Ol’ Yeller: An old truck revived
October 6, 2011 | by: Bob Benton, reprinted from Old Time Trucks magazine
[The story about Ol'Yeller is provided by Old Time Trucks, a magazine dedicated to antique trucks and their adventures.]
Pulling stories and pictures out of my scrapbook brings back lots of memories. I spent several years in the early 1970s driving for Bruce Buhlert Trucking of Terra Bella, Calif. Hauling logs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California was always an adventure. I especially enjoyed piecing a solid truck together from two wrecked logging trucks in 1973. I dubbed it Ol’ Yeller.
The two wrecked trucks belonged to Bruce Buhlert. I started with a good set of frame rails from another truck that had been wrecked three years previously. Bruce had given me the title to the truck from which we were using the frame rails, since the rails are stamped with the VIN number. By early June 1974, after a lot of hard work, Ol’ Yeller was ready to haul its first load of logs since the transformation. A logging dolly was also scrapped together from available used parts.
Battery electron fluid
Early one afternoon I was pulling a load of logs out of Bull Run Basin just north of Lake Isabella. It is a steep pull up to Portuguese Pass at 7200-ft elevation, and the road out of Bull Run Basin is one narrow lane cut out of the side of the mountain. As I rounded a curve, the nose of the Pete came upon a stranded Ford pickup towing a travel trailer. A man and woman in the pickup appeared really frightened. When I inquired, the man told me that his battery had died and what was he going to do?
I noticed from his license plate frame that he was probably from the Los Angeles area. After many years in the mountains, I have observed that people from the flatlands and highly populated areas have a real change in psyche when they are in isolated places – especially the back-country of the mountains and on logging roads. They seem to miss that mass of population that they are constantly associated with at home.
I told the man to stay in the pickup and keep the brakes on. I lifted the hood of his truck and quickly noticed that his battery terminal connections were about two inches deep in green corrosion. I wiggled the connections and then told him to try starting the engine. I heard only the familiar click-click of the starter solenoid, but saw a slight trail of smoke from one terminal. I knew that the smoking terminal was the one with the high resistance. I grabbed a wrench from my truck along with a battery terminal cleaner brush and cleaned things up. This time when I told him to start the engine, it fired right up.
He was extremely relieved and actually smiled. He wanted to know what I’d done to revive his truck battery, because he hadn’t been able to see the procedure with the hood up. I told him that I had an extra can of battery electron fluid in my truck and had put it in his battery because it was low on electrons. With a puzzled look he seemed to accept my answer, but I told him that as soon as he got out of the mountains he should stop at an auto parts store to get another can and completely fill the battery. He assured me that he would do that. He tried to pay me, but I told him that the satisfaction of getting him running again was pay enough – and that log truckers always help stranded motorists (when they are blocking the boulevard).
I backed the old Pete down the mountain several hundred yards to a wide spot where we could pass, and they gave me a joyous wave. A few days later I stopped in at one of the auto parts stores. The owner greeted me with, “Hey, Bob, thanks for sending me new customers.” I thought for a second and then remembered the old boy with the battery problem.
I asked, “Did an old boy come in here asking for battery electron fluid?”
He answered, “Yes, and he told me that a log truck driver said he needed it for his battery. I immediately knew it was you. I told him we were out, but sent him over to Jim’s Auto Parts. As soon as he left, I phoned Jim’s and told them he was coming. They said they would send him to Joe Cobb Auto Parts.” I have a feeling that the old boy visited all of Porterville’s auto parts stores – and without success.
A nose for speed
My brother-in-law, Carl, came to our house for a visit along with his wife, my sister Lorna. He had spent many years in highway law enforcement, and at the time of his visit he was a member of the California State Police. He had always told me that he could estimate a vehicle’s speed within 2 mph, whether he was riding in the vehicle, meeting the vehicle, or standing beside the road as the vehicle passed. I had a hard time swallowing that fact, so, being a teacher, I decided it was test time.
Against his better judgment, he agreed to take a ride to the mountains in my logging truck. I had made preparations for the trip, loosening the speedometer cable from the speedometer head so it wouldn’t work. We headed east on big, wide SR 190, headed for the Sierras. His observant eyes noticed that the speedometer wasn’t working, but I told him that with his speed perception, I didn’t need a speedometer.
Soon it was time for the test, so I threw the old Pete into double overdrive. The tach showed 1400 rpm while the engine loafed along on a smooth surface with no trees, fence posts, or power poles nearby to indicate speed. Only the white striping on the road surface might offer a clue. Then I asked, “Okay, Carl, how fast are we traveling?” I observed that his sensory system was in full-precision mode and his brain was processing all of the input material. However, with that low engine rpm, no trees or poles flying by, and cars continuing to pass us, his processors were flawed.
His very positive answer was, “44 mph.”
“Naw,’’ I said. “At 1400 rpm in this gear, we are traveling exactly 60 mph.” In disbelief, he stared at the second hand on his wristwatch as we passed the highway mileage markers every 60 seconds while I held the engine right on 1400 rpm. We talked about other subjects the rest of the journey up the hill.
Beaver slide excitement
We were headed for a log landing at the top of Slate Mountain, which is made up almost entirely of granite, much of it decomposed. The last 500 yards or so are very steep and extremely slippery. Many empty logging trucks had to be towed up the last 200 yards by a Cat dozer. When I radioed by CB up to the landing, they said there was room for us, and to come on up if we could. Otherwise, they would send the Cat down for us. The only way possible to climb that steep grade is to get into your very lowest gears and idle the engine – never apply any power or the drivers will slip and you will slide downhill, guaranteed.
About halfway up the “beaver slide,” as the nose of the Pete targeted the high clouds overhead, Carl asked me if we were going to bring a load of logs down this hill. I answered, “Yes, of course. No logs no pay!” I could see on his face a look of consternation. After we were on the landing and my trailer was down and hooked up, Carl told me that he needed some exercise and would walk down the hill and meet me at the bottom.
Driving a loaded truck down a beaver slide is a thrilling ride. It is somewhat like the very first steep hill on a roller coaster. As you start, the nose looks out to the blue sky and then begins to drop, and drop, and drop until you can finally see the slide in front of you. What saves you on a beaver slide is the finesse with which your foot massages the brake treadle. The wheels must roll, with no skidding of any tire. A skidding tire will increase your speed, and a driver has no directional control in a skid. Many a truck driver has watched his own trailer taillights in an all-wheel skid. The same thing happens on a beaver slide, except part of the mountain comes down with you, under your truck like an avalanche.
I picked up Carl at the bottom of the slide and we had a good trip down the hill to the mill.
Logging truck specs
Logging trucks are only going to be successful in the woods if the component parts are specified to the task of off-road conditions. Over-the-road highway trucks usually aren’t equipped with suspension systems or low gears, along with other things that are needed on the underdeveloped roads in the woods. It was always an interesting experience when a highway trucker decided to buy truck bunks and a logging dolly and head up the hill into the woods to make his fortune as a “gyppo trucker.” (A gyppo trucker is a small, independent logging outfit.)
I saw this happen over and over. The first happened at Dippie Don’s logging show (more about him later). One morning a new trucker showed up. Since the landing was up on a hill and somewhat small, the trucks waited below on a large, flat plateau. The climb up to the landing was over a very large, glacial, polished granite slab that was pock-marked with holes and decomposed granite. A properly spec’d truck could idle up the slab with no problems. We eyeballed the new truck while the new driver eyeballed the granite slab. Trying to be friendly and helpful, we offered the new man some words of advice about climbing the slab, which he didn’t seem to appreciate. He informed us that he had been driving truck for more than 20 years and he could drive his truck anywhere!
We had noticed that his truck was equipped with four-spring suspension. Now, that’s about the worst suspension you can take off-road. It does not allow for equal-weight tire footprints in an uneven surface environment, and wheel-spin will occur – guaranteed. We sat back ready for the show that was sure to unfold before our very eyes. When it was his turn to load, he started up the granite slab slowly, but spun-out about a fourth of the way up. He backed down and tried again, only to spin-out again. He backed down again, but across the wide plateau this time. All of our anxiety levels rose as we recognized what he was about to attempt. With both exhaust stacks belching black smoke, he hit the bottom of the slab at about 20 mph.
Three giant-leaps later he came to a halt as his logging dolly flew off the truck and hung precariously by a truck stake. Dippie Don, having heard the commotion, appeared in person, and after sizing up the situation, further entertained the group with an eloquent but boisterous speech directed at the driver. A skidder appeared and pulled the truck backwards off the slab while the dolly tires dragged on the low side with the upper tires still impaled on the truck stake. No one ever saw or heard of that “gyppo trucker” again.
Another case of a poorly specified truck involved a former student of mine who decided he wanted to become a gyppo trucker. He was a veteran who had saved some money while in the military and had made a down payment on a new truck at the local International dealership. He called to ask my opinion, and I told him the truck wouldn’t work in the woods because it had highway specs. Nevertheless, a few days later my friend showed up at the landing with his new International logging truck. We were logging on Cherry Hill at that time, which is northeast of Lake Isabella in very high, rocky territory and a long haul to the Terra Bella mill.
The logging spur down to the landing was about a half-mile of rocks, ruts, and bumps. The first load of logs on the new truck was a disaster as the four-spring suspension offered no traction on this hostile road surface. A dozer pushed on the rear of the logs as a helper, but was not much help since he pushed part of the load off the trailer. After a re-load, they towed the truck all the way up to the forest service road. The next day turned out even worse. In the driver’s attempt to make the truck a successful and viable machine, about a hundred yards after leaving the landing he tore out the driveline, which turned into a spinning pretzel as it wiped out plumbing and wiring. After repairs, the loaded truck had to be towed all the way to the top and onto the forest service road. A truck without the correct specs won’t make you any money in the woods. The driver refitted the truck and went on to haul lumber on the highway.
JR and Dippie Don
I hauled logs for many different gyppo loggers during my seasons in the woods, and gyppo loggers come in a variety of packages and personalities. But the thing that probably distinguishes them is the variety of logging equipment that they bring to the woods and the people that operate that equipment. On the lower end of the spectrum with toys was JR. His total equipment list included an old non-articulated Hough loader, a D-7 Cat, a very old Monarch track-layer tractor, and an old water truck. But I was always amazed at the amount of log production that he and his crew (mostly relatives) put out with such ancient equipment. They worked hard and they played hard. They would stay deep in the woods for weeks at a time working seven days a week. A gyppo trucker could stop by their landing any time day or night, blast his air horn if it was night, and get a load of logs.
One of the favorite forms of entertainment for the crew was to divert a driver’s attention while his truck was being loaded and wrap a large dead rattlesnake around the clutch and brake pedals with its head looking up. I always opened my driver door very cautiously when I was ready to leave their landing. One driver left the landing not noticing the snake on the floorboards and, after traveling about 50 yards, suddenly bailed out of the moving truck. The truck came to a slow halt on the slight upgrade as the engine stalled in gear. The driver, now adrenalin powered, grabbed his cheater pipe from the bark box and commenced chasing the landing crew over hill and dale. It was quite an entertaining show.
One afternoon I arrived at JR’s log landing and saw the D-7 Cat towing the old Monarch tractor. The Monarch was their favorite skidding tractor because it had a high ground-clearance and good power provided by an old 200-hp Cummins diesel engine equipped with a single-disc fuel system. JR asked if I could give them a little help in getting the old girl running again. He explained that the tractor had run out of fuel, and after running the battery dead, he had towed it for an hour to no avail. I said that he could tow it to Los Angeles and back, but it wouldn’t start until the air was purged from the fuel system. I told him to get the portable generator and charge the battery while I primed the system. After scraping about two inches of grease and mud from the accessory drive pulley to find the priming marks, the priming procedure was completed in less than a half-hour. As all hands stood by with bets that it wouldn’t start, JR hit the starter, and the old girl fired to life on the second revolution and purred like a kitten! JR pronounced me a “Genius.” I told him that he could have accomplished the same procedure if he had only earned a masters degree. (I took a lot of good-humored teasing in the woods for being a teacher – which I reciprocated at appropriate times.)
By far the most prolific in logging toys was Dippie Don, as he was known and called in the woods. He was definitely a discerning aficionado of logging equipment, collecting only the finest equipment, and his logging “shows” were more like new equipment expositions. His collection included wheel loaders, track loaders, heel-boom loaders, Terex dozers, Cat dozers, wheel skidders, low-bed trailers, portable shops, graders, water trucks, fire engines, and the best in high-lead cable logging equipment.
He had been a logger all of his life. Under his rugged and sometimes uncouth facade there beat a heart of gold. His vivacious wife with golden curls was always as sweet as he was sometimes obnoxious. A few years earlier he had been in a logging accident and sustained a broken back, which, at that time, still caused him a lot of pain. He controlled the pain in the morning hours with prescribed medication, but by the afternoon things usually began to unravel.
At 2 p.m. each afternoon he entered his large motor home and watched his favorite soap opera, “General Hospital,” on television. After watching his favorite soap opera for an hour while nursing his pains with bottled “medicine” mixed with the prescription stuff, it was show tim.! As gyppo truckers, we all made a concerted effort to be off the landing and gone by 3 p.m., or else we might un-voluntarily become part of the show. At 3 p.m. most of his crew were deep in the woods on skidders,
Cat dozers, setting chokers, or just plain hiding in the brush – only the loader operator and the landing “knot-bumper” were privileged with a front-row seat. And it was a different show every day. Dippie Don’s crew put out a huge volume of logs each day.
Selling Ol’ Yeller
In the fall of 1977 a trucker friend wanted to buy Ol’ Yeller and offered a very attractive price, so we decided to sell the truck. It was an emotional decision because the truck was a labor of love and had become part of the family. Only after promising our sons that we would acquire another logging truck did they reluctantly agree to the sale. “Ol’ Yeller” faithfully hauled logs from as far north as Shaver and Huntington Lakes and as far south as Lake Arrowhead in Southern California. She was a great old truck.
Bob Benton resides in Porterville, Calif. Photos courtesy of Old Time Trucks.