Sally was her name. I called her “Big Red” which led to Big Red Sally. It was on my first adventure with my grandfather that I learned her name as her engine roared toward the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. A few years later, I found myself in Big Red Sally almost each weekend lending a hand, to whatever degree an 11-year old can, to my grandfather as he used her to haul his freshly fallen timber from the area where he logged to the mill across the Ohio River in Marietta. In my youthful eye, she looked huge, powerful, intimidating. I recall her rocking and groaning as my grandfather would “toss” another log onto her with his Allis-Chalmers frontloader bulldozer with me riding shotgun atop the large battery compartment of the bulldozer. I watched everything my grandfather did to make that bulldozer go where he needed it to on the steep hills of West Virginia – eventually driving and operating the track-driven dozer myself at only twelve years of age. The oddly wonderful smell of starter fluid spray mixed with freshly ignited diesel fuel still “burns” deep in my memory.
Learning to drive the bulldozer was one thing — learning to drive Big Red Sally was an entirely different experience.
My grandfather always pushed me to learn to do things, to ignore fear, and to remain in control of situations where others may bail out at even the first sign of potential danger. Maybe World War II followed by the Korean War engrained that within him, maybe it was something else. All I know is that remaining calm in difficult situations is one thing that, when I do successfully, I attribute to him. At any rate, I was 12 and he decided that I should learn to drive Big Red Sally. Keep in mind that at that age, I didn’t even know how to drive a car, let alone a large flatbed style logging truck with no power brakes, a clutch that I could barely touch with my toes, a manual stick-shift transmission, and no power steering.
And so the lesson began easily enough. I got Sally rolling toward the field harvested of its corn, made a wide sweeping turn, stood up on the clutch pedal to shift to a higher gear, and sat back down as she gained speed. She had spring-cushioned seats — and I recall looking over as my grandfather bounced up and down in the seat, holding tightly to a handle just forward of the door. He had a big smile on his face. This was one of those moments that my otherwise gruffish grandfather displayed a proud happiness.
We rounded the second bend in the cornfield and headed toward the barn — Sally gaining momentum to make it up the grade along side the old barn that still showed some evidence that it had once been stained red, a beautiful dark blood red. As we neared the top of the grade, I lifted up my scrawny, skinny body to initiate the attempt to turn her big wheels from behind her large flat steering wheel (again, no power steering). As we careened around the corner, the look of fear written all over my face matched the similar look my grandfather had written on his face, although his was one of both fear and “oh right!” It was obvious that he had forgotten that he had parked his bulldozer near the other side of the barn — and Big Red Sally with this 12 year old skinny kid behind her wheel was headed straight for the dozer’s back end. All I really remember was his emphatic yelling to “turn the wheel” and “brake, brake, brake!”. It was all a blur of panic and Allis Chalmers yellow.
After rear-ending the bulldozer, I very shakingly climbed down out of Big Red Sally who was now releasing hot stream out of her radiator. As we stood there looking at the union of Sally’s front end and the bulldozer’s back end, my grandfather — agitated and angry — looked at me with his piercing steel grey eyes and said ”you really should have pulled that steering wheel harder or jumped on that brake pedal sooner” … followed seconds later by that smirkish smile that indicated that somehow he was still proud, and even humored, by the situation.
From that day forward, Big Red Sally had a dent down the front of her otherwise flat face.
It was on my recent trip home that I traveled out to the old homestead of my late grandfather, his younger brother still living there. I was surprised to see Big Red Sally still parked there — obviously decommissioned long before my grandfather was “decommissioned”. There she sat, amongst the weeds in the humid grasses along Big Grave Creek in West Virginia. Big Red Sally is showing her original colors now, the blue that my grandfather had painted over years ago after he got her as the paint peels off in the weather and corrosion. She doesn’t look nearly as huge, powerful, nor intimidating as she once did for me. Her clean interior now succumbing to deterioration and damage from the environment. It was good to see her again — sort of a bittersweet homecoming to what once was. And when I saw the dent down the front of her face, I was filled with both memories of dread and happiness. I couldn’t help remembering my grandfather standing there gruffly scolding me all the while smiling with pride. I often wonder if he never even attempted to repair her damaged face as a reminder to him of the moment … or maybe to remind me of the moment.
While in Houston a couple of days ago, I was introduced to an older, accomplished Houston artist at a gallery showing. He said he had just returned from a trip back to his home in Romania. When asked how it was, the general gist of his response was that while it was nice to be back and see his home town and family, it was rather sad to see things age and deteriorate — or to be replaced altogether with something entirely different and more modern. He said that at least he has his memories of what it was like back in the day.
I wasn’t sure if I would even keep the photographs of Big Red Sally — let alone if I would post them publicly. But as I stood there and listened to this artist briefly mention how his memories help keep his past alive, I immediately thought of my reunion with Big Red Sally and those experience with my grandfather. What angst ridden, yet wonderful times those were. It makes my heart glad.
Here are two other photos of Sally: