During his career, Howard Savage drove 1.7 million miles as a commercial trucker with only one accident -- and according to Savage, that was the other driver’s fault.
On Wednesday afternoon Savage wasn’t thinking of all those miles but the last few still to come as he arranged to fulfill a dying wish of going for one final drive through downtown Flagstaff in the 1955 Studebaker pickup truck he spent the last 22 years restoring.
Savage has terminal esophageal cancer and his lungs and heart are shutting down. On Wednesday afternoon his longtime friend Bob Pauley drove Savage’s truck to the front door of Flagstaff Medical Center just as Savage was being discharged to be transferred to the Forest House hospice.
Michael Hren, the nurse who had been looking after Savage, helped load an oxygen tank into the truck and then Savage into the passenger seat as family and friends gathered around the truck.
Despite being a 100 percent disabled veteran of the U.S. Army, Savage was able to pursue two passions, fishing and working on his 62-year-old Studebaker.
“Oh, he’s replaced the engine several times, the transmission, the rear end. It seems like we were always working on the truck to make it just right,” Pauley said.
Savage didn’t just work on the truck for looks. He was a frequent competitor on the quarter-mile track at the Speedworld Motorplex in Phoenix, clocking the distance in 12.9 seconds at speeds topping 105 mph.
When Savage was first diagnosed with cancer he had a two-week wait to see his oncologist, so on the spur of the moment he and his wife of 44 years, Elaine, jumped in the Studebaker for a 3,300-mile road trip to Chicago and back.
Despite being bedridden, Savage still bears the busted knuckles of a true grease monkey mechanic. Getting ready for his final ride in the truck, Savage used a laptop to type out a list of names of people who he wanted to thank. First on the list was his medical staff at the hospital.
“These people here at the hospital have been absolutely wonderful and especially the nurses on the floor. Alex Beadles and Michael Hren have taken such good care of me,” Savage said, referring to a pair of nurses on different shifts. “My oncology doctor Dr. Mathern has been amazing.”
Savage then went on to talk about all of the friends who have helped him with his truck over the years.
“I’ve had so many great people work with me, from Michael Faul at Flagstaff Mobile Mechanic to John Rodgers at Transmission Man and Rick and the boys at NAPA Auto Parts,” Savage said.
As the Studebaker pulled away from the hospital and headed down the hill toward downtown Flagstaff, Savage’s face lit up with the rumble of the engine. With an arm cocked on the windowsill and the wind in his hair, Savage took in all the familiar sights as Pauley drove him along Aspen Avenue and around Heritage Square.
At one point a young driver in a canary yellow Camaro roared past impatient with the slow progress of the Studebaker and Savage savoring the sights. As the Camaro roared away a hand came out of the passenger window of the Studebaker with just one finger extended. Howard Savage wasn’t going to tolerate any disrespect during his last drive and still had the gumption to return the gesture.
Savage’s other love is fishing. His passion for fishing was so deep that when his wife Elaine declared that she wasn’t interested, he got himself another fishing partner. Fiona Wilkie was the neighbor to Howard and Elaine and shared Howard’s passion for fishing and accompanied him on so many fishing outings that Howard and Elaine jokingly referred to her as his “second wife.” Savage has given his fishing boat to Wilkie and has left instructions with his family to scatter his ashes at his favorite fishing holes at Kaibab and Ashurst Lakes.
“I’ve heard that being cremated is your last chance to get a really hot body,” Savage joked.
“It’s nice it’s my heart that’s killing me,” he said. “I will get to die a peaceful death, no stabbing or wreck or driveby. I’m not going to have a violent death. I’m not scared.”
While Savage is pragmatic about the little time he has left and the journey ahead of him, he’s not quite done living yet. On Thursday night he arranged to make one more last wish happen by having a small group of friends come to his room for a final game of poker.