She was named after that old horse in the cartoons that was always at the back of the pack in the race, bow–backed, buck–toothed, and coughing up a storm. I think Porky Pig was at the rails, ripping his betting slip in two and crying in frustration, once again betting on the losing horse. But just when all seemed lost, the old horse would get bit in the ass by a bee, sending her into a frenzy, winning the race, and narrowly saving her from the guys in the glue truck waiting to take her away.
She was a blue, 1984 Chevy S–10 extended-cab pick-up truck. I remember shopping for her with my dad, passing over all the trucks on the lots and instead custom–ordering all the options from a catalog at the kitchen table. She wasn’t going to be my car (I was 12) but I was able to have a say in the options. So she got the extended cab, the 4–speaker stereo, the cloth seats, and the sliding rear window to go along with her rear-wheel drive, 4–cylinder engine. I remember one of Dad’s fellow scout leaders commenting when he saw her that she was a “pick–up,” said with a squeaky high voice, as opposed to a “PICK–UP,” said with a booming, low voice. I didn’t care and I don’t think my dad did, either.
I learned to drive a standard in that truck, at the same time that I learned to drive at all. I had a huge Ford LTD station wagon (‘78) at my disposal all through high school, but it was the blue truck I preferred. We’d pile kids in the bed and drive into Boston, me yelling at them through the sliding rear window to get down and hide whenever a cop came in sight. A few times we went surfing down Interstate 93, a couple of kids hanging onto ropes in the back, hanging a leg and an arm off the side, being idiots and luckily not dying, the stereo blasting through that sliding rear window.
In college I’d get her for a few weeks or months at a time, parking her down a steep driveway in the back of the house I lived in, my housemates always willing to don boots and coats and come sit in the bed to give her traction to make it up the hill when it was icy.
Around then she started getting temperamental. For no reason she wouldn’t start. It probably had something to do with the engine fire she had that Dad put out with the fire extinguisher that he always carried (he regretted it immediately, knowing he should have let her go and collected the insurance). I’d begged and pleaded with her the first few times she died, but it wasn’t until I started giving her steering wheel a deep rubdown, her gearshift a walk–through, and occasionally, a kiss on her grill, that she responded. And she was usually pretty good after that. Nobody believed me when they saw me start that routine but it worked almost every time and that’s all that mattered.
She also couldn’t hold an idle. I got really good at driving with one foot on the gas, one on the brake, and one on the clutch. She couldn’t come to a stop without coughing and sputtering, jerking back and forth and often just quitting. The first time a co–worker of mine saw her (and heard her) he named her Tea Biscuit after that old horse and she was called it ever since. And she sure lived up to the name.
When I graduated from college I planned an epic trip across and around the country with a buddy of mine, camping and backpacking our way through the deepest wilds we could imagine. We had everything planned except for the car—neither of us had one. It took me almost the whole summer after college to talk my dad into giving Tea Biscuit to me. Ultimately, he knew she was mine. He had moved on to a Jeep and Tea Biscuit wasn’t going to be happy spending the rest of her life just going to the dump. She had to be with me. I bought a cap for her and took her to our mechanic downtown and told him that I wanted him to fix her up to make her worthy of my trip. He told me she’d never make it to Detroit, let alone across the country and back. I asked him to do what he could and I think he changed the oil. And we were off.
Well, she made it across and around the country, taking Doug and me on our epic trip and then moving to Montana with me for a year. She blew a hose that we couldn’t afford to repair, forcing us to water her radiator every couple of hours (a condition I lived with for a couple of thousand miles because it didn’t seem so bad). Her starter went a couple of times, but the first time it went I didn’t fix it for months, preferring to push–start her every time. This was kind of a drag in a car that stalled all the time. Gas stations and parallel–parking were challenging, but the most embarrassing were intersections, when she’d inevitably stall and I’d have to jump out and start running with her, door open, through the intersection until I got her fast enough to jump back in and pop–start her. I was lucky she was light and Missoula was flat. The scariest was the winter trip to Glacier where I parked at the top of a hill that led nowhere, knowing that I had two, maybe three tries to start her before I got to the bottom. I blew the first two but somehow she pulled off the third at the last minute, that 20–mile hike out of the woods flashing by as we did a 3–point turn in the snow, balancing that damned clutch, gas, and brake, praying she wouldn’t stall.
She took me solo back across the country when I moved from Missoula to California via Massachusetts. She died at the Mass. border in the toll booth, knowing she was home and me wondering if this was the end or not. But she managed to start again, got me home, and was treated to yet another band–aid repair from the mechanic who counted her out the year before (blown away by the 20,000 or so miles I had put on her in the meantime) before taking me all the way back to California.
In California she couldn’t pass smog with her lack of idle, and I thought (for the millionth time) that she was done. But the mechanic across the street from my house took a liking to her and told me he thought he could fix her if I would invest the money in his time to do it. He refused to tell me how long or how much but I trusted him. A hundred and fifty bucks later I had an idle for the first time in years and a smog certificate to boot.
I had radical bumper stickers on her that made her a sitting duck to vandalism in small towns and trailheads. In northern Cal. during the timber wars I covered the stickers with duct tape to avoid too much damage, and I’m pretty sure the Free Leonard Peltier sticker caused the pack of wild dogs to piss all over her (with me in the car) when I drove through Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She had a tire shot out by a psycho neighbor in Montana for reasons that I still don’t understand but I think had something to do with me spending more time on my bike than in my truck.
She finally wore out in 1997, just 13 or 14 years old but ancient by mid–80’s Chevy standards. We gave her a candlelight funeral at the mechanic’s the night before she headed off for the junk–yard, drinking Sam Adams Boston Ale and listening to Wilco’s Passenger Side one last time through her stereo. She got a Boston Ale poured on her hood and one secretly stored in her jack compartment, and after I blew out the last candle I gave her one last steering wheel rub, one last gear run–through, and one final grill kiss.
She was a good truck and I’ve missed her ever since.