It was summer about 1958, I believe. I was visiting my dad because my mom and dad were divorced, you see. I would fly out to Chicago from Los Angeles, quite an exciting trip for an eleven year old boy, to spend the summer with my pop. We would always drive somewhere for a couple or three weeks. It would either be up to Tomahawk, Wisconsin for fishing at Pappy’s place on the Wisconsin River. Or we might go west to Denver, Colorado to visit dad’s old friend Jim Stephenson and his wife Josephine.
Josephine was a round and friendly woman who always had coffee brewing and her trademark Chihuahua in her abundant lap. If the dog was on the floor and loose there was a good chance it’s teeth would find their way to the soft fleshy part of one of your legs. Not the friendly sort at all.
Jim, who I always called Uncle Jim, was six foot one or two, he walked a little stooped over and with a slight limp, never knew why. He was a big Swede, as dad would say, and tough as nails. They told me about a fight they had gotten into with a couple of gangsters during prohibition just outside a speakeasy in the foothills of the Rockies but, that’s a story for another time, perhaps.
Jim ran a small fleet of dump trucks, loaders and a couple of bulldozers. When dad would visit, Jim would put him to work driving one of the dumps, which dad loved since he was a plant manager back in Chicago for Schwinn Bicycles. Not quite as exciting as driving a dump truck.
Being an eleven year old boy, I had to tag along with dad and uncle Jim. They even gave me coffee so full of milk you could hardly taste the coffee but, it made me feel I was one of the guys anyway. When we got to the job site Jim said, “Come here Eddie, let me show you how to drive this thing.”
There sat the biggest, reddest caterpillar tracker I had ever seen in my life. My uncle Jim said it was a war surplus D-8. If you’ve ever seen the John Wayne flick “The Fighting SeaBees” where, near the end, Wayne gets machine gunned driving a bulldozer named Natasha into a fuel storage tank. Well, that’s the one I was going to ride on. Not that exact one, mind you, but the same type.
Jim got on first and fired up the huge diesel engne and then told my dad to hoist my up on the tracks. I was scared to death. The thing was roaring like a monster. It was shaking, vibrating and belching black diesel smoke out of the exhaust pipe sticking out of the top of the engine cowling. It had a large bench seat where the driver sat. It was big enough for two grown men to fit into. The throttle was on the column and the steering was done with two levers. Pull back on the left one and the left track would stop and you would turn left. The harder you pulled the faster you would turn. Pull the right lever for the opposite effect.
The job Jim’s crew was on this day was a demolition and fill in. They had all ready knocked the building down and hauled away most of the debris. All that was left was to haul in fill dirt, clean up the rest of the debris, knock down the remaining foundation and fill in the basement hole.
After driving me in circles on the vacant lot, Jim let me handle the controls with his guidance. Then he stopped and jumped off. I looked at him and said, “Uncle Jim, aah, where ya goin’?” he said, “You’re a big boy now. Drive like it’s yours.”
I looked at him trying not to look terrified, like I was, while pleading with him not to make me do this with my eyes. Dad came running and said, “Jim, I don’t think this is such a good idea.” He said, “Oh hell Walt, there ain’t nothin’ around the boy can hurt. Let him have some fun.”
Some fun. I looked like a pea in the middle of a king sized bed on that bulldozer. Scared to death but not wanting to show it so, I pushed in on the clutch and put it into low gear. The big diesel was pretty much at an idle so, what’s the harm? I slid my foot off of the clutch pedal and the big dozer lurched forward throwing me back into the seat. My hands were nowhere near the control levers and that monster was rocking back and forth so much I couldn’t reach anything.
Finally I got enough balance back to move forward on the seat and a little closer to the controls but by then, it was too late. I looked out over the massive cowling only to see the open pit of the basement right before me. The huge dozer blade dropped sharply out of sight followed by the massive diesel engine and then me.
The tracks of the dozer were still grinding away at what remained of the cement foundation when Uncle Jim jumped on the back of the thundering machine. He reach around me and shut everything down, he grabbed me and asked if I was okay over and over and over again. Except for a bad case of the nerves and the need for a change of underwear, I was fine.
Dad, on the other hand, was fit to be tied. He yelled at just who, I don’t know. Finally, he and Jim both started laughing while they and the rest of the crew worked at getting my handy work out of the basement.
All in all, it was a pretty fun day, for me. I never did get to drive the bulldozer again. Probably just as well.