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

Dream Machine

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.

"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."

It was more than five decades ago when they cut off Frank Ellis' hair, and they didn't do it to make a fashion statement.

When Ford Motor Company was churning out B-24 bombers instead of automobiles during World War II, Detroit native Ellis was a newly married doctor fresh out of med school with an internship at a local hospital. Nine months later, he found himself mired in the brutal French theater, a battalion surgeon in the 70th Infantry Division. His job was similar to what was required of most physicians on the front lines: to recover casualties and initiate treatment to prevent or minimize shock, and to prepare wounded for transport to safe ground; work as an "overpriced first aid man," witnessing the maiming and death of comrades and friends.

"We had plasma, morphine, splints and dressing," Ellis recalls. "That was all we had to work with. That and minimal medications like aspirin or something for the guy who couldn't poop."

The experience didn't expand Ellis' knowledge on medicine as much as it was a crash course on the human condition. Seeing a man "decapitated with his shoulder still hooked on to his head" surely hastened the learning process.

"You don't have to get any closer than that to appreciate not only the futility of war but the horrors of it," he says. "Those ideas don't go away all that rapidly, either."

He learned to differentiate between the genuine personality of a person and a persona. He learned to trust his instincts about people.

"The guy who came in saying he was gonna kill every German in the place ended up thinking that over again once he found out how tough they were," he says. "Often they were the first ones to cave in. He would be the guy hiding in the corner and forgetting to pull on the trigger . . . just like the kid in Saving Private Ryan. There's that point where you are overwhelmed with fear. I think everyone has a level of fear they can tolerate without breaking up, but everybody also has the capacity to collapse if that level is exceeded. I know I was damn scared. And not just some of the time, but most of the time."

Ellis is one of two WWII vets who belong to the Arizona Military Vehicle Collectors Club. At 85, he's its eldest member. He's still with the same woman he married in his med-school days. In June, the couple celebrates its 60th wedding anniversary. He's soft-spoken, articulate and spry. Others in the club use "tireless" and like synonyms to describe him. He's a voracious reader, a habit that's reflected in the sharpness of his observations.

Growing up, Ellis says he was always interested in the mechanical, particularly the automobile. "I must have a little bit of rust in my oil or grease in my veins."

In high school, Ellis and a buddy fabricated a replica of a World War I truck. The two got hold of a '27 Buick and began the transformation process. The end result was nothing like they had imagined, or hoped. "We had some fun with it until this other kid pushed it out of the garage, put it in gear, and got it going. The damn thing went sailing across the street and plowed into the front yard of this neighbor's house. Nobody got hurt, but we just about got put in chains for that."

A decade ago, Ellis found the Jeep of his dreams, a 1943 Willy. The guy who sold it to him had unearthed it in a Midwestern junk yard.

Ellis meticulously restored the classic Jeep to pristine condition. He purposely made it a replication of the one he was assigned during the war, complete with accurate number schemes and traditional medic colors.

Ellis has restored other cars, too, most of which he's had to give up. In exchange for the Jeep, he parted ways with a 1911 Buick and a 1930 Packard. "When I decided I wanted a Jeep, my wife said I had to sell two autos for every one I wanted to buy!" He pauses, lowers his voice, and says, "It's because they won't fit under the bed, you know."

Lately, there is a problem. Ellis' Jeep won't start, not even to get it across town for a photo shoot.

"The damn thing won't run," he explains. "I tried to start it today, and man, it doesn't like the idea of getting up to go like it used to. I have to tear it apart one of these days and get after it.

"I'm kinda pissed off with the Jeep," he adds, laughing. "I may not even talk to it this week."

Ellis, like many members of the vehicle club, may bestow his Jeep with personification, but that doesn't mean he sees military vehicle shows as a way to coat grim periods in history with a celebratory sheen. He understands them as a tribute of sorts, part of the overall necessity for younger generations to see a connection between what's old and what's new.

"Anything that has historical value, no matter what it is, if some of these things aren't saved and preserved and either put away and kept for others, younger people are never gonna have any concept of what they were like," he says. "As a means of being able to touch something, and see things that others had to contend with, that to me is one of the most fantastic parts of this whole thing.

"Even though attitudes are entirely different than they were that long ago. It seems to me if this country were seriously threatened, I think the American people would come together and put up just as big a fight as we did before."

Is his Jeep a sad reminder of tragic days?

"Yeah, it is," he says matter-of-factly. "To me that's a good thing. I wasn't overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia when I found my Jeep."

Others see it a little differently.

"Jeeps," says Don Petrone, "are always in style. A lot of people coming to the show will come specifically to see the Jeeps. People are also attracted to the armor. A white, bulletproof WWII scout car will draw people. That thing'll deflect shrapnel. The Hummer is very in vogue now. There are a number of club members that have Hummers, and they'll have them on display at the show."

The Hummer is the civilian version of the all-purpose HMMWV, or "Humvee." Currently utilized by the U.S. Army, the Humvee was popularized during the Gulf War by coverage on CNN; today it is a modern Army symbol much like the Jeep was during WWII.

The Jeep, of course, is the prototype for the modern sport utility vehicle.

Just as we turn off Van Buren, the pinch-faced driver finally maneuvers his SUV around us. He's shaking his head from side to side in disgust.

"Rarely do you see these 'off-road' trucks around here with Arizona pinstriping," snorts Petrone.

"Arizona pinstriping" is a term used to describe the thin scratch marks that run in horizontal lines on sides of trucks whose owners spend time in the rough, as opposed to the drive-through at Burger King.

"It's just how it is," says Petrone, whose 1953 Dodge ambulance is veined with Arizona pinstriping. "I would never drive anything new."

A simple guess would be that the man has a bit of identity wrapped up in his vehicle.

"This truck has done a lot for me over the years," he says. "And probably for many years to come."

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