By Earl Cook
Kevin’ S. Giles’ story, Summer of the Black Chevy, took me to a time and place where our community had a spirit of vitality and promise. Young Paul Morrison was typical of many young people then who started early on with some work after school, or on weekends, and then a summer job. Opportunities to work were plentiful.
I once delivered the news. Grade school. It was The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Sunday edition, delivered Monday after dinner. Twenty cents a copy. It was a tough sell and I had but seven to 11 regular customers, for a very short run. It was hell going door to door in sub-zero temperatures. I believe my customers subscribed out of empathy. I got to keep a dime for each paper sold. And though I wasn’t going to get rich, it was worth its weight in “funny papers.”
Like so many others in our agricultural region, I worked for wages several summers in the hay field. I had progressively responsible functions added each year. I ate real good and learned how to get up when I was told and to go to bed when I was tired.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore high-school years, I left the hayfield early and traveled by Greyhound Bus to Yakima, Washington, to stay with relatives and earn my fortune “picking hops.” It was my Cousin Hugh’s idea. We could make $15 to $30 a piece per day, he said. Mind you, hay wages were $8 to $12 dollars a day. Unfortunately, the hop season that summer was poor. The two of us did find work, but we shared a one-man job pushing “dried” hops from the kiln. Wages were by the kiln rather than by the hour and there were many days when not all the kiln were filled. Though we were up at 4 a.m. and eager to work, we were often home by noon and off to the local swimming pools in Toppenish and White Swan. My aunt bought us each a scraping tool and tasked us with chipping away old paint on the house exterior should we complain of boredom.
As a high-school junior I pumped gas at the Union 76 Station in Deer Lodge after school, weekends, and through one summer before leaving for college. It was a responsible job that required hustle mostly; attention to the little things, and customer service. Several of my friends did the same, or worked retail.
Though our town’s identity was shaped by Montana State Prison, the Registrar’s Office, Galen and Warm Springs Hospital – “Institutional Valley,” I heard said — it was much more. It was the Milwaukee Railroad, the lumber mill and timber jobs, the phosphate mine, and many small businesses that made us go. And, of course, agriculture. All those industries added help in the summer months. The railroad added help for track repair and the mill and mine added an additional shift. State, county and city road crews put on additional crews for road repair and cleanup. The U.S. Forest Service added help to build new trails and clear old ones. We had a multitude of options and experiences. We met many characters, established strong relationships, and developed our own character by them. Then we moved on to the next experience. Better for the last one.
I was lucky to hire on one summer with the city water commissioner, Duane “Hub” Hubbard. I drove a dump truck and a Michigan loader. And when the city road crew was tasked with paving Main Street, I operated a massive roller over freshly laid asphalt. But the most interesting job came the summer that I worked at D & L Auto Supply for Ed and Cease Neidhardt, and Gene Hughs. I received parts, made some deliveries, stocked shelves and took inventory. Occasionally, I got behind the counter and tried to match up parts and part numbers for customers. A good clean job. My friends were going underground at the phosphate mine and their hourly wage was understandably higher. I needed additional income, and learned that the city was looking for someone to run the “mosquito truck.”
I went to the home of Mayor Tony Sneberger and the two of us drove across the tracks and over the Clark Fork to a city-owned storage building just west of the river where he introduced me to a 1949 Ford pickup. It had a badly faded orange patina and faded white stencil on the outside door panels that read, “City of Deer Lodge Maintenance.” In the bed of the truck was a skid-mounted oil burner and a 50-gallon drum for diesel fuel. Mayor Sneberger instructed me on the mixing proportions: one large coffee tin of pesticide to 50 gallons of diesel. We reviewed some basic operation of the burner, and I’m ready to go. Safety was implied. The absence of personal protection equipment was not unusual for the time. On the ranch, I had operated similar equipment: a 50-gallon drum of water and herbicide mix mounted on the back of a tractor with a PTO-powered pump in pursuit of killing every last Canadian Thistle on the property. Many times I turned downwind and was showered with that chemical concoction. (Probably why I still glow in the dark today).
During the first few days of mosquito truck operation I completed work at D&L Auto, had dinner, and then promptly went about spreading a cloud of smoke throughout the city. I drew kids on bikes like bees to honey. Within a couple of days, phone calls to the mayor prompted a meeting and we changed my schedule to after curfew: 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. I don’t recall how many days a week that the mosquito truck operated. It wasn’t every day. Two to three times a week, maybe. And I can’t remember the logistics of covering both sides of town; whether there were prescribed routes or just random trips through the city’s alleyways. That summer was a fog. I did cover the eastside and west side, and not very quietly as you might imagine. I focused on Jaycee Park because of the park’s popularity for summer recreation and the settling ponds above the creek. And I made a special effort to visit the KOA camp next to the Clark Fork to protect the tourist population from being carried off by bugs. I saw the ins and outs of the city through the headlights of that old truck. But that wasn’t the end of it.
At season’s end, the mayor asked that I prep the machine for winter storage by running one full drum of diesel through the machine. No pesticide. On a Saturday afternoon, with clear skies and a slight breeze, I pulled the truck to an open field a few blocks from home, at the end of Texas Avenue, beyond the county hospital. I drove into the grass field and turned the truck into the wind facing Bielenberg, and cranked ‘er up. It was putting out a nice white cloud and sailing away in the direction of Powder House Hill, when my friend and neighbor, Brad Barton, came by in his car and suggested I hear a new tape he had loaded in his 8-track player.
It was a stand-up, off-color comedy routine by Redd Foxx. We laughed away the time until there was a small rumble coming from the oil burner: spittin’ and sputterin’ and a final belch of smoke. I rushed to the passenger side of the truck and quickly turned off the equipment. A series of three toggle switches: ON, COOL DOWN, OFF. From the passenger side approach I had mistakenly reversed the sequence. I swear, that burner took a deep breath, there was a moment of dead silence, then metal crinkling in stress, and I, realizing what I had done, flipped the toggles back on.
Kaaabooom! The burner sent a solid three-inch diameter flame a good three feet out the back of the truck and across the top of the tall dry grass all around. The field was now on fire. I ran to the other side, fumbling with the driver’s side door. I fumbled with the key in the ignition. I fumbled with the foot starter. All the while watching the flames in the side-view mirror as they began to circle the two vehicles. Once the truck started and I was able to drive it out of fire danger, the two of us, Brad and I, stood staring, dumbfounded. The slight breeze was healthier now and the grass was aglow. I pulled off my jacket and started to beat the brush. Brad found a small, ragged piece of plywood and together we went about fanning the flames and kickin’ up smoke and soot and grass, compounding the problem. And then came a woman’s voice. Her, leaning from a railing outside the hospital door, “Do you want me to call the fire department?”
“No. No. Please. We’ve got this under control,” I yelled. More fanning the flames. More kickin’ up burned grass, blisters, jacket destroyed, and again, five to 10 minutes later the same voice, with more authority now, “I’m going to call the fire department.”
Just as we heard the siren and could see the fire truck as it crested the hill coming up Texas Avenue, we had the fire subdued. Smoldering, but subdued. Probably a good 2 to 3 acres burnt. Fire Chief Jimmy Gilbert and the all-volunteer fire department standing in awe. Disgust maybe. I think I heard someone say, “Oh, it’s that Cook kid and the mosquito truck.” It was embarrassing, but could have been worse. The next summer I had a different job. However, I heard through the rumor mill, that the guy who ran the mosquito truck that year mistakenly added anti-freeze rather than pesticide to the diesel fuel and the Deer Lodge community had mosquitoes all winter long.
In spite of what you might think, I eventually held a responsible job for 30 years, plus some, and retired. My lifelong career didn’t involve a mosquito truck.
(Earl Cook is a native of Deer Lodge, Montana, and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism. He writes about Montana nostalgia.)