Prindle: I like that word. (Hint: Automatic transmission)
From time to time, I write about my pickup truck. But not because I’m a “vehicle-guy.” I don’t lust after fancy cars, cool trucks, or the latest driving gadgets. For me, cars are simply a mechanism to get from one place to the next, period. And the utility of a truck is for hauling things too big or too messy to put in a car trunk—like a couch… or a load of manure. But my pickup truck has personality. So, while I could care less about the truck part, I get a charge out of its quirkiness.
We bought it used, very used. Around five years ago, Susan and I added it to our vehicle fleet of one car—our Mazda minivan. Small town living has its benefits, and for us, one of those benefits was being a one-car family. Workplaces are close and errands don’t take very long. We were comfortable coordinating our car usage.
But Susan was embarking on a career change, and with that came five months of education. Her program was in the closest city—but still forty-five minutes away. While Susan was off learning new skills, there would be no car in our driveway. For me, this was fine. I work close enough to home to walk; but I usually ride my bike. The only scenario I could imagine where I needed a car was if I had to pick up a child from school. My kids, then six and nine years old, went to school on the other side of town. If one of them got sick, I’d have no way to get them home.
As a nod to this rare but expected situation, we needed a car in our driveway. Enter the truck. It’s a 1995 Dodge Dakota, not that the make and model mean anything to me. It could be a Ford or a Toyota or a GMC and I’d feel no differently about it. It has no paint on the hood, and the entire passenger side was once crushed in an accident. The bodywork and repainting of the damage looked good when we bought it, but now that paint is cracked and peeling.
Initially, the price was the draw. We bought it for $2,300 and in the five years we’ve owned it, we’ve only had one moderate repair.
The day we got it, I put a bumper sticker on the tailgate: Jesus is coming, look busy. I bought this sticker years earlier because it was the funniest thing I’ve ever read. But once I owned it, I lost my courage to put it on our car. For some reason, it seemed more acceptable on our beater-truck. With only a bit of hesitation, I stuck it on.
Over the past five years, I’ve worked to accessorize our truck. The entire tailgate and bumper are now covered with stickers, and they’ve started creeping up the side panels, slowly inching their way towards the front of the truck. Some of the stickers are pedestrian: an advertisement for the studio where Eli takes drum lessons, or a promotion for a trail-race I’ve run. But most of the stickers have a point. They are funny or political or meaningful to a family member. Dissent is Patriotic, Teach Peace, Honk if any parts fall off. A biohazard symbol; a John Lennon lyric; a Yin/Yang; souvenir stickers from trips to national parks; a petroglyph that Susan and I use as our personal logo.
For the election, I got a Tread on Me sticker. I walked into a Gettysburg souvenir store specializing in Tea Party merchandise, and bought myself a sticker. I crossed out the word “Don’t” with a sharpie. It’s the only Tread on Me sticker I’ve ever seen.
In addition to the stickers, I added some bling. I bolted a metal crow just behind the cab. I crimped a metal praying mantis to the radio antenna, and I hung a bicycle gear cog from the rearview mirror. So what I drive is an old, beat-up, piece-of-crap that elicits stares wherever I go.
Last week, I was heading out to an evening meeting. I recently joined the board of directors of an environmental education non-profit. I’ve been asked to join this board twice before, and each time I declined. I have a lot going on: job, wife, kids, exercise, writing, reading. Sometimes it’s hard to get my eight hours of sleep. This was the exact assessment of my life that told me maybe I should join the board and become involved in something.
As I was getting ready to go to the meeting, Susan exclaimed “Gas! Isn’t the truck low on gas?”
In our truck, lots of things don’t work. For about a year, the P R N D 2 1 gear shift indicator (which I learned is called a “prindle” in the auto repair industry) stopped working. This was a mild inconvenience we were willing to live with, but Pennsylvania wasn’t willing to give us our inspection sticker until it worked. Various engine lights appear and disappear from day to day. I’ve come to accept these as dashboard decorations.
The other gauge that doesn’t work is our gas gauge. When we bought the truck, it always registered as empty, which psychologically, keeps you on your toes. But since our new fuel pump was installed a few months ago, the gauge always reads full. This, it seems, lead to complacency.
Every time we fill up the tank, we reset the tripometer to zero. Once, a few years ago, I calculated our tank capacity at 240 travel miles. So, whenever we hit 200 miles, we refill the truck. Truthfully, tracking mileage is a completely unnecessary task. An amber low-gas light comes on whenever we get down to a couple remaining gallons.
I brushed off Susan’s concern. The tripometer only read 180 miles, and the light wasn’t on.
This has been a mild winter. In fact, most of January has felt like March. But for a few weeks, the mornings were frigid and icy. Maybe I left the truck idling in the driveway once or twice. Possibly, I wasted six gallons of gas melting off the frost!
As I exited my neighborhood onto the busy state road that leads into town, my car quickly lost power and then died altogether. I coasted my car onto the shoulder and began trudging back home for the lawn mower gas can.
I missed my meeting. It was only my third one since joining the board, so my track record is 67%. A solid “D.” The moment I started walking home, the non-profit’s Executive Director pulled up and asked if I needed help. And here is one of the drawbacks of living in a small town. You can’t screw-up anonymously. I sent him on his way armed with information to pass on to the rest of the board: “Jeff isn’t going to make it. He ran out of gas.”
By the time I returned with the gas, a cop was checking out my abandoned truck. As I snuck my way around his parked police car, his roof-lights lazily strobing the darkened roadway, I’m sorry to say that one thought repeated itself through my mind: “Don’t startle the cop. Don’t startle the cop.” As I approached him with a wave, I said “Hey, that’s my truck. I ran out of gas.” The cop assessed me with an annoyed gaze and replied “Oh, I know who that truck belongs to.”
The next day, I ran into Kent, one of the other board members, at the gym. Like most of the board, Kent has ten years on me. They’re all retired, they all have grandkids. They’ve completed their successful careers. Even though I’m in my fifties, with this crowd I still feel like a teenager. “Ran out of gas? You don’t really hear that much anymore.”
I won’t get the gas gauge fixed. It’s an unnecessary expense. One surprise benefit of running out of gas is I now know exactly how many gallons my tank holds. I can refine my calculations on the number of miles I can drive before a refill is necessary.
I suppose I’ll continue to add stickers and other “items of interest” to the truck even though they are clearly getting me some unwanted attention. At times I worry that my demeanor makes me seem immature. I’m not the adult that—based on my age—people expect me to be. As I edge out of my comfort zone into new, higher profile activities, I feel the need to portray a competent me. And with this board of directors, I’m off to a rocky start.