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The Metaphor of the Old Dead Truck

The Retired

"What's good for General Motors is good for the country."
…a misquotation attributed to "Engine Charlie" Wilson

"…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
Genesis 3:19

Sometime in 1948 a local farmer bought a new half-ton Chevrolet pickup truck. We know it was green, but beyond that the details of its working life are a matter of conjecture. It would be nice to imagine that it was the owner's pride and joy for a while, that it hauled useful loads of stuff around the farm and the local community, and that some child learned to drive in it… but all we actually know is that eventually it gave out. There was no highway accident… no crushed fenders or twisted bumpers… so we may suppose mechanical problems just grew in frequency and complexity until it was too expensive to keep fixing. Thinking about it, I remembered a Bill Maulden cartoon in which Willie and Joe, the two GI dogfaces in the Italian Campaign of WW II, shot their faithful jeep because they couldn't stand to see it suffer when it broke down. I doubt if that happened to the old truck; instead, the farmer just stripped it of all usable parts and hauled it off to a fencerow near Toms Creek and left it there.

When we moved into Emmitsburg in 1968 I regularly took our kids on walks to explore the area, and we found the abandoned truck early on. It still looked pretty good at that time; it had no engine or tires, but the windows were unbroken and the seat was intact, and you could get in and pretend to drive if you were 8 years old. We christened it "The Old Dead Truck," and it became a favorite stopping place on our walks for a while. Eventually the kids outgrew it and started driving real live cars, and went off to seek their fortunes; and eventually they brought grandchildren to visit. I took them on walks, and we discovered the Old Dead Truck again, but it wasn't the same. Multiflora rose briars and poison ivy had grown over it, the windows were broken out, the seats were reduced to a mass of rusting springs, and there was evidence that various wild creatures lived in it. It wasn't a safe place to play, so its entertainment value was limited; we could make up stories about it, but that wasn't nearly as much fun as sitting in it and driving off on fantastical adventures.

Personal experience gave me a pretty good idea of what caused the old truck's original demise. When I was four years old my father bought a new 1937 Chevy. I didn't know he was going to get it, and I can still see it rolling into the driveway when he brought it home for the first time. The only car I had known previously was our old, creaky Model-A Ford, and by comparison the Chevy was a wonderful, magical machine. It had a cigarette lighter! No one in the family smoked, but we all burned our fingers testing it, and finally Uncle George visited and proved that it really worked. And the speedometer went clear up to 100 mph! True, there were no roads in West Virginia that were straight enough to go anywhere near that fast, but there were one or two places where you could get up to 50 for a few seconds, and seeing the speedometer needle stand straight up gave us the thrill of living dangerously on a Sunday drive. But the magic didn't last. After a few years telltale wisps of smoke began issuing from the tailpipe, and oil had to be added more and more frequently. It should have been traded in, but the war came and there were no new cars, so Dad had to drive it to work for the next four years. It got to the point that he was buying oil in 5-gallon cans, and would simply pour some in every time he started the car.

Brand loyalty is a strange phenomenon. As soon as cars came on the market after the war, Dad got another Chevy, and the same thing happened; there was something about that six-cylinder overhead-valve engine that made it start burning oil at about 40,000 miles. Yet he bought another, and another, the last one when he was over 80 years old. I borrowed his '53 Chevy to come to Mount St. Mary's for my interview in 1957; we were late for our appointment because the radiator hose broke in Cumberland, and we left a trail of exhaust smoke from here back to Fairmont. And brand loyalty was inherited, too; the first car my wife and I bought after I had worked long enough to afford it was a Chevy. It started smoking at about 40,000 miles, so we switched to Fords; they didn't burn oil, but they suffered from a series of other problems of increasing severity as the 40,000 mile mark approached. Eventually we switched to Volkswagens and then to Toyotas, and found them to be dependable, durable, economical, and even lovable in the case of our '68 Beetle. Evidently a large fraction of the American public had a similar experience.

There is a thin line between national pride and arrogance. The pride was justified in a certain sense; the world war was won by tanks, jeeps, trucks, and engines for aircraft and ships built by the American automobile industry and its subsidiaries. But it was for good reason that ancient philosophers listed pride among the seven deadly sins, and arrogance is never justified. Charles Wilson actually was misquoted; at his hearing when President Eisenhower nominated him to be Secretary of Defense, what he really said was "… what is good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa." In those days, when garbled syntax was the hallmark of the Administration, the press turned it around and had fun with it, and most people didn't see it as arrogant. But it was symptomatic of a problem in the industry: they believed the misquotation. And they also believed their own publicity. America, apple pie and Chevrolet became synonyms; people bought Chevrolets, and General Motors dominated the market. Good advertising meant more than good quality. Even a decade later, when flower children rejected the pie and the patriotism, they still bought General Motors cars because of what some rock singer boasted of getting away with in a Chevy van. Publicity meant more than logic.

I have never understood why the OPEC oil crisis of the '70s, the pressure for emissions standards, and the influx of high-quality imports from Japan and Europe in the '80s were not seen as omens by the American auto industry. To me, they seemed obvious; but I knew my mind has its limitations, and thought maybe I was missing something. I can understand simple things like how DNA replicates, or why earthquakes occur in California, or why biodiversity is essential to the stability of ecosystems; but I cannot understand complicated problems, like why people kill each other because of something their ancestors did 800 years ago, or why families buy houses larger than they need for payments greater than their combined income, or why corporations pay executives millions of dollars when they are ignoring obvious signs that changes are coming. Perhaps there are good reasons why a nation that became the greatest economic power in the world by a system based on competition should bail out an industry that is not competitive; but if there are, I don't understand them. I still remember Nash, Hudson, DeSoto, Studebaker, Kaiser and Oldsmobile.

On my last walk to Toms Creek I stopped to look at the Old Dead Truck. When it was 20 years old my kids played in it; at 40, it wasn't safe for my grandchildren; and now, at 60, it would be easy to miss if you didn't know where to look. Briars continue to grow over it; the hood and cab are caved in by falling limbs, and it is rusted to the color of the dead leaves that cover it. It is a metaphor for the industry that made it; it is sinking into the ground where groundhogs and worms have dug under it, gradually returning to the dust of which it was made. At this point it looks only a little worse than the industry. Neither I nor the truck will be here in another 20 years. Being a sentimentalist, I hope the industry will; but I wouldn't bet on it. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith