Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Life of a Picker or On The Road Again

I just returned from delivering a Federal card table to an old client in Dallas.  This was a table I made many years ago and always thought I would keep for myself.  It stood in the front window of the shop with the SAPFM Cartouche on top.  Now I have to make another table to fill the gap.

It has been many years since I drove East on 8.  It brought back many memories of trips I made some 40 years ago, during my early years as a collector and dealer of American furniture. I often watch the two guys on the TV these days, driving their Sprinter around the country side digging up broken bicycles and old signs.  That was my life for nearly a decade during the 1970's.

Starting in 1969, when I opened my antique business, I began regular driving trips to collect inventory and visit historic houses and museums.  Since I lived in San Diego, it was essential that I travel to the East to find bargains and inventory that I could restore and sell.  I had a Ford F250 pick up truck with a large cab over camper.  It had a bed, sink, stove and toilet, as well as two extra gas tanks.  With over 60 gallons of gas I could drive many miles before needing to stop and refill.

I would take as much cash as I could spare and drive East, nearly every month.  I must have made at least 50 trips around the country during that decade, each time taking someone to help me travel.  I took my wife, my brother, my cousin or any good friend who wanted to travel.  We had some real adventures.

My buying trips began with trips to the mid West, around Omaha, where, during that time, farms were being sold and farm house furniture was available for a song.  I could buy press back oak chairs for $5/each, oak tables for $40, roll top desks for $100 and once I bought a  dozen treadle sewing machines for $10/each.  Anything made of oak would quickly sell as soon as it was refinished, and I would take the profit and go again.

Once I stopped in Omaha at an old antique shop downtown, in a large old brick building.  This was before I upgraded to the camper, and I just had an open lumber rack on the truck.  The owner of the shop told me that he was closing and that I could have everything in the basement for $200.  I went down the stairs with a flashlight and saw tons of stuff.  More than I could possibly take.  My brother and I started loading the truck and, when we got the pile up to about 12 feet we tied it securely and took off.  It looked crazy, with tables on the roof of the cab and stuff sticking out the back of the tail gate.

At some point on our return I remember having to stop suddenly at a stop light and watching a large round oak table top slid off the roof, hit the hood and end up in the middle of the intersection.

When we crossed over the State line into Kansas, sticking to the back roads, as was our habit, we were immediately pulled over by the State Police.  My brother and I both had long hair, were barefoot and looked like hippies, which we actually were.  I was following all the traffic rules, so I thought he pulled us over because the load looked unstable.

We were treated rather roughly and he asked me for a receipt for all the items in the truck.  I said that I had bought it all with cash for $200 and had no receipt.  He said that there had been a lot of house robberies  lately and we looked suspicious.  I admitted that we probably looked suspicious, but that it was the truth.  I took some time for him to let us go.  We did not return to that part of Kansas again.

Last week, as I drove again through Los Cruces I was reminded of another time my brother and I got in trouble with the law.  The drive shaft fell out of our truck and we needed to find a repair shop.  We found a nice family business that was willing to help but they did not have the part.  They told us that we could find it in a junk yard in El Paso, but it was late so we decided to hitch a ride the next day.  My brother and I walked to the intersection of the highway and found a clean place by the side of the road to sleep.  I remember it was difficult to sleep, with the semi trucks driving by a few feet away, but we had no alternative.

About 2 in the morning we woke up with bright lights in our faces.  The local sheriff had found us and was not happy.  He told us to get out of town.  Now.  We walked to the edge of town with him driving behind us all the way, making sure we were leaving.  The next day we stood for hours with our thumbs out hoping to get a ride to El Paso, which finally happened.  Then we found the drive shaft, but the bus would not let us get on with a drive shaft, so we had to hitch back.  It took all day.

People do not easily pick up two hippies, who had slept in the dirt all night, while they are holding a 6 foot drive shaft.

The Mexican family took us in when we returned, fed us and let us sleep on their floor, even thought neither of us spoke the other's language.  After they fixed the truck we were on our way.

Probably the most interesting incident with the law happened in Wichita, Kansas.  My friend and I were loaded with antiques and returning through town after mid night, during a snow storm.  My friend had long red hair and we both were dirty and tired from a long trip.  Since it was snowing, I was driving about 10 miles an hour and thought I was the only vehicle on the road at the time.  However a State Trooper pulled up behind us and turned on his red light.

When I stopped, he asked me for my license and registration and to step out of the truck.  It was cold.  He told me to get into his car.  Then he drove away!  I had no idea what was happening and he said nothing.  We drove across town and out a dirt road into the dark.  You can imagine what I was thinking.  This is the end of the road for me.

He took me to a house, unlocked the front door and told me to go inside.  What was I supposed to do?  Then he walked me into his bedroom, where his wife was sleeping in the bed.  It was dark and he turned on the light.  His wife woke up and asked what he was doing home.  He told her that he had found an antique dealer and was going to show me some of the antiques he wanted to sell.  He then pointed his flashlight at the dresser next to the bed and asked, "What about that one?"


During the next 15 minutes he walked me around the house, into the kids room, into the living room and in each room asking me if I wanted to buy anything.

I told him that I was returning with a full load but would certainly stop in the next trip.

Finally, he drove me back to my truck where my friend was nearly frozen.  As I got into the truck, turned on the engine and began to slowly drive off into the snow storm, he asked me, "What was that all about?  You were gone for over an hour!"

I just said, "I don't want to talk about it."  And we never returned to Wichita either.

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