My first infatuation -- maybe even a secret love -- came when I was a senior in high school. Her name was Hortense. It’s true that Hortense was quite a bit older and certainly well-traveled, she was still a charmer. The fact that her beauty -- if there ever had been any -- was fading, there was a constant urge to pick her up and go places. It was a passion I had to share. My friends Loren Simer, John Ulvila and Kenny Brown shared this strange love for this older sweetheart.
Hortense was Loren’s dad’s pickup truck, an ancient vehicle with faded paint and a good motor, that he picked up somewhere in his job as a plastic pipe salesman. I’m no expert on cars or trucks, so I’m only guessing, but I think Hortense was a 1936 or ’38 Dodge. She was definitely pre-World War II. Loren gave the pickup the name Hortense, based on a slightly off-color joke that high school kids find hilarious. (Ask me, and I’ll tell it to you -- but not in mixed company.) Loren’s dad didn’t use it often, choosing to drive his first-year Volkswagen bus, a sight to see in Red Lodge in the mid-’70s, or the sporty Volkswagen Karmann Ghia or one of his other cars. Some other kids had newer cars -- a 1941 Chevy, for example, but for some of us, Hortense was the ride of choice. He could only seat two, but that didn’t pose much of a problem. Another three or four could ride in the truck bed -- unless the 6-7 Steve Lowry was back there. With Steve back there, the truck bed was a two-person-seater. To make conversations easier, Loren removed a section in the roof made out of cardboard and canvas with a covering of tar. All he had to do was take out the six or eight screws, and we had a convertible of sorts.
That improved the communication efforts for everyone. The guys in the back stood up most of the time (unless we were sneaking a cigarette, which required slinking behind the sideboard) so we could chat with Loren in the driver’s seat on whoever had the good fortune of sitting in the passenger seat. Naturally, a car that old didn’t have signal lights, but Loren -- always an observer of the laws -- followed the rules. When he was going to make a turn, he stood up in the open ceiling and pointed in the direction he would be turning, keeping his foot on the gas pedal all the while. At times, the front-seat passenger would bring along a pair of binoculars and stand, head and shoulders above the ceiling, watching for oncoming hazards. You always had to be alert back in the ’50s because Broadway and Platte were the only paved streets in Red Lodge at that time. You never knew what sink hole lay ahead on those gravel city streets. Most of our travel was in the city, cruising the drag or making our nightly run to the root beer stand. We always had to make a run through Lovers Lane and past the slag pile on the west bench, checking out which of our classmates were making out. Ventures past the city limits sign were rare. We’d make an occasional trip to Roscoe or Luther for the Saturday night dances and hit Highway 212 for a couple of trips to Roberts and back.
The Roberts trips were especially entertaining -- at least for us. Whenever another car approached, Loren honked the horn twice, and the rest of us would stand up and wave. At least it was good exercise. My happiest memory of Hortense was the 1958 Fourth of July parade, when we decided to enter her as a float. Floats at that time were pretty elaborate with chicken wire stuffed with rolls and rolls of colored toilet paper and streams of multi-colored crepe paper. We came up with the idea of creating a small, western saloon-gambling hall. I made a pair of swinging doors out of cardboard for the back of the pickup and drew the bar on cardboard for the other end. Somewhere, we came up with a worn card table and a pair of chairs. We even added a touch of red crepe paper to the tires just for effect. Kenny, wearing a cowboy hat, boots and Bermuda shorts, sat in a saddle on the hood, swinging a lariat as if he knew what he was doing.
Loren, in his cowboy hat and kerchief, was driving, of course. John and I sat in the back in our western garb playing cards. I tucked a few aces in the neck in the back of my sued jacket. I didn’t shave for a week to add a bit of grunge to my look. Imagine our surprise when our float was in a large photograph on the front page of the Carbon County News. We weren’t the focus of the picture, however. Seated on the hood of a car on the parade route was a young boy, 3 or 4 years old, wearing a cowboy hat and sitting on the hood of a car and staring at our creation. His eyes were wide open, and a wide smile covered his face. He obviously was enjoying his view from the sidelines.
A few years later, my bride-to-be and I were looking through an old scrapbook and came across a clipping of that photograph. To my surprise, Carolyn knew the young boy in the photograph. He was the grandson of one of her mother’s friends in Laurel, and he died a few months after that Fourth of July parade. I ’ m p r o u d t h a t Hortense could help bring him some happiness and joy in his final days.