By Natalie Simms
When you’re given a terminal diagnosis, one thing that probably isn’t at the top of a “Bucket List” of things to do is to fix up an old pickup truck. But for native Roman and U.S. Air Force veteran Joel Newsum, getting his 1971 Dodge D100 Sweptline pickup in good running condition is his dream.
About a year ago, Newsum, 55, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that quickly spread to his liver. He was accepted into a treatment program through Veterans Affairs that allowed him to be treated at Georgia Cancer Specialists in Hiram instead of driving to VA Medical Centers in Decatur or Augusta for treatment. He has done well with chemo and radiation treatments but the cancer is still not in remission. The next step is a procedure that will inject radioactive materials into his liver to attack the tumor but it’s not a cure and will only buy him more time.
“This procedure is just a stronger way to control the tumor … Anything is better than nothing at this point,” says Newsum, who served the USAF during Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom including three tours in Kuwait/Iraq from 1990-1996 as a vehicle mechanic.
In 2014, before his cancer diagnosis, Newsum purchased his truck in Cave Spring.
“I grew up in a truck like that, except it was a 1969 model, but it is exact same shape and size. My mother drove that truck and took me to school in it, I learned to drive in it,” he says. “I saw it and just had to have it.
“I have progressively been doing things to it ever since. It is just comforting to have it here … just keeps those memories of my mother alive with me.”
The truck needed a new engine but Newsum didn’t want anything “overboard;” just something to “run well.” He figured he would have plenty of time to work on it but then, he got his cancer diagnosis.
“It’s really scary…after I found out, I just didn’t want to leave anything behind, I knew that I wanted to get this truck running, before anything happened to me,” he says.
Enter Newsum’s good friends David Boylan and Ryan Goodwin. The trio have been friends for some 30 years, having met after high school through their mutual interest in fixing up old Dodge and Chrysler vehicles. The three attended East Rome High School around the same time but never knew each other until they graduated.
“Joel called me a few months ago about the engine and replacing the cylinder heads…where to do the work. He was concerned if he could physically do the work. You have to have a big space and equipment to do an engine swap,” says Boylan. “He (Joel) told me that was the only thing he wanted to do, so figured, ‘let’s do it.’ ”
Boylan discussed it with his wife and she agreed to help him clean up their single car garage to make workable space for the old green truck now called “Frankenstein” since it has parts from so many other vehicles. They got the truck over to Boylan’s garage at the end of May and began work.
“We didn’t get it over here until around 9:45 p.m. one night. Ryan and I just wanted to get to work on it, so the three of us worked until 11:30 p.m. that night and got the motor out. It has been some 20 years since we’ve done a major project like that but it just all comes back to you like riding a bicycle…we all just had the best time working that night,” says Boylan.
Newsum actually had an old 340 motor he had purchased years ago for a different project and never used it. They decided to get that motor fixed up at a local machine shop and use it in the truck.
“We took it to a local machine shop and they made the modifications to the motor and put a larger crank shaft. Joel had money for the work at the machine shop and we just did all the labor,” says Boylan.
He shared the story of their work on the Georgia Outdoor Network forum since so many of their members enjoy restoring old trucks. They got an outpouring of advice and support from strangers all over the country.
It took a couple of weeks but the new engine was installed last week.
“We wanted to have a little celebration…like the christening of a new ship…we all wanted to be there to hear the new motor start up. My wife even found a cake with green and brown icing that she got them to put ‘Frankenstein’ on with candles for 1971…the year of the truck,” says Boylan.
What started as a joyous occasion quickly became disconcerting after the friends heard something that “wasn’t quite right” with the motor after it started up.
“When the engine started, I knew something was wrong. It was like a stab in the heart,” says Newsum. “But we figured out there was a quality issue with one of the parts on the new engine. It’s something that can be fixed and we’re getting the engine ready now to come back out of the truck and go back to the machine shop.”
Newsum and friends think they can get the newly fixed engine back in the truck this week and be ready to drive by the first of July.
“I am very much looking forward to it and being able to drive it around,” he says. “My whole life, I can associate with different car memories. Making this truck drivable is my bucket list…it just means so much to have this finished and not leave it for someone else to do when I’m gone.”
But more than the truck, Newsum is grateful for his friends and the time invested together.
“You know, we all know a lot of people…we could all name a list of a lot of acquaintances but I only have a few that are near and dear to me that I call friends. They have really made an imprint on me and it was really important to me for them to be involved in this project,” he says.