a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!
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One spring day about three years ago, in the early evening, Melissa and I were driving through Leadville, Colorado and saw something so cool I had to turn around to go back to check it out. An old Chevy Apache sat on the corner of a repair shop’s parking lot. The sun-beaten original turquoise paint was worn through on the hood and top of the cab. I chuckled. “Patina; a fancy word for rust.” From my driver’s seat, I gazed through the window at the old girl.
Her weathered look and character made me wonder what stories this truck could tell. The big heavy brows over the headlights invited me to come take a closer look. I got out of my car and walked around this classic. In the back of the truck was an old pickup camper.
The camper paint was chalky and worn thin but I could easily read the metal emblem: The Alaskan Camper. It Raises – It Lowers. I peeked through the glass window in the back door. “This is so cool.” While admiring the rig I began dreaming of adventures my wife and I could have traveling in such a vessel, “Oh the fun we would have…” I saw a lady walking near the building. She looked our way and kept going. I approached her, “That is really a cool truck.” I said, “Is it for sale?” She told me it was only there for repairs. We talked about it for a bit.
I knew she couldn’t tell me who owned it, but offered my contact information, asking if she would forward it to them – I wanted to inquire about buying the truck. “I can give it to him,” she said, “but you won’t get a call.” I assumed he had lots of offers. “The kid just got it,” She explained, “His grandfather bought the truck and camper brand new in 1962 and just recently gave it to him.” I smiled. This truck was clearly not for sale. I kept looking at the Apache in my rearview mirror as we drove into Leadville to find some place to eat dinner.
A few months later, in the summer, we were headed for the west coast – Washington. Melissa found an advertisement for an Alaskan camper, just like the one we saw in Colorado. It was in Bellingham; an hour north of our destination. I called the lady and she agreed to hold the camper until we could get there.
We really liked the camper and were comfortable with the price, but we were almost two thousand miles from home. It wouldn’t be feasible to run home to get my truck and come back. I couldn’t very well strap the camper to the luggage rack on top of my Subaru either. I drove to another town and bought a small trailer, five-feet-wide by eight-feet-long. With the trailer in tow, I went back, finished our paperwork and lowered our Alaskan Camper onto the little trailer hitched to my Subaru wagon. We sure got a lot of looks on our way home.
In western Montana, I took an excursion off the interstate. I wanted to cut down through Darby, in the Bitterroot Valley, then up through Wisdom and Wise River, coming back to I-90 just outside Butte, Montana. It’s a gorgeous drive.
Somewhere along the route, I saw something so cool, I had to turn around to go back to check it out.
There on a dealer’s lot was an old truck. I stood looking at the 1966 three-quarter ton, GMC truck. A livestock rack made of white wooden boards was mounted on the bed sides. The palomino tan paint still had a respectable shine - the truck was in good shape. It was a very similar style as the Chevy Apache we saw in Colorado – and here I sat with a vintage Alaskan camper. Thinking it was a sign from above, I went inside and talked to the dealer.
“The truck is on consignment.” He told me, “It’s only got fifty-six thousand original miles on it.” I asked if the mileage was verified. “Sure is,” he said, “the man bought it brand new to take his cattle to market. It’s a one-owner truck. He’s 97 years old now, not ranching anymore and figured it was time to sell it.” Melissa and I went out to test drive the old truck.
“Where are the seatbelts?” She asked. 1966 trucks didn’t come with seatbelts – I don’t know if they were even an option yet. It was hot outside, so we had the windows open as we cruised down the highway. The wind was blowing her long hair all about. “It’s pretty loud.” She said. I explained it was a farm truck and was geared really low to work. The truck seemed to be hitting top speed around fifty miles-per-hour. At sixty, the engine was really wound up.
“I like it.” I said, “I think we should buy it.”
“I’m not traveling in a pink truck.” She replied. Pink has never been her favorite color. She even told me once, “I can’t wear pink clothes; pink burns my skin.” Hmm. We went inside and I told the dealer we would think about it and get back to him.
As we walked back to the Subaru, I kept looking back over my shoulder at the truck. “It’s not pink,” I insisted, “It’s palomino tan. A very popular color in the fifties and sixties.”
At the car, she lowered her eyebrows, looked at me and adamantly said, “It’s pink.”
We got in the car. I kept gazing at the truck on the far end of the car lot. “Palomino tan is not pink.” I pouted as I started backing up. I gave the truck one long last look almost as if to say goodbye while admiring it. Just then I began hearing a noise – much like crunching sheet metal. “CRAP!” I blurted out, “Trailer!”
I had jackknifed the trailer, hitting the side of my car. We got out quickly. I let out a big sigh of relief. The steel railing on the trailer protected the camper. “Oh my gosh,” Melissa said, “look at the car.” I didn’t really care about the car so long as the Alaskan didn’t get hurt. We got back into the car and turned onto the highway, headed east toward Wisdom, Montana. Oh, the irony; I felt so stupid. How much wisdom can there be in staring at a truck while backing up and jackknifing a trailer behind my car. We were on our way home with our new camper – and a new dent in the car. Every time I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the damaged fender, I felt more foolish.
On the way home, we decided not to stay at motels. Instead, we would pull into a rest area, raise the top and sleep in the camper…on the trailer…behind our car. I couldn’t wait to find a vintage truck to carry our Alaskan.
The camper sat on the trailer in our driveway for the rest of the year until we wrapped it with tarps and put it away for the long winter ahead. All through the winter months both Melissa and I kept watch on eBay, Craigslist, Marketplace, and any place else we might possibly find the right vintage truck for our camper. We even had friends looking for us. We brought the Alaskan out in the spring with high hopes of finding the truck. We kept looking through the summer. We didn’t find anything so in the late fall, we wrapped it up in tarps and put it away for another long winter ahead. It seemed like all the trucks we would consider for the camper were either way out of our price range or needed too much work.
One day I was quickly flipping through ads for old trucks when I saw something so cool, I had to scroll back to check it out. A real clean 1971 Ford F-250 Camper Special with only fifty-six thousand miles on it. “No way.” I thought to myself. “That’s the same mileage that old ‘66 GMC in Montana had on it.” The price was really low, so I placed a bid, knowing full well the truck would end up selling for way more than we could afford.
I showed the listing to my wife. “I really like that shade of green,” She said looking at the photos, “it’s a lot better than that pink truck you liked out in Montana.”
I gave her a scornful look, insisting, “It wasn’t pink, it was palomino tan.” I was trying not to get too excited about the Ford. Sure enough, a few days before the auction ended, I was outbid. As the auction got closer to ending, I reconsidered the value of the truck and raised my maximum bid. Just a few minutes before the auction’s end, I was outbid again.
I was struggling with my decision. I said that was the most I would pay for the truck, but from everything we had seen online, it really was a good deal. With twenty seconds left, I was going to raise my bid by three-hundred dollars. I hesitated…watching the clock tick down, ten, nine, eight…I told myself I shouldn’t do this. Seven, six, five…well, maybe I should – I don’t know. Four, three…I hit enter. The screen changed very quickly – You’re the high bidder, then, CONGRATULATIONS!
I drove to Cincinnati, Ohio and pulled the Ford home on a rented U-Haul auto transporter. Every time I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Green Ford Camper Special, following me home, I got a little grin on my face. I backed the truck down the ramps and off the trailer then d parked it in our driveway.
When enough snow had melted, I went out back to retrieve the little trailer with the Alaskan camper from storage. We set the camper in the truck bed. Man, she looked good and fit like a glove. Melissa cleaned the inside with Murphy’s Oil Soap, then rubbed down all the wood with lemon oil polish. The luster defined the grain in the birch wood. It radiated with an absolutely beautiful amber glow.
I hooked up the LP gas tank and checked all the cooktop burners – they worked just fine. After changing one light bulb, all the interior lights worked. The shades rolled up and down freely. Even the fifty-year-old refrigerator came on and got cold. We were really smitten with our little Alaskan sitting in its new vintage ride.
It was still cold outside, but we drove the truck to Grand Marais, Minnesota, picked up a pizza from Sven and Ole’s, then parked along the shoreline of Lake Superior. I raised the top on the Alaskan. The wind was strong and pushed hard against the sides, rocking the truck and camper.
Melissa and I sat inside, grinning like fools and enjoying our pizza. On the other side of the big windows the lake sent waves rolling and crashing into the shore. Finally! After more than two years, we had a vintage truck to carry our vintage Alaskan camper. Let the adventures begin.
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I’m not one to watch a lot of television but when I do get into a show, I really get into it. Maybe I avoid watching because I become addicted, or I am too easily influenced by the shows.
For example, I never watched a single episode of the TV show, M*A*S*H when it originally aired for eleven years. I didn’t start watching until it became a syndicated series of reruns in the mid 80’s and I became hooked on the show. I would rush home to watch it at 5:30 on WOI-TV, channel 5. If I still had work to do at the office, I would go back. They ran two more episodes back-to-back at 10:30, after the news and I seldom missed those.
My kids swear they grew up falling asleep to the sound of an incoming helicopter and the theme song for M*A*S*H. When the TV station changed their programming and stopped airing the show, I bought the VHS tapes, then the box set of all the episodes when it became available on DVD. Yes, I was and still am hooked on the show. There’s no doubt I am influenced by what I see on the screen.
Just the other day, I watched the episode where the 4077th gets a can of tomato juice by mistake. When Colonel Potter sees Radar with a glass of the deep red juice, he reminisces; saying he hadn’t had tomato juice for years. Radar gave him the juice. The colonel drinks it and smiles, “Delisch. That really hit the spot, Radar.”
Wanting to please his commander, Radar started weaving a web of deals to assure the colonel would get tomato juice every morning. When Radar presented the tomato juice to the colonel, Potter pushed it aside, “No thanks Radar. I like it, but it doesn’t like me.” The juice gave him a rash.
After watching that episode, I went to the store and bought a big can of tomato juice as I hadn’t had it for years. The first glass was mighty tasty, but now I have bunch left in the refrigerator.
TV shows aren’t the only form of entertainment that can have an influence on me.
I was teenager on my motorcycle, racing down the alley alongside the Green Street parking lot, behind the movie theaters in downtown Ottumwa. I was speeding – going way to fast. A cop on second street saw me, turned on his lights and came after me in his Dodge Diplomat police car. I was going to take off to ditch him, but then thought it would be better if I stopped.
Ron Tolle, an Ottumwa police sergeant, stood next to me, sitting on my bike. The badge pinned to the front of his dark blue hat with the rigid, shiny plastic bill reflected the street light. He looked ten feet tall. “What’s your hurry, Mr. Palen?” How did he know my name?
I was scared to death. It was the first time I’d been pulled over by a cop – well, since getting my driver’s license; there was that one time on a bicycle but that’s a different story. I explained, “I’m not in a hurry. I just watched that new movie at the theater, Smokey and the Bandit. I guess I’m a little pumped up.” He let me go with a verbal warning; telling me to slow down. I love that movie!
A few years later I was watching Smokey and the Bandit, edited for TV. It sounded goofy when Sheriff Justice would curse, “You scum bum!” Certain words just couldn’t be said on television. The Bandit had just stopped to get a couple of cheeseburgers, when Sheriff Justice rushed into the same restaurant and ordered a Diablo sandwich and a Dr. Pepper. He wanted it fast as he was in a hurry. Despite seeing the movie over and over, that was the first time I ever wondered what a Diablo sandwich was. I wanted to try one.
Betty had a recipe for everything. I looked in my Betty Crocker cookbook but there was no such sandwich. I went to the public library to check Better Homes and Gardens and several other cookbooks. Still no success. I spent what seemed like hours, thumbing through pages in the aisle at Newsland, but not a single cookbook had the recipe. I asked friends and people I knew were good cooks; nobody seemed to know. People who had heard of the sandwich, only knew about it from the movie.
Over the next few decades, I watched that movie many times, but I eventually gave up on the Diablo sandwich.
A few weeks ago, Melissa and I sat down for a movie night. We watched a classic – Smokey and the Bandit. All my desires to try that elusive sandwich were rekindled. The internet is a much better source for researching such things since the last time I had looked - which should’ve made it easy to find the recipe, right? Wrong.
I typed “Diablo Sandwich” into the search bar, hit enter and sat back to review the results. “Come on. Are you kidding me?” In this age of technology and information, the best online recipe pages have to offer is a taco burger with corn and cheese. “Clearly, that was not the sandwich in the movie.”
I posted my dilemma on Facebook where friends responded with a variety of links to recipes. The people posting recipes claimed they were “real,” “actual” and “authentic from the movie.” One recipe claimed the Diablo sandwich was a glorified sloppy joe with corn and lettuce – but their photo had coleslaw with purple cabbage on the meat. Ick. There were no vegetables on the Diablo sandwich featured in the movie.
A couple other articles said the Diablo was a fictitious sandwich made up for the movie and didn’t really exist. Unwilling to accept that, I wasn’t going to give up. Later that night, after spending a few more hours searching the web for the recipe, Melissa said, “You’ve invested a lot of time in this Diablo Sandwich. It was a movie – it doesn’t really exist.” I couldn’t believe those words came forth from my own wife.
I felt abandoned - like Linus Van Pelt, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear in the pumpkin patch, when Sally Brown gave up, leaving him there alone. I wasn’t going to give up. Not when I knew in my heart the Diablo sandwich was real.
The next day, a friend sent me a link to an article where someone took the time to investigate the Diablo sandwich mystery in a near forensic manner. They found the restaurant location where the movie scene was filmed; The Old Hickory House restaurant in Forest Park, Georgia. They researched the menus from the seventies and concluded no such sandwich existed. However, they were able to demonstrate the meat in the sandwich Sheriff Justice ate was shredded, not ground beef like you would find in a taco burger or sloppy joe.
Because of the name Diablo, which is Spanish for Devil, they reasoned the sandwich was probably served with a hot or spicy sauce. Their article produced an old family recipe, handed down for generations by the actual restaurant owners, for a spicy BBQ sauce that would have been served over pulled pork or shredded beef. Then they determined the meat in the sandwich must have been pork based on its color.
The author of the article, concluded the Diablo Sandwich was what most Americans would call a pulled pork sandwich with BBQ sauce. They suggested the name of the sandwich may have been ad-libbed into the movie by Jackie Gleason, who played Sheriff Buford T. Justice.
The authors research was thorough. The article was very convincing, backed up with logical information and facts that included the recipe for the sauce. I was now on a mission to recreate the sandwich.
I planned ahead, picked out the perfect pork roast and made sure I had all the ingredients needed. I made the sauce a couple of days ahead so the spices would have time to blend well. Friday morning, I began slow cooking the meat. The moment was finally at hand.
Friday night I warmed the BBQ sauce and assembled the sandwiches. They were beautiful and looked exactly like the sandwich presented to Sheriff Justice at the counter in the movie.
We garnished the plates with kettle chips and a pickle spear and, of course, included ice cold glasses of Dr Pepper. When I took the first couple bites, I knew I had finally found it - the elusive Diablo Sandwich was mine at last; ‘twas a dream come true. By the third bite, a tear welled up in my eye. (My wife was laughing at this point.) Yes, I was pretty emotional, but the tear was most likely from the BBQ sauce – it had a real good kick to it. Wow!
For years, people have told me, “There is no Diablo Sandwich - it’s just pulled pork on a bun.” But I knew better! The Diablo Sandwich is just as real as the Great Pumpkin, the Great Oz, the Tooth Fairy and a few others I know of. But in order for any of these to exist, one must believe. I believe.
If anyone wants to stop by, I’ll let you try a Diablo Sandwich - I made plenty of extra. While you’re here, you can have a glass of tomato juice – I have plenty of that too. I’ve got to stop staying up late, watching old TV shows and movies. I’m too easily influenced…