98, really liked that car, bought from funeral home.
–Pontiac Chieftain, bought in ‘53 and drove for 13 years. No AC. Bought from Sparky Horton, sold for $150.
–Bought a ‘49 with AC and converted it to run on propane. Bev** hated the smell, tanks were in the trunk.
–Oldsmobile two door, bought for Jon***
–Mustang, bought and overhauled with Jon, sold to woman in Alden****
*Jerry did explain more about “railroad,” and requested redaction so others do not duplicate his actions. Think: prehistoric autonomous vehicle.
**Bev = Jerry’s wife.
***Jon = son
****Alden = neighboring town
There must be a dozen or more vehicles missing from Jerry’s recollection, vanished. Seeking patterns or intrigue, I probed about Jerry’s loyalty to Oldsmobile as a brand. Nope, not particularly loyal. Nothing there. Gone.
I probed for “one that got away” regret on the Mustang, a car that I personally remember, and admired greatly. Nope, not particularly regretful. (Car-person emotional connections are a difficult thing to predict). The buyer lady from Alden used it as a daily driver, and then sold it herself at some point. No telling where it is now.
Since Jerry and my dad were friends, I also personally remember Jerry’s son Jon’s Olds Cutlass two-door, which was a Cutlass Supreme in the 78-80 A-body era, early in the fourth gen, ubiquitous and highly fashionable among Kansas high-schoolers at that time. It was a fine specimen.
I don’t remember whether it had a partial landau top or not–most of them did to my recollection, and were preferred to have one. (Partial landau tops are such a WTF styling element looking back now. Maybe my Autopian colleague Adrian, or commenters, will answer the WTF question. Woodgrain, similar in its contrived nature, gets all the nostalgia and has found its way back into our psyche, but landau vinyl has not.)
(Sidenote on the GM A-bodies: they all seem to have been raptured off the earth–I never see one these days. Old trucks like Christmas Truck are still everywhere around here, but the A-bodies are extinct.)
I got the impression that for Jerry, the emotional power in remembering both the Olds Cutlass Supreme and the Mustang is mostly rooted in the father-son bonding that occurred while shopping for the cars and working on them together. Which suggests that when the cars of the future have very few moving parts–which is admittedly excellent for operating them–bonding over them will become more difficult.
I was astonished that one specific vehicle didn’t materialize in Jerry’s recollection of cars. But I remember it vividly. On a bone-chilling winter day in the late seventies, I remember Jerry picking me up as I walked home from school and delivering me the rest of the way home. I have no idea why I have this memory, other than Jerry was kind to me and my young-brain took a note so I would eventually be kind too. I remember that Jerry was in a second-generation “action line” Chevy C10 pickup, white on white. I also remember from my youth and from Jerry doing projects with my dad, that he had that C10 a very long time. You’d think it might have come up in our discussion. But it didn’t; gone. So that C10 lingers in my memory, but not Jerry’s. Like I said, car-person emotional connections are impossible to predict.
Jerry Is In Charge of our Town’s Historical Artifacts
Here, I need to assure the reader that Jerry is neither careless about history, or dismissive about the past. *Jerry never discards anything of past or present value, and everything he has still works.* In fact, Jerry is Sterling’s de facto historian and works tirelessly at it. He lovingly maintains and indexes an incredible treasure of photographic negatives of our community’s early decades. He has accrued countless artifacts of signage, fixtures, and mechanical doo-dads that illustrate the various phases of our town’s economic history, and he stores these artifacts in multiple buildings that he owns — themselves historical edifices and exquisitely curated exhibits that he opens to the public a few days each year.
Jerry’s role as our town’s historian is incredibly important, and instinct tells me his work in this area – basically demonstrating that our existence over time is worthy of acknowledgment and care – may make or break our future more than any seemingly intractable economic situation outside of our control. It’s a circular thing, as in, some things have a spirit in them, and some things don’t. Things with spirit should be nourished and cared for, if one has the skills. Things that don’t have spirit…should probably be forgotten so we can economize our focus. For lack of anyone else doing Jerry’s work to fix, save, and maintain artifacts, Jerry gets to decide what has spirit. And since Jerry is deciding, it means — in some ways — that the “thing” gets Jerry’s spirit.
Jerry Modified Christmas Truck into a Soulful Thing That Lasted
Jerry bought Christmas Truck in 1985, swapped its pickup bed for a flatbed, and promptly converted it to run on propane.
Let’s discuss propane conversion. I don’t have an expansive basis of comparison, but as rare as private-sector propane conversions are here in rural Kansas, one suspects they are even rarer in the world beyond.
A helpful explanation of modern propane conversions is available here. In very simple terms, a propane conversion involves creating a second, or replacement, fuel supply to an internal combustion engine. The principal mechanical considerations involve storing the fuel, plumbing the supply lines according to best practices, and controlling the behavior of a regulator and/or carburetor to suit the somewhat different properties of the alternative fuel.
It’s not super-complicated, and kits can help. Finding fuel is not the adventure that it might seem to be, if there are campgrounds or U-Haul outlets nearby. But propane conversion is still a rare and curious choice.
In Sterling, I remember that propane conversions proliferated for a time during the gas crises of the seventies, especially among farmers who already routinely used bulk propane to heat their buildings, and for whom heavy consumption of conventional engine fuels in the course of their operations made the multiplier effect of converting to propane work out.
Jerry’s use of propane predated the gas crunches (see car-nology above), and he uses propane to this day. He was not a farmer, although he did have a side-hustle as a water-softener vendor and he used propane in that enterprise.
Jerry’s explanation is straightforward: propane is usually cheaper and always better. Cheaper, because propane is doubly-blessed: it is usually cheaper to begin with, and it is not subject to highway-funding taxation. And it’s better because it burns cleanly and with much less exhaust byproduct–so cleanly that engine oil stays honey-clear after long periods of operation, indicative of reduced wear and tear on the engine.
Jerry is not an “alt-fuels” guy; he’s a “better” or “makes sense” guy. And if “better” is something you’re qualified to do without much effort or risk (because you are a genius mechanic), you do it.
At some point, though, Christmas Truck’s and Jerry’s identities intertwined. It’s evident hearing Jerry talk about Christmas Truck that there is something of a creator/creation dynamic here. He is loyal to Christmas Truck the way that a person might be loyal to a child, a grandchild, or even the recipient of one’s kidney — any person whose existence is an expression of one’s own DNA. The “better” factor of propane, at least in Jerry’s world, is part of what differentiates Christmas Truck from his many other cars. He really got it right. Christmas Truck, decidedly, has survived the test of time.
Mod #2: the Red Flatbed
Next, let’s talk about flatbeds. Look, I find the traditional pickup truck form-factor as appealing as anyone. A strong gravitational pull emits from marketing forces on my American self and I find myself coveting a truck pretty much all the time. But when I pause for critical thought, I just cannot “get there” on a conventional half-ton pickup with a bed.
Mostly this has to do with the walls of the pickup box. What good does a chest-height barrier into an open-air compartment do for me when hauling branches, lumber, sand, bikes, canoes, luggage . . . anything? Not only does the stuff have to get in there . . . then I have to get in there myself to tie it down, or worse, tarp it!
And now that I am old enough to afford one, and the MultiPro Tailgate that will “help” me, they’re getting much less affordable, and I’m getting much older. Anything I can possibly think of hauling, with the notable exceptions of sports flags or banners on poles, is easier to haul in something other than a conventional pickup. In the lingo of midwestern pragmatism: “It’s kind of f***ing dumb.”
Well–Jerry has to haul things daily, and while incredibly fit and agile, at 91 he needs to haul smart. The flatbed on Christmas Truck, with a reasonable threshold height and replaceable lumber floorboards that you can screw right into, is SO much smarter.
Even more than propane, Jerry gives credit to the flatbed for Christmas Truck’s daily-driver status. The combination of these two substantial vehicle modifications has resulted in forty-plus years of soul-building machine performance with more on the horizon.
It’s unlikely Jerry considered vehicle longevity when he did the propane and flatbed mods . . . yet there is a meritocracy of sorts for things that surpass their expectancy, lasting much longer than other things in the same basic category. It is useful to pay heed to such lessons, and worth remembering why.
Jerry’s and Bev’s Souls are in Christmas Truck
Bev died in 2001, on Valentine’s Day, one of what seem, anecdotally, to be an unsettling number of women who came of age in the forties and fifties on the Plains to succumb to cancer. Some in these parts blame atmospheric nuclear testing from the fifties drifting in on the prevailing winds. We’ll probably never know.
Bev was a dynamic woman of staggering attractiveness throughout her life, including when she was my school bus driver back in ’80-’81. Jerry and Bev were fun, and so, so beautiful together. There is evidence–protecting my sources here–that Jerry’s heartbreak after losing Bev caused concern that he would falter, and go away one way or another, shortly thereafter. It just wasn’t clear how he could go on.
Twenty-one years later, Jerry is undoubtedly still heartbroken about Bev–I did not go there with him during our interview, not wanting to complicate our smile-filled session together on an unseasonably warm day.
Yet on he went after Bev died. Jerry has surrounded himself with many helpful things, machines and artifacts as well as people. Mostly, it’s the machines–the soulful old ones–around Jerry that stand out. Mechanical though they be, they are elements of spirit that keep him vibrant and active. They are largely elements of his own creation, meager substitutes perhaps for the spirit and encouragement of a life’s partner, but instructive in the way that they gave him future motive power and purpose to go on. Long live every small town’s alpha-mechanic.
Christmas Truck is one of many soulful things in Jerry’s care. It’s evident to anyone paying attention.
It’s a given that Christmas Truck will function, and function quite well until Jerry no longer imparts his own spirit. What happens to Christmas Truck after that will be interesting, and useful, to observe. Sometimes soulful things . . . take heart and live on.