Friday, October 19, 2012

Truckin’

At the time of my diving accident during the summer of 1996 I was driving a 1989 Ford Ranger XLT with an extended cab. I don’t remember why, but when we went through the process of buying me a car my dad and I were strictly on the lookout for 1988-89 Ford Rangers—nothing pre-1987 or post-1990 year ranges—with extended cabs, and no other brands of trucks. I think it had something to do with the look of the front end/grill of those two years of Rangers. My dad and I quickly became experts at spotting Rangers and what year they were. It took plenty of months of searching to find the right one. We got close a few times but ultimately the rejects either had too many miles, too much rust or dents, too high an asking price, etc.

We finally found one that was ideal in all categories. Making it even more the near-perfect fit for me was that it was red in color—my favorite. At first I thought it was a little ugly because the previous owner had some intricate Waldoch-style striped graphics added to the entire length of both sides of it. But it quickly grew on me because it had a unique look to it compared to any other Rangers I came across. In fact, it was so unique that I would get comments from people that I had a real pretty truck, which I always took with an understated polite thanks through gritted teeth because no teenage high school dude wants to be known for driving a “pretty” truck. It’s uniqueness also carried weight with girls that I gave rides to your typical high school hang outs, parties, dates, etc. who would say things like, “I’ve always wanted to go for a ride in this truck.” It always surprised me. Then again, it was probably more likely that it was just because the truck was an extension of me or something like that.

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The previous owner took great care of the truck and really loved it, but she and her husband were starting a family so she upgraded to a Jeep Cherokee. She was so sad to see it go that after we exchanged money and paper work and she handed us the keys she went inside because she didn’t want to see us drive it away. I, on the other hand, was thrilled. I finally had my own car!

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But at the time of the purchase I was still just 15 years old with my learner’s permit and had to wait somewhere in the neighborhood of three months before I could drive the truck on my own. Talk about a serious case of hurry-up-and-wait! My dad gave me the backup set of keys, which were the keys I used when I went on my practice driving sessions with him. As a kind of cool motivational tool he wouldn’t let me use the primary set until I got my driver’s license, and had therefore earned their use. My dad has always been good about setting carrot and stick goals like that. Anyway, the copy of the spare set of keys was made at a Hardware Hank hardware store, and thus my truck was quickly nicknamed “Hank.” We got vanity plates that said Hank and everything, but the fun and cool thing we did was we made them say KNAH so that it would show up as HANK in rearview mirrors like with ambulances. HANK comin’ up behind ya!

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Aside from the frustrating and unyielding wait to drive Hank solo, the other challenge was that it was a five-speed manual transmission so I had to learn how to drive a stick shift. It didn’t come very easily for me.  I remember going for drives with my dad and dreading coming to stoplights or stop signs with lots of cars behind me because it seemed like more often than not I killed the engine once I tried to get going again and it held up traffic. It was perpetually mortifying. The biggest problem was that my truck had a pretty hard clutch. It was the hardest clutch out of any stick shift vehicle I ever drove (retrospectively), so it took some extra effort to get that clutch to gas transition down pat. I had a tendency to over-rev the engine and let the clutch out slowly and my dad really wanted me to make shifting as smooth as possible because otherwise it was too hard on the engine. My dad used to be a part of a car club in high school call the “Cam Busters” and had blown plenty of engines in his hay day of busting cams.

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Before I could drive Hank legally I would do things like sit in it and practice shifting gears with the engine off, which I think is bad for the vehicle but I did it anyway. Plenty of other times I would start it up, keep the clutch down, and rev the engine. When I got a little bolder I would back it in and out of the garage a bunch of times in a row to practice starting and stopping, which as I mentioned was the trickiest aspect of my stick shift driving learning curve. When I got even bolder yet I started driving it down to the end of the street and back again. And in my boldest move yet, I left my street once and went on a mini-joyride for a couple of blocks. But only once because I knew I was driving illegally and didn’t want to risk getting caught. As they read this my parents are learning all of this for the first time, by the way (surprise!). But it was a long, hard wait until I turned sixteen and I couldn’t help not playing with such a shiny new toy.

After I passed my driver’s license test on my 16th birthday I finally got to drive my truck on my own to school the next day, and it was a glorious feeling. I still wasn’t great at driving stick at that point but I became an ace in a short time period of full-time driving. The truck only had a four-cylinder engine so it didn’t have a lot of speed or power but it got me from point A to point B just fine. The only option that truck lacked that I really missed was cruise control, which made maintaining a constant speed during highway travel a challenge. On long road trips I had to keep shifting my weight so my ass cheeks wouldn’t fall asleep and my driving leg wouldn’t cramp up from constantly having my foot pegged to the gas pedal. It was a light bed truck that was rear-wheel drive, so driving in the winter was a challenge sometimes.

To make it more me I hung some red and black checkered fuzzy dice in the back window so they wouldn’t block my view hanging from the rearview mirror. My dad actually disallowed me from hanging anything from the rearview mirror for that reason. I slapped a Wisconsin Badger floating W decal on one side of my back window and a funky multi-colored yin and yang sticker on the other side. Within a few months we installed a new Pioneer tape deck with a six disk cd changer, so it was the best of both worlds musically. The face of the stereo deck was removable for security reasons, which even though I rarely actually removed it for that reason it was still a cool trick to show off.  There were two flip down seats in the back so I could take up to four extra passengers. Shifting gears between a girl’s legs, who insisted she sat in the front middle seat more comfortably straddling the floor console, was always interesting. None of the guy passengers ever did that, of course. But overall it was a good ride that brought me a lot of fun times.

Around the time of my diving accident Dodge changed the style of their Dakota, their Ford Ranger competing small truck series, so that it looked like a mini Dodge Ram and I instantly fell in love. We hung a newspaper clipping that announced the change of style with the picture just below in my hospital room and it travelled with me from Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, WI, where I spent the first two and a half months of my post-SCI rehab, to Craig Hospital in Denver, CO, where I spent my last two rehab months. Just like the spare Hardware Hank keys for hank, that newspaper clipping represented a carrot and stick type motivation for me to kick some ass in rehab because at one point early on my dad said that if I walked again he would buy me that truck as a reward.

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When I went out to Craig I told people that my goal was to leave there using crutches at the least. But although I never gave up on walking again (and still haven’t), at some point while I was out at Craig—without me even realizing it, in retrospect—my desire to attack rehab in order to get stronger and more independent subversively overtook my plans of leaving there on two feet. And part of that included a dose of reality setting in regarding my physical situation—being a wheelchair using quadriplegic who may stay that way indefinitely.

On the other hand, I still had goals of doing things physically that, in retrospect, as a quad I really had no shot of having the strength or independence of doing. One of those things included thinking that I could still transfer into and drive a pickup truck. There was a paraplegic who was going through rehab at the same time as me who had the same inflated ambitions to still drive a truck that I did. Although because he was a para his chances were much better of doing so. Either way, to a Craig therapist’s credit she humored us, even though she essentially knew better, and showed us a video of a guy in a wheelchair transferring into a truck and gave us info about truck transfer options, options to get wheelchairs into the truck, and that kind of thing.

A number of issues quickly sunk my ambitions of driving a truck as a quad. First, was the wheelchair to vehicle transfer itself. While I was going through Craig’s driving program my first training vehicle was some kind of Chevy sedan. I had all I could handle trying to transfer my self into that car on my own—putting the sliding board far enough under my butt, lifting my legs into the car, doing the chair to driver seat transfer, etc. And that was a fairly even, if not slightly downhill transfer—in contrast to transferring upwards into a truck cab seat.

Second, was the logistics of getting my wheelchair into the truck. A lot of people with SCI that drive cars have folding wheelchairs or chairs that break down easily. My manual wheelchair had a rigid frame, which was much better for posture and a reduction of lower back pain, so some of the overhead wheelchair lift chair toppers or truck bed vehicle cranes with single bars that hook onto the chair at the folded point and swing it back into the truck bed for transport wouldn’t work with my chair.

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Third, I lived in Wisconsin and was vulnerable to harsh winter elements at least a quarter of the year, and even if I had found a truck bed chair crane I couldn’t drive around with my wheelchair exposed to snow, sleet, rain, etc.

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At the time there really weren’t any options for truck bed toppers that tilted open automatically with enough clearance to accommodate a stand up, rigid manual chair. And there most certainly weren’t any truck bed topper wheelchair crane options that could pick up a 250 pound power chair. If there were we either couldn’t find them or they weren’t economically feasible. Now, of course, there are options-a-plenty for all kinds of wheelchairs to get into any kind of vehicle as you can see from the surrounding pictures.

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The other issue that factored in was if I botched my transfer, my wheelchair rolled away before I could hook up the crane, or the chair slipped off the crane before it made it into the truck bed then I would have been screwed if I was by myself.

So all those four issues being considered, driving a truck was out and a minivan with a ramp was in. At the time I considered a ramped minivan to be my first accessible vehicle and I would build up to a truck for my second vehicle. But soon after using my power chair and van independently full time when I started college in 1997 I quickly realized how silly my thinking about getting a truck was. Getting in and out of the van was so easy, and unlike a truck I had plenty of room inside the van to move around and haul other people around. Reality set in and my ambitions of being able to drive another truck some day were essentially dashed.

All that changed about six or so years ago though. I was getting a routine repair done on my van and its ramp and while I was sitting in the waiting room I looked up and saw a picture of a Dodge Ram 4x4 truck with a ramp lift wheelchair conversion and it blew my mind. The technology and ingenuity had finally caught up with the times and driving a truck from a wheelchair without doing a transfer or have to crane your chair back into the truck bed was a very doable option. At long last!

With that particular truck lift—like they do at Custom Mobility—a platform shot out from under the truck’s cab and lowered to the ground. Then you would back your wheelchair—manual or power—onto the platform and it would lift you up to the truck cab’s level. Then you would pivot and position yourself behind the wheel.

But with companies like Mobility SVM and Ryno Mobility the latest truck wheelchair conversion technology kicks that up a handful of notches. As you can see in the pictures below, the entire driver side door with a wheelchair platform attached to it slides open  and lowers. Then you back your chair onto the platform and the whole thing raises and slides you into place behind the wheel. Watch this video to see the whole thing in action. Phenomenal!

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I just bought a new wheelchair accessible van two years ago, so I won’t be in the market for a new vehicle again for a number of years from now. Even when that day comes I’ll be getting another van because it’s the most practical vehicle for my lifestyle. But some day when I’m immersed in a steady career, my credit cards, student loans, house payments, etc. are all in check and I can afford a weekend toy you can bet your ass that I’ll getting one of these sweet rides. And a quest that began in the fall of 1996 will finally be actualized. Although instead of a Dodge Dakota I’ll probably get a Dodge Ram. A red one with unique pin striping on the sides, of course. I wonder if Hardware Hank still makes spare keys, because my dad may need to earn their use if he wants to take Big Hank for a joy ride some day.

2 comments:

  1. You are such an inspiration, Shawn! Despite what happened, you still managed to reach your goal. It goes to show that you can still do the things you love. And the disability is not a hindrance but a temporary setback.

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