Meridian Star


January 10, 2014

New life to an old friend

MERIDIAN — The teenage car building bug bit me when I was fifty and my son John was the teenager. The vehicle was an old jeep which had seen its better days; but those better days were ones I had spent in it with my dad and other family members. It had become part of the family. I towed the thing from Mississippi to my home in Colorado after a jeeping friend convinced me I could rebuild it for a couple thousand dollars. It would be the ultimate machine for exploring the Rocky Mountains.

    John and I worked on the jeep for two years. It was rewarding but painful; fun but costly. When we finally declared it finished, I was out eight thousand dollars; within pocket change of the cost of a new one. We did some father/son bonding, and I must value that as one justification for the huge expense. It became his first "car". Also it embodied all those great memories from the Mississippi swamps in its new life.      

    We painted the jeep blue because it had been blue all its previous life with us, and had always been referred to as "that old blue jeep." Except for the bumper, headlights, chassis and steering column, its parts were all renewed. I found a new Warn overdrive for it which gave us twelve forward gear options with its two ranges. I paid over double the retail cost of the overdrive to a lucky fellow who had bought it well before they stopped making them. But I considered the gear ratios a necessity.

    The engine, tranny and differential were reworked. A new body was shipped in from the Philippines. New oversize brake drums and shoes facilitated stopping -- something it had never done without the use of gears, mud or a good hill. We buttoned on a shiny new canvas top. With chrome wheels for the new wide tires, it turned the heads of jeeping fans in Colorado once we got it on the road.

    The little Willys took us places we could never have seen otherwise. And it did it with less fuss than the larger, more expensive four wheel drive off road vehicles. It squeezed through crevices too small for the big boys. It tread lightly over the soft mud and slippery shale. It would crawl slower than a walking pace when one slip could mean falling off a mountain. Its little four cylinder motor purred quietly through the snow to places where the elk were bedded. It pushed the twisted sagebrush aside to put us onto the mule deer slopes.

    There was the time when its two right side tires dipped into the water of the upper Arkansas River as it crawled precariously from boulder to boulder and got me out of a place I had no business getting into.

    There was the time in elk country, when the narrow one-lane mining road ended because it had simply fallen off the mountain. The deep snow had camouflaged this landslide until I was a couple of feet from falling into the misty space below. I asked the jeep to turn around in a space no bigger than most kitchens.

    All was well as I eased its rear bumper against the mountain. But as I crept forward and delicately pressed the brake, the tires would skate a few extra inches on the icy road, which sloped toward the edge. Fate had put me here on the mountain's west side where the evening sun had melted the snow just enough to make ice of its surface.

    I opened the door so I could jump if it went over. Gently, gently I shifted from reverse to low and back again side winding a few inches at a time. The brakes had to be applied early enough to allow for the few inches of skidding toward the edge. During these harrowing moments, I remembered that it was my amateur handiwork that had installed the clutch and the brakes which now must engage flawlessly and smoothly if I was to avoid disaster. Beads of sweat formed on my temples.

    My movements were slow as cold molasses. No one ever shifted and braked more deliberately or smoothly. At last the turn around was complete. I took some deep breaths.

    As the jeep retraced its tracks, grinding its way back to safety, I was bursting with pride, as well as relief and gratitude.

    We had just taken another giant step in our bonding, that little blue jeep and I. For during that dangerous episode, a little of its gasoline flowed in my veins and some of my blood moved through its fuel lines. And each of us not only saved ourselves, but we saved each other. Of such are kinships born.

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