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New wheels, new freedom for veteran

LIME ROCK — America’s love affair with trucks goes a long way back, and it’s not fading anytime soon. Some proof of that is a new life being given to a 1939 Dodge truck nicknamed “Ducky,” which is undergoing a transformation at Northwest Corner Classic Cars so it can become roadworthy for its owner, William “Willy” Paschal of Middlefield, Mass. He admittedly fell for Ducky the minute he saw it.“I wanted a hot rod,” he said. “I knew as soon as I saw this truck, I had to have it. As everybody says who sees it, it’s unique.”Paschal found the truck during the winter of 2010 when his grandson saw it on Craig’s List, showed it to him and suggested a ride up to Thomaston, Maine, where it was garaged, to take a closer look. Willy and his wife, Pat Paschal, took the trip with their grandson — and left a deposit with the truck’s owner after brief deliberation. “They told me another fellow was looking at the truck, too. Of course, they always say that,” Willy said with a twinkle in his eye. “Still, I didn’t want to take any chances.” His son went back to pick up the truck with a flatbed, and Ducky had found a new home.The 1939 Dodge’s engine was running and it had a Chrysler Hemi motor dating back to 1955 to 1958, a four-speed manual transmission and no power steering or brakes. It also had controls on the floor of the cab, which is an issue for Willy since he had to have each of his legs amputated just below the knee, one in 2006 and the other in 2007. A Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, he was exposed to Agent Orange during his tour of duty, resulting in the onset of diabetes and renal failure, for which he undergoes dialysis several times a week. He gets around well in a motorized wheelchair, which also can be raised up and down with a hand control, but he needed to have the truck substantially modified in order to be able to drive it himself.Willy tried several mechanics, some of whom didn’t even get back to him and others who just couldn’t find the time to transform the truck. Then he found auto mechanic Rick Peppe of Pittsfield. Peppe now works at Northwest Corner Classic Cars on Lime Rock Road, owned by Christopher Little (whose father, William Little, is an owner of The Lakeville Journal Co.). Willy and Pat agree that it was very good luck that they found Peppe at a car show in Dalton, Mass. “We had planned to go, but other things came up, and we just happened to see the car show at the VFW in Dalton as we were passing by on our way to Pittsfield,” Pat said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we stop in?’, and we did. We saw a few cars modified for disabled veterans, and asked around to see if anyone knew who might do work like that.” Someone went around the corner and came back with Peppe.“That was the only car show he went to all year,” Pat said. “I think it was meant to be.”Peppe agreed to help out with modifying the truck, and brought it down to the garage in Lime Rock when he started his new job there. “The first step for me,” he said, “was three hours of calculating before getting into it. Just like the contractors say, measure twice, cut once.” From there, he knew he needed to replace the manual transmission to make it automatic (for which he reinvented the drive line, since the new transmission was 18 inches longer than the old one), redo wiring and more. The hand controls for acceleration and braking will be installed by a friend of Willy’s who works for the state of Massachusetts in Northampton, and will be designed around him, so it will work for his abilities. The steering wheel will be lowered about 4 inches, Willy said, and there will be two handles that he can operate for gas and brake. Those controls can either go on the steering column or dashboard; that will be decided later.It’s not the first time Willy has driven since his amputation; the Paschals’ current Jeep was “rigged up by my son, Dustin, who is a machinist, and a pretty good mechanic, too. I trained him,” Willy said. Willy was a truck mechanic for decades, “until they retired me,” he said. He said he used to do a lot of fabrication himself, so can really appreciate the skill with which Peppe is approaching this project. “He’s doing an excellent job.”Willy’s knowledge of the technical side of the truck modification was clear as he discussed details with Peppe for the final touches on the truck before it can go on to Northampton. Once the hand controls are in, Willy will take a state driving test before being approved for the road. “I can’t wait to get in it,” he said. “It took some getting used to, having Pat need to drive us everywhere. But she’s a good driver; she drove a school bus for 15 years.” Still, Pat said, “It’s been killing him not to be able to drive.”Peppe hopes the truck will be on the road “before the snow flies.” The Paschals visit the garage in Lime Rock regularly to see the progress, as they did Friday, Aug. 19, for this interview. That day, Peppe was working on the wiring, and showed the Paschals the work already done on the transmission under the truck. New lifts, specialized to help Willy get into the truck with his wheelchair, will need to be made, and other details will be completed as the truck gets closer to the road.While it’s a lot of work, it will be well worth it for the measure of independence it will give this former Marine as he gets behind the wheel of his beloved 1939 Dodge truck.For more information, go to www.northwestcornerclassiccars.com or call at 860-596-4272.

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