Pickup Trucks are Rusty, Trusty Staples of the South
photograph by Tim Robison

The guy in the pickup truck braked for a speed bump. I get this. Everyone brakes for a speed bump; that’s why they’re there. But this pickup truck did everything but come to a full stop — I could have walked over the speed bump faster than he drove his pickup over it.

That, friends, is not a pickup truck. A real pickup truck doesn’t fret about what a speed bump might do to its chassis. It has no concern for image.

Real pickup trucks are red, or dark navy faded to the color of blue jeans, or deep green, with the FORD or CHEVROLET in raised lettering, and painted white — unless the truck has been repainted, which it often has — across the tailgate. These days, trucks have GPS and back seats and air-conditioning. They have consoles. They’re nothing like my friend’s family pickup. The one that, now and then, when we begged, my friend’s mother would take us riding in. Midge, her name was, and she’d cave in, lower the tailgate, and head for dirt roads.

I can’t believe we weren’t killed.

It was heaven.

Untethered and unmoored, we careened like human hockey pucks from side to side of that dusty truck bed with its drainage gutters that bruised our bottoms and every other body part as Midge jounced that pickup over and into every hole and gulley and corduroyed road the county could offer, and we bounced back. You tried to keep your teeth clamped so you wouldn’t bite through your tongue with every jolt, but you were too busy shrieking with fear and delight. My favorite part: She’d drive right through creeks, which required a slower pace. Soaked with splash, we’d sit on the tailgate, clinging to its suspension chains, yet trying to avoid painfully pinching our fingers in the rusted links when the tailgate went airborne.

• • •

Pickups had a stick shift that was on a stick, coming through the floorboard. The perfectly round ball on the top lacked the helpful R and D and N — you had to just know. And plenty of people did know, having learned to drive a truck at age 12, long before they drove legally out of the driver’s license office lot. The glove compartment held tools and twine and tape, not maps, because nobody was going far enough in a pickup to need a map. An arm, or, at the least, an elbow, was always hanging out the open window. In most pickups, the dash was littered with … oh, I don’t know, but not speeding tickets.

Tricked out or dolled up, hemi and horsepower do not a pickup make. Because while a truck isn’t necessarily a pickup, a pickup is always a truck. A pickup is meant for hauling children and hay and firewood. For toting inner tubes to the gas station and bird dogs to the field. For letting down the tailgate and setting up a single-product, pop-up produce stand for boiled peanuts or watermelons. They’re for ditches, not garages. There’s nothing fierce about a pickup, or anything resembling braggadocio. Even when they’re rattletraps, they remain sturdy, somehow, and stalwart. Like old soldiers, pickups never die; they just rest (and rust) in fields, on farms, in barns.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.