Montana native remembers his first cars (and motorcycles, and ranch summers)

Earl Cook's pickup

Earl Cook’s blue 1956 Chevy was a familiar sight in Deer Lodge, Montana, and beyond.

By Earl Cook

I am car poor. There are three vehicles in my garage and my wife has her own (x license and insurance). Cars can have addictive properties for guys of my vintage. I particularly like the cars from the 50’s and 60’s, though many new model cars turn my head. Around, and around. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” No. They make “em” better. And right in-the-face of powerful, practical, cultural change, there is still the desire for additional horsepower and roaring pipes.

When I was 11 years old my Uncle Frank and Aunt Joan invited me to the Helmville (Montana) Valley during the summer months to “work for wages.” I couldn’t do much. Pick

Earl Cook as a boy, presumably a few years before he started driving a farm truck.

Earl Cook as a boy, about the time he started driving a farm truck.

weeds, feed the bum lambs, bring in the milk cow, follow behind Frank and pay attention. He put me in the seat, behind the wheel of a 1942 Willy’s Army surplus jeep. It had a homemade plywood top with removable doors. I was instructed to put the jeep in compound gear, let the clutch out slowly, and steer between the bales of hay, up and down the meadow. He half-walked, half-skipped alongside and bucked bales onto a skid of lodge pole pine. Boy did I think I was somethin’!

When I returned to school in the fall, I was quick to boast to my friends that “I could drive!” My Dad got tired of my requests to back his car out of the garage and ended it with, “not until you have your license.” From that day forward, all I thought about was the day that I would get my driver’s license.

The following summer I was introduced to a Ford tractor and side-delivery rake. Frank mowed hay with a tractor and side-bar sickle. Aunt Joan would cut out “a piece” of ground by making the first pass in the field, pulling the mowed grass from the irrigation ditch, and return in the opposite direction, forming the first windrow, and then hand over the equipment to me. As exciting as that was, the highlight of the summer was when my Mom and Aunt Joan’s youngest sister, Shirley, and her girlfriend, Rachel, drove from Denver for a visit. We were gathered at the house when we saw a long plume of dust behind a car coming down the lane about a quarter of a mile out, and when it pulled into the drive, my God! It was a convertible! A white, two door, 1964 Galaxy 500 convertible with red pin stripping and red interior! Aunt Shirl and Rachel, both with scarfs tied neatly to their heads, looked like cover girls for The Saturday Evening Post. But boy, that car!

Each summer after, I graduated to a new machine and new processes, but free to drive the jeep in the meadows and on the county roads, ranch to ranch, and down to Brown’s Lake. I once drove the ranch pickup truck to town (Helmville) on Highway 141 in the company of Uncle Frank.

My Dad eventually gave in, gave up, and allowed me to buy a used Honda Trail 90 from Jack Price’s shop in Deer Lodge. Dad’s justification was that I had saved my money, and that the motorcycle would be going to the ranch with me for the summer. At first sight, Uncle Frank said he wasn’t “going to have any of those things on the property!” But in a matter of days, he could be seen puttin’ around the meadow on my bike with his irrigation shovel tied behind him. The very next summer, he had his own. The jeep took a back seat to the Honda that summer as my friend, Joe, had a Yamaha 100, and friend, Mark, had a Honda 90 Super Sport. And on our Sundays off, we were on those bikes all over the valley, mostly to the lake.

Summer of my sophomore year in high school, I completed two weeks of Driver’s Education, and the next step was a valid driver’s license. I was immediately in the hunt for my very first car. Dad and I drove a very well maintained 1949 International pickup truck that was owned by Coach Burgess. But Dad decided to call Smokey Thompson to whom he had previously sold his own truck only a couple of years earlier. We paid him a visit. The truck was a blue, 1956 Chevy step side with a 235ci six, three speed on the column with overdrive. Mr. Thompson hadn’t put a thousand miles on the truck in over two years.

I paid $500: the exact amount that he had paid Dad. I drove that truck throughout my remaining years in high school, four years of college, and then journeyed out to Portland, Oregon, with all that I owned tied down in the box. As a college student, I hadn’t taken care of the truck in the manner that it deserved. It received minimal maintenance and I eventually sold it to a nice couple in Hillsboro (Oregon); for $500. There have been so many vehicles since. But none have served me like the first one. They have been family cars mostly, and some with longevity, and a couple that I cannot part with still.

Just yesterday, two similarly afflicted car poor friends from my “we’re not a car club car club” arrived at my door to convince me that I had one more bay in my garage that could be home to a 2003 Mercury Marauder.

It was a “little long in the tooth,” they said (high mileage).

It “was blue, and but one of only 240 made that year,” they said (hard to get parts).

“Only a few body blemishes but no rust,” they said (not certain of the cars origin).

“A ‘Base’ model (only 305hp), and just $1,700. A little work and it would be a $10,000 car,” they said (thousands of dollars later).

And, it’s my birthday, I reasoned. (Sometime this year).

I guess I should be grateful that I married a voice of reason and she participated in most of the conversation. She said everything without saying a word. She has the ability to communicate that way.

She likes her car. I don’t get it. Or the new car either.

(Earl Cook is a native of Deer Lodge, Montana, a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism, and a current Oregon resident. Just about everybody Earl knows remembers his blue 1959 Chevy pickup.)