Savannah Morning News
Aug. 16, 2015
Veterans are a tight bunch. They find each other. They help each other.
Still, I doubt Vince Pinault was ready for Robert Johnson the day the Promised Land collards guy drove in with his 1952 three-on-the-floor Ford pick up truck. There was no problem with the truck’s V8 engine though Johnson rarely takes it faster than 45 miles an hour. The rusty running board is still intact. So are the hubcaps and split rims – all original. No, Johnson had another request.
“I wanted to turn the front bumper into a cartoon character,” said Johnson, better known for the annual Collard Festival he and his brother Willie ran for 15 years on their 33-acre farm in Port Wentworth.
He wanted a little “dental work” on the front bumper. A couple weeks later after Pinault cut, painted and screwed on the steel image, Johnson got it: four oversized slightly uneven teeth on the top, four on the bottom. If you think the image looks like a character out of the Pixar film, “Cars,” you would be right. Johnson saw the character in a cartoon book. Except he wasn’t happy with the name “tater mater.” Ever the farmer, he calls his a “tow mater.”
Pinault, who served in the Army for 27 years, opened his Alfred Street business, American Veterans Restorations, three years ago. Most of the people who work there are veterans. He says he only likes to work on cars manufactured before 1980. “They’re veterans, like myself,” he said.
Sixty-three years ago, Johnson, a flight engineer and mechanic in the Army, paid $70 for the Ford truck when he was returning to Savannah from Fort Campbell, Ky. Back then the vehicle was bright red. Now it’s a fashionably rusty red. Now the paint job boasts patina and the same lusty shapes cars and trucks used to have.
Johnson knows a little something about vehicles himself. At one time he set up shop on Montgomery Street to sell fresh sugar cane juice. Instead of bringing a team of mules to move in circles and extract the juice the old fashioned way, Johnson moved parts of the cab and the seats of his 1971 Ford (another oldie but goodie he had), found some chains and belts he had lying around and connected them to the engine and transmission. Then he brought in some steel rollers and connected the whole thingamajig to another truck he brought along. Somehow (I’m not sure how), when he started the engine and shifted the transmission he could feed the stalks of sugar cage into some steel rollers and watch the juice come a’ flowing.
He attracted a crowd. People like fresh cane juice. People know the real thing.
He got the same crowd at the five-minute collard-picking drill he and his brother Willie sponsored at their annual Collard Festivals, which in the end turned into a bone fide parade and community event. At his house in Cuyler-Brownsville where Johnson converted the empty lot across the street to a city farm of collards, rutabaga, turnips and cabbage, he drew another crowd.
Now when people see his truck and the “teeth” and the eyes on the dash sunshade, they want their picture taken with Johnson. That’s ok during the day but at night he parks it inside a garage, “not because anyone might want to drive the vehicle but because the truck is made of solid steel, perfect for salvaging.”
While the image of oversized teeth might be humorous now it wasn’t always that way. In Vietnam Johnson flew Cobra helicopters. Back then the teeth had another purpose.
“We wanted people to be afraid if they saw them,” he said. “It worked too.”
When he got out of the Army Johnson worked as a mental health counselor at Charter Hospital, became a longshoreman, and drove a school bus. These days he still wears a Promised Land shirt but this one also says, “Uncle Bob, in training.”
What are you in training for, I ask.
“Learning,” he answered. “I’m open to learning anything new.”