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Stovebolt Sagas

Oral history of Stovebolt Quests, Journeys, Treasures and Dragons

I never wanted to be a fireman

By John Milliman


One man's journey to self-enlightenment and understanding of women, old trucks and ... eBay

        A lot of little boys dream of being astronauts and fire fighters. Not our boy John! Not that he ever had anything against fire fighters, he just never felt led to be one. A Marine Corps pilot, yes. But a Fire fighter? So why, at age 43, does he enlist the help of friends, spend 10's of dollars and embark on an epic venture to get... a firetruck? When all he really needed was ....


A portable Pond!        


Not exactly a fire fighter... But not exactly a pilot either. John's solo picture from flight school.

        I wanted to be a carpenter when I was six years old. And then, when I was about 10, I decided I was going to be a pilot. A Marine Corps pilot. I was going to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and then go to Pensacola to get my wings. And then I was going to be Smiling Jack -- leather jacket and all. Never once did it ever cross my mind that I wanted to be a fire fighter.

        Not that I've ever had anything against them, I just never really wanted to be one.

        But a fire engine... what little kid doesn't like a fire engine? You never really lose that fascination, I suppose. I never did. Shiney red, with flashing lights and sirens -- what's not cool about a fire engine?

        So anyway, like a lot of plans we make when we are 10 years old, the Marine Corps pilot gig didn't exactly pan out. Sure, I made it a heck of a lot closer than a lot of kids with a dream, but I left Pensacola not with wings on my chest (and the rats even made me give the leather jacket back, too.) but with a different job. Somewhere along the line, I picked up a new dream avocation -- farmer. And when my active indentured servitude for my uncle (um, that would be my Uncle Sam. And I am one of his Misguided Children .... Uncle Sam's Misguided Children -- get it? Never mind...) ...

        Where was I?

A christmas tree farm... And they all need water.

        Oh yes, I was finally able to become a farmer in 1998, moving to my own farm in 2003. A christmas tree farm, to be exact. Niche farming to be sure, but farming none the less. Planting, growing, nurturing, harvesting, paying bills, breaking stuff and driving tractors -- everything that goes into being a farmer. It's great. Until about the 5th time you run over a $300 roll of 2-inch layflat irrigation hose, tearing up a $20 set of quick couplers and a $50 set of mower blades in the process.

Justifying that next Stovebolt

        We figured there had to be a better way to keep our young christmas trees watered during droughts than running hose all over the place, running three pumps all the time and having to schlep gas cans all over the place. Instead of pumping water from the pond, through a network of mower-vulnerable hoses to the trees, we needed to eliminate the "middleman" so to speak. We need to take the pond directly to the trees. Especially after figuring out that our 5 hp trash pumps weren't really able to deliver the amount of water necessary to run a series of water canons up a hill and 300 yards out into the field.

        A portable pond....

        And what better way to upgrade to a bigger pump than to get one already attached to a truck with a big water tank... hmmmm... And we run the Stovebolt Page so it had to be a Stovebolt...

        Ergo -- Fire Engine!! eBay, here we come!

        So I started getting smart on fire engines. My friends in the Baltimore-Washington chapter of the American Truck Historical Society were more than willing to assist in my education, too. From them, I learned that the ideal set up would be a front mounted pump rather than a midship pump (to give a "pump and roll" capability) and the biggest tank I could find. With most pumps being in the 500 GPM and up class, it wouldn't take long to drain a 500-gallon tank (i.e., probably about, say, a minute!). So I figured I wanted a smallish pump and a largish tank.

        And the truck itself had to be a Stovebolt. Naturally. So... off to eBay for the ideal truck. And that's when the real "fun" began... Take a deep breath...

        Remember when fire trucks used to be cheap?? Well I don't. Sure, I had vague memories of people commenting on how "cheap" fire trucks were and what a great way they were to get a well-preserved cab and chassis (I didn't pay all that much attention at the time. Oh, if only my crystal ball had been working at the time... What am I saying?? The damn thing still doesn't work...) popped into my head as I cruised eBay as if to taunt and mock me. Cheap trucks?? Ha -- if I was looking for one that had been totaled or almost completely parted out. Or parked outside since the Jurassic Period.

       Yes, apparently I had discovered my inner fireman somewhat after everyone else had.

        Old fire trucks were certainly available, and even in the specific configuration I was looking for. But "cheap" wasn't exactly a useful adjective. I had to readjust my expectations, re-evaluate my Old Truck portfolio and resources, and make a new pitch to Miss Margaret. She was somewhat understanding. Again, I mentioned the mangled hoses and destroyed quick couplers. She caved.

The '65 GMC 4000 fire truck as John first saw it on ebay. The noose tightens....

        Re-energized, motivated and authorized, I trundled back to the Fire trucks and Ambulances section and, low and behold, there it was -- a 1965 GMC tanker truck with a 1,000-gallon tank. It even had suction hose and a ladder! It was (and is), in fact, the ladder from Hell. More like a stairway to Heaven. You don't have to be scared of heights to be intimidated by this monster. I think it's ... 30 feet! Gasp.

        It had just been listed and it seemed to be the one. I had about 6 days before the auction ended and I didn't want to show my hand too early (I entertained big ideas about entering my bid at the very last second as there wasn't much activity on this truck with only 2 bids). So I waited. Torture!

        While we waited for the auction to run its course, Peggy and I packed a couple of bags, coordinated with KCMongo, Paul Schmelh and Scott Ward about attending the 2006 Mid-West All Truck Nationals in Kansas City. We made plans to stay together at the airport Marriott. It was going to be a fun weekend... if I could stop thinking about that truck!

        So we flew to Kansas City, got the rental car and checked into the hotel -- we were first! We checked on Paul and found they were still about 4 hours out. Peggy checked on everyone in the car. I was concerned, too. I grabbed the phone.

        "Got your lap top??" I blurted at Paul, cutting off his proffered friendly greeting. He had it. And he was willing to let me check the truck. Peggy made me wait until they had checked in, though.

        It was a good weekend at the show and you can read about it elsewhere. But when we got home Sunday evening (the day the auction closed), I went straight to the computer and signed in. One hour to go! And no new bids! We watched the clock grind its way around. Finally, we got to less than a minute.

        I took a deep breath and with Peggy anxiously hovering behind me (successfully controlling her urge to beat me senseless, no doubt), submitted my bid. The computer cycled and reloaded and with about 15 seconds to go, I was the high bidder! Waa hoo.

        I ended up being the high bidder but we didn't meet the reserve. So the next day, I called the seller and we haggled and settled on a price -- the truck was mine! Well, as "mine" as it would get until it was paid for, the title handed over and the truck sitting on our farm. Mere details!

        "How about I send you the money via PayPal, you send me the title and I'll come drive it home," I suggested to Ken, the seller. My thought was that I could get my insurance and tags, fly out there and have a great ride home over the course of a weekend. How hard could this be?

        Indeed. When hopes and dreams overpower good sense and wisdom, trouble is never far behind.

        "Title?" Ken came back. "I don't have a title!" And so he didn't -- I looked again at the eBay listing and sure enough, no title. Not to worry -- I could just trailer it home!

        "It's a fire truck," Ken patiently explained. Not only had it been a municipal vehicle most of it's life (and apparently no title), it was, um, heavy.

        Well no kidding, I thought to myself. I had a trailer rated to 14,0000 pounds. With the trailer itself weighing about 4,000 pounds, I figured 10,000 pounds would cover the fire truck. Or at least come close.

        I had once again walked into the kill zone of an ambush, set up by the Fates. Those evil sisters who truly hate me sometimes and were giggling with glee now. I tried to ignore them holding back their snickers as I asked the next question...

        "Well how much do you think the truck weighs?" I asked. That sniggering was turning into chortles now.

        "Oh, probably about 13,000 pounds, I'd say," Ken answered. All attempts at composure failed and the Fates were rollicking in their belly laughs. I didn't find it all all amusing. I was stuck at zero. I couldn't drive it home. And I couldn't haul it, either. This was another fine mess you've gotten me into, I said to my inner fire man. It was actually the first mess he had gotten me into (having just discovered him and all), but whatever. I didn't like it.

        We left it there and I stewed over my options -- which were marked "Slim" and "None." And "Slim," as we all know, is never around when you need him.

       Right about then, at that particular junction along Life's path when you could most use one of Yoggi Berra's forks and all Life hands you is a dead end, "Slim" swaggered back in. "Slim" had taken the form of my ATHS friend and antique firetruck expert, Gary. I was fresh out of ideas, motivation, excitement or anything else that would move this scheme off top dead center and I needed a different perspective. So I called Gary.

        "Let's go get it," Gary said matter of factly. Huh?

        As Gary explained it, Slim got some meat back on his bones. We would take Gary's '59 Reo single axle dump and the big equipment trailer out, grab the truck, and come home. MapQuest told me the trip would be 577 miles each way. If we left after work on Friday, we could be home for supper on Saturday.

       Slim had just walked over to the sleeping Fate sisters and given their rack a good kick. They were awake and listening now. Slim can be a real jerk some days.

        Sounded like a plan so we made arrangements for the coming weekend.

Gary (in the command pilot position) and John go through the pre-launch checklist. I think the Gemini spacemen had more room than we had in the Reo.

        But 1,200 miles in a 47-year old dump truck? No worries! This truck had carried Gary faithfully across country several times in the past few years, including a trip a year ago to the ATHS national show and convention in Auburn, IN. Gary had even installed a late model Cummins diesel and 10-speed Roadranger transmission. Other than being a little cramped in the cab, it would be a great trip. And who cared about the small cab? We would only be in there for about 18 hours... Lovell and Borman had way less room in Gemini 7 and they were in there for two weeks. And for the few days prior to the trip, I went over to Gary's and helped him prep the truck and trailer for the trip. We adjusted brakes, greased everything, made sure all the lights were working, topped off air in all the tires, check fluid levels and re-installed the dump box tarp (at 8 MPG, every little bit helps...). About Thursday, We were ready to go!

Blast Off

        We made an on-time departure -- promptly pulling out of Gary's driveway right right on the dot at 4... ish. "Close enough," I thought. It wasn't a moon launch.

        All went smooth for the first 20 minutes. Not even thinking about what time of year it was (Fall) and what events were ongoing, we took our normal route up through the tri-county region of Southern Maryland. Hardly into our second county we ran smack dab into ... The Calvert County Fair!!! That's right -- we took our normal route that just happens to go by the fairgrounds of our sister county. And this was fair weekend! Ugggh. It took us an hour to go one mile. Soon, we were done dodging fair goers (Hey Gary -- remember the clown in the RV that was about the size of the palace at Versailles who was trying to drive it like a Corvette?) and back on our way.

        Because it was rush hour on the Washington DC beltway an a Friday, we thought it best to go wide around the city, so we took Route 2 up to Route 32. This would bring us wide around and hook us into I-70 just before Frederick. Piece of cake. Until we got to Ft. Meade...

        Just past Ft. Meade on Route 32, we hit some nasty bridge joints and we got bounced pretty hard in that ole Reo cab. A quick scan of the gauges told Gary everything seemed to be in order... And then we felt a jerk, almost like the engine had skipped a beat or the brakes took a quick tap. Again, Gary scanned the gauges -- no issues. We looked at each other with that unspoken, "Didyoufeelthat?" look...

        Right about then, we felt it again. And at the same time, time dilation kicked in as a number of things seemed to happen all at once. "Hell breaking loose" is probably a better way to put it considering what happened...

        Remember -- all these things happened about the same time...

        As I was checking the passenger side mirror and seeing a whole heck of a lot more of the trailer than I should have been able to see, Gary was asking, "What the he..." A car was passing us blowing his horn with the driver pointing excitedly at the back of the truck. Gary checked his mirror and saw a shower of sparks coming from behind the truck. In the big spectrum of "Good" and "Bad," whatever was going on back there definitely fell into the "Bad" category.

The Reo (in back) at the 1st show of the season. In front, John Vannatta convinces Peggy that a firetruck is just the ticket... Johnnie V gets blamed for a lot of things....

        With a deft touch, Gary eased us over to the should and a stop. Despite the heavy traffic, we got out of the truck safely and met at the back of the truck. Expecting the worst, we quickly discovered the problem -- the trailer was still connected to the truck, but only by the chains and air lines! The cotter pin that kept the pintle hitch closed had apparently worked its way out (it was happily dangling next the the open hitch by its keeper chain) and allowed the hitch to pop open when we went over the bridge joints. The sparks had come from the skid plate on the landing gear -- which had taken the weight of the front of the trailer once it was no longer connected to the truck. It was still glowing cherry red in spots and smoking as the last of the paint burned off.

        Knowing that I would be writing up a story about this trip (but not exactly thinking it would be a Saga...) I had brought my digital camera. The look on Gary's face, however, pretty much told me to keep the camera in the truck unless I wanted some shots of the inside of my upper gastrointestinal tract. I didn't particularly need those at that moment, so I busied myself with helping Gary figure out our situation.

        The good news was that the safety chains had worked! Everything seemed to be in order, so I lowered the landing gear, disconnected the chains and airlines and Gary repositioned the truck to reconnect the trailer. A few miles down the road, once we both felt like talking again, we pretty much agreed that it was good to have our one mission glitch behind us.

        Alerted by Slim, the Fates were now back on the job. But they left us alone for awhile -- apparently to lull us into a sense of security. They were successful.

        About the time we got to Frederick, Gary decided to was time to get some fuel and something to eat -- which we did in that order. After fueling, we found one of these great diner joints on the outskirts of a shopping mall parking lot -- the one that looks like an old timey diner. The meal was good and plentiful -- because, as we didn't know, it was going to be a looooooong time before we got another one...

Gen X to the rescue

        Happy and fed, we got back in the truck and started winding our way back out of the mall parking lot -- which at this time of the evening, was mercifully empty. Eager to be back on the road and putting miles behind us, we were in pretty good spirits. I was, anyway... And that's when they struck.

        Making a particularly tight turn around a traffic island in front of the Ethan Allan outlet, we heard a mighty hiss, followed by a jerk as the trailer's left side brakes came on and locked. We had broken an airline, apparently. Once again, we stopped to take a look. You know, air brakes are great... except when they're not. We had a broken glad hand and a snapped fitting right at the back of the truck. The good news was that Gary had brought spare connector lines (complete with glad hands) and a ready supply of various plumbing fittings -- a few quick turns of the wrench and we'd be back on our merry way. Also helping was that we were stuck in the middle of a deserted, but perfectly lit, parking lot -- we could work at our leisure in great light without worrying about traffic. If we were going to break down, this was a pretty good spot.

        Of course, we were just chumming the water for the Fates who then threw us a curve ball -- The bad news was that the one plumbing fitting we needed was the one fitting Gary didn't have in his bag of tricks.

        As if we had a guardian angel who was battling the Fates, two young guys in a pickup showed up just then, asking if we needed help. (They were there to pick up the one guy's girlfriend who was about to get off work at the Mall.) Gary was somewhere under the trailer, so I told them what was up and what we needed.

        "Is there a hardware store around here?" I asked, hoping to get the one fitting we needed to repair the brake line.

        Looking at me like I was about as smart as a bag of hammers (which is pretty accurate...), the passenger in the truck just pointed over my shoulder... at the Home Depot across the street.

        "No kidding, huh?" I said over my shoulder -- I was already hoofing it toward the big orange sign in the distance. I glanced at my watch -- it was just 10 pm. Maybe...

        "Maybe you won't get you butt squashed all over this street," I thought to myself. Between me and the prize on the hill were 8 lanes of Mall traffic. The longer I waited, the more closed the store got. I took a deep breath and plunged into the street -- bobbing and weaving, waving to the cars that honked and hoping I wouldn't end up dead. Was the truck worth it? Maybe it wasn't, but I sure as anything wasn't going back to Gary empty handed!

        I made it. Huffing, my throat dry and scratchy from the cool night air I was sucking down in huge gulps (the last time I ran that far in boots was the last Marine Corps PFT I ran ... in April, 1998. If only my doc could see me now -- she's been harping on me that my blood pressure has been too high lately. Well, this certainly wasn't helping.

        "Dude, we're closed," the 20-something lot lizard shepherding carts back to the store said to me as I went chuffing by. Undeterred, I launched into my unrehearsed spiel.

        "Man," I started, a look of helplessness in my face, "I've been on the road from Amarillo this week (a true statement , but I had flown, not driven... one of many things I will burn in Heck for) and we've just busted an air line on the truck. I gotta get home," I pleaded. He let me in the store. Some times, being a professional bull artist comes in handy...

        I made my way to the plumbing aisle and quickly searched for the 3/4-inch to 1/4-inch 45-degree elbow reducer. Of course, they had everything BUT!

        "Attention shoppers!" the loud speaker blared. "The store is now closed. Please go to a check out counter at this time!"  I quickly grabbed an alternative arrangement -- designing plumbing on the fly isn't an art so much as it is just a wild guess sometimes...

        Luckily, traffic had thinned out a little for my return trip. I somewhat leisurely jogged back across the Highway of Death and found Gary still underneath the trailer.

        "I wondered where you went," he said. I handed him the fittings I grabbed. "Well, these oughtta work!"

        Before I could wonder what was next on the hit parade, Gary had it all put together and was in the truck recharging the air system while I listened for leaks. I gave him a thumbs up, jumped in the truck and we were on our way. Again.

On the road again (I shoulda been a cowboy...)

        "Well Gary," I said optimistically (i.e., idiotically), "I think we've had our glitches for this trip!" Gary shot me a look. THAT look.

        "Oh no," he said. "Bad always comes in threes. We ain't out of this yet." I just sat and pondered that in silence as we both listened to the Cummins stretch its legs back on I-70. The boost pressure was reading good and the truck was humming along fine. Everything was fine, despite me not knowing where to put my feet. For such a big truck, it sure had a tiny cab. Nonetheless...what could possibly go wrong now?


        When the "Big One" hits, it usually sneaks up on you. With cat-like tread. Like the ghost of a cloud, it just sort of wafts up behind you when you are all lulled by the steady hum of a Cummins, and the flick, flick, flick, flick rhythm of the lane lines zipping by. And then, when you are feeling comfy, toasty and secure on a chilly night in the the West Virginia Appalachian cordillera known as the Shenendoah....WHAM!!!!

        It was about 1 am and Gary was getting a bit sleepy. We had just crossed the state line from Maryland into West Virginia, having braved the steady up and down climbs and descents of the treacherous (for old big trucks, anyway) mountains in and out of Cumberland, Maryland (those 5-mile 5 percent grades are not to be taken lightly), and into our tired vision hove the West Virginia Welcome Center -- perfect place to catch a couple of hours of shut eye. Little did we know that we'd be catching up on quite a LOT of rest here...

The Big One

        Gary pulled the exit ramp, downshifted to make the Cummins sing a bit and we swung off on the ramp up to the big truck parking area. It was then the "Big One," summoned by the Fates, no doubt, caught up with us.


        We knew that last part... Gary just about got us to the side of the ramp as the air pressure quickly went to zero. We were stopped dead. In the middle of the truck exit ramp. On the back slide of a blind curb.

        This was not good.

        As we both piled out of the truck, rooted firmly like a monument to some false god, on our respective sides, we were both thinking the same thing -- that my fudged plumbing parts had given way. If only... We soon met at the back of the truck, separated by the big yellow trailer tongue. Our first disappointment walloped us. The air fittings were intact, the trailer securely fastened to the truck.

        "Well THAT's not it," I blurted, mastering the obvious. Gary had already grasped the situation and had turned to check the rest of the immobilized truck. I could almost hear the cartoonish "zzzzzip!" as he disappeared around the corner of the truck, heading back to the front. He slipped down and under the truck.

        "Oh boy!!" he nearly yelled. Oh boy? I thought it promising that it wasn't a string of epithets, expletives and other language generally frowned upon by more genteel types. Couldn't be all THAT bad, I thought as I slipped myself under the truck to see what was up. I soon found out. And the heretofore missing expletives soon escaped my less-genteel-than-Gary's lips.

        The drive shaft hung down, flaccid like a dead mullet. It was wrapped in air line.

        We soon discovered that the drive shaft yoke had slipped off the pilot shaft that came out of the hanger bearing. Still attached to the rear axle pumpkin, it had whipped around like a wild fire hose whanging the heck out of everything within its destructive radius -- which included the air lines and the main air tank itself, which it had knocked a sizeable hole in. Funny thing about air brakes -- they sortta need air to work. No air pressure, no air brakes. No air pressure, no movement of the truck, either, as the safety aspect of spring brakes is that the brakes come on when you lose all air pressure. Handy, huh?

        It was right about then, as we were stuck in the middle of the truck off ramp, on the backside of a blind curve, at 1 am, that I thought about the 18-wheeler driven by a worn-out driver that was going to come barreling around that curve -- the driver thinking he was but moments away from blissful rest.... When from around the corner, as Gary was banging away under truck, I heard the ominous rattle of a Jake brake ... The bad situation had just gotten much, much worse.... And there was nothing I could do. I was helpless and mesmerized by the scene unfolding in that time-dilated slow motion that occurs when your brain suddenly realizes you could be experiencing those last few precious seconds of existence in this plane of reality and stretches them out to make the most of them before it turns into pulverized goo.

        The White Angel of Near Death slowly materialized from around the corner as a gleaming white International Eagle tractor pulling an equally gleaming white million foot long semi trailer. I knew it was an International Eagle because that cool new Navistar/International emblem on the radiator grill ended up inches from my nose amid the squeal and hiss of panic braking. Somewhat detached from my own near death, I thought to myself that it was pretty impressive driving and well maintained equipment that got that big gleaming rig stopped short of turning me into a yucky mess on the back of Gary's truck.

        Nonchalantly, I gave the driver a few moments to recompose himself. Actually, I was desperately wishing I was somewhere else, having never heard of firetrucks or any of it. I steeled my nerves and walked over to the side of the Eagle and looked up at the driver. He looked down at me. And I thought Gary had a pretty mean look... Well, if looks could turn people into vaporized holes in the ground, I'd now be the Grand Canyon. My adams apple must have looked like one of those paddle ball things. I gulped and tried to sound knowledgeable...

        "Um, we busted a drive shaft and it tore out our airlines. Can you get around us?" The Eagle driver didn't say a word. He just shifted into reverse, backed down to get swinging room and make a run up the shoulder.

        Perhaps at this juncture I should mention, speaking of the Grand Canyon, that the shoulders on this particular off ramp weren't exactly generous. Infact, they rapidly veered off into abyssal canyons on either side of the narrow macadam. The Angel of Near Death, now the Seething Cauldron of Annoyance, wisely stopped halfway. Discretion being the better part of valor, as they say. He backed down again and stopped. He just glared at us.

        With perfect timing, Gary reappeared. He gave the Angel of Near Death a quick glance and rather matter of factly stated, "well the next truck in will hit him and not us at least." I think I laughed. "If we can plug the hole in the tank, we can get enough air pressure up to release the brakes and drift the truck back down to the side of the ramp," Gary explained. "Then, he can get around us." Sounded like a plan. Of course it did -- Gary had already implemented it and soon, that unmistakable hiss of escaping air signaled the release of the brakes. Gary drifted the truck back, clearing the ramp. The Angel of Near Death glided by and disappeared back into the night. The worst was over.


At least it isn't raining...

           As we stood there pondering our next steps, I think I uttered our old standby encouragement from my Marine Corps basic training... I knew better but the words were up and out of my mouth before my better judgment could kick in and hog tie them...

        "At least it ain't raining," I chirped.

        Gary started to give me that "Will you shut your pie hole!" look but it was too late. As if on cue, the first drops softly alighted upon my cheek, embracing me with that gentle, mocking tone of "You asked for it, big fella!" Gary had the BFH in his hand so I wisely took a step away from him.

        We were in West Virginia. It was now nearly 2 am. The temps were down around 40 degrees. We were stuck on the side of the road with a busted driveshaft and no air pressure. It had been a very long time since either one of us had been to bed. And it was beginning to rain. I looked at the immobilized Reo. I looked at a tired, grimy and unamused Gary. I looked down at the now glistening pavement. A chill had permeated my body. Didn't this just suck.

        Right about then Gary and I simultaneously heeded the eternal wisdom of "When the going gets tough, the tough get some sleep." We said "to heck with it,' crawled up into our respective sides of the cab and promptly fell asleep. I awoke a couple of times during the next few hours to catch fleeting glimpses of Freightliners and Fruehauf's whizzing by mere inches from my window. It wasn't a comforting sight. I quit looking.

        About 6 am, our cramped, sore and blood-deprived lower extremities forced us up and out once more to face our troubles.

        Regrettably, the aliens hadn't come during the night to teleport or time warp us anywhere -- It was still raining and cold. And we were still in Westbygod Virginia.

        The first bit of good news came when we looked under the truck. The tool fairies hadn't exactly come during the night to magically fix everything. But running the Cummins during the night to keep warm had an added benefit -- the exhaust heat had dried the pavement under the truck. We had a nice warm and dry area under the truck to work! The day was starting to look up. We didn't really know it then, but our fortunes had started to change.

        All wasn't exactly swell in Mudville, but it was improving.

        As Gary opened the tool box and started collecting the tools he would need to start disassembling the drivetrain, I crawled under the truck (enjoying the warm, dry pavement) and began pondering all the bolts I saw connecting the driveshaft to the output shaft from the Roadranger. Yikes, that was a lot of bolts and we'd be here all day getting them off. I also looked at the U-joint hanging off the yoke that had slipped off and need to go back on (but wouldn't)... I pondered.

        Seems like a lot of things in life seem simpler if you just stare at them sometimes.

        "Um, Gary?" I called out at Gary's feet. God bless him, Gary had a lot on his plate -- his truck was stuck in the middle of nowhere, it was the buttcrack of Dawn and... And here I was trying to solve the problem. Now granted, I'm no big truck mechanic. In fact, I think we've fairly well established that I'm not much of any kind of mechanic. But as I pondered the gatrillion bolts on the output of the driveshaft, the million more on the hangar bearing itself, and I compared them to the four bolts on that U-joint... a thought occurred to me. Sometimes, the things in life that are intuitively obvious are only so to the casual observer. I think he may have been focused on getting the yoke back on the splined shaft.

        "Gary," I started, hoping I wasn't saying anything too stupid -- he was, after all, holding that darn BFH again... "What if we just disassembled the U-joint, slipped the yoke back on, and reassembled the U-joint?"

        Gary looked at me, looked at the U-joint, then looked back at me.

        "This is it," I thought to myself. "He's going to murder me on the spot and no jury of his peers would convict him of anything... Heavenly Father, unto thee do I commit my soul..."

        "That could work," he said, furrowing his brow and giving me that look that said "That's the first intelligent thing you've said this whole trip." I kept my trap shut -- it was still a long walk home.

Happier times -- John (left) presents Eddie (right) with a well-deserved Stovebolt Award at the 2006 Tri-State Show in Winchester, VA.

        About 20 minutes later, we had the driveshaft back together (minus the yoke nut, of course). Gary fired up the Cummins and brought the air up as much as it go, which was enough to get the brakes off. And as I stood watching the shaft, I was heartened to see the Reo once again move under it's own power as it crawled up the last bit of the grade and Gary pulled into a parking spot.

        It only took us 5 hours, but we were finally parked at the rest area!

        Elation was fleeting. We were still in the middle of nowhere with a busted up air system and an unsafe driveline. I had all but given up on the idea of making it to Michigan on this trip.

Eddie Guy to the Rescue

        As Gary shut down and the last of the air hissed out of the system past the chewing gum and baling wire, he pulled out his cell phone. He was checking in with homeplate. After the obligatory how ya doings, he turned to me and relayed a question from Miss Sally.

        "She wants to know if you're having fun yet."

        "The time of my life," I shot back, smiling. "If this was easy, everybody'd be doing it."

        Gary signed off with Sally and dialed again. I checked my watch -- it was about 7:30 am. Saturday.

        "Eddie!" he said into the phone. "What are you doing?" He didn't much wait for an answer. Gary told him of the evening's travails.

        "Can you run over to my place, grab the Autocar and bring it up here and take this Reo back?" I was astounded. And afraid. Now I would have two guys (no pun intended...) wanting to murder me...

Our "home" for 14 hours in West Virginia. While waiting for the cavalry to arrive, I crawled in the back of the truck and moved all the spares and tools to the trailer. Nice minivans...

        After a few more logistical coordinations, a few pleasantries and a few jibes at "that Milliman boy," Gary snapped the phone shut.

        "Eddie's on his way," he said matter-of-factly. I couldn't believe it -- after an early morning phone call on a Saturday, Eddie was going to drop everything, jump in his own dump truck and drive four hours to West Virginia to deliver Gary's Autocar and take the disabled Reo home. Wow.

        "He knows I'd do it for him," Gary explained. He couldn't help but notice my shock. "And now so would you."

        By golly he had THAT right! With my normal daily existence of cubicle farms, office drudgery and carpeted cloister, I had somewhat forgotten such honor still existed among men...

        It was good to be among country boys again! I was ready to offer up my first born but wisely kept silent, thinking that my son-in-law probably would have a minimum of enthusiasm for that idea. Still, Eddie was a fellow member of our ATHS chapter and had become a friend during our weeklong stint in Baltimore that previous Spring putting on the ATHS National Show.

        About then, my body finally remembered what time it was. I needed coffee! We headed into the rest center to get coffee and raid the machines for breakfast. It was probably going to be a long time until lunch. or dinner... We were settling in for a wait. But I figured about Noon, we'd probably see Eddie.

        Coffee in hand, the caffeine coursing it's way through my system, all seemed to be getting better. Back in the cab, Gary handed me a fruitbar from Miss Sally's road fridge. Indeed, things were looking up. Both of us in better spirits, we chatted awhile and then dozed off, cheered by the thought that we would be soon awakened by Eddie pulling up next to us. It was about 8 am...

       We were awakened alright. Only it wasn't Noon and it certainly wasn't Eddie. It was the Schneider driver slamming to a stop in the parking spot next to us and applying his parking brakes with a sudden and mighty PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!! And so it would go for the next 5 hours. Fits of restless sleep in the Gemini space capsule-like cab punctuated by arriving and departing big trucks. Several of the drivers did wander over to check out the antique Reo and engage us in conversation. One driver in particular even offered up his galley and fridge -- he was totally cool. Gary did all the talking to that guy.

        About 1 pm, neither of us could stand being in the truck any longer, just sitting there watching the people come and go. As the temps were still in the 40 to 50 range, even the girl watching wasn't very good... Even the cars were boring. Being marginal weather and a fall weekend, we just had the usual collection of late model bubble cars and minivans to ogle. Yay. More interesting was the wide variety of loads that came in and went out on the backs of the semis parading in front of us. But after awhile, even that got old. Eventually we just got out, walked around, enjoyed the view from the mountain top we were on and got the truck ready for Eddie's (hopefully) imminent arrival.

Eddie arrives

Gary carefully drives the Reo onto Eddie's trailer for it's ignominious ride home. I am blessed to have friends like these guys!

        As 3 pm approached, Gary's cell phone rang. My hopes soared!! It was Eddie!!! And he wasn't calling to say he had just left, either!!! He had just crossed into West Virginia and in just seconds, he hove into view like the cavalry that never came to Custer's rescue! Our freedom was at hand!

        What happened next is hard to explain. I know that I am fussy about my trailer and how I chain stuff down and these tow guys are no different. While they performed a dump truck pas de deux, I figured I could best help by staying out of the way. I did carry chains and do a few odd things, but before you could say "Studebaker," Eddie had his truck off the trailer and hooked to the trailer he had pulled it on with the Autocar, and the Reo was gingerly driven up on the trailer. We hooked our trailer to the Autocar, shifted our gear and were back on the road! Our layover to catch a nap had only been a mere 16 hours.

        Both rigs got back on the road and we toggled the airhorns at each other as Eddie took the next offramp to reverse course and head back to Southern Maryland with the poor Reo. We mushed on, into the gathering darkness towards our rendezvous with a firetruck I was beginning to desperately hope would be worth all this hassle!

        We were 24 hours into a trip that was only supposed to be 24 hours and we weren't even halfway to the pickup point!

        "Well, at least there's more room in this cab," I said as I cracked my shin on the heater.

       Well underway and with the miles rolling by, the A-Car hit her stride and soon the "Welcome to Ohio" sign flashed by. It was good to see. Ohio would be our longest State and when we got to the end of it, we'd be just about to the pickup point.

The (Not so) Great Navigator

        For reasons that Gary and I will best keep to ourselves, we decided a diagonal route via secondary roads would be our best bet, so soon after entering the Buckeye State, we left the 70 MPH bliss of the Superslab and hit the byways. And not long after filling our bellies with a long overdue meal, the rain started. And not a gentle rain, either. This was a torrential washout for which the Midwest states are justifiably infamous -- complete with thunder, lightening and ... I hate this part .. hail. Luckily, the hail didn't last long, but the rain kept at us for awhile.

        About 9 pm, in the middle of a downpour that made it hard to even see the lines on the road, let alone the road signs, we missed a turn. And the navigator didn't catch the error for a mile or two. Damn that guy!

        So there we were, smack dab in the middle of Ohio. At night. In the driving rain. At least we weren't inverted or on fire. But that was little consolation as I struggled to freelance our way back to our intended route.

        "Freelancing" is a time-honored term among us navigators we use when we have no earthly clue where we were at the time of our last fix, let alone where we are now and we throw everything we've got into dead-reckoning our way to a good navigational fix. And as hard as it is to do, a good navigator always keeps his captain apprised.

        "How are we doing?" Gary asked anxiously. My frenzied flashlight-guided flipping of the map had alerted him to my suddenly increased stress level. I kept my composure.

        "Never better!" I shot back a little too quickly. I knew the road we were on but none of the crossing routes we were passing were showing upon the map. We were going nowhere fast. I found one that would take us back toward the road we were supposed to be on and I gambled... "Take a right onto Route 9 -- it should be coming up in a mile or so." I doubt I fooled Gary. But you never know...

        Once again, lady luck handed me a freebie as a sign for Route 9 appeared out of the torrent and Gary made the turn. He was visibly impressed. Cool, but I figured Lady Luck would call in the debt eventually. I just didn't expect it to be so soon....

        The road that would take us back to our correct course would have challenged a Corvette in sunny weather. It seemed like a dirt path that had recently been paved for the first time. And there we were, barreling along in the dark and the rain in a dump truck. Waa hoo. I started to get happy...

        That was about the time we both saw the "Road ends 3,000 feet."

        So there we were, in the rain, about 10 pm, on a paved donkey path, in a dumptruck with a trailer. And the road was a dead end.

        About the best thing I could think of at that point was that the BFH was secure in the tool box. I stole a glance at Gary. He was a sphinx.

        "Would this be a good time for an expletive?" I asked. Gary actually laughed. I was encouraged. We soon pulled to a stop in front of the flashing construction signs that marked the bridge construction site. Luckily, there was a driveway back about 100 feet from where we stopped. Did I say "driveway?" Ha, I've seen wider sidewalks. Impressive that Gary even got us turned around in the rain and dark without taking out the mailbox.

        I got out and tried to guide Gary back and through the turn, but even with the flashlight, I doubt I was "value added." Gary nonetheless deftly got the rig turned around and we were back on our way. Backtracking. Wisely, I decided not to tell Gary about the big ruts we left in that guy's front lawn... (By press time, hopefully Gary's sense of humor has returned sufficiently regarding the trip that he won't kill me when he reads this...). Hopefully that homeowner isn't a 'Bolter...

        About midnight we decided we had to stop and sleep in real beds. About the time we decided to find a place to hole up in, wouldn't you know we wouldn't actually find one for another 45 minutes? Both of us were pretty well beyond beat at that point. We were on back roads, rolling through towns nobody who isn't from that particular county of Ohio has ever heard of, and trying to find a bed. Hopefully two...

        We stopped at the first one we found and luckily found a night clerk on duty, too. I paid for the room, got the key and soon, Gary and I were sawing logs. Few beds have ever felt so comfortable! Not that I had much time to enjoy it as both of us were asleep as we were in the act of laying down. I had set the alarm for early, though.

Finally, a Firetruck!

        The next morning, we were up and back on the road with the dawn. The rest of the trip to the pickup point was relatively uneventful -- amazing what a little rest will do! It was a quiet and lovely Sunday morning and we successfully navigated our way to the destination. Over night while we slept, the Fates grew bored with us and moved on.

        You can imagine my excitement as we pulled into the campground next to the Michigan Motor Speedway and I saw the fire truck for the first time in the flesh. There it was!

        I met the seller, Ken, and we chatted awhile as we walked around the truck and he gave me the run down. I took it for a short drive and soon enough, we had it on the trailer and chained down. It was everything he had said it was and I was happy to hand over payment. Gary was happy to get back on the road.

        The day was as beautiful, weather-wise, as the previous evening had been nasty and we had a spectacular ride back through Ohio. The rest of the trip was as uneventful as the trip out had been trying. The Autocar hummed along like a barn-bound horse at the end of a long ride. We both made a comment as we passed our West Virginia "home." It was good to finally see the "Welcome to Maryland" sign! We were still about 5 hours from home, but we were making excellent time and soon enough, we were pulling into Gary's farm.

        "You know I'm going to have to write this up for the web site," I said to Gary as he shut down the A-Car in his front yard. He just nodded. He was tired.

        It was 1 am, Monday. And we were home.

John drives the firetruck off Gary's trailer. At home. Finally! Photo by Peggy.


        Gary and Sally made the last leg of the delivery trip -- about 6 miles -- Wednesday afternoon when they brought the truck over to our house. We unloaded it out on the road, with Peggy and Sally watching from our truck. I took Peggy for a quick ride and she discovered the foot switch for the siren -- much to the neighbors' dismay! Gary and Sally stayed for a bit and then went home. We parked the firetruck at it's new home and... we were done!

        Also, Gary and I are the proud awardees of the American Truck Historical Society, Baltimore-Washington Chapter's 2006 "Hardship Award" -- given to honor those who have suffered above and beyond in pursuit of the old truck "hobby."

        And one final note -- three months later -- having lived with the firetruck and getting to know it, the funny thing is that had I been able to put a plate on it, it would have made the trip under its own power just fine...

Lessons Learned

  1. On a road trip like this there's no such thing as "Too many tools."
  2. No matter how many tools or spare parts you bring, you always need one you don't have.
  3. Breakdowns hardly ever happen in convenient places so be appreciative when they do.
  4. West Virginia rest areas aren't as bad as you think.
  5. Sleep and your sense of humor are important assets -- don't let the lack of one deprive you of the other.
  6. There is a time to use the BFH -- know when that time is.
  7. The most valuable thing you will ever have is a good friend. Or two.

        See you on the road sometime.


John Milliman
Bolter #2
Mechanicsville, Maryland

v. February 2007



        Fast foreward to April 1, 2007 (where did the winter go???) We transplanted and first planted nearly 1,000 baby christmas trees over the winter. We've had no rain and we had to put some water on the ground. Well....

        Today we finally got to use the truck for its intended purpose -- irrigating Christmas trees! The "Port O Pond" lives! (Here's a bigger shot of that image so you can see the tiny trees.)

        Amazing how fast that 1,000 gallons comes out - hardly time enough to walk back to the house for a beer!


John Milliman
Bolter #2
Mechanicsville, MD

v. April 2007

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