When I was a boy, my family had a cottage. To get there, we’d have to drive for about 40 minutes northeast of Sault Ste. Marie. We lived in a suburb at the east end of the city, and our preferred northbound route out of town was an often-overlooked, two-lane ribbon of asphalt known as Landslide Road. It climbed a hill before plateauing for a half mile, and then it ascended two more hills. In the very early days of our habitual journeys up that way, there was a ski jump tower in the forest off to the right of the final hill, the top of which was clearly visible from the road. As a boy, I wished we could get out and explore, but I never bothered to ask because our all-important destination was the cottage. Eventually, the ski jump disappeared, having been dismantled sometime in the 1980s. But a new fixture of sorts appeared in that area, right at the base of that final hill… the red cube truck. It's long gone now, and no pictures exist, so I copied the actual location (Thanks Google Street View) and re-created the truck in photoshop.
I didn’t know anything about old vehicles then, but I now realize it was GMC cab, circa 1962, with a big cube-shaped box in behind. It sat on a heavy-duty chassis which pushed the cab high up, and it had dual wheels on the rear. It looked like an old moving van. It had what looked to be yellow dealer plates on it. It was backed onto a small clearing on the right side of the road, such that the front end and right side were plainly visible to any car that crested the second hill and drove past. The truck looked reasonably intact, but it never moved from its spot. Not ever.
The years went by and the shrubs around the truck enlarged. The red paint faded to a dull pink colour before it began to peel. The door said “Lake Superior Electrical” in hand-painted script that also began to fade and crack away. The yellow dealer plate remained. By this time, I had begun to collect license plates from derelict vehicles at the dump nearest to our cottage, which I could only visit whenever dad had renovation leftovers to throw away. I wanted the plate from this truck. But by this time, I was not yet old enough to drive, and I was still at the mercy of the family member who was behind the wheel, and I knew full well there would be no stopping so that Jon could look at a truck.
Then, when I started going to high school, I became friends with Troy. We were in a bunch of the same classes, we both liked science fiction and adventuring in the outdoors. We were both fairly studious kids, so my parents liked him a lot—not the kind of boy who’d likely get into trouble. As it turned out, Troy lived out on Landslide Road, in the rural portion of our school’s catchment region, so he rode the school bus each morning, while I was always close enough to walk.
Troy lived in a house on a fairly large strip of land that went all the way back to Crystal Creek, which was a couple hundred metres in back of the house and down a ravine. There were no fences, so in the winter, it was great for snowmobiling. Troy would pull me on a sled hitched to the back of his dad’s snowmobile. Things got better when his dad somehow fixed up an old 1969 Massey-Ferguson Ski Whiz snowmobile. It was really slow, so that’s the one I drove, while Troy used the newer one. That Ski Whiz remains the oldest vehicle I have ever piloted, even to this day. I overturned it, but nobody saw me and I was able to right it without trouble.
One summer afternoon in 1989, my parents dropped me off at Troy’s place. I was going to spend the night there and come home the next day. It was August 17, and there was a total lunar eclipse happening that night. The weather was clear and we figured we’d get a great view from his back yard, with no city lights to mar the view. The good part of the eclipse wouldn’t be happening until 10 or 11 pm, so we had time beforehand. I told Troy about how I had always wanted the plates on the red truck up the road. Troy was game, so we swiped some tools from his dad’s shed at dusk and rode our bikes up the road about a mile until we arrived at the truck, sitting derelict in the darkness.
We put our bikes in the bushes and pulled the tools out. There was a house across the road, so we didn’t dare use flashlights, and we worked in the darkness. The plate on the front end of the truck, facing the road, turned out to be two plates, nested front-to-back. I was disappointed when I realized for the first time that these were not, in fact, yellow dealer plates. They were truck plates of some kind, but I’d never, ever seen yellow ones before. The newer 1976 front plate was bolted from the bottom, and the bolts were hopelessly seized.
With this being the summer of 1989, and with both of us working part-time jobs for $3.90 an hour, we didn’t have any money to speak of. A can of WD-40 might have worked wonders on those rusted bolts, if only I could have afforded my own. Troy’s dad may have had some in his garage, but the house was a mile downhill in the dark with no streetlights. If we went back to the house, there would be no coming back up the hill. We certainly weren’t going to miss the eclipse. If we did abandon the attempt, it would be up to me to somehow find my way back there another night with more tools and some WD-40, but bicycling the miles in the dark from my suburban house into the rugged hills was out of the question. Of course, I’d probably be at Troy’s house again some summer evening in the future, but what if the red truck was hauled away with its plates still attached? That was a chance I clearly could not take.
I wasn’t going to let the rusty bolts stop me. We had the foresight to bring tin snips, so I managed to cut the more recent 1976 plate free on one side, and I was able to stretch the other bolt hole enough to get the plate free. The older 1970 plate in behind was made of thinner metal and the bottom bolt holes had rotted out. I was able to twist the plate back and forth and loosen it bit by bit. Every so often, we would hear an approaching car and see the warning glare from its headlights before it crested the hill. We dashed away from the front of the truck and hid behind it just before the car would crest the hill and shine its lights directly on the front bumper of the truck, where we had been seconds before. There we were, nestled silently in the grasses, peering from under the truck as the invading cars whisked past the truck and disappeared from our view up the hill. It was exhilarating. A victimless crime, to be sure, but exhilarating nonetheless. My heart pounded incessantly. The high-beams passed, leaving only the dim red glow of the taillights in their wake. We waited for the red glow to recede up the next hill before we dared to stand up again. What if a nosy driver happened to see us in the rear-view mirror? We’d surely get a criminal record.
After a few cycles of dashing for cover and returning to the front end of the truck, I managed to pull the 1970 plate away from the bumper, with two cavernous gaps where the bottom bolt slots used to be. Success! The first part of my mission – with the greater degree of difficulty – was complete. We then headed to the sheltered rear end of the truck, which faced the trees where we wouldn’t be seen. It was very dark there, and the bolts that held the rear plate - the mate to the ’76 from the front end – were also seized. I wielded the tin snips once again, and managed to free the plate.
We returned to our bikes and coasted down the hill to Troy’s house. A giddy feeling of victory washed over me, coming home with illicit (albeit forgotten) plates from the rough. I’d get that same feeling in later on, in my 20s, when driving away after junkyard visits – that is, permitted visits during daylight hours.
I don’t do junkyards anymore – I haven’t in years, because the friendly staff aren’t there any longer, and the remaining staff all said “no” the last time I tried. But occasionally, I’ll find a plate in the rough. Last summer, while on vacation and walking in the woods, I came upon a cluster of rotting pickups and vans, full of garbage and useless components. The only truck to still wear plates (expired 15 years prior) was a late-80s Ford F-150, with the frame hopelessly bent. I was going to leave the plates alone, but they had green volunteer firefighter stickers on them, making them a fairly arcane type. I left the area to discreetly borrow an electric screwdriver (and some WD-40 this time, as I’d learned from my teenage adventure), and returned later to pull the plates off. There were trees all around me with no houses or people, so this wasn’t exactly risky business, but after pulling the plates off and hiking through the woods, I recaptured the exact same feeling of giddy victory as I felt in 1989—Or, more correctly, the feeling recaptured me.