For many people, March 3rd, 2005 was just another ordinary day. I couldn’t begin to tell you what the weather was like other than it was sunny and possibly breezy, pretty standard weather for Kingman, Arizona regardless of the time of year. If not for one crucial event, it would have blended into days long since passed with nothing to mark its otherwise unextraordinary passing. For me, it was the day every teenager dreams about, the day they buy their very first vehicle and gain those extra ounces of freedom and independence.
I had been saving up for six months, setting aside over half of my paycheck each week. The check was hardly worth working outside in triple digit heat, nor was it worth slogging through a freezing hailstorm for a company with no regard for their employee’s welfare, but it was a way to earn the money I needed for a vehicle. I didn’t have a specific vehicle in mind, but I required a truck that was newer than my whole 18 years. I wanted a truck because I was tired of smacking my head every time I sat in my mom’s car, and I wanted something newer because newer meant more reliable to me. I had watched my mom make payments on used-up cars just so she could get to work. As soon as it started having problems, she’d trade it in for another car with different problems. In my youthful superiority, I had to have better than my mom, not considering that she had someone dependent on her whereas I didn’t.
The first hurtle I encountered while on my quest for the perfect truck was my credit. Being fresh out of high school, I was what one dealer called a “ghost” – I had neither good credit nor bad credit: I had no credit record at all. As such, banks wouldn’t work with me until I had started building one. “Go out and get yourself a credit card,” the salesman recommended, “then come back after six months.” While perhaps a valid suggestion, credit card companies were no more eager to extend me credit than the banks were. I walked around for weeks with a cloud overhead, a cloud that continued to rain on only me. My mom, bless her heart, arranged a deal with someone.
My relationship with my biological father is a strained, one. Since he signed away his parental rights over me when I was four years old, we were never close. His parents got custody of me when I was only four days old and legally adopted me four years later. They raised me as their own child so, in a sense, he became my brother instead. My new siblings refused to acknowledge my new place in the family and insisted I address them as aunt or uncle. In some weird twist, my father, who was now legally my brother, was to be referred to as my uncle. He remained in this role until my dad, the one who raised me, died. He approached Mom about playing a bigger role in my life, but his interest in fatherhood faded rather quickly once he realized the title came with responsibilities.
Years down the road, while I was searching for a truck, he coincidentally had a truck he was trying to sell, but no one wanted to pay him the asking price. He agreed to sell me his truck for $4,000 plus interest with $2,000 down payment and $200 monthly payments for a year with a final payment of $100. The truck was well over a decade older than me, but it was a truck. With no better prospects on my horizon, I accepted the deal. After all, I could always trade it in for something better once I had it paid off. Right? So, I put my money down and tried to muster up some enthusiasm for my new-to-me 1973 Chevy truck. To make the monthly payments, half of my wages again went to the payment while another quarter went towards insurance. The remainder of my checks went to feeding us – food for me and fuel for the gas hog that she was.
By the time a year had passed, and I had paid it off, I had already replaced the transmission as well as a rocker-roller in the engine. When the transmission went barely three months in, I was heartbroken. Any plans I had of trading it in for something better had already been discarded as preposterous. Thankfully, I was living high on the hog working overnights at Walmart. I made an outstanding $7.90 an hour, which allowed me to have the money to fix it. The rocker-roller was a different matter. All in all, it was a cheap and easy fix that only required a valve cover being removed, but the clanking and clacking sounds it made had me petrified that I had blown the engine.
Somehow through all of this, I fell in love with it. Every time my days off rolled around, I went out and hand washed it. Although my title and registration claimed it was black, the only time it appeared so was when it was wet. Anyone else could see it was a charcoal gray, or at best an oxidized black. I took great pride in being able to chauffer my mom around, though looking back I can’t see why as it certainly wasn’t any newer than her 1980 Malibu. The flipside to me having a truck for the extra head room was that my mom, who was mere inches over five feet tall, struggled to get in my truck even though it was standard height. My solution to this was to carry around a step stool just for her, an idea that she wasn’t entirely appreciative of because it embarrassed her.
For a considerable period of time, it had neither radio nor glove box and the A/C no longer worked unless you counted what blew in through the side windows. My first Christmas with the truck, Mom surprised me with a new radio she had saved up to buy. For my birthday over three months later, my mom was finally able to browbeat my father into installing it. For the next three months, we at least had music when we went out. By July 2006, I had been having random issues with the truck feeling like it was shifted into neutral – the truck remained running but there was no throttle response. That month, my father decided the problem lay in the engine, and since a part of the original sale agreement was that he got the engine back at some point in the future, he decided to pull the engine out. This left me with a shell of a truck and no way to get to work. I bought another car, this time a 2003 Impala, to have my much needed transportation. I finally had my new, reliable vehicle, and we had the luxury of a working A/C when I drove Mom to her out-of-town doctor’s appointments. To this day, that is the closest I’ve ever come to owning a brand-new vehicle. Meanwhile, my truck sat in the driveway dejectedly waiting for an engine.
It took me another year to get enough money saved up to build another engine for the truck, which was thankfully completed just in time for my mom to be diagnosed with lung cancer. We were able to get a few more rides in before she passed away a scant month later. This became one of the darkest times of my life. I had grown very close to my mom over the years and losing her, essentially becoming an orphan, was a traumatizing experience on its own. To make matters worse, her other children descended on the house we shared like vultures. In their opinion, everything in the house belonged to their mom, which meant I had to fight to keep everything that was mine including my truck. They were more than willing to leave me the car with a payment, but somehow translated my truck as belonging to Mom. The emotional scars from that experience run deep and still haunt me.
A lot changed in my life in 2007. I lost my mom and what I thought was my family. A few months later, I married my boyfriend when he got home from deployment, mostly as we had originally planned. He was stationed in Hawaii and when I joined him, I was unable to bring my truck as the Army would only ship one vehicle per servicemember and his car was already en route. The people I worked with at Walmart were like my true family, and my manager allowed me to store my truck at her house until we could arrange to pick it up. Meanwhile, I arrived on O’ahu on Christmas Eve with nothing more than my clothes. When my husband was transferred to Southern California the following year, I was able to bring my truck home. It once again became my daily driver, and I drove it to work and the occasional ob/gyn appointment. After our daughter was born, we would take the occasional trip into Barstow, or sometimes visit my mom’s sister in Phelan. After a short while, my husband was discharged from the Army and we three, plus my youngest daughter that I was pregnant with, moved back to Kingman.
After he was discharged, my husband decided to have my truck painted as a gift for me. It was completed a week before our youngest daughter was born. With the shiny new black paint came a new dual cowl reverse induction hood, new tires, and a rhino-lined bed. For the first time in the five and a half years that I had owned it, I couldn’t fit my entire family in my truck, so it was used less frequently. It was relegated to hauling junk and going to the occasional car show, not that she got any real attention at them.
Around this time, I hit a sentimental patch. Both of my parents were long gone, and I decided I wanted to put a memorial to them on the back windshield of the truck. My dad was a Korean War veteran, and I wanted to recognize his service as well. From this tiny spark of an idea grew a flame. Finding this a good idea, my husband wanted to add his uncle to my back window. His uncle was a Vietnam veteran who also died shortly before we got married, falling victim to Agent Orange poisoning. If I was going to expand it to include his uncle, why not add my mom’s brother who was killed in Korea? Why not my other uncle who served in World War 2? Why not a list of other family members and friends from both sides? The only problem with this idea was that I wouldn’t be able to see out of my rear window with all the names, so a new idea was born. In March 2013, we began looking for someone who could turn this idea into a reality.
The first weekend in every May brings out the classic cars in droves to participate in the Route 66 Fun Run. Hundreds of cars from all over the world descend on our little town to celebrate the history of Route 66. It was at this car show that I debuted Tribute. Her name was emblazoned across the windshield in yellow script, “All Gave Some, Some Gave All” rested on the outside of the cowls in white vinyl. Beginning at the fenders were five stars staggered with tails, each a different color to represent a branch of the military in order of inception; on the tailgate was the sentiment, “Until they all come home.” Ten white names began at the upper forward-most corner of the bed on each side. By the end of the show, at least one veteran had been reduced to tears and I had a list of names to be added. Tribute was truly a new entity of her own.
The truck has evolved in many ways since that first show, as has the way I take names. At first, I only required a rank, branch, and last name with first initial because I didn’t want to intrude too far into people’s privacy. It didn’t take long before I felt that this was a mistake – it was too impersonal. I began speaking with the veterans more, learning more about their time in service and other information they wanted to relay. I transferred this information onto index cards which I displayed with the truck. Anyone who wanted to know about a particular name could look through the cards I displayed in a photo album to see all the information I had about them. We continued adding names in increments of 20 until we had 140 on the bed.
In the early morning hours of November 3, 2015, my youngest daughter woke me because her sister couldn’t breathe. The only vehicle I had that was running that morning was Tribute, so I loaded both girls up and raced for the hospital. It was a quick visit with an easy diagnosis of croup. My daughter was given an antibiotic and we were sent home. On my next trip into town, I blew the engine. Upon tearing it down, we found that it had no oil. Since it was neither leaking nor burning oil and had just been filled during the oil change two weeks before, the only option that made sense was that someone drained the oil while I was at the hospital. This inadvertently spurred another evolution.
There are not many women in the car scene – any car scene. When you do find a woman in the classic car scene, usually the car she is driving is one built for her by her husband or bought that way. I fought this stereotype for years, still do to be honest. It didn’t matter that I turned wrenches on my truck; I was still treated like an outsider. When it was time to rebuild the engine, I was adamant that I was the only one who would do it. Aside from the head work – where the valves and springs are installed – I have done every bit of the build on the current engine. I get immense pleasure from putting guys’ noses out of joint when I can tell them what exactly is in it. There are still many men out there who think women can’t run with the big dogs, a few of which I’ve kicked back onto the porch with great relish.
The engine I built is rowdy. A few guys whose masculinity has apparently been challenged by it have mocked me about the color of the engine, which is purple. Aside from being my favorite color, there is a meaning behind it. The engine is the heart of any vehicle, without its engine it cannot function much like we humans will die when our heart stops. Tribute’s heart is purple in tribute to the fourteen service members on her who were awarded the Purple Heart Medal.
By the time I got the second engine built, the vinyl decals on Tribute were shot. The business who did them originally was no longer around, so we began to explore other options again. This is when we came across a company who could do a vinyl wrap of the entire truck with as many images and names as we wanted on it. It’s an expensive option, but it also produces a cleaner, more professional appearance. Another drawback to this is that it fades and needs to be replaced every five to seven years. We decided that while this would be expensive to do every few years, it would also allow us to continue adding names. While the company was designing Tribute’s new wrap, we stripped the vinyl decals off her. We also took the time to remove an additional, unused tank and filled in the hole where the filler neck was and had a bubbling rust patch, the vehicle equivalent of cancer, removed. I drove her to Vegas the first Monday in July 2020 and was able to pick her up that Friday.
She looked amazing! On the hood is a reproduction of a common scene where a man rests his hand on the Vietnam Memorial Wall with soldiers visible through the other side. The blue field of the American flag starts at the front fenders and sweeps down along the entire side of the truck. On the driver door is an image of the USS Arizona Memorial with the USS Missouri moored behind her representing the start and end of hostilities between the United States and Japan during World War Two, an homage to the eighteen veterans on the truck who fought in that combat. This image serves a dual purpose as it also represents the Navy for the forty-four veterans on the truck. At the start of the bed is the image of a Coast Guard helicopter and quick response boat representing the seven Coast Guard veterans on the truck, five of which were rescue swimmers, four of which died on a training mission. At the tail of the bed is a black and white image of the iconic flag raising at Iwo Jima meant to represent the twenty-six Marines whose names are displayed next to it. On the passenger side door is a fly-over formation of the Air Force Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds are a predominantly white jet with a black silhouette of a bird, a Thunderbird, painted on the underside. These are meant to represent the twenty-six Air Force veterans. Lastly, a tank rolling across a desert landscape represents the one hundred and thirty Army veterans. All together there are two hundred and thirty-four veterans on Tribute spanning current times and clear back to World War One. Lastly, on the tailgate is an image of a submarine underwater with a list of sixty-one submarines who sank while in service superimposed over it. The Navy treats these vessels as not gone, but rather on eternal patrol.
There are a lot of memories of the last seventeen years tied into this truck. Memories of my mom riding with me share space with all the memories of my daughters eagerly climbing into the cab. Everywhere I go, my dad and uncles go with me. I am surrounded by memories of the veterans I’ve met, what their stories are, and when they were added to Tribute. Everywhere I go, I’m humbled by the responses I get. It’s my honor and privilege to continue sharing their stories.