I’m on a 2-3 week trip through the South, visiting family, attending a workshop and conference, and enjoying some time away from Indiana. I’m call the excursion my Southern Jaunt. This is the first in probably a few posts about my trip.
I left Indiana on Saturday and drove to my parents’ house in South Carolina. It’s about a 10-11 hour drive, depending on weather (there is always rain in the Kentucky/Tennessee mountains), road construction, and pit stops. I usually take at least two stops for fuel, and, if I have Brutus with me, at least one or two more to do some natural business.
Sander’s Cafe — the original KCF! Corbin, KY.
Corbin, KY has become one of my regular stops. It’s about halfway, and usually around when I need fuel. The first few times I made the trip, I saw signs noting that Corbin, KY is home to the original KFC location. But it wasn’t until a 2014 that I visited the restaurant. Because Brutus was with me this time, I only made a short stop, but I snapped a photo and bragged a bit on social media. As I said, I’ve stopped there before, and without the dog. it is a fun site to visit, and the KFC is the same as any other location (good and bad). The lobby area has displays about Colonel Sanders and the area, and then the seating area of the restaurant looks old-timey and has some “house museum” style displays of other rooms, such as the kitchen, a bedroom (the original KFC was a part of an inn), and so on.
It’s a nice stop, and depending which exit you take, you can drive through downtown Corbin to get a feel for small-town Kentucky. I love seeing rural downtowns. I like to imagine what they are like today and what they were once like. I try to guess the high school mascot and the major industry, etc. — boring and nerdy stuff, but important questions that get at “who lives here” and “why.”
I spent today at my parents’ house, which is outside of Columbia in South Carolina. It was relaxing. i don’t come down here that much, and its nice to get out of Indiana a bit. Part of relaxing was taking a Sunday afternoon drive in my old truck to the grocery store and around my parents’ neighborhood (Brutus copiloted the second trip). I miss driving the old truck.
It’s a 1952 Chevy that originally belonged to my Great Great Grandfather (Walter Erikson), who died at age 98 in 1983. He drove the truck mostly in the pastures and lanes in rural Chase County, Kansas. It was used mostly as a far truck. Indeed, it has a sheet of metal welded in the bottom of the bed to haul grain and other things. He was going blind (and I think went blind before he died) so he had a few accidents. It’s not in great shape.
I bought it for $500 from my uncle in 1998. My uncle got it when my Great Great Grandfather died, and had big illusions about restoring it. Instead, he kept it in my Great Grandmother’s barn, when is experienced the Great Flood of 1993, and several rat infestations. When my Great Grandmother sold her house and auction off things on the property, he decided to include the truck in the sale. That’s when I got it. It was loosely an inheritance to me — I was supposed to get $500 from the auction profits, but instead got the truck.
It didn’t run and was in pretty miserable shape. We got it started after little work, but it smoked really bad. Little by little, my Dad and I planned to get back into working order. My Dad wanted to keep it as close to original as possible. Now, when I got the truck I wasn’t 16. I couldn’t drive. I honestly wasn’t all that interested in the massive project, either. But I wanted to keep the truck because of the family value. My Dad wanted the truck real bad, and I think saying it was mine was one way to convince my mother and justify the expense. After all, originally, it was supposed to be my car when I was old enough. In retrospect, that entire plan is hilarious, but it worked in acquiring the truck and “keeping it in the family” — which has always been a big thing for us with cars.
Initially we did quite a bit of work on it. We took the engine a part and got things tested and figured out what we could work with and what we couldn’t. We cleaned it up and tore out the years of rats nests. It was dirty work and incredibly smelly, but also kind of fun because you could see progress quickly. That was my Dad’s plan, clean it up, do some cosmetic stuff, and then hopefully I’d be excited about the project and buy in a little more.
That didn’t happen. I discovered running and throughout high school and college it occupied my time. I ran year-round (cross country and track) so I had little free time to work on it. I ended up getting a different car to drive, so the need to get the truck running wasn’t as pressing either. We also moved to Kansas City for my freshman year (I was in 8th grade when I got the truck), and didn’t have the extra garage and shop to work on it. So the truck sat for nearly 8 years, driving my mother insane because of the space it took up in the small suburban 2 car garage. Occasionally we work on it. We took parts to my Grandfather — a former auto mechanics teacher — to get worked on by skilled old-guys, and those projects took months on end. Progress grinded to a near halt.
Then, the summer after I graduated from undergrad we were jolted into hyper-productivity. My Dad got a new job in the Carolinas and they were selling the house and moving. This was the summer of 2008, and so they planned to downsize and rent for the first year to avoid the bad market. In preparation for my parent’s move from KC, we had to get the truck driveable.
The summer began with me returning home with a fresh BA and no job prospects. I had a lot of free time. My Dad took a buyout from his old job and wasn’t starting his new one until August, so he also had a lot of free time. Together, we spent the summer readying the house for sale (it miraculously sold in 2 days), and working on the truck. With a firm timeline to get done by and no other distractions, my Dad and I rebuilt the engine, did some painting, re-did the interior and several other things. By summer’s end, it was roadworthy and ready to go.
That August I took a job as a graduate assistant cross country and track coach (and began my master of liberal arts degree), opting to stay in Kansas. Since I technically owned the truck, it stayed with me. Also, because my parents didn’t have a place for it and didn’t want to tow it to downtown Charlotte where they moved.
A year later, I quit my coaching job (and graduated with my MLA in December) because I decided I wanted to be a college teacher more than a college coach. I had been accepted to pursue an MA at Nevada and was moving. To be honest, my parents were all that crazy or supportive of the idea, but they flew back to Kansas to help me get things in order before I life. One of those things was the truck.
We decided to temporarily leave it in Kansas at my uncle’s house when I moved to Reno (the same one who used to own it). That winter my parents bought a house and moved to South Carolina from Charlotte, NC (because of work), and now had space for the truck. The summer of 2010 my Dad and I towed it here, taking a wonderful tour through the backroads of the Deep South. We drove along two-lane roads in Mississippi and Alabama, avoiding the interstate because you our trailer wasn’t supposed to drive over 55 mph (I don’t think it would have exploded if we did). That was a really fun trip, despite the monotony of me and Brutus following the rental truck in my car (you know, just in case something broke down).
Since that summer trip in 2010, the old truck has been here in South Carolina, where my Dad still tinkers on it, while I’m in graduate school. The plan is for me to take it back whenever I finish my PhD and land a permanent job (though I doubt my Dad will want to give it back). It’s a solid plan, but it means that I only get to drive it when I come visit (which isn’t very often).
Driving it is fun. Or, at least as fun as driving any old car without power steering and power brakes. But there’s a lot of pride in it still mostly being original. You have to use a start pedal to fire it up, with a throttle and choke lever. It runs on a 6-volt battery system, and its windshield wipers are vacuum powered from the motor. We just recently added a second taillight because it didn’t require one due to being grandfathered into modern rules. We still haven’t added turn signals yet. It is an experience.
Driving a half-century old automobile in relatively original condition bring with it all sort of feelings. When driving it, I think about the truck’s lineage. Sitting in the same seat as my Great Great Grandfather. I think about how my Dad and uncles learned to drive in that truck. I also think about how things used to be built — solid metal, easy to understand, and long-lasting. And when I switch back to my daily drive, I realize how far we’ve come. It’s a thrilling and worthwhile experience. It’s one I especially cherish as a historian, particularly as one who is writing about 1950s America.
Thinking about my truck in the context of my research, it something I hadn’t done until now. The 1947-1954 Chevy pickup was among the most popular trucks ever made. They style was called “the advanced design” — differing from whatever came before. Today people still collect them and restore them because there were so many on the road. My Great Great Grandfather had one in Kansas. In Oklahoma, I imagine several farmers also owned them. They were farm trucks, work trucks, maybe even daily drivers. It’s likely that they were in an important part of building “Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma,” and transforming postwar Oklahoma. It’s fascinating to ponder hundreds of similar trucks lining the highways of Oklahoma and parked in rows outside of Owen Stadium in Norman. While the experience of driving the same kind of truck matters very little for my research, and likely wont affect anything I write, it’s a fun discovery.