by Kathy Hardy Rhodes and T. Ellison Belt
~~Sometimes I wonder why I ever wanted children. My six pounds of sweet male baby grew into six feet of supercilious male brute who over the years devised a string of crafty plots to push my patience to its end.
The whole episode with that darn Scout was one of those plots. My son needed a new car for college. He had driven Papaw’s old 1978 navy Ford LTD, a.k.a. “The Tank,” all through high school, and when it died, it just stopped right in the middle of Mack Hatcher By-Pass and rolled backwards down a hill.
So Papaw decided to bite the bullet and buy his grandson a new car. He looked all over the Mississippi Delta for the perfect little college car—a 1992 maroon Toyota Corolla. Papaw named it “Little Red.” Little Red carried my son from college to college, town to town, as he stacked up the miles. He made hundreds of trips between home in Nashville and Delta State. Somewhere toward the end of college, when he became independent, so to speak, and got married—forgot which one came first, I mailed him the title to Little Red so he could get a new tag in his own name. I knew it was a mistake—just knew it!—to let that title leave my hands! Legal documents seemed to give a bzzzzzt from his hand to his brain, causing him to do wild and reckless things. Adrenaline coursed through his veins until he plotted something radical. I laid out commands and threats. “Don’t you dare sell that car!” My words slammed against his ear and boomeranged. He did what he wanted to do.
Don’t know why I was surprised the evening he called and said, “Mama, guess what.”
Uh-oh. Guess what meant there was something big and bad a comin’. I sat down. “Wha-a-at,” I croaked.
“I just traded my Corolla for a 1972 Scout. Dead even trade.” His voice was exuberant.
“You did what? A 1972 what? My God, that’s older than you are! What were you thinking?”
The Corolla was getting old and tired… or maybe I was getting tired of the Corolla. The odometer read 170,000. I was ready to move on, to part with the little red engine that could and did time and again. The Corolla saw me through difficult college years, packed with perpetual motion from state to state and home to home.
Now, I was married. I was of age. I was responsible. This was a time in my life when, supposedly, play-days turned to dog-days, and bachelor life settled into a daily grind. Any ordinary go-with-the-flow Joe would perhaps embrace this new reality. But not I.
I marched headstrong down a checklist of teenage retro-culture bad-boy dreams long forgotten. I grew my hair long, got an earring, wore tie-dye, and listened to the Grateful Dead. Next on my list was to drop the sickeningly sensible Corolla and step into the realm that all men secretly want to be a part of. I wanted a 4-wheel drive! So I brought home the classifieds.
Bronco? Jimmy? Toyota? Nissan? Nah, too stereotypically prep-school wannabe. Ford or Chevy? Definitely too old-man-ish and, anyway, I’m not a farmer. Jeep Wrangler or Cherokee? Too common and too obvious.
What will it be? The ads continued to scroll. Wait… what is this? A “1972 Scout II, good condition, Kosciusko.” A Scout II? What the hell is a Scout II? Or a Scout I for that matter? The name is intriguing, far too simple to be modern, far too plain to be preppy. “Scout.” I had to call.
I dialed the number and an old man answered the phone, sounding not terribly unlike my own grandfather. He explained that he was selling the Scout so he could buy his grandson a car for college.
“What is a Scout?”
“Well, it’s an old 4-wheel drive… the kind they made before this whole SUV-fad came along,” he explained. A tractor company made them to pull combines out of the fields when they got stuck and…”
I don’t recall much of what was said after that point. I was sold. I wanted the Scout. Blah, blah, leaks a little oil, yada, yada, rust on the hood, yeah, yeah, needs some work… “When can I come see it?”
We agreed that I would visit the Scout that evening in Kosciusko, about 65 miles away. My budding entrepreneurial spirit offered the possibility of simply trading the Corolla for the Scout. Dead even. Hey, it made sense. He wanted a car, and I wanted the Scout.
I told my wife that I was going to look at a Scout II. Silence. I proceeded to explain what it was and how great it sounded. She asked if it would be dependable. “Of course it would.”
“What about gas mileage?”
“Oh, I’m sure it will be fine.”
“Are you really sure about this?” she probed.
“If it turns out to be a clunker, I won’t get it.”
That evening, I made the drive to the old man’s farm, situated somewhere between nowhere and beyond. I eased up the gravel drive as the sun dipped below the horizon. I spied a dark mass sitting on a grassy area under a clump of pine trees. It was the Scout, or was it? I couldn’t see much detail in the low light.
The old man came outside. We shook hands. He gave me the key to the Scout.“Try her out!” Eagerly, I climbed inside the black beast that smelled of old tobacco, metallic water, and oil. I could feel a slight tear in the cold vinyl against my back. A little duct tape will fix that in no time. I was high off the ground, on 30-inch tires with a 6-inch lift, touting a 380 V8, and the biggest steering wheel I’d ever seen. Well, it’s old. They made steering wheels big back then. Yes, this was a beast. Perfect. Just perfect.
I turned the key to no avail. The old man walked me through the starting procedure, which involved several pumps of the pedal, a 3-second wait, and then a ginger turn—not a fast turn, a ginger turn. “Betsy,” as he called her, responds to a tender touch.
Boy, did she. The massive engine roared to life, announcing its grumpy awakening with a cloud of smoke and a few violent shudders. I was operating on pure adrenaline now. This was the missing piece of my puzzled image. Me and Betsy. Davy Crockett, a childhood hero of mine, had named his musket Betsy. Coincidence? No, it was a sign. This was getting better by the second.
The old man showed me the engine, the underside, all the bells, whistles, and potential headaches. Of course, it being dark, I couldn’t see a one of them. But my enthusiasm was unabated by this meaningless detail. Whatever it was, I’m sure it would work out. My common sense and sense of responsibility echoed away through the pines with every rumble and tumble of old Betsy.
Now it was time for business. We discussed the matter and agreed to swap titles. Dead even. I would miss my old car. I watched as the old man pulled it into Betsy’s space.
But I had a Scout. Two tons of solid steel and meanness, ready to ravage whatever was in my path. I was in the realm that most men only dream of. I left my sensible, reliable Corolla to breathe easy in a tender man’s care, and Betsy and I hit the road.
On the way home, I explained to Betsy that she would no longer be “Betsy.” She would be “The Scout.” “Betsy” was an old woman. “The Scout” was poised to fulfill a young man’s whims. One was a maid, the other a moll. It was a key distinction, and The Scout seemed to understand and accept the terms of our relationship. Her only condition was that she heartily refused to move faster than 55 on the highway.
My wife heard me coming. She was waiting on the front porch when I drove up.
“So, that’s the Scout,” she quipped.
I replied in the manner of a young boy beating back his obvious awareness of having been caught doing a silly thing. “Yep, that’s it. Isn’t it great?” Silence.
“Maybe it will look better in the morning,” she said.
“Oh yeah, of course. It needs to be washed and cleaned. It’s been sitting outside.”
“He’s a fool,” Papaw said. “I helped him keep Little Red runnin’, but I’ll be damned if I’m helpin’ him keep this old thing up!” Papaw took a stand. Mamaw interjected, “He’s not making mature decisions.” And I could only pace with heavy steps, muttering, “I can-NOT believe he did that. Bought a car older than he is!” Hot vibes emitted from me like spears shooting out. Even the dog zoomed out of my path.
“We’re going to Colorado in The Scout,” he called home to say.
“What? I can’t believe you’re taking your wife and dogs way out there. You’ll break down in that old thing!”
He called me from a Wal-mart parking lot in Oklahoma City. “We broke down. Had to get a new alternator.”
Via AT&T, I heard stories of goings-on down there in Mississippi. What’s this? Mamaw, my seventy-eight year-old mother, was sewing a canvas top for The Scout? This retired schoolteacher who had raised two perfectly disciplined daughters and sewed frilly Easter dresses, Cotillion gowns, and fancy sorority party dresses was now making a rustic cover for a beastly old wreck of a car? I got a snapshot of Papaw in the mail. My white-haired, weak-kneed father was sitting under the hood—yes, sitting on top of the engine, legs dangling down in the guts of The Scout, tools in his hands, grease all over him, working beside his grandson, smiling from ear to ear in his glory.
I drove three hundred miles down there to see it for myself.
“Here, move these oily rags over and get in. I’ve been working on the engine.” I got in, and we drove downtown. Me. In that ugly brute of a wide-open, rusty, black spray-painted, dirty Scout, wind flying through my hair.
But the real test came when we took it out to the family land in the wooded Mississippi hills. The land is primitive. We rode over rugged terrain where there weren’t any roads. Me, in the wide-open front of The Scout, hanging on, bouncing up and down. Papaw and Mamaw, in the backseat, hanging on for dear life, ridin’ wild and reckless. Reclaiming their youth. There was a wild gleam in my son’s eyes, and I think I saw the same thing in my father’s eyes. Na-a-aw. I would never, ever admit it, but I was enjoying it, too. Pride oozed out of every pore. It was all I could do to keep my lips from breaking into a telltale grin of sheer pride. Wow. I had birthed this sweet man-child who could handle this tough wonder of a workhorse on my great-great-grandfather’s virgin land.
The Scout was indeed a wonder. It carried me across the country and back, up mountains, into gullies, across rivers and canyons, through mud and muck. I provided roadside assistance to stranded motorists, including an 18-wheeler without its trailer. Wherever I went, old men would stop and admire The Scout and speak of its unmatched strength and endurance. Younger men driving Broncos would admire The Scout’s rugged appeal and brute mass and shake their heads at the sound of its roar.
My own modifications through the years made The Scout stronger and more practical. Bigger tires, a higher lift, new alternator, and rear jump-seat. A bikini-top, courtesy of my grandmother’s sewing machine and some old marine-grade canvas, returned a youthful and sexy gleam to the old girl’s eye.
Towards the end, The Scout was often ill, and I poured long, hard, hot hours into the engine and body of The Scout. My companion during these difficult times was my grandfather. The Scout, in her weakness, brought strength to this relationship. We always managed to keep The Scout running. And The Scout always managed to come through.
The Scout found new life in me, its vigorous and stubborn companion. Likewise, I found new life in The Scout. In many ways, dealing with the old clunker’s maturity forced me to discover my own.
In the end, an electrical problem was the final straw. A small wire the size of a noodle brought the great and legendary Scout to her knees for the final time.
I sold The Scout on eBay in the summer of 1999. A man from Louisiana came with a large trailer and winched The Scout aboard. He built log cabins by hand, he said, and needed something to help tow the logs. “The Scout will do it and not even gasp,” I told him. He promised to restore The Scout to her original form. He had the tools and the know-how. He was older than I, but shared my rebel dream. The difference was that he had the ways and means to bring it to fruition. I cried when The Scout left my driveway.
“I’ve got to sell The Scout,” he said. I wiped away a tear.
“Can’t you just buy another car, and keep The Scout, too?” I asked.
The Scout had become a part of the family, working its way into our hearts like an old stray dog that inches closer and closer and rubs up against you, wagging its tail. Faithful, no matter what. It makes you feel warm inside, good about yourself, and draws the family in close and tight. And then breaks your heart if something happens to it. It’s hard to let go.
A year later I heard from the man; he sent pictures of The Scout. I didn’t recognize her. She was like a new bride. New and shiny paint. New wiring. New wheels and tires. New top and seats and dashboard. But underneath, she was still The Scout. The same, old, warrior engine rumbled under the brilliant new hood. The man had even found some original Scout floor mats, featuring a silhouette of the beast with tractor-like smokestacks, the original marketing logo for the Scout. The Scout was young again, fulfilling daily work obligations. I imagined she found a new name to suit her new life.
“One day, I may get another Scout. I could do a better job fixing it up, you know.” I said to my wife.
“Yes, I know.”
“It was just old, and I couldn’t afford to fix it right.”
“Yes, I know. One day, I’m sure you’ll have another.”
“I mean, there’s just nothing like a Scout.”
Kathy Hardy Rhodes is a published author of creative nonfiction, currently living in Franklin, Tennessee. Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, she writes personal essays that reflect the Deep South. Visit her website at Kathyhardyrhodes.com. Her son, T. Ellison Belt, attended her Mississippi alma mater, Delta State University, and is currently a web developer and president of eDatCat, Inc.
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