Left to right: My brother, Chuck, myself & my father, Charles.
One evening in 1977, while watching Walter Cronkite and seeing the devastation caused by the Johnstown, Pa floods, my father decided he wanted to do something to help the people who, in many cases, had lost everything. So, he spoke to friends, neighbors and co-workers and managed to collect about $950 in donations, which he used to purchase as many tons of potatoes, boxes of soap powder and some much-needed diapers as his truck could hold. My dad grew up during the depression and said that potatoes were a good “staple food” and that you could live on them and milk for a long time.
My father then prepared his truck for the arduous and – as we would later discover – treacherous journey. He changed the oil, checked the hoses and belts and made sure the coolant level and tire pressures were good. He even installed a new mechanical fuel pump, just to be safe. The truck was loaded and ready to roll.
It was Friday morning about 3am when my General Electric clock radio came on and Art Garfunkel was singing “All I know.” More on that later. We had many hours ahead of us and my dad wanted to get an early start. So, my mother fed us and we were on our way by 3:30am. My father drove, of course. I sat in the middle – because my dad would let me shift – and my brother sat to my right. It was just three men and a truck, a 1952 (then 25 years old) Chevrolet Stake-Body with a straight-six engine, four-on-the-floor and a two-speed rear. No power steering. No power brakes. No automatic transmission. No air conditioning. No radio. The old Chevy wasn’t fast, but it was strong. In low gear, you could level a brick house like an army tank. It had a smell, a sound and a feel that I would still recognize today, even blindfolded. I would later use it to take my driver’s test. I do miss that old Chevy. I took many rides in it, but none more memorable nor more important than this one.
The tires roared on the pavement under the extreme weight and the rear leaf springs were compressed nearly straight. Only 10 miles into our trek, at the base of the Walt Whitman Bridge leading into Pennsylvania, the brand-new fuel pump my dad had installed just the day before turned out to be defective and failed. Since we had no cell phones to call for assistance in 1977, we waited and hoped to spot an all-night cab riding by. Eventually, one did. It was a full-size Ford LTD Station Wagon from Camden. My dad stayed with the truck and sent my brother and me home to wait for the auto parts store to open at 8am. My mother was panic-stricken when she saw us.
I accompanied my brother – who had only his driver’s permit at the time – as he drove to the auto parts store to buy another fuel pump. Then, we drove back to meet my father at the disabled truck. My dad installed the new fuel pump and followed us back home to drop off the other car. I can still remember my mother telling my father that this was a signal that we shouldn’t go on the trip because something bad was going to happen to us. My father was undeterred.
Having lost 5 hours, we were finally back on the road again. The trip was slow and steady, without incident, until we got down to the last hundred miles and into the Pennsylvania mountains. My dad switched the two-speed rear into low, downshifted the transmission into 2nd gear and held the accelerator pedal to the floor as his eyes vacillated between the road and the temperature gauge while climbing at a top speed of about 15 mph. We repeated this scenario several times on the way to Johnstown and had to take a detour because of washed-out roads. It took us two hours to cover 30 miles.
We had no cell phones, no GPS, just a paper map and a mission. We also had no fear because our dad was behind the wheel and we knew we’d get there, come hell or – literally – high water. Fathers were different in those days. They could do anything, especially my dad. Sons were different then, too. If something needed to be done, we didn’t think about it. We just got it done. Period.
Meanwhile, my mother was home pacing the floors while my grandmother was clutching at her rosary beads. Mothers and grandmothers were different in those days too, especially the Italian ones.
As we began our final descent into Johnstown, the road was undercut and so steep that my father had to practically stand up to hold the brake pedal down and we could smell the pads burning inside the cab. My dad later admitted that he feared the brakes would fail and that we’d have to run off the road and into something – anything – to get the truck to stop.
Our day had started at 3am and it was about 6:30 pm when we finally arrived in Johnstown. Devastation surrounded us in every direction as far as the eye could see. Cars were tossed about like Matchbox toys and buildings were nothing but skeletons. There were no crowds waiting, no fanfare. The stores were all closed. It was too late to distribute the goods ourselves, so we pulled up to a warehouse where hung a small Salvation Army sign. Save for a few cases of Campbells Soup, there was no food in the building, only clothing and some toilet paper. Needless to say, our many tons of potatoes were a welcome sight. A couple of men helped us unload the truck and promised they’d distribute the goods to the neediest areas of the town the next day. Then, they thanked us as we went on our way.
Now that the truck was empty, my brother was behind the wheel as the rains started up again. All three of us were exhausted. Once we reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we stopped for the night at the first motel we could find. My father’s eyes were popping out of his head. We arrived home the next afternoon. Once again, there were no crowds waiting, just my mom – and plenty of fanfare – so relieved was she to see us, as she heard on television that more flash flood warnings were posted.
My father’s small act would soon affect the lives of many people who would never get to meet him, nor thank him. That wasn’t the point of the trip. My father merely saw himself as the conduit, a guy with a truck and a long weekend off, able to transport the food donated by many anonymous friends, neighbors and co-workers who just wanted to help.
That was 43 years ago. My mother and father are long gone, but I remember that time as though it were yesterday. That same General Electric clock radio sits by my bed. Still, to this day, whenever I hear Art Garfunkel singing “All I Know,” I remember that adventure of long ago and I still get tears in my eyes. My father was 45 years old that day, my brother was 17 and I was 15. My brother is now 60 and I am 58. Where did the time go?
But the ending always comes at last
Endings always come too fast
They come too fast
But they pass too slow
I love you and that’s all I know……….