When Mike McKinzie was a boy, he heard the stories of Homer Davis, one of the men who liberated Auschwitz.
Davis’ signature was the first on McKinzie’s rat rod, which has become a living, rolling memorial to those who serve in the military — past and present.
Marine Corps Maj. Timmothy Garrison currently serves in an aviation logistics squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
He grew up looking up to McKinzie, he said.
The first time he saw McKinzie’s rat rod around two years ago, he was eager to add his signature.
“He’s just one of the Marines from the earlier generation that was one of my mentors growing up, and part of the reason I joined the Marine Corps,” Garrison said.
“That feels good hearin’ that. At least I’m mentorin’ somebody,” McKinzie replied.
The olive-drab and rust truck started life as a 1923 Ford T Bucket, McKinzie said. He couldn’t get a title for that vehicle.
One day, looking at the green and brown cab he salvaged from a junk yard, he had an idea.
McKinzie said he decided to run with the military theme the vehicle brought to mind, painting on the white stars and other markings.
“Anybody’s that’s served gets to sign their name on the truck, so we go around, let people sign their names on it, and that’s the paint job,” he said.
The vehicle has a grenade for a radiator cap, a couple skulls in front and in back, the crests of the different military services and a bulldog — an homage to the Corps — in front of the windshield.
McKinzie said he has his eye out for a small “smokey” — the hats Marine Drill Instructors wear — for the bulldog.
For the Troy Independence Day Parade, the rat rod was festooned with the American flag and the flags of the various services, as well as a POW/MIA flag.
And all across the rat rod are the signatures and dates of service, along with places those veterans served.
Every name on the car has stories behind it, McKinzie said.
His wife, Dawna McKinzie, said they never anticipated the emotions they would experience as they began to collect the stories that went with the signatures.
“We’ve laughed with some of these guys, we’ve cried with some of ‘em,” she said. “We didn’t realize the emotional roller coaster it was going to take us on. It’s been a — just really an awesome journey.”
Mike McKinzie recalled a World War II veteran who had an abscessed tooth at sea.
They to put him in a bucket and move him by a cable to another ship to receive treatment.
“He said every time the waves would come up, down he’d go into the ocean, when they’d tip back, up he’d come,” McKinzie said. “He said he felt like shark bait.”
The McKinzies have also met a former prisoner of war, and Mike McKinzie struggled for the words to express the emotions the veteran’s stories brought up.
Another veteran told of a buddy he borrowed a dress uniform from, Dawna McKinzie said.
“He only had the uniform on for about an hour, and his buddy got killed,” she said.
A veteran’s memorial
Every piece on the car came from junkyards. There’s no polish or shiny paint. The bed is a different shade of green from the cab, and the paint on the cab is a kind of accidental camouflage. One side of the windshield is a spider web.
It reminds veterans of old military trucks, and strikes a chord in the hearts of service members who see it, McKinzie said.
“I think it’s awesome what he’s doing as far as collecting the heritage of those military members that have served before us, and capturing that for history,” Garrison said.
McKinzie said he has even had veterans who see the car parked out front of his house stop and ask about it. When they hear the story, they want to add their names.
“There’s more to it than just the car. It’s history,” Mike McKinzie said. “It seems like, any and every veteran that’s seen it, just — loves it.”