Tucson Salvage

A folk-art biker and his tuff-cruck-winning wife

Tom and Trish Baird in the backyard shop.
Tom and Trish Baird in the backyard shop.
Brian Smith
Tom’s homemade fire-breathers.

The monsoon pours, the streets flood and the corner Circle K glows through. The dragons in the dirt yard behind the low iron gate stand tall in the downpour, as if doomed to guard the house forever.

A spindly robot faces the street and sports three-piece rotary arms and holds chains to keep the mailbox chest-high. Its round face, a piece from an engine block with holes drilled for eyes, wears a shocked expression.

What looks like a military-issue grenade launcher sits on the roof. It's really a driveshaft tubing and an old jack stand. It's capable of blasting plastic liter-sized bottles well into the sky, acetylene and oxygen mix for ignition. Next to it crawls a ghoulish spider, golf clubs form eight spindly legs, body's a gas tank. It eyes the street.

These beasts: auto parts mostly, oil-pan mouths, arched fractal backs, wings made from 1980s backyard satellite dishes.

These beasts: chimerical whimsy and whatever's-at-hand resourcefulness. Artfulness, patience, and hilarious pokes on old weapons and mythical beasts.

Trish pulls into the drive in a late-model Ram pickup and Tom greets her at its door with an umbrella. A gentleman. A mohawked neighbor rescues a wandering dog from the rain and stores her indoors. Tom and Trish stand in the rain with the mohawk guy concerned about the found dog.

Tucson, over near Kolb and Escalante, near the Air Force base, a neighborhood populated by Davis-Monthan employees, ex-military and working-class folk, and gangs. The dragons get me driving by.

Skies clear on cue.

It's Trish and Tom Baird side-by-side in matching recliners, each with their own ashtray. A comfy add-on room in a cozy place, a '70s-built painted brick home connected with several other homes, rowhouse-style, and includes three cats, two caged birds and a pair of dogs—one, a sweet and tubby five-year-old Rottweiler who favors burrowing human leg. A sign reads HopeFaithLove above the big TV screen. A nod to the wall-decorative crosses, a collection of various sizes and shapes, prompts Trish to say, "Really, our church is getting out on our bikes, out in nature."

Trish, neck-length red hair, big green eyes, glasses. Midwestern vowel bend, remnants of a Kansas childhood. She's the daughter of an oil-rig man. Her black T-shirt reads "Tucson Mud Drags." She could be the hot-lunch lady at your elementary school, she's so somebody's mom.

Trish licked cancer twice.

The first results in a hysterectomy, and she loses her voice after surgery. Side effects one night leave her unable to breathe and she about dies, right there on her recliner. Tom's CPR skills save her. The medics arrive. Her voice is broken an entire year while raising two daughters with Tom. ("Wore out two typewriters," she laughs.)

She recovers (with help from speech therapists) but goddamnitall she's pissed off. Her system fills with adrenaline, that physiological sweet-spot for kicking ass in sporting events. Trish says, "If you had road rage and come home and take it out on a punching bag, it's the same feeling." Trish makes her competition debut in 2001, just after her voice returns. It's an extreme motor-sports event, the tough, macho demolition derby (souped-up jalopies ramming each other; last one standing wins.) She earns a Top 5 placing among a couple dozen men. She is deceptively tough. She whoops ass in a man's game.

Tom howls in the chair next to her: "Damn right she beat men."

Over time she's ganged up on in events by the nonplussed dudes. They try to take her out. She holds her own.

Tom laughs again: "Damn right she does!"

Trish is embarrassed, deferential even, and nods quickly to move the conversation along to avoid the task of talking about herself. That her embarkation on a career of "tuff truck" competitions, enduring jumps and obstacles, the dirt-track madness in a man's world, would somehow not be interesting. But the excitement, the animal feelings and adrenaline of entering a race never leaves her. Trish admits that much: "You can't articulate it," she says. "You're just so in the moment."

That's her formidable muscle car, or "cruck" (a car-truck hybrid; this one is a '70s Pontiac Ventura on a Jeep Waggoneer frame) perched on the flatbed trailer out front. It's Tom's handiwork, and its construction involves "a lot of rigging and hoping. It now has the sixth motor I put in since she began racing." It isn't easy imagining her climbing in and out of the beastly car, much less terrorizing hyper-competitive men.

The incessant rumble of mud drags and "tuff truck" jumps can't be easy on the bones, and she's not exactly teenaged. Trish's lower lumbar is now in constant pain. She recalls her first high-speed jump: "Oh, shit, I'm seeing blue skies!" The time she rolled a car it happens so fast she hardly remembers. But she must finish: "I was yelling roll me back over, roll me over." Perhaps it's good then that "tuff truck" and monster truck events are waning in Tucson. Competitors now must travel, sometimes to Texas.

Tom worries but insists she's safe in competition. He installs a roll cage, firewalls, and a killswitch in her car to shut everything down in an emergency, just in case. Trish's most recent competition was a mud drag event in June, in Buckeye, Arizona. Hers versus bigger beasts rolling on tractor tires. She's glad to finish. Tom produces a phone video showing her overcoming odds, fishtailing out of hell. Folks cheering her. Tom cheering her too, hard.

Imagine kick-starting a Harley so many times it blows your hip out. Then add eight years of climbing telephone poles installing wire for cable TV. His back is messed up too from the military, but Tom's "a proud old Marine and biker." Swears through bad teeth in a Marine trucker hat. Gray beard and mustache yellowy from smokes. A heaping heart, and he chides himself often. I half-expect right-wing yakkety-yak, what with the confederate imagery. (A confederate flag, General Lee style, decorates the hood of Trish's muscle car.) Visible characteristics never equal actual personality. Instead Tom talks of kids, how the neighborhood belongs to them, not the meth, the gangs. The kids. He's a dad. He's got Santa's glint in his eye yet it's also easy to see in it classic-rocking years on barstools in working class hoods in places like Tucson, San Diego, Texas, Tennessee, wherever.

San Diego-born Tom grows up mostly in rural Texas (Red Hill, pop. 28) near Texarkana. This son of a tough Navy man sees no arts in his childhood. He never sculpts. No sketching with pencils. Just no art as a kid. Instead he tears radios apart, and at 16 procures a 1962 Buick LaSabre, which he hot-rods out. He raises holy hell too. Ditches high school for the marines, enlisting days after his 17th birthday, following his older Army brother's lead. As a mortarman, Tom never sees the fighting action he craves, born too late. Nam is drawing to a close and they're shipping soldiers home.

Soon he makes the mistakes. Pays in hard prison time, 11 years total, released for good in '94. Auto theft, drugs, and such. Survives meth and booze, and goddamn, that's a combat right there. "I was a mean drunk," he says. "I learned my lesson; drinking and fighting. It took three times in prison; and once you get a [prison] number in Arizona, they got you."

The last time he goes in is right after he gets out. Picking up Christmas presents from a beat motel in Phoenix for "a friend." The wrapped boxes conceal pounds of weed. Guns draw, badges flash, the screams to get the fuck down. Guess that's what friends are for.

"Every time I went to Phoenix I wound up in jail," he says, managing a laugh. "So the last time I got out of prison I came to Tucson."

He looks to Trish, "this woman saved me." Trish's dad, Tom adds, saves his life in ways too. Hires Tom at R&R Truck and Auto, fresh from prison, allowing him, with empty pockets, to purchase this house near Kolb Road and Escalante 22 years ago. Hell, he met Trish at R&R. "Friends first," she says.

That story: Trish splits with her first husband and moves back to Tucson from California with her two kids and works as a machinist in dad's shop. She bartends nights too.

They're adults but Trish's old man says they can't live together unless they're married. He's old-fashioned that way. The following day Trish and Tom hit the justice of the peace, and later tie Pepsi cans to a wheelbarrow and are towed around the R&R lot. Trish's mom drinks and dad follows hilariously in a pickup wielding a shotgun. That was 21 years ago.

Her two grown kids, his three grown kids and two previous marriages. She has a foster son too, back in California, who now has five kids of his own. Lots of grandkids then between them. Ain't it crazy how life just rolls along? And they all get along, or so it's said.

Trish and Tom in their backyard shop. Wrought iron and walls of sheets of corrugated metal. Tom's horse-shoe art and Harley parts everywhere, on shelves, in crates, flat surfaces. Hoisted up is a vintage machine: Tom's a few months into building Trish's Harley Sportster, pieces purchased here and there, and in crates from some guy in Arizona. Black, and chrome-plated handsome, the hints of young Peter Fonda.

Standing astride the machine Tom explains killing time weightlifting and learning auto mechanics inside prison, his frame showing a faint echo of his former bodybuilder self (at onetime he could squat 450 pounds). Here's the thing about Tom. The faded Viking arm tat, this Marine pride, the mechanic's cliché. Again, visible characteristics don't mean shit. His intellectual approach to machinery, the unpretentious way he rattles on about how engines and motorcycles and the machinations and science of how it all works, is patiently broken down in easy-to-understand sentences. If only intellects in other fields could be so humble.

Necessity is some mother too, so ingenuity happens. Tom and Trish consider that special something to place atop her car at events, to light it the hell up, draw attention. Maybe some kind of fire-breathing dragon. So Tom builds one. Why the hell not? He built the damn car, just like the many before it. This is 2001 or so and yellowy photo album pictures show the fetching dragon shooting flames, Tom standing beside it, fair headed, a mustache, same boyish grin, the hard life, the Santa glint.

And his street creations are art—they mock and challenge—even if he's unaware. And there's no Facebook page or website touting this stuff. "Just things I find laying around," he says. "I think how they might look good as something else."

And while Trish works fulltime at Arizona Propane (Tom: "She basically runs the joint"), Tom's on disability, he tore up his shoulder for good working at a Tucson Brakemax, his back eternally damaged in the military. There's his hip... Tom's a winner too, on the tuff truck and muscle car track, was feared by many before the body gave out. The backyard shop work isn't so easy now, not when he's only able to lift his hands to just above his shoulders. "I can lay things out, I can build things, but not for long."

Enter the dragons. Year round everybody stops and takes pictures.

Tom doesn't forge the metal, and chuckles at the thought. Sometimes he welds. Usually the hard way's better. The yard art is hammered and vice-gripped, masculine and unforgiving.

The beasts come alive at Christmastime and Halloween, lighted, ignited, handling systems that allow fire to burst through their mouths and noses. Tom laughs another hard-lived old-guy chortle. "It's the parents we scare more."

Eager to show this world, Tom's phone pics come out. Lights, fire, action.

Tom creates a gatling gun from spare car parts and things laying about. It isn't real, of course, but resembles the Howitzer it was modeled after. They mount it in the back of their truck, and drive around, just to see faces of others. Tom howls. He's a boy, still, and Trish rolls her eyes at that.

Tom's yard art colors his neighborhood. Inventiveness a reaction to the haunted monotony of the nearby airplane Boneyard, and its square miles of shocking expiry. Man, how images and imaginings of those rows of dead war planes must squirm into the collective subconscious of anyone living within eyesight. The inescapable hum. Tom's work is antithesis, breathing new life into neglected things. A visual rhythm of the living, these beasts standing guard.

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