My grandparents owned a cabin on a piece of property on Lake Superior which our family referred to as "The Camp." In the summers, my parents would often take their six boys – among whom I was the youngest – to visit for a week or two. The property had a couple other buildings as well. My earliest memories of summer vacations are from the summers of 1967 and 1968 when we spent a week or two there each summer, much of it spent playing in the remains of an old truck. We called it "The Cab" and it occupied an inordinate amount of our time, especially considering how it sat just a short walk from Lake Superior, sandstone beaches, forests, and a variety of other things you might think more likely to tempt a five or six year old boy.
The Cab had been so ingrained in my memories of the Camp that it wasn't until recently I began asking about details. What was it and where did it come from? My father filled in most of the technical details and my brothers rounded out some of it for me as well.
The Camp was built by my grandparents in 1927, just a few years before my father was born. The property was a short drive south of Hancock, Michigan, where my grandfather taught at Suomi College. Over the next few years, they added to the property. In 1938 they decided to add a garage to park their 1937 Ford when spending time there. Details about the vehicles – this one and the Cab – come from my father, whose knowledge of old cars is encyclopedic.
My grandfather found a supply of lumber not far down the road, from a man named Koski who also ran a junkyard. Calling it a "junkyard" is generous. The man had merely begun gathering wrecked cars and junk and piling it on his property by the side of the highway. Long before zoning laws could interfere with his business plan, he had mounds of scrap on both sides of the road. Motorists on old US-41 found themselves driving through Koski's junk heap. Koski also sold lumber and one day my father – the summer before he turned eight years old – found himself exploring heaps of wrecked vehicles while my grandfather negotiated a price on enough lumber to build a garage.
While he was rummaging through the junkyard, my father found the cab of an old truck. It was just the cab. Missing even its doors, it called to him. He climbed in and sat down. He imagined what it would be like to drive it. It still had a walnut-rimmed, 5-spoke steering wheel. His joyride was cut short when my grandfather told him it was time to leave.
The next day, Koski showed up at the Camp with a load of lumber. Sitting on top of the wood was the Cab. My grandfather had asked Koski how much he wanted for it. Koski offered to throw it into the deal and deliver it with the wood – for an extra twenty-five cents. My father watched as my grandfather and two other men hefted the Cab from the top of the load and lowered it to the ground. They then rolled it, end over end, to its resting spot, facing the lake.
Before my father could play in it, his mother insisted that the Cab be washed and painted. Shortly after, sporting a new coat of green paint, my father had the Cab all to himself. That's him, in the picture at the top of this piece. The photo was taken around 1938. Over the next few years he accessorized the Cab, adding a license plate bracket and license plate, a tail light, headlamps and even pedals. They weren't functional in the grown-up sense of the word but it didn't matter. The Cab was an endless source of entertainment for an only child who spent his summers at the Camp. One spring, my father discovered that someone had stolen the walnut steering wheel sometime the previous winter. It was an unusual incident. The Cab steering wheel was the only thing ever stolen from the property during the decades my grandparents owned it. My grandmother quickly improvised a new steering wheel from a pie tin.
My father grew up, met my mother, and the two were married. Soon, they had six kids . We lived in Lower Michigan but spent a portion of each summer "up north," with a good amount of that time spent at the Camp. As our station wagon rolled down the dirt road toward the collection of buildings – the two cabins, the garage, a sauna and an outhouse – all of us readied to launch out of the car. Our goal: To get to the Cab first so we could "drive" it. Our father would remind us that no one was to open a door until the car came to a complete stop. The car would roll to a stop and as the last crunches came from under the tires, the doors burst open and all six of us would bolt toward the Cab. Inevitably, Ken would win the race since he was the oldest. My grandparents were probably standing there ready to greet us but saw little more than the blur of six kids running past. The Cab was in rough shape by the 1960s. Much of what my grandfather had bought from the junkman had been wood and was now missing or rotted from decades of exposure to the Upper Peninsula weather.
The driver of the Cab could sit in the driver's seat, grab the wheel, push the pedals, and do all manner of things we were not allowed to do with the other cars in the family. That the Cab faced Lake Superior made it all the more attractive to us. And it was cool. After all, it was a real truck – not one of those childish fake ones you might see at a playground. After Ken got tired of driving, he would pass the wheel to Bruce, and then Dave and so on. We'd eventually all get a turn although it might be dark by the time I took the wheel.
In later years, my father worked on figuring out exactly what kind of old truck the Cab had come from. He believes it was a 1927 GMC, previously powered by a Buick 6-cylinder engine. At least that is what best lines up with what little is left of the truck in the one picture he still has of it. It very well could have been a truck used by Delta Construction Company out of Escanaba which had been hired to pave the highway a few years before my grandfather had the garage built. (The state chose a slightly different route for the paved highway, which kept them from paving the road through Koski's junkpiles.) Before my grandmother repainted it, a portion of the word "Delta" had been visible on the door.
My grandmother passed away in 1968 and a few years later my grandfather sold the Camp. The Cab had disappeared before that but no one in the family knows where it went. There wasn't much left of it by then. I have stopped by the property as an adult and looked at the buildings. The Camp seems different than I remembered it. The buildings look smaller and closer together. And there is an empty parking place. The Cab – the focal point of so much of our time there – was long gone. It's strange how a twenty-five cent purchase could have changed the complexion of the place all that much. But without the Cab, the Camp no longer seemed complete.
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Steve Lehto is an attorney and writer. He wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device both published by Chicago Review Press.