Dream Machine

Military wheels help define lives of a window washer under 40 and a WWII doc over 80

The fact that the Korean War-era ambulance is lumbering along well below the posted speed limit is causing the motorist behind us to become irate as all hell. You can always tell when a driver's tweaked: His head is invariably tipped back and askew, his mouth works out all the insults, the car takes unpredictable aim, and it's all easily spotted in the rearview. Over the next half-mile, the gunmetal silver SUV has attempted to pass us several times, each time jerking suddenly back into our slipstream. The rush-hour traffic in the adjacent lane is too dense and unwavering to let the SUV slide in.

"At 35 miles per hour, you've got to take your time," says the ambulance's owner, Don Petrone, with nary a trace of irony. "There's plenty of time to see everything."

Not all drivers regard the olive-drab hulk with disdain. Some, according to Petrone, hit the car horns or wave madly at the sight of the thing. And it is a sight. The beast with the Red Cross markings has a dull, almost dark presence on the road. Nothing on it shines, there's no chrome.

Don Petrone and his 1953 Dodge ambulance.
Paolo Vescia
Don Petrone and his 1953 Dodge ambulance.

"It means different things to different people," says Petrone. "Some people I've met have memories of having ridden in one of these after having been injured in battle. For them it's not the best memory."

Petrone's 1953 Dodge ambulance doesn't go a lick over 35, unless it's downhill with a tailwind. By design, it is purposely outfitted with low gears for tactical and precarious off-road maneuvers. The M-43, as it is commonly called, was the ambulance version of the M-37 Dodge Military Truck. Around 130,000 of these trucks were built by Dodge for military service during the 1950s and 1960s. Petrone reckons his has close to 400,000 miles logged in already.

Petrone purchased the ambulance 20 years ago from the wife of a Queen Creek cotton farmer. Part of the truck's history includes a handful of years with the Costa Mesa Police Department's search and rescue team.

"I'm not interested in new cars," he says. "Nothing new. It has to speak to me."

Petrone's ambulance is his main transportation. He owns a 1943 Jeep that's out of commission and a 1954 Ford that's questionable. He uses the M-43 for schleps to the grocery, to date women, to earn a living. What's more, a drive to Flagstaff takes him 12 hours. He has rented it out for action scenes for local Hollywood productions, one of which was the short-lived TV series called Highway Man.

Petrone can neither signal nor safely steer through turns, which the massive weight of the ambulance makes especially tricky. As a passenger, there is a sense of immunity in that you are free from danger because there's lots of hard metal. There's also lots of discomfort because there's little padding.

The M-43 is all thick steel and is designed with practical, über-masculine lines. Headlights look like eyes on big, curved front fenders. Passenger and driver-side bucket seats lean forward for toolbox and battery access. Secured by a lock above the windshield is a Stalin-era Mosin-Nogant bolt-action rifle, which Petrone keeps loaded.

The boxlike rear of the ambulance allows room enough for four canvas stretchers or eight seated patients. Now the back is outfitted with implements of Petrone's work: buckets, pails, squeegees and other accouterments of his business, Rub-a-Dub-Scrub window washing.

"Driving this, you feel like you are in control of the situation," he says, flashing a kind of boot-camp-ready grin.

Petrone is the activities chairman for the 20-year-old Arizona Military Vehicle Collectors Club (AMVCC), a group of almost 100 local military vehicle enthusiasts, historians and collectors interested in the procurement, preservation, public education and display of historic military transport. One need not own a vehicle to belong to the club; the basic requirement is an interest in military vehicles. The club's members, most of whom hail from the Phoenix area, meet regularly for parades, camp outs, flag raisings or military vehicle shows. Last November the club won a first-place award in the Phoenix Veterans Day parade.

If spending an afternoon admiring weaponry sounds appealing, then this Saturday and Sunday the AMVCC is co-sponsoring the 10th annual Papago Military Vehicle Show at the Arizona Military Museum. The event will showcase a gamut of military transport and artillery, including bulletproof staff cars, weapons carriers, cargo trucks, non-civilian Hummers, multi-caliber machine guns on pedestal mounts, armored cars, Jeeps, Unimogs and troop carriers. Sheriff Joe's Paladin tank will be on display for all to see. Events include a "parts and militaria" swap meet, a surplus auction and a military vehicle contest, plus galleries of battle implements.

As a kid, Petrone says he played Army with pals outside his house in the woods of suburban Chicago. Prisoners were held in nearby "stinky" outhouses. For a guy who sports an Army-issue flattop, thick specs and a tendency to restrict his vocabulary to only those words that state his intent in the most curt, most achromatic way imaginable, it's surprising that Petrone's military experience doesn't extend beyond boyhood days of Army dress-up.

Petrone describes himself as an ex-hippie. "I cut my hair off five years ago."

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