My RE Store Memories: Chapter 3

Chapter 3:  Wheels and Uniforms (1994-1997)

By David Spangler

Our Wheels

Aside from using Bruce’s little Chevy truck on occasion and in rarer instances, borrowing a truck, our earliest fleet of vehicles amounted to only Goldie, our dependable, gold Chevy pickup truck with a steel rack. That truck served us for many demanding years (see My RE Store Memories, Chapter Two). The cab was often dusty and littered with tools, gloves, orange peels, and other trash, and when the tailgate fell off of the truck, we replaced it with a piece of plywood with “The RE Store” painted on it. 

  As The RE Store’s salvage and pickup schedule grew busier from ‘95 through ‘97, the store bought not only a trailer and fitted it with plywood walls, but an additional red and white Ford pick-up we referred to as The Ford, with a lift gate and a metal rack. Not only did I learn very quickly how to maneuver a truck and trailer in reverse, but what a game-changer that lift gate was to us. It saved our backs lifting heavy materials into the truck and one person could now do what once required two. 

Bob Penny, standing next to our Ford on a big salvage job of a half-dozen homes on the wrong side of the dike in Mount Vernon, WA. The Mount Vernon bridge spanning the Skagit River can be seen in the distance. Today, this is the site of a park.

In those years between 1995 and 1997 is when Matt, Lowell, and Rick eventually left the organization, and The RE Store hired Allen, Jay Darling, Dean Fearing, Jay Ward, Bob Penny, and one more person whose name I do not recall. Over that span, this increased The RE Store crew to eight or nine people, a good thing since we needed more hands to not only help the growing customer counts but to salvage more material and do more pickups, more often. 

    Over the years, our trucks slowly took on the scrapes and dings of all those little mishaps in the field that batter a used truck’s resale value to a pulp, but are nonetheless embarrassing badges of honor and battle scars that inevitably befall workhorses like these. But those blemishes did not bely the issues under the hood. Each of our exhausted trucks pushed to the limits hauling our heavy treasures from greater and greater distances, was doomed to become chronically ill, hemorrhaging fluids and dropping parts along the road at the most inopportune moments. Or just simply die in transit. This was Goldie’s fate. It died honorably after pulling the impossible for thirty miles in the red zone. Former Field Crew Lead, Bob Penny remembers that moment well.

It was one evening in 1997 when he and Pete Bemment went south to get solid core doors. They packed about 100 of them like sardines on the truck and trailer combined. They were so overloaded they burned up all the oil by the time they reached the Bow Hill exit on I-5, only fifteen minutes away. They walked to the exit’s gas station to get more oil. The mechanics after that fateful day termed what happened as “blow-by,” where the oil becomes so superheated it just vaporizes. Even the additional four or five quarts of oil only lasted so long. Goldie’s original engine permanently seized up just as they rolled past Old Town Cafe on Holly Street in downtown Bellingham. Bob threw Goldie into neutral and they coasted down the hill and managed to make it to the entrance to The RE Store at the bottom of the hill. He coasted the truck and trailer right in front of The RE Store’s main entrance. It was by then 10 pm after what had become a 14 hr day…Bob told me ”[Dave] Bennink blamed me…I honestly wasn’t thinking about weight. But each of those doors weighed about 100 lbs.” Doing the math, I figure Goldie was hauling 10,000 lbs of doors. That equals 5 tons.  The RE Store now had so many solid core doors they had to give them away for $5 each. Since Bob had just seen how well the hill down Holly Street worked for coasting, he suggested a win-win idea: The RE Store sponsor a design-build soapbox derby event. The entry fee would cover the purchase of a solid core door and require its use in the building of the soapbox car. For a number of unknown reasons this idea was dropped.

Goldie was resurrected immediately with a rebuilt engine and served The RE Store until Goldie was killed a second time only a few years later, once again pushed beyond the limits of what a truck should be asked to do. That was the end of the line for Goldie. On The Ford, we put many tens of thousands of miles, until it evolved into something too dangerous to park, let alone drive. I think the field crew voted it as being the most dangerous truck in our fleet when traveling at zero mph. I wish I could tell you I was exaggerating. 

Goldie in her heyday, taking a shortcut through the inside of Bellis Fair Mall to avoid congested traffic in the area. Or maybe we were there to dismantle and haul off a kiosk. Dave Bennink was proud of rare, odd RE Store moments like these. We all were. The RE Store was an unusual entity.

    Jim, a RE Store field worker from many years ago, told me a story about a later truck of ours, that decided the middle of the 520 Bridge over Seattle’s Lake Washington at 50 mph was a good time to sever its right-side dual-wheel axle. It took a few precious seconds for  Jim, as he sat in the passenger seat, to register with wide eyes what he could not believe he was seeing in his side mirror: The nightmarish unraveling of their right rear wheels at freeway speeds. I imagine that traffic over the 520 bridge was swift that afternoon until The RE Store, from little Bellingham, WA, brought the eastern suburbs of Seattle to a standstill. It is so nice to have company signage all over your vehicle when ejecting wheels in a busy bottleneck. That way other drivers know who to blame. For even wider publicity such an incident might even make it onto the evening news. 

   But, as far as our truck fleet was concerned, we were not to worry. Aside from Goldie and The Ford, there would be a short parade of used pickup trucks over the years that we named with other monikers like Henry, Grey Wolf, Silverado, Smokey, and Blue, to replace those trucks we could no longer trust to haul the weight of cotton candy across our parking lot. All were better, at first, and they all performed well as we increased our impact on diverting solid waste. But, as the miles and payloads racked up, they, too,  eventually became as bad or worse than the ones they replaced. And The RE Store was great at killing trucks. It would be about another fifteen years, however, before we divested ourselves of the merry-go-round of bent bumper, duct-taped pickup trucks at the end of their life, and entered the big-time, investing in the reliability of commercial-grade, flat-nosed, cab-over-motor box trucks and flatbeds The RE Store uses today. Though these nimble vehicles likely now have by now their own dents and dings and dusty cabs with gloves and trash, they must be working out well.  I haven’t seen a dying RE Store pickup truck since.  

I believe this was Smokey parked at our new home in Old Town on Holly Street, with a fresh rack of unidentifiable long stuff. Long stuff paid the bills. But short stuff, not so much. Smokey got it’s name after a well-established squirrel’s nest hidden deeply under the hood caught fire on Seattle’s Ballard Bridge. RE Store trucks loved bridges.

Our First Uniforms

Our sales floor attire changed over the years. I am not sure if there were T-shirts initially—I don’t think there were funds for that yet—but there was just enough money in the budget, including the dusty pocket change scrounged out of our trucks, to order up name tags for each of us to wear in the store. But not in the field where a name tag would snag on everything you were moving and rip a nice rectangular hole in one’s shirt. I repaired such damage with a strip of duct tape on the inside of my shirt.

   But these name tags were not enough. Customers still couldn’t tell staff apart from the other customers. In 1996, in a campaign to give staff a more identifiable, professional sales floor image than just tiny blue name tags, The RE Store ordered a box of durable, sleeveless, kelly-green vests. These seemed “fuddy-duddy” to me and I don’t think any of us really wanted to wear them but we did the right thing and donned them for our sales floor tasks each day. Oddly enough, I got used to them right away and customers could single us out from the five other customers in the store. Plus, they had handy-dandy, fuddy-duddy pockets for random screws, bleeding ballpoint pens, and crumpled-up “HOLD” tags. RE-Store staff wore these for many years and they held up well as departing staff emptied the pockets and, with a salute, passed the vests onto the next generation of new hires to wear. But eventually, the use of the corny green vests faded away, along with the name tags, in 1997, usurped by the glorious new era of custom T-shirts in various colors, and a round of RE Store embroidered fleece vests and jackets. The tradition of official RE Store T-shirts continues to this day, but are offered only in a wonderful vibrant green befitting an environmental enterprise like The RE Store, an unintended nod to those early green vests. 

Chapter 4: Early Salvage Projects (1995-1997)