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When Michael Smith found his father’s old Chevy truck, it had been painted orange and modified for tractor pulls. The current owner gave him the tailgate and hitch cover in original condition.
When Michael Smith found his father’s old Chevy truck, it had been painted orange and modified for tractor pulls. The current owner gave him the tailgate and hitch cover in original condition.

Father’s Day

The son, the old Chevy and a journey to the past Add to ...

Comfort comes from shared losses – tragedies that blindside you on an idle Friday, forever altering your world for the worse. In my case, it was the sudden death of my dad more than six months ago.

Saying goodbye to dad – mio campione (my hero, in Italian) – still cuts like a knife. Some days it feels like a bad dream; unfortunately, reality quickly sets in. Sorrow runs deep, especially during the holidays.

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The next milestone to brave: Father’s Day, my first without him. Laughter, festivities and fun now exchanged for tears, sadness and a trip to the cemetery. Amid the grief, however, I found comfort from an unexpected source – my readers. Tears and the truck – my story chronicling the heart-wrenching pain I felt in letting go of dad and his Ford F-150 truck – was published in Globe Drive in January. I was immediately swamped with touching, heartfelt messages from readers offering comforting words while sharing their deepest heartache and loss; many stories strikingly similar to mine.

“Your article was the first I read and, while I was sipping my coffee, I was welling up with tears. I went through a very similar situation with my dad and numerous health problems, hospital stays and close calls. I know the pain of losing a dad so I can sincerely appreciate your loss, but I am glad to hear that he lived well into his 80s. ... My dad passed at 55,” wrote Michael Smith, 36, owner and designer of a high-end underwear company.

Tears streamed down my face. Smith’s father, Lionel Smith, had medical issues early on, beginning with a heart attack at 37. A quadruple bypass, infections and other medical issues followed. Despite Lionel’s ailments, he had a zest for life and a passion for hunting, camping, fishing and trucks. A former truck driver and self-taught mechanic, Lionel loved cars and worked painstakingly on his vehicles, especially his 1978 Chevrolet 1500 truck. Among other things, he rebuilt the 454 motor to give it a performance boost, added air bag suspension and a fresh coat of hunter green paint – an estimated $10,000 in upgrades.

On his last hospital stay, knowing the prognosis was grim, Lionel sold his prized possession, the ’78 Chevy, before passing away on Feb. 26, 2005. A friend his son never knew bought it for about $3,500.

“It was heartbreaking when I was talking to my dad in the hospital and he told me he sold it. Then he told me how much he sold it for. ‘Oh, dad, if I had known that, I would have taken it off your hands.’ At least, I’d still have it. It was unfortunate that we didn’t talk about it,” says Smith of the illogical, but undeniable, bond between man and machine.

Eight years later, Smith embarked on a journey to find his dad’s old truck. “You have encouraged me to take down the photo in my garage of my dad and my uncle in front of his truck, scan it in and start searching for it online,” said Michael.

There was one stumbling block – the photo showed little of the truck. With no other photos or information, he began the search for a needle in a haystack.

Smith’s parents divorced when he was a child, and no one knew the friend who bought the truck. Luckily, his mom remembered a name. Smith started with a Canada411.ca search, but more than 300 people with that surname came up in Ontario.

Still, he didn’t give up. Over several weeks, he cold-called each one, made countless trips to Ministry of Transportation (MTO) offices in southern Ontario and posted internet ads on Kijiji as well as forums dedicated to old Chevy trucks. Many of the leads turned out to be wild-goose chases, sometimes in the wee hours of the night.

Then came a break. His mom found his dad’s driver’s licence number. With it, he bought a Registration Identification Number (RIN) history – documenting all of his dad’s previous vehicles – at an MTO office. Eight bucks well spent.

Then he purchased a Used Vehicle Information Package (UVIP) for the Chevy truck – another $20 to confirm the owner’s name. No address was listed, just the town. That was enough to find a telephone number to get the ball rolling.

In the end the truck was only 50 kilometres away from its original home. But when Smith made the trek to see the Chevy, he didn’t recognize it. Painted bright orange, it was used strictly for tractor pulls.

“Ah! When I heard the tractor pulls, I knew it wouldn’t be the same truck at all,” said Smith. “I was looking the truck over and I could see it was very far from what it was when my dad owned it. A lot of the parts were now gone, the truck was pretty much gutted for performance. The 454 has been built up to approximately 700 hp. It’s at 15.1 compression ratio so it can only run on race fuel.”

Still, that didn’t stop Smith from enjoying the ride.

“I was able to sit in the driver’s seat and aim it back into a carport while they pushed it in with a tractor, so that was my first ride in over eight years,” he said. “The truck needs a lot of work, but it’s one of those things that, even though the brain says it doesn’t make sense, the heart is telling you the opposite. I have yet to make a final decision on the purchase as I don’t have space for it, but I am strongly leaning towards buying it.”

Fortunately, he didn’t leave empty-handed. Rekindled memories aside, the owners gave him the tailgate and hitch cover in original condition.

“There’s a lot more attractive vehicles out there, but there was so much passion in that truck. Its one of those things you want to hold onto forever,” said Smith.

Lionel Smith’s grandson tries the driver’s seat of the 1978 Chevy on for size.
 

“I dream of the day that I can take my two boys for a ride on the bench seat and hear that motor at full song. It’s one of those things that, 20 years down the road, will be an amazing memory and also a perfect tribute for my old man.”

I pray his dream becomes a reality, buying back the old Chevy to restore it to its original glory. Not just for Smith’s sake, but for all those daughters and sons who wish desperately to hold on to a piece of dad’s past.

pgentile@globeandmail.com

Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

Follow on Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

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