Granddad’s Cow-Charming ’65 Chevy
By Tom Poland
Granddad Poland farmed but never drove a pickup, not that I recall. In a battered old car, he’d bump through pastures festooned with yellow bitter weeds, clunk past a lonely persimmon tree and ranks of white-faced cattle. Herefords, they were. From afar, those cows would amble Granddad’s way and when his jalopy closed in they would break into a stiff-kneed trot. To see the old man’s car was to see feed and hay.
My best friends, the children of field hands, and I sat in the back of Mr. Johnny’s cars. Sometimes we rode on the trunk, sometimes on the fenders. We were invincible and we were oblivious. The era of Jim Crow was upon us but Joe Boy, Sweetie, Jabe, and I knew nothing about all that. We were comrades in arms united in our quests to knock down red wasp nests, catch bluegills, dine on tomato-red persimmons, and swim in ponds sometimes blue, sometimes muddy. We lived like kings.
Granddad wore a felt hat and overalls and could cuss the horns off a billy goat. Whenever I was in his presence, I felt the need to hush up. Outside of cussing, Mr. Johnny didn’t talk much, so neither did I. And maybe that was good. For what I remember from our drives through pastures about lightning bug time pleases me still. The grassy hillsides … the fertile fragrance of pastures … the lowing of cattle … the distant line of dark trees it seemed an artist had sketched and fishponds smooth as glass where bullfrogs commenced to sing and fireflies lit up clumps of grass.
When the car shut down with a shudder and we sat still as stones, country sounds embraced us. Wind, lowing cattle, the distant hoot of a barred owl. Nary an ambulance, fire truck, or police siren. “Sigh-reen” as the country folk are wont to say. “Did y’all hear that sigh-reen last night?”
Most of what pleased me as a boy took place on that farm. And so I associate Granddad’s old cars with treasures—varnished cane poles, red-and-white bobbers, mats of algae that betrayed snakes’ serpentine wanderings, jelly-like clumps of frog eggs, and the heavy wooden boat Granddad made with its ever-present snakes beneath—treasures like no others. Grandmom taught me to dig worms from beneath cow piles. We marveled at a great pine of another epoch that served as a place to butcher cattle. We tread by it with reverence. That farm was our Disneyland adventure and Granddad’s old car carried us o’er its pastures, bottoms, and woodlands. We were kings in a kingdom where palatial treasures waited around the bend of every cow path.
When we were on foot, away from Granddad, we found mischief. There was a time when a western section of Granddad’s pasture looked like a junkyard. Old cars, old tractors, farm implements, and all manner of scrap metal gave red wasps places to hang their waxy papery nests, which we gleefully clobbered with flint rocks. The fun part? Running for your life when a boiling ball of mad wasps shot out.
I’d do it all again. All.
It’s a damn shame we grow up. By the time I was in college and too big for my britches, Granddad used a 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air as his truck. Green like copper patina it was. Like all the cars before, he fueled it up at his own pump. That pump stood between the house and the barn—all three gone now, relegated to the dustbin of history but this past Sunday I stood right where the old pump stood, a yard from where Great Uncle Searles tried to knife Dad one heated Sunday afternoon. You don’t forget things like that.
As for Granddad’s car, the only places it went were pastures, Dad’s saw shop, and Price’s Store, a classic country store with its roof now open to rain, soaking the very floors where Cokes still bob in ice-filled vats in one boy’s childhood memories. Granddad and Grandmom’s house burned two years ago. Someone tore down the old barn where a million fleas would hop on you, and Price’s Store is mortally wounded. Damn if everything we love doesn’t just rot away.
That car and some outbuildings are the only things left from my farm-exploring childhood. Granddad’s dead. Grandmom’s dead (All my life I called her “Bama,” the residue of childhood speech issues). The home place burned. My childhood friends are grown and gone and I have changed so much sometimes I don’t even know who I am anymore. And Granddad’s last car? I figured that car had long gone to the scrap pile. Granddad died in 1972, and I figured I’d never see that car again but I never forgot it.
And then lo and behold February 18, 2018 when I was walking his old farm taking pictures and recalling things, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There it was. His “Bel Air” pickup was sleeping in a sepulcher of cedars and vines, which had grown around it. Like a heart ripped from its body the old battery sits on the ground still. It’s there. See for yourself. I did. Gave me a jolt.
I guess we have come full circle. Granddad used a car for a pickup … Back in the dark ages when I was in high school you wouldn’t be caught dead in a pickup. Uncool. Then the Ford Ranchero came along in 1957 and not to be outdone Chevy’s El Camino debuted in 1959. Things began to change. Get feed and hay by weekday and go to church in your new pickup come Sundays, but pick up a date in one? No way. Well, somehow the pickup ascended. There’s a kid in my neighborhood who drives one. He’s souped it up and outfitted it with one of those annoying boom bass systems you hear for miles.
You know and I know he’d never drive it across a terrace in a pasture full of manure … sun-baked cakes as Mom referred to them. Cows probably terrify him too.
As for Granddad’s cow-charming ’65 Chevy, he probably got it from one of his favorite haunts, a junkyard. Over a handful of years he made his last pasture rides in that car. And who went with him? I daresay no one other than Roosevelt, staunch friend of the family. The times, something called change, and a bad heart were about to leave Granddad in the dust. But his car is still with us. It sits there waiting for Joe Boy, Sweetie, Jabe, and me. Had I a time machine I’d see that we all took another ride through Mr. Johnny’s farm. We’d put a new battery in, get some tires and gas and head out. The things we’d talk about … riding through the pastures of long-lost youth and missing those white-faced cattle.
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.” Find more columns at www.tompoland.net.