The Butthole Surfers’ song Pittsburgh To Lebanon contains one of the all-time greatest blues lyrics: “I bought my first shotgun at the age of three.” Now, I can’t match Gibby‘s feat, but I can say that I owned my first tow truck at the age of five.
It all started in Minneapolis, back in the mid-1960s. My uncle, the legendary Dirty Duck— Abingdon-on-Thames-trained British-car mechanic, old-time biker, and all-around outlaw— took a break from running reefer across the Mexican border in a ’57 Plymouth to get into the lucrative business of Minnesota winter tow-truck operation. In other words, he’d find cars buried by snowplows, aka “snowbirds,” drag them out of the drifts, and— through some sort of finders-keepers process I imagine must be akin to maritime salvage law— take quasi-legal (or at least slightly legal) ownership of the vehicles, which were then sold or parted out from his farm in Elko, Minnesota. This was working just great, but then the tow truck— a postwar GMC— blew the differential, and the Duck parked it in a field and decided to pursue other employment opportunities.
Fast-forward to 1971. The tow truck had been sitting in the field for five or six years, and Uncle Dirty Duck noticed me playing with my beloved Tonka tow truck in the grass next to my mom’s ’49 Cadillac sedan. “Hey, you want a real tow truck?” he asked me. “I got one you can have, just needs a little work!” Of course I wanted the truck— what 5-year-old could say no to such an offer?— so the deal was made: I fix the rear end, the GMC is mine! Sadly, my wrenching skills weren’t quite up to the challenge at the time, and then there was the matter of coming up with the cash to buy a junkyard differential, but I figured I’d get to the project sooner or later. Meanwhile, I could claim to be the only kid in my kindergarten class with his own tow truck, and that’s important!
Well, time went by and my parents decided that the 100-degree temperature differential between Minnesota and California in December warranted a move to the San Francisco Bay Area, so they packed up the ’73 Chevy Beauville and headed west. My tow truck and I were now separated by 2,000 miles, but I never forgot about it, sitting in that lonely field. Swarmed by mosquitoes and scorched by the sun in summer, buried under 15 feet of snow in the winter, year after year, the GMC waited for me. The thought that I own a ’47 GMC tow truck sustained me during tough childhood moments, again and again. Someday, I’ll go get it! I’d think.
The years went by, and I learned how to do a bit of wrenching. By the time I was lowering the property values at (a certain Orange County university that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name), I had the skills to get that truck fixed. Oh, sure, after sitting for 20 years it would need some work beyond a mere differential swap, but how hard could it be? The real problem would be coming up with the gas money to drive it back to California. By that time, too, I’d had enough hooptie-ass Hell Projects to have developed a somewhat realistic— or at least reality-influenced— conception of what was possible and what probably wasn’t.
At that point, I was hanging out with a fairly disreputable crowd, and a couple of guys I ran across now and then had a very interesting source of income: they worked for a one-truck towing company that had the contract to keep beachgoers from parking in the lot of (a certain chain grocery store that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name) in (a certain exclusive Orange County beach community that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name). If, say, a Celica full of high-school kids from La Habra parked in the grocery-store lot and the occupants were sighted hauling their Boogie Boards a block to the beach, my acquaintances— who looked like, and in fact were, generic surfer/stoner dudes and attracted no attention from prospective victims— would take note and summon their accomplice in the tow truck to haul the offending vehicle away… to Norco, California, a feedlot-packed hellhole about 50 miles inland. But wait! it gets even better! When the car’s owner returned from his or her communing with the Pacific, it would turn out that there was only one way to get the car back: take the tow-truck company’s taxi to Norco, with the meter running at full-on Gouger’s Handbook rates, and then fork over several hundred bucks on top of that upon arrival. A select crew of heavies, thugs, torpedoes, and/or kneecappers ensured that none of the “customers” complained effectively, the merchants were happy that their customers could park in the lot, and the money just rolled in. But still, the setup could have been even better: “If only we had another tow truck,” sighed my friend. “We’d make twice as much!” Another… tow… truck…?
“Hey, I own a tow truck!” I exclaimed. “Thing is, it’s in Minnesota—” Well, that was about as far as I got before I had a couple of Jeff Spicolis grabbing me by the lapels and trying to shake some sense into me. They’d pay the gas money for the trip! They’d chip in on the differential! We’d be rich, rich! At this point, I was maybe a quarter or two from finishing college, so I found myself in a real road-not-taken dilemma: be a rich, if thoroughly evil and corrupt tow-truck operator, or graduate into the teeth of a terrible recession with a totally worthless humanities degree? Foolishly, I took the second option… but I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like, had I chosen the wiser path.
The truck then sat for another decade or so, popping up in my thoughts every so often. According to my cousin, Dirty Duck’s son Igor Smash aka Judge Sam, our uncle Shady Dog (pictured above) took over the Elko farm, and the GMC, after Dirty Duck departed this world in 1987 while behind the wheel of a ’68 Torino GT. I decided I should pay a visit to Minnesota and finally lay eyes on the truck I’d owned— at that point— for 30 years. In January of ’02, I trudged across a field of chest-high snow, and there it was! Rusty, oh yes. A basket case, for sure… yet it could be put back on the road, with enough money and sweat.
Today, Shady Dog has joined the Duck and I’ve lost track of what has become of the GMC. Do I still own it? Will I ever retrieve it? Or is it enough just to say the words to myself again, the words I’ve said to myself thousands of times over the last four decades: I own a ’47 GMC tow truck!