From the April 2018 issue
Six miles from my wilderness home, I’ve discovered a junkyard with as many wrecked cars as my town has wrecked inhabitants. You know why salvage yards are so mesmerizing? Because every single abandoned car, orphaned alloy wheel, and dechromed Cadillac badge is something I can afford. At what other retail establishment does that ever happen?
I’ve spent hours scrutinizing this beguiling jubilee of junk, jotting down 24 cars of interest. Everything from a chocolate 1966 Mercedes 250SE to a shipshape 1990 Subaru Justy (my first CVT experience, wow) to a spiffy dirt-tan 1960 Willys Jeep Station Wagon with a bumper sticker shouting “No Zoning! No Setbacks!”—Montana politics in a nutshell. Against the fence rested two early ’70s Datsun 240Zs flanking a 2002 Pontiac Aztek, pristine save a windshield traumatized by, I hope, Walter White. Ten steps away moldered a 1960 Cadillac Sedan DeVille upon which someone had scrawled “SAVE!” Then a 1983 AMC Eagle with its factory copper-hued livery offset by coffee-brown accents, the color of carsickness.
Junkyards reliably contain what I term “mystery cases.” A sparkling-red 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier, for instance, whose door, trunk, and hood seams have been sealed with bright-yellow “EVIDENCE” stickers. I extract guilty pleasure from examining the cars whose upholstery and airbags are blood-bespattered, along with those sad victims of animal collisions—a repairable 2016 Ram pickup with a tuft of fur driven into its pretzeled radiator, matching deer carcass 50 feet distant. Then I spy a monster crusher capable of pulverizing cars into trapezoids, its maw frozen on the front third of a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit, looking like an anaconda eating, well, a rabbit. If you anthropomorphize cars, as I do, junkyards are a thousand funerals at once.
The owner of this slice of salvageable heaven is Gene Honey, who’s my age exactly. Gene is a small bear of a guy, coarse gray hair, hands like calloused catchers’ mitts. He is perpetually shadowed by Sox, his collie-mix junkyard dog who refuses to guard wrecked cars but will bite you if you touch Gene, even to shake hands. A rude surprise for me, after which Sox unties my shoelaces. A dog with a sense of humor.
Gene and I chat until dark, with Sox refereeing between us on a bench seat unbolted from a minivan. “My blood came to this valley as gold prospectors in the 1870s,” Gene tells me. “They trapped martens, also killed mountain goats for stew meat, then channeled water to town from two mountain lakes.” As a teen, Gene worked in the local sawmills. “Ten bucks an hour with benefits,” he remembers. “Dangerous as hell, of course, but try to get that wage in the valley today.”
The Honey clan was unspeakably upended when brother Dave shot Gene in the head. “It was a .22 rifle he was cleaning, an accident, got me right here in the left temple,” he says, fingering the spot. “Doctors said I was dead, no chance. I was in a coma for two weeks, three more holes drilled, bringing the total to four. When I got home, I talked like a chipmunk. Really. But Mom taught first grade, so she was equipped to teach me to read and write again.” Today his speech is perfect.
Gene partnered with brother Dave at their repair/salvage/towing shop when it opened in 1986. “A good move, because as a mechanic, Dave was a genius. Unfortunately, he got tangled up with a Filipina lady, real sexy, until they got into an argument. Next morning, I found Dave. He’d shot himself with a .357 Magnum. After that, my life kind of deflated. Business, too. First Dave shoots me, then Dave shoots Dave.” The whole town grieved.
Gene’s financial salvation nowadays is towing. “Tourists like to abandon rental cars,” he says, then laughs. “And not long ago, I got called to the Rocky Knob [a local roadhouse], where black ice had sent a car into the ditch. Time I got there, three more had followed, and in the end, there were eight. I thought, ‘Jeez, I oughta go into the Knob, have a beer, wait for a few more.’ ”
Gene pulls his NAPA cap aslant, then uncovers a 1937 Chevy coupe, unrestored but trendy in its flaky blue patina. “My first car,” he says. “Bought it when I was 14 or 15, drove it to high school. There might have been some illegal street racing after.” Over the years, hundreds of derelict discards have filtered through Gene’s hands, but he has seized only the rare “Yanks” for himself: a ’56 Chevy half-ton pickup, a ’55 Willys Jeep Utility Wagon with a desert-rat motif, a ’39 Chevrolet Carryall Suburban, and a ’65 Ford Ranchero.
We talk cars until darkness swallows the yard. When I foolishly reach to shake Gene’s hand, Sox shoots scudlike at my palm, knocking it into a Pepsi machine carrying an oversize “OUT OF ORDER” sign. Gene smiles, then frowns. “One last thing,” he says, staring at my notepad.
“You’re not from the IRS, are you?”
“No,” I reply. “Why?”
“You look like an accountant.”
“I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”
“Yup,” Gene adds. “I would, too.”