Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Dad's Farm Truck on New Year's Day

My dad owns two trucks.  One is a white "town" truck.  It looks nice and is fairly contemporary.  The other is a circa 1998 brown "farm" diesel truck. This farm truck was "totaled" by insurance adjusters when the heavy storm hit my parents' property three years ago.  It was parked next to the barn at that time.  The barn was completely destroyed.  The wind picked the truck up and slammed it into the ground. The windshield was cracked, there were a few minor dents from flying debris, and the paint over the entire body was scratched and chipped but the old diesel still started and still ran smoothly.  So dad kept using it for hauling things around the farm.  What else was he going to do with it?  Apparently, it was no longer legally worth anything except for scrap metal.

Regular readers know that my dad suffered a mild stroke early last year.  He has since regained his balance, strength, stamina, and speech that had all be initially impaired by the stroke. The only lasting effect is that he has lost about 20% of his vision, which now checks out at 20/30.  He isn't blind but things appear less crisp and focused for him.  "I can't see as clear," is the way he explains it. Anyway, the point is my dad still has land and fences and cattle and he is fully active on his little farm.  Which is why this strange story about his farm truck recently happened.

Around Thanksgiving last year, after checking the cows in it, dad backed the truck in close to the large red metal shed that now sits where the barn once stood. He left the manual stick transmission in reverse, cut the motor, and took the key out of the ignition.  He went in to the house, had dinner, watch Wheel of Fortune, and nodded off watching TV until he finally went to bed.  The next morning, after breakfast, dad went to the shed to take his battered farm truck into town to pick up various farm supplies.  The truck might not look like much on the roadway but at a farm supply store it looks like "a real working man's" vehicle.  When dad got to the shed he saw something unsuspected.

The truck was pressed back into the metal wall of the shed, it had pushed into it a little, bending the wall slightly.  His trailer hitch had punched a small hole clean through the wall, projecting inside. The rear tires on the truck had apparently spun in place and dug themselves into the moist ground there about 4-5 inches.  Further inspection determined that the battery was dead, the starter was burned out and the flywheel was ground to nothing.  Dad deduced that, for reasons unknown, the starter pulled power from the battery and turned the flywheel, engaging the drivetrain in reverse gear and backed the truck in slow motion into the barn where it pushed softly against the shed as the tires dug very slowly into the ground for a couple of minutes until the starter burned out and stopped the whole process.

The several mechanics dad has told this story to scratch their heads and say it seems impossible. But there was no key in the ignition.  The motor never started at all, it was an entirely electrical process. I think my dad is right.  I figure this is the same electrical weirdness (literally 'the ghost in the machine') that happens when you hear about a car burning up in a parking lot, just sitting there.

On New Year's morning I got up about 7:30 and made coffee. About 8 I called my parents to wish them a happy New Year. I talked to them about how things were since Christmas and taking down decorations and family in the hospital and all the normal stuff people talk about.  During the conversation dad asked if I could come help him with his truck. He wanted to get it running and take it to a backwoods mechanic he knew who would put a used starter and flywheel on it. Jennifer and I were going to her parents of a traditional southern black eye pea lunch and to watch some college football, so I told him I would come over mid-afternoon and give him a hand.

When I got to my parents place I noticed that the tractor (which has a hydraulic front lift) was positioned behind the truck and the truck was facing out toward the road.  Dad's plan was to push the truck instead of pulling it with a chain. He and my brother had already broken a chain when he started it after pulling it out of the side of the shed right after the incident.  He had parked the truck in front of the shed and left it there ever since.  It had not run since Thanksgiving. 

So this time he wanted to push it which would allow for the full horsepower of the tractor to hopefully fire up the manual transmission truck. My dad lives on a boundary line.  On his side of the road there is his farm which adjoins many hundreds of acres of woods and fields and pastures of farmland beyond to the west. You have to go a mile or more to get to the next little group of houses, all sitting on large lots.  

Across the road from my parents' home (and my birth home) there is a dense development of probably 300 houses or more, stretching a half mile or so to the east.  My dad wanted to push the truck with the tractor down a side street through the subdivision. He wanted to push it across the road and onto the side street, pick up some speed rolling downhill then let off on the clutch and try to start the truck that way.  I put the truck in third gear.

I drove the truck while dad pushed with the tractor. The side street was not directly across from the shed. So a 20-25 foot turn was involved to get us going down it. The road was clear of traffic so away we went. Only the truck was heavy and the tractor was not moving it very quickly.  

I had to apply the brake as we started maneuvering. A small car suddenly came speeding down the road and the truck's momentum was insufficient to beat it.  So we almost immediately lost momentum.  The car passed safely but now the truck was taking up half the road and two trucks from the other direction were already stopped in the middle of the road, waiting.  I motioned to them through the open window.  "Just one minute," I tried to signal. What else was I going to do?  I could not back the truck up.  We had to keep going.

Dad readjusted the tractor and eased into the bumper again. I felt a jolt and away we went, very slowly at first, then with a bit more speed, until at last we were out of the road and the truck was drifting down the side street.  My foot pressed the clutch.  As the truck gained momentum it began to pull away from the tractor, slowly at first then faster and further.  

I let off on the clutch.  The truck jerked and skidded slightly. Nothing.  Back down with the clutch, still rolling downhill.  I gained some speed before the tractor could catch me and let off on the clutch again.  On about the third try smoke came out of the exhaust but the truck did not start.  Again. Let off the clutch.  Smoke. Then nothing.

This was repeated 6-7 times, each time with slightly more smoke, but the truck did not start and by now I was nearing the bottom of the street's decline. For the first time I began to wonder what we were going to do if we got down into bottom of the subdivision and the truck just would not start. I guess the tractor would just have to push me back up the hill to the shed and we'd try something else. Fortunately there was zero traffic or children playing or anything like that as we rolled by the many houses along the side road. It was the afternoon of New Year's Day 2015. Everyone was laying around eating and watching college bowl games. 

Dad and the tractor reached the truck as I slowing due to the bottom of the decline.  The tractor knocked into the bumper again with a pretty hard jolt and I let off of the clutch.  The tractor pushed the truck about 30-40 feet, more or less forcing the engine to engage as the transmission was now being used as a starter. Smoke intensified. The tractor continued to push and I pressed down the clutch.  Somewhat to my surprise as I held the clutch down the motor started running.
I pumped a thumbs-up out the driver's window to my dad, diesel fumes and smoke everywhere, downshifted into second and drove the truck to a place where I could turn around, a side street to the side road in the subdivision.  Dad backed into someone's driveway and headed back toward the shed. It is counter-intuitive that pressing the clutch in rather than letting it out was what started the truck since we were pushing it off.  But then so is just about everything else about this story.

I pulled the truck back where we began and left it running (of course).  I followed dad in my car on some winding back roads and we dropped the truck off at the mechanics shop. Dad parked the diesel in a mud hole and left it with the keys still in it. I laughed at that. But, as he explained, no one could start it anyway.  I thought yeah and even if someone did steal it dad wasn't even sure he wanted the truck.  

But he's going to sink a couple of hundred dollars into the battered farm truck and get it starting again.  I get where he's coming from.  I have an old vehicle of my own. My dad and I want our old cars or trucks to run forever even if we know they won't. It is an attitude I guess my dad has these days anyway.  A few months ago he had lost half his vision, his speech was thick and slurred, and his unsteady balance required him to use a walker or a cane. Now all that's gone and he is a pretty old piece of equipment himself.  So, hell, why not fix the truck that was totaled three years ago? Long may you run.

1 comment:

Brad Post said...

That is a great time you have spent with your father on New Year's Day. It's just regretful that he's gonna go through that without seeing the fuller picture, given how his sight is impaired, but at least he's pulled through at all other respects. However, there are lots of helping hands that can guide him as he keeps up through his recovery. Keep up the support and Happy New Year's Day as well. All the best!

Brad Post @ Jan Dils