Friday, February 15, 2008

Curse of the Swamp Creature

This is Part 2 of the Swamp Series. You should read Part One first, if you haven't.

When we last left our heroes, they survived being stuck out on a road in the swamp, inside a federally designated high drug traffic zone, only to face the wrath of their justifiably worried wives. Just when you thought it was safe to take a drive in the swamp. . . Months later, we have worked very hard to build a 6'x9' plastics thermoforming machine from scratch, started making sales and marketing calls, developed an automotive accessory to be manufactured from recycled plastic. Not grocery bags but we did try recycled diaper material once. Luckily, it was post-industrial scrap rather than post consumer. Ironically, it had too much sag. So much for Huggies.

We had gradually gotten the idea, with strong hints of independent verification, that our financial partner's money was dirty. See the previous post. We began negotiations to buy him out. He wasn't happy. Begrudgingly, he blessed a deal and told us to have our lawyer write it up. Presented with the paperwork, he got frustrated all over again and tore it up - twice.

Then, over Memorial Day Weekend 1990, the financial partner changed the locks on the building where we were subleasing some space from him in back of a boat plant. He had had a secret, and illegal meeting, changed the Board of Directors of our company; locked us out of that too [he thought]. We could now work for him or we could stuff it.

At the time, we had a kid working for us. It was a state sponsored program for displaced workers. Florida was paying half his wages. Dale was a good kid and a great help. Don and I knew right where he had lunch every day. A plan was hatching and we needed Dale's help.

Lucky for us [do I have to say it again? I'd rather be lucky than good], the evil financial partner had, just that morning, refused to pay Dale for some overtime he had worked for us. There was no documentation. We were always there longer than Dale because the company was our baby. We knew what we had asked him to do and how long he had been there. Down off Cattleman Road, in a deli attached to a gas station, we found Dale still simmering. He was all too happy to help us out.

The building we were locked out of had long been a boat plant. In the boat business, small and medium sized companies come and go like the tides. In building boats, there is yard work and shop work. In this particular building there were two bathrooms. Each had two doors; one from inside the shop and one from the yard. Dale helped lock up that night. As we discussed, he folded the hasp on one of the outside doors back on itself, and "dummy-locked" the padlock. That was all we needed.

Meanwhile, Don and I had assembled a crew. We had three pickup trucks and two tandem axle trailers. At dusk, they rolled to a grocery store parking lot nearby. Don and I, in his famous powder sugar encrusted truck, drove to an orange grove next to the shop and staked it out. We could just see the glow of a light in the office. Our financial partner's senses must have tingled. He never stayed late, but there he was. Typically, he and his aging hunting dogs would hang around, "stupervising" his boat boys. Then, on some signal, he would load up the dogs and head south. This night, he just hung around.

We stood next to a chain link fence in an orange grove; swatting mosquitoes. Yeah, my life then was plagued by mosquitoes. We walked back and forth trying to keep warm. Waiting. Swat. Smack. Wait. Swat. Smack. Wait.

Finally, the office window went dark. The middle stage of the plan went into action. We heard the truck rumble and pull away. Don scaled the fence, slunk across the yard and tried the door to the john. It came open in his hand. Dale was our hero. The first thing he tripped over in the dark was a case of toilet paper. He grabbed a half dozen rolls and quietly opened the interior door.

We were fairly sure that Dale was on our side completely. We thought that he knew he shouldn't talk about the plan. We also knew, however, that he was pissed about the money. He could have boasted back at the shop to the boat boys that he was helping us. Don was leery of an ambush. Inside the shop, he lurked in the darkness; listening. He started pitching toilet paper rolls around in the dark to flush out the ambush. Each roll slammed into something in the dark shop and was met with silence. After what seemed an eternity, Don came jogging back across the yard.

"Go get the guys," he panted, "I'll meet you out front."

I ran back to the truck, roared out of the grove and found the crew milling around a parking lot. The shop was at the end of a dirt cul-de-sac on the outskirts of town. we came down the road as a convoy. I lead the way, flashing my lights near the end of the street. Don had moved some hull molds out of the way, and seeing my signal, he rolled up the overhead door by the office. All three trucks, the second and third with trailers, fit inside the building. Don closed the door behind us.

We turned on lights in the back half of the building and began collecting our stuff - stealing from ourselves. A drill press, a mill/drill, all kinds of tools, the molds we had built, plastic sheet stock, files and furniture. We worked all night. Everything we wanted was loaded except the machine we had built. We were going to try and wrestle it onto one of the trailers, but it was bigger than we planned.

Just then we heard a car pull into the cul-de-sac! Whispered screams got the lights doused and everyone quiet. We crept through the shop to the office. Peeking out the window, a nondescript sedan sat there idling. It was not a new car, but just new enough to worry us. Had someone called the cops?!? Was this the ambush we feared?!? Which would be worse? It just sat there. Five of us huddled in the dark office. Ready for the worst. After almost an hour, the sedan suddenly started moving. It circled around and headed out to the main road. To this day, I think it was just a couple of teenagers necking. They weren't the only ones getting hot and bothered that night.

There first boat guys came to work about 6:00 am; it was 4:30, we had to make some decisions. Most of the money in our machine was in the control panel. This was no garage built vacuumformer with visegrips for clamps. Thanks to Don's previous life selling machines, we had built a thoroughly modern machine with solenoid controls for vacuum, air assist, and to control the movement of two platens. We unceremoniously chopped through the air lines and vacuum hoses with a Sawzall. The electrical lines were cut and the control panel unbolted.

We relocked Dale's dummy locked door. The overhead door threw open and our convoy headed out. There was a personnel door right next to the main overhead door out front. This would have been the last door our evil partner left and locked. Leaving, we left that door unlocked just to plant the seed that he had forgotten to lock it.

Our convoy careened across town. We had breakfast with the crew and our wives; whose heads were spinning. "If taking all that stuff is the right thing to do, why did you have to break-in in the middle of the night to take it?" That night, the line between right and wrong got paved over. My ex-wife never trusted the efficacy of the business or my intrepid business partner after that. Or me for all I know.

After breakfast, the convoy headed to a building we had already rented. We rebuilt a new machine with our precious control panel. Back in Business! A little while later, the evil partner sued us.

In Florida, in certain civil matters, you can sue for treble damages; three times. We had signed promissory notes for $70,000. Somehow, with shared building expenses and lost revenue or some other crap, he had worked our tab up to $200,000; and sued us for $600,000!!

Now imagine being married to me for just eight or nine months [i know i've lost some of you already], having already been through, among other things, the long night along the old swamp road. And the night we stole stuff from ourselves. Then a sheriff, different county, knocks on the door while I'm at work at serves HER with a lawsuit where I'm getting sued for over a half million dollars! Count 'em; 600 - extra large.

Turns out that that lowly sheet of notebook paper saved our bacon. The partner hired the biggest bulldog hard ass lawyer in the county. Our first lawyer peed all over himself and suggested we figure out a way to settle. I spent two days in the county law library reading. We were right, dammit! We found a couple lawyers who were done in by a partner once. They took the case, just above pro bono, just on principle.

We settled out of court for $40,000. A win; but a win that had to be paid. The evil partner hired the Big Gun, but only paid him enough to write letters and file motions. Not only did that piece of notebook paper show that all three of us were officers of the company, it also showed that he had lent US the money; in our names not to the company. The judge rebuked him and the Bulldog harshly. She stated that he loaned us the money. We were free to to with it as we pleased; as long as we paid it back. As their case began to crumble at their feet, they offered to settle out of court.

I learned so much about business law that year, I should have just gone ahead and finished law school. I was to learn even more, and a little about life, with the rest of my time with our company. At the risk of repeating myself, that is a story for another day.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Creature from the Swamp.

By the Fates, the two of us ended up working in the same little shop in St. Petersburg. Don was the enigmatic guy formerly in charge of a competitor's shop. I was the greenhorn salesman recruited from Detroit to Tampa to sell plastic across the state. Both of us, because of the politics of where we were and, in part, because of who we were, had been put out on the street by our former employers. I don't recall how Don found the company. I had an impending marriage and actually paid a fee-based employment agency for the privilege of working for idiots.

The idiots were three. First, was a nasty woman whose supposedly loaded east coast family shipped her to Florida to get her out of their hair and out of their sight. She lied to her new husband that she would front the business and let him run it.

Next, the husband, a hoosier doofus, and former General Motors Middle Management Useless Pencil Pusher, he had been sleeping on his nephew's couch and bumming cigarettes until he met the nasty woman at a Baptist Church Singles Night. They married and he was suddenly Donald Trump. He lied and told his nephew that the wife was going to front the business and the nephew could run it.

Lastly, the nephew was an Indiana Hilljack living in a trailer in Florida. He lied to his Uncle that he knew the plastics business; piece of cake. He didn't know much about vacuum forming, the machine his new aunt just bought, but he'd done some acrylic fabrication. I got the impression that the real acrylic talent was his wife who was home raising their brood.

This shop was one of two places I could have committed a grisly murder. I suppose, occasionally, suicide wasn't that far off either. The morning news broke that Stevie Ray Vaughn had died in a Wisconsin helicopter crash, we were moping around the break room before work started, staring in our coffee. The nasty woman walked in, felt the somber mood, looked from face to face to face . . .

"What's the matter with you guys?" she growled in her three-pack-a-day Vegas hooker voice.

"Well, a terrific, promising, young musician died last night. We can't believe it," I volunteered.

"Who," she asked, or maybe she just belched. I wasn't sure, but it sounded like "who?"

"Stevie Ray Vaughn, a blues guitar player," I said.

Turning to open the fridge, she grunted "Well, at least it wasn't Neil Diamond."  A Diet Coke and a package of pink Hostess Snow Balls from the freezer was her morning ritual.

As she reached for the Snow Balls, I lunged, knocking her into the shelves of the fridge. Lunches and half drank sodas exploded around the room. We wallowed in the debris as I struggled to roll her over. She smacked at me with the Coke bottle, but I knocked it away. Fear welled up in her bulging eyes. Digging past the wattle and the folds of her generous neck, I gripped her throat closed and . . . in my head.

Don and I started escaping the shop at lunch. It was no fun coming to work there and some of the other stories are just bizarre. Bitching over lunch at the All-You-Can-Eat-Chinese-Buffet turned into plotting and planning. We met after work, wrote a business plan and started shopping a prospectus around.

After several weeks, we got a bite. A friend of a friend from Don's church wanted to talk; the alarms should have already gone off. We were to drive down and meet him at the marina he owned on Gasparilla Island, south of us on Florida's Gulf Coast. It was an evening meeting as we were still working and he has running his empire.

That day was one of the longest I've been through. The shop where we worked with the three idiots was more like the Crafts Room at Bellevue than a real business. It was a good hike to Gasparilla, so Don and I drove separately to a rendezvous point. From there, I rode with him in his pickup.

It's always a nice drive when you're near the coast in Florida. We ambled down the coast and then waited behind a couple cars in line for the last private bridge in the state. Three bucks gets you across but it lets the locals think they are keeping the riffraff out. There was a long causeway across the tarpon flats and then we were on the island proper. All the requisite components of Florida were there: Condo Resorts, Hotels, Golf Resorts, Fishing Resorts and plenty of Seafood Joints. We found the marina and his house just across the street.

Our meeting seemed to go well. We had a good rapport and similar goals. Then it happened - we scratched an agreement out on a piece of three ring notebook paper and he wrote us our first check. That hand written agreement would later save Don and I $560,000 but that's a story for another day.

The bridge toll is for both ways, so we were down the causeway and off the island in no time. Our meeting had gone long. These were the days before cellphones were ubiquitous so we were looking for a convenience store pay phone to call our wives. It was a beautiful clear Florida night as we drove through some rural miles just north of the Everglades. Coming around a curve out between streetlights in the swampy darkness, the lights came on. The dark was replaced by the surreal red and blue and pink and purple of the sheriff's lights bouncing into the woods on either side of the lonely road. We pulled over and the sheriff sauntered up to Don's window.

"You boys just sit tight a minute," he barked putting his hand on the window sill of the pick up. Then he just stood there, looking down the road.

Another squad car pulled up.

They put Don in the first squad car. To divide and conquer, the second sheriff walked me about 75 feet down the road.

Imagine the scrawny, red-headed kid from school who never said "boo" to anyone. Now imagine that he is a sheriff's deputy in Florida. This modern day Barney Fife was guarding me as I was getting eaten alive by hummingbird-sized mosquitoes coming out of the swamp. Barney had one of those microphone speakers on his walkie talkie, clipped right by his ear on the epaulet of his crisp, if somewhat baggy, uniform. The palm of his gun hand rested on the butt of his Glock 40; fingers splayed, ready for anything. "Anything" must have been really scary in Barney's head because every time the radio squawked, he jumped. Lee County is a big county; there were lots of squawks.

A third squad car showed up.

When the fourth squad car showed up, it was a drug sniffing canine unit.

I stood on the shoulder of the dark lonely road in the swamp and tried to swat at mosquitoes quietly. No sense in making Barney even more jumpy. I watched as the cops went, page by page, through my briefcase. The dome light in the cab reflected on the inside of the windshield, making it like the overhead mirror at an outlet mall cooking demonstration. I could clearly see everything in the cab.

I don't have anything against the police, in general, but these guys were goons. One was sucking on a drink from Burger King. When it went almost dry, he gave it one last giant suck; to make a Hoover jealous. His cheeks drew in around his molars. Afterward he shook the cup to show off the dry clink of the remaining cubes, and pitched the cup and straw into the swamp.

You begin to have doubts about a guy you've only known for six months when he's in the back of a squad car and you're standing in the road by the swamp. Somehow, one thing I knew, was what he had for breakfast every morning. Don's wife kept him supplied with cheap, store brand powdered sugar donuts in the bag. Every morning, Don grabbed 3 or 4 little donuts and a cup of coffee in a normal ceramic mug; no travel mug. His shirts and the bench seat of his truck usually showed the aftermath of his struggle to eat, drink, and shift on the way to work while juggling his breakfast. It was a running joke at the shop.  What was causing us trouble that evening was the powdery white residue the sheriff was looking at on the floor, on the steering wheel and in the upholstery of Don's truck.

The Goon Squad Sheriffs were scooping up the powdery white residue in these little vials. They would cap a vial, shake it, hold it up in the air like Dr. Stangelove and shine at it with their great big D cell Mag Lite. Then with a cuss, they would throw the vial in the swamp and start over. Apparently, they were expecting that the cocaine would change the vial's chemicals a certain color. After five or six vials, each with a frown, a grunt and a pitch into the swamp, they put the dog in the truck.

Up to that point in my life, I had had no previous experience with narcotics trained canine units. Really. But I had had lots of experience with dogs. I'm a proud card carrying dog person. This cute Golden Retriever got shoved up into the pickup cab. She spun around a couple times, walked the length of the bench seat and back. Remember the cooking demo mirror. Finally, she stopped and stood looking out the window at her handler, wagging her tail. I took a small slice of comfort.

The main deputy, a sergeant or something, walked down the road in his best John Wayne swagger. I'm still swatting mosquitoes. Barney is still jumping out of his belt.

"The dog hit four times in that truck and your partner has already come clean, so you might as well," he stated with flat authority. In the wind whispering through the swampy air, I could almost hear the echo of "You pilgrim."

I wasn't about to confess to trafficking in powdered sugar. Little did I know, they were telling Don that I sang and he might as well come clean. Neither of us did.

A little while later, Don was let out of the squad car. I finally knew we were O.K.

The John Wayne sergeant came back down the road. "I can't get you this time," he threatened, "but I will . . . next time."

The dog crawled back in her carriage. The canine unit left. The sergeant barked a few orders and he left. Barney settled down and he left. Just around the curve, where they all disappeared, the glow of a street light struggled to shine from around the pines.

"By the way," the first sheriff chimed, "the original reason I pulled you over, you've got a headlight out.

He smiled and walked back to his car; which wouldn't start. So after at least three hours on the side of the road for an unreasonable search and seizure, [ok, there was no seizure except perhaps our wives' reaction], we had to pull around in front of the goon's car and give him a jump!

We found a pay phone and called our wives. In time, we were forgiven. Although indirectly, the company later had a hand in a divorce for each of us.

In the ensuing six months or so, we began to realize our financial partner had got most of his money in the low-flying-plane-import-business. This was the actual reason we got pulled over that night. It took us a while to connect the dots, but his house was being watched. We had spent several hours there one evening and got caught in the net on the way home.

Next time, our heroes steal the equipment and molds from themselves and start all over again across town. The evil empire sues and the magic of a piece of notebook paper is revealed. Tune in next time to catch all the action!

Hey, Spork, I'm happiest when I'm spinning yarns!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I never wanted to be a treehugger!

You see the weirdest stuff out here on the road. I see a lot of shoes; just one at a time. Once, I remember seeing a woman's belt in the middle of the highway. How did that happen?!

If your moving in the near future, please take some extra care tying stuff down. I see single couch cushions and box springs almost every day. Just the other day, I saw a whole series down the same highway. Had to be the same guy. First, an oscillating fan; like you'd buy at Walmart or somewhere - in a couple chunks on the shoulder. Then one of those 3 drawer Sterilite storage units - blown to bits. And finally, three resin patio chairs - all with only three legs left.

I won't gross you out with road kill stories, but two beavers in 36 hours is not just sad; that's weird. I also shouldn't tell you that I think I saw a bear cub once. That is really sad. My sister will get a weird satisfaction in amongst the sorrow. When she was a single digit age, about when you want to "have" things that are your own, she claims she saw a bear; presumably a live one. The family was travelling through the north woods of Michigan, on the way to Grandma and Grandpa Townsends in Cadillac. We were on I131, I think, anyway, it was a backwoods highway with these steep banks on either side. The forest started on the ridge. By the time the ridge crested away from the highway it was thick. Amy exclaimed that she saw a bear. No one else did, but we were running up this highway in the woods. She probably saw a bear, but that hasn't stopped my brother and I from saying "A bear!?! . . . yeah, right" for the last 25 years.

Another thing that I see way too much of out here on the road - plastic grocery bags! Wow, I've never been a treehugger and I used to be a plastics guy, but they are everywhere.

When I was in the plastics business, and involved in recycling, we successfully lobbied against a mandate to put corn starch in plastic grocery bags. The corn starch was added to the plastic to make the bags somewhat degradable. It wasn't perfect but it supposedly would have sped up the breakdown of the bag. It also polluted the plastic and made it un-recyclable. We argued that the bags would be collected, recycled and used in other products. It is time to revisit this issue. Bags are blowing everywhere.

Now the trouble with corn starch is the corn part. Food prices are rising, in large part, because of the increased demand for corn to make ethanol. Don't get me started on corn! Corn is used, directly and indirectly, in almost everything the average American eats, but that's a story for another day. I listened to a radio program about an incredible sounding documentary called King Corn.

There is actually a lot of trash around. I don't understand it. Growing up in the 70's with "Give a Hoot; Don't Pollute" and the Litterbug, I wouldn't dream of through something out the window. There is a certain percentage of truckers who live like Neanderthols but they are not responsible for it all. Two summers ago, I was walking a Lake Michigan beach that I knew very well as a kid. I was deeply saddened by all the trash I saw in the sand. I've never thought this way, but I was disgusted. We need to be better stewards of this world. That is not a political statement; that is a fact.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

And while I'm at it . . .

Click here for background on the horrendous situation in Burma. The Junta has announced they will hold a referendum, in May, on the constitution that they wrote and hold elections in 2010. This in a country without even the right to assemble or the right to criticize the Junta or their "path to democracy." The constitution purportedly disqualifies opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps because she already won one election they refuse to recognize.

Think about it . . .

This may give away the punchline, but I was listening to Mountain Stage, a very cool PRI show, and the Guthrie Family Legacy Tour made a stop. Arlo was talking about his dad's early life and I had an epiphany.

California was invaded once before by migrant workers. They showed up with little more than the clothes on their backs, driving vehicles that barely ran. They had large families and camped along the sides of farm roads. These migrants were so desperate, they would do any work for very little money. They weren't exactly legal; they were definitely not invited, but California came to rely on them.

. . . they were from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl!!!

We are tossing around the Immigration Issue during this political season without considering that we are discussing human lives. They are us; We are them. The question of legality is really more a symptom of a system that is broken.

The Okies helped to tranform the San Joachin Valley into the Agricultural juggernaut that it is today. Today, Mexicans are working those same fields. If you would really like to pay $10 for a head of lettuce, go ahead build the wall. Walls have done so well for Germans and Israelis.

We need to fix the system and to treat each other, all of us each other, as equals in this world. Sorry, this blog is usually not political; I couldn't stop this one.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Do you remember the old asphalt siding that was printed to look like brick? You can still see it on old farmhouses out in the holler.

There are times that my heart aches like an old farmhouse. The wooden screen door slams randomly in the wind. The porch leans a little downhill. At the corners, the old faux brick siding is peeling; gently waving in the wind. Last night, I just wanted to move back to Indiana. I missed my friends; I miss the bands and the music I was chasing. The road is a selfish and lazy lover.

Then this morning, I crossed the Monongahela River. There was a marina down below the bridge. Boats were scattered around; pulled for the winter. There is something about a hull; even when it is not splaying the water. There is just something about a boat. I long to be on the water.

I miss my friends and family tremendously, but I am doing the right thing. I need to be on the water to be whole. I continue to work on my life and my plan. That tear in the asphalt siding still blows in the wind, but below that faux brick is real brick and mortar just waiting to be in the sun.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Question Everything.

Question = Reflect.

Question Authority. Question your beliefs. Question your lifestyle. Question your habits. Question everything you've got. Especially, question your prejudices, your anger, your frustrations.

I have been away from the blog for a while. After switching companies, I teamed up with a guy. We hit the road; I drove, he slept, he drove, I slept. It is hard to find WiFi when the truck usually doesn't stop. Actually we did once in Missouri but that is another story.

Sitting in orientation for the new company, there were about 11 of us there. One guy stood out. He bristled with old school trucker attitude. He was negative and inappropriate. His jokes, comments and “F” bombs always seemed to creep in just at the wrong moment. He was asking these tedious detailed questions. You could tell he was angling to work the system. I even had the thought “I wouldn't want to team with THAT guy.”

The new company was looking for teams. They have some business coming up in March that requires several. A team is two people in a truck; running 24/7. One sleeps, the other drives. It is good money they say.

So, after doing lots of paperwork and getting another drug test and physical, we were waiting around for truck assignments. They were short of trucks in Grand Rapids. Some guys were getting sent out in rental cars to Kansas City or Dallas to get trucks. Another way to get a truck and hit the road was to team up with someone.

The recruiter called for me and I found his office. Sitting there with the recruiter was THAT guy. They wanted to know if I would consider teaming. I really wanted to get back on the road again. The only way I make any money is if the wheels are turning. It was the fast lane out of town. I decided to do it. The worst case scenario was three weeks out and then jump ship when we came round to home again. I teamed up.

I was pretty much spot on about the guy. He was a curmudgeonly old school trucker; working the system. And complaining about the system. He was prejudiced has hell. But he was more than all that too. He talked and flirted with all varieties of fuel desk ladies. He had a solid trucker etiquette and a big heart. When we were sitting still, the DVD choice, his DVDs and his DVD player, was always mine. We even called on his brother when we were stuck in Minneapolis. Tequila, pizza, football, Pirates of the Carribean, and a guitar fix. And he showed me huge patience, above and beyond the call of co-driver.

I drove a semi with a clutch for a week and a half; and then spent six months driving an automatic. He had 20 years of driving under his you-know-where. There should have been trainer pay on his ticket for all the help he gave me. I would never be floating gears if it wasn't for him [“floating” is shifting with the engines rpm's rather than using the clutch]. There were times when he heard me struggling from the sleeper and got out of bed to help me. So many things about driving a manual transmission, life on the road and even trucker folklore, I wouldn't even know if not for him. I came to appreciate him immensely.

A former employer called and my co-driver decided to go back to them. He can run the way he likes to run there; and no satellite [cue "Satellite of Love" by Lou Reed]. I was trying to decide if I really liked team driving anyway. His departure just saved me from having that conversation. Team driving was more like a job. I wasn't writing; I didn't have my guitar with me; I really didn't sleep as well while the truck was rumbling down the road. My caffeine intake probably quadrupled during that time.

All in all, I am happy to be back driving solo. I will, however, always use, and never forget, all the help I got driving around the country [literally] with an old school curmudgeon. NH, if you read this, thanks again.

The Cop and the Corn

I’ve written before about the DOT regulated hours I have to track as a truck driver. I can drive for eleven hours a day, but once I start,...