Monday, December 14, 2009

I'm Dreaming of a Warm Christmas . . .

The lights around the highway exit loomed in the foggy darkness and faded out into the lunar landscape of the snow covered Nebraska plains. In the foreground, the grotesque beauty of post storm ice on everything. Every twig in the bare trees, every leaf on every bush, each stem and blade of the weeds, and even the occasional deer carcass, was covered with a silver veil in the glow. The roads were better here, the freezing rain had given way to blowing snow. I drove down the more or less visible highway with the wheel cocked ever so slightly into the wind.

Nerve endings crept out of my fingertips. They slithered around and down the steering column like miniature versions of Jack's bean vines. Somewhere under the dash, a connection was made. The truck and I were one. Just as a crosswind began to push against the truck, I was already pressing the steering a little further. Before the puff was over, the wheel was already back to where I started, just nudging the wind as we went. In cycles of push and ease, we read the wind like an old sailor and his schooner. Anyone watching would simply observe a semi truck maintaining its lane. Inside, the effortless, unified work continued.

With the creak of bone and sinew, my left leg grew down through the floor like Mr. Hyde or a Werewolf in mid change. My toes touched the chilly tarmac. Just as I steered, a moment before the road became slick, I was easing off the accelerator. In dry snow or on pavement, I was already speeding back up. I had taken the red pill, I was plugged in.

I had the FM radio off and the CB radio on. If a bad spot in the road or a wreck was up ahead, someone would cackle over the tinny speakers of the CB. We would all adjust to the new conditions. When the road got really bad, no one talked. For miles it seemed that I was the only truck left on the highway. The steering and the accelorator eased on and off as the road dictated. The only interruption when a bridge would drastically break the wind.

Easing in and out of steering into the wind worked just fine except when the wind suddenly vanished. When I drove under a bridge, the bridge and its embankment would block all the wind. With no wind to steer against, the truck lurched toward the bridge. This can be disconcerting in the daylight. At night, with so few visual frames of reference, the brief, disorienting, lurch toward the bridge felt exactly the same way the tractor did when going into a slide. Each time my heart jumped into my throat. I had to check my mirrors for the trailer. Each time, I could just make out a side light and the rear marker light on my side of the trailer. If those lights were roughly parallel, I was still going down the road; relatively straight.

I had driven more than eight hours before I actually made it up to 54 mph. With a clean road and real speed, I noticed the wipers were still scraping at the windshield. Clickety Clackety to the right, Clap, thud to the left, clickety clackety . . . over and over again. I had to run the wipers on the icy glass, with the defroster blasting from the inside, just to keep a clear view of the road all night. Four or Five times, I had to pull over to scrape the windshield and crack the ice off the wipers. It took me quite a while to trust that I could turn the wipers off. When I finally did it was eerily quiet; like a tomb only colder. I hadn't needed much caffeine with all the stress but now, with a little relief, I was suddenly sleepy.

I had roughly a hundred miles to go. In clear weather, I would have been there early. After all the winter conditions driving, I was getting my confidence back in a clear spot. I was hitting 60 mph occasionally. My trucker brain figured at sixty, I could almost make my appointment. My right leg, with its damnable will to live, kept pulling back, not yet trusting that we are past the weather. The brain gets us back to sixty. After a few minutes, I look down and the leg has us back at fifty two. Brain pushes, leg eases. Same cycle as before, but call it a draw. I made it to the gate with about 7 minutes to spare. The gals at the Receiving Office had no idea what I'd just driven through.

"Back into Dock 214," she said cheerily. She's all smiles and big eyes; bright red sweatshirt and fingernails painted green. "Chock your wheels, dolly down, but don't unhook." Her voice chimes like holiday wishes. The perfect inflection as if she were saying "Donner and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Pancho, Chuy, Tavo." A whole new meaning to the phrase Holiday Fruitcake.

"Aw, "repression"..."recession"'s all da same thing, man." -Cheech Marin

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reading Signs On the Wrong Highway.

I was on a road trip out East to see my brother and his family. The evening before, I had driven across the bluff over Lake Erie at Erie, PA. I love a blue horizon! Cutting the corner of Pennsylvania into New York and on past Buffalo, I spent the night in Williamsville, just off the thruway.

Next morning, out in the moist summer air, I tossed my bag and my guitar in the truck, and slammed the tailgate shut. In the cab, I set up to listen to some podcasts; even a couple from the nearby Rochester Zen Center. It was a bright, beautiful morning to drive the rest of the way across New York and into Massachusetts. I had breakfast at Bob Evan's and hit the road. Good grub and coffee for my belly, and some new podcasts; nourishment for my brain.

My route would take four hours or so to Albany and then just into Massachusetts to Chester. Around Albany, I-90 heads into Massachusetts and the NY Thruway heads Southeast and becomes I-87. As long as I made the turn to stay on I-90, I didn't have to think much to navigate.

On the south side of Batavia, NY5 comes alongside the toll road. My brain was simmering in the warm juices of an interesting podcast. My eyes are open, hands at “10 and 2,” but the auto pilot is engaged. Physically, I'm tooling down the highway at 70 miles an hour. Mentally, I'm sitting in the Rochester Zendo listening to the deliberate, even tone of John Pulleyn. Its warm and comfortable, a good dharma talk. Its quiet, feels safe and over there to the right is a RAMP TO I-90!! WHAT?!? Did I miss my turn already!?!? Where am I?

My brain grinds a few gears and roars into panic. My foot pulls back from the accelerator. I'm scanning the traffic beside and behind me, checking if I can still make the exit. On right shoulder is a solid guardrail. There is no opening; no gap for the exit. The ramp goes up and over a knoll and curves over to join my lane. It takes almost a mile for it to sink in that I was looking at a sign on the wrong highway. The sign wasn't for me, it was for the people on NY5 who wanted to join me on the Thruway.

If you aren't present in the present you are not really living your life. When we are consumed with what should have or could have happened, or perhaps, wishing something had not happened, we are stuck in the past. The paunchy former star athlete, or the aged former beauty queen, still trying to live their “glory days” are clich├ęs of movie and song. We can't make good decisions for our current life if we are not actually living it. When consumed by the past, we are living in a world we can't change because it has already happened. We are reading signs on the wrong highway.

If you are consumed by the future, you have great plans, great hopes for some moment to come, some thing to happen. Consciously or not, we put things off today for those fabulous times to come. We can be consumed by some nebulous goal even while not making any actual progress toward it. Life is passing us by because we don't see it. The kid in the back seat whining “Are we there yet?” is not enjoying the ride. He can't see anything interesting along the way because he is not looking. When great moments, or great possibilities, come to us in the present, we cannot see because we are looking just past them at some unfocused potentiality. We are reading signs on the wrong highway.

When we obsess about how things should be or are going to be, we cannot see how things actually are - reality. In order to move forward, in a direction of our own choosing, we must know where we are going to start. We must accept reality; accept things just as they are. In this accepting, we don't wish something else had happened. We don't ignore things as they are because we “aren't there yet.” When we are carefully aware of just where we are, good decisions can be made about where we want to go from here, and what we want to do next. We are on the right road and reading the right signs.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Don't Be a Tool!

When a tool is designed, it is designed to "do" something. A tool has no sense of being. It has no essential nature. As soon as the tool is in the hands of someone else, like a mechanic, it may well be used in any number of other ways. Tools lack purpose. The tool is only meant to do. It's nature is situational. Is it a wrench or a hammer or a pry bar or a belaying pin? It IS what it is being used for. Vice Grips are a special, adaptable friend of truckers everywhere.

Vice grips hold open the release lever on the Tandem Axles of a trailer. A heavy load, rusty rails or a trailer parked on an incline can make it impossible to adjust the axles. A pair of Vice Grips clamped on a partially pulled lever will often help release them. Further, when I had Satellite Radio, I had a pair of Vice Grips clamped on the outside of my cab with the magnetic XM antenna attached to them. This antenna base, a rusty old pair of Vice Grips, has over 200,000 miles on it. I've even used Vice Grips to pin open a curtain in the window of my sleeper.

Today, in our Ceaseless Society, we expect human beings to multitask; multiple doing. Jon Kabat-Zinn says that Human Beings should really be called Human Doings, because we concentrate much more on doing than being. We can't focus on doing something well while multitasking. If the coin of the realm is multitasking, hyper-doing, there is no time for, or any emphasis on, just being. No time to spend discovering our true purpose.

I heard this vivid phrase somewhere on NPR: Continous Partial Attention. Set your iPhone down for a second, if you are not giving full attention to what you are doing, you cannot do the best possible job on that task. If we live in the buzz of multiple tasks, we can't possibly be living the best possible life. If we are constantly switching from this task to that one, are we giving the people we love any real attention? any dedicated face time? Do we really know what we actually want to do with our lives? When is the last time you stopped and really thought through what you want to do next? what you really want to do for a living? where you actually want to live? What is your true nature? What is your purpose?

Doing sounds like action, but it is essentially static. The tool goes from one task to the next without growth. There is no choice, just the next task. When you are doing, you are not living or growing. Being is dynamic but does not exclude accomplishment. While Doing is the mindless accomplishment of artificial, unconsidered goals, Being is the accomplishment of goals on a path; toward a purpose. These are handpicked, specific goals, chosen to further your life rather than simply to get someone off your back or to get that report off your desk. Purposeful Goals add up to a life worth living.

Can we just 'be?' Do we spend any time to quiet the world long enough to hear ourselves? We are making priorities every day under the crush of To Do Lists, Five Year Plans, Lunch appointments and Meetings, but do we know what we really value? Is there happiness and joy or stress and misery? Without some quiet “being time” to get in touch with what we really value, can we safely decide on anything? Are we even aware of a purpose beyond getting the next task done?

Fortunately, you are not a tool. A tool would never rather be doing something else. It has no sense of anything else, nor of a purpose. As a human, there is much greater depth in purpose. This depth, however, is unreachable when doing outweighs being. When a person is consumed in hyper-doing, they become like the tool; an inanimate object. There is no compassion, no empathy. There is no joy in the life of a tool.

When we can reconnect to ourselves and develop purpose, we can live in parallel to our essential nature rather than opposed to it. We can find joy and compassion and real living. Stress and misery are absent, because living toward a purpose, by definition, is effortlessly doing what we should do because it is what we want to do. In Being we are investing time rather than spending it. So invest a moment in being. Quiet the world long enough to truly consider what is worth your time. Accomplish something essential; something parallel with your purpose. Just be.

Friday, October 23, 2009

It Takes One to Judge One.

After I had entered the complex and drove around to the back, I dropped my trailer in the crisp predawn of a fall morning. I was by myself until another truck pulled around. He backed into a dock a few doors down from me. We both had to wait for the Receiving Office to open up. I had seen him walking around, he was a big guy. Suddenly, Showtunes burst from his cab. I could hear the unmistakably strains of Broadway belting, thumping through the sheet metal. It is a bit unnerving to think of a big burly truck driver listening to Showtunes. And he was blasting them. I could just see some fan of John Wayne Gacy slipping out of his truck to come see me, [hey, big guy] in a Clown Suit, with a straight razor. I shivered at the thought.

It was about ten 'til five, the guard said that Receiving would be open by now. I climbed down to go inside. About three steps toward Door 43 and I heard another door slam shut. I looked over my shoulder just to make sure there was no clown suit. At the office, the door was still locked.

As the other driver walked up to meet me at the door, he had the lazy back-heal saunter of a dimwit. He made up for this by being twice the size of a normal man. To put a fine edge on it, he was rotund, spherical almost. He looked like the Batman's Penguin, if the Arch Criminal had fallen on hard times. He was in a tshirt and jeans rather than a tux and spats. His tshirt said “American by Birth. Christian by Grace.”

“Yep, after I leave here I go back into Indy and then to Oklahoma,” he said, as if I cared. His hair hung at odd angles, ripped as much as cut in the classic 5 minute Truckstop Barber Style. The sagging unshaven jowls gave him a unkept look that matched his clothes. I had to check if the printing on his shirt was metallic because the next thing he said was “Georgia Pacific, Muskogee, I hate that fuckin' place.” I could swear the moonlight flashed a little on the words “Christian by Grace," but I must have imagined it.

We stood there in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes. He seemed like the kind of guy who would spend a half hour considering what he should say in a given situation. In the end, it would always blurt out, semi-appropriate and uninteresting. His wedge into the greater social world blunter and less effective than he had hoped. I know this to be true because I've often done it myself.

The Rotund One broke back in, “You got a garage door on that trailer?”

I was still a little sleepy that morning; more than I thought. Stunned, I cast a glance at my trailer just 10 feet from the stairs we stood on. Damned if he wasn't right! I had backed in to the dock without opening the doors. If Receiving ever opened, they wouldn't be able to unload me anyway. Who's the Dimwit now?!?!??

I kicked at the chock under my trailer wheel but it wouldn't budge. The trailer would have to be pushed off of it. The Rotund Driver had followed me over. I walked back up front and climbed aboard. As I hooked back to the trailer and gave it shove, the driver leaned over and pulled the chock out for me. When I pulled forward to open the doors, he stepped around behind me and opened them up. I nudged the dock and he stepped up the stairs and into the now opened office. He had done his good deed for the day and I had had a lesson in the futility of prejudging someone. When I got inside, I thanked him.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lost in the City Requires Peace of Mind

I think it was Robert Pirsig who, while a Technical Writer, collected assembly instructions. He had a badly translated instruction for assembling a Chinese Built BBQ Grill. Apparently, most of the written instructions bordered on useless, but they began with the deeply Eastern “Assembling Barbecue Grill requires Great Peace of Mind.” As the author of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Pirsig rather liked this though it was likely more accidental than oriental. There are days, many many days, when Trucking requires Great Peace of Mind. And flexibility too, but any arguments of how many, or if any, truckers possess such states of mind is a topic for another day. On a recent trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to practice my flexibility and had to desperately hang on to the remaining shreds of my Peace of Mind.

I hit Chicago about three in the morning. On the outskirts of town, I did a quick review of the directions I'd been given. Seemed like a straight shot; take the Tri-State up to the Eisenhower, second exit. The details were a little sketchy, but things usually work out OK. The first ebb of a night of evolving assumptions. Chicago, in the middle of the night, is not bad. There is always traffic, but at that hour, never enough to slow me down.

When I got off the Eisenhower, the sketchy details started to fall out of rather than into place. “Exit 13A, E US20. Go one block, proceed East on Lake St.” the directions calmly stated. East US 20, like all U.S. Highways, could be on a funky angle, but East Lake St. should be actually east [First Wrinkle of the Second Assumption]. It must be just off to the right [the rest of the Second Assumption]. Off the highway in the dark, there's a couple railroad overpasses, some tall old industrial buildings. A couple, like grain elevators, loom into the hazy mix of darkness and city lights. I creep along for about a block. There is a road here but it looks more like a driveway. In another block or so, there is a road to the left. “To East IL-67” a sign shouts at my headlights. My directions don't mention IL-67, so I move on [Yet, a Third Assumption].

Now I'm rolling down a typical Midwest industrial strip. There's a few corporate buildings, a forklift dealer, an auto repair shop, and a couple machine shops. I've gone way more than a block; probably four. Suddenly there is a large parking lot on my right. I step on the brakes, jam through a couple gears and lurch inside.

Its a big city “pay-to-park” lot for semis. If you live nearby, or just do a lot of business nearby, they have semi size spaces for rent. As I lope into the lot, a guard comes out of the office trailer. He trudges down the aluminum steps as I pull to their stop sign. Scanning his clipboard, the guard walks across the front of my tractor. The beam of each headlight swells to a glare on his shoulder and fades away behind him. I roll down my window and raise my voice of the grinding diesel.

“Sorry, I missed a turn back there. Can I just turn around in here?”

Without a word, the guard smiles, spins back around and waves me through. As I pull past him and start a big circle, the guard trudges right back up and into his shack. The lot is in good shape. Mercury lights buzz dimly over a big flat cinder lot. In the vagueness of city night, bright light bursts out of the windows from three sides of the guard shack. The unyielding contrast makes the guard shack like a Dec-O-Rama in a huge Museum of the City. The guard sits at his desk facing a small TV sitting on a file cabinet next to a well used coffee maker. The rigid industrial lines of the desk, the cabinet, the trailer and the parking spaces are mocked by the kinks and wild turns of the unbent coat hanger that has replaced the TV's antenna.

Back on the street, I retrace my steps toward the highway. If I was supposed to Exit on East 20 and then turn East on Lake Street, Lake Street is probably a right turn [recast Second Assumption]. It should have been obvious either way; maybe that driveway looking entrance was the right place [A Fourth Assumption]. Having seen no better alternative, I stopped in the left turn lane, across from the driveway, straining to read the unlit signs crowding the other curb. I flicked the brights on. One hopeful looking sign is completely useless. Eric Hiscock said “Fortune favors the reckless.” So I turned in.

Its definitely industrial. I pass a trucking company at the base of one of the grain elevators. Off to the right is a large cross dock with several semi trailers. That is promising but I can't find a street to get over to it [Fifth Assumption]. Suddenly I'm funneled into short pole building. As I enter, bright lights flash on and the interior explodes into stark detail. I keep rolling slowly through. Without a sound, its dark again. My night vision is shot, but another brightly lit, squat building is just ahead. I pull under a structure like a toll booth. There is a unit like the drive thru bank below my window. I've been transported into some Terry Gilliam Postmodern landscape.

There's a click and the hum of a small room behind an old analog microphone.

“You're lost. Aren't you?” blares a happy voice from the tinny speaker. Central Casting from Gilliam's Brazil couldn't have cast a better, vaguely ethnic, beguilingly cheerful disembodied countenance.

“Yeah, I'm looking for Jewel/Osco but I'm not doing very well. Do you know where they are?”

“Well, this is the railroad. You didn't look like you were headed for the railroad. That might be them over there to your right.” The happy voice oozes with empathy. He's been lost in the city at night too. “Turn left as soon as you leave our exit gate.”

My truck rumbles into the rail yard; another big circle. More post industrial buildings with weird catwalks and railroad sidings. There are monstrous cranes that swallow a whole rail car, lift off the container and then spit the car out again. Guys in yard switcher engines, pickups and, oddly, a Volvo. Hard hats, steel toe boots and worn denim wander everywhere. They all carry a smirk knowing I don't belong here tonight.

Out the exit gate and . . . there is just no way to turn left. Even a small car couldn't turn left. To go left is to climb a concrete barrier, leap to a scale the chain link fence. Then over the razor wire and you're in. I've had enough of this fun and pull over most of the way down the driveway.

The small scale map of Chicago in my Atlas is no help. Not enough detail for the rail yard or even Lake Street. I look at my phone. It can reach the internet, but a detail map on that little screen is like looking at a computer circuit board; lots of unlabeled lines and intersections none of which I can decipher.

Its then when I have a vision. The sun is suddenly shining behind a large cloud. Angels appear from the left and the right. They bend over in unison and put big brass horns to the backs of their robes. In a glorious God calling chord, the cloud shimmies open like a Punch and Judy Stage. Monty Python's Old Man God appears complete with his cut out, nut cracker mouth. His chin slips up and down, just out of sync with the audio and he says, “Viaduct Clearances for Chicago Streets and surrounding neighborhoods.” And with that the vision dissipates into a spray of confetti and a some noise of the bowels. They're all gone, but I'm digging through my truck stuff with a determined grin.

In the Seventeenth month of my tenure, I have yet to touch a map that I was given at orientation. Miraculously, the map is called “Viaduct Clearances for Chicago Streets and surrounding neighborhoods.” In the chaotic world of freight shippers in the Chicago Area, you cannot cut across town on the surface streets without checking for low bridges. However, I have never had to cut across town in this manner and have yet to even unfold that nearly forgotten map. The very map I was now clawing open.

The Front side of the map is all downtown City of Chicago in close detail. With a sigh of relief, the back side is “surrounding neighborhoods.” There's Lake Street! It _is_ IL-67!! That changes everything. Scanning the map for my next assumptions [Sixth] I see that IL-67 is the Northern border of Melrose Park, my destination. The sketchy details in the second half of my directions are “Take Lake St. East to 15th Ave. Proceed past first stop sign. Jog and continue to second stop sign. Turn left on Armitage. Jewel/Osco is on the right.

The Trucker Logic goes if IL-67 is the Northern Border of Melrose Park, the destination. Then traveling East to get there, I must turn right (south) to get to Jewel/ Osco Receiving [where was I?, seventh! Seventh Assumption]. With a new confidence, I exit the rail yard, find the loud “To IL-67” sign and turn left. At IL-67/Lake Street, I turn East (right). Whoever looked up these directions on Google Maps must have thought that you could easily take Exit 13A to East US20 and “Proceed to East Lake St.” However, not being from Chicago, not knowing IL-67 _was_ Lake Street, . . . I was lost and in the dark in more ways than one.

Cruising down Lake Street, I crossed 35th Avenue. Twenty blocks to go. Then there was 25th Ave.; right on time. There was a big Jewel/Osco logo on the left. WHAT!?! Rolling past in the dim light of dawn, I watch the Jewel/Osco facility move by. There is a sign I can't quite make out by a truck size driveway. Several Potential Assumptions flip through my caffeine addled brain. Did Jewel/Osco move and my directions are still to the old location? Is that the dry goods warehouse and perishables is down 15th Ave.? Should I keep moving or stop and ask? Should I join the circus? Where is my other blue sock? Oh, never mind.

I've pulled a semi through lots of cities, including New York City, the Big Apple, where I once parked tractor and half a trailer, illegally, on the sidewalk for four hours while being loaded. My big city instincts have me pulling to the left without really thinking. The place to be for a confused truck driver, in the big city, as the morning traffic is about to start, is the left turn lane, mid block. Safely in the center, I pull on the four way flashers, set the brakes and stop to think; or find a stiff drink.

I can see 15th Avenue, a block or so up the street. Craning my shoulders, I can see back toward Jewel/Osco. Their logo and color scheme is orange. I can see orange trimmed buildings, behind the stores on the street, coming most of the way up toward me. There is a big facility back there. There is also no good reason to have dry goods and perishables several blocks apart. In the liquid logic of suburban boundaries, Jewel/Osco is on the North side of IL-67. This puts them outside the primary color shading of Melrose Park on my map, but apparently inside the actual boundaries of the town in real life. The unspecified turn on 15th Avenue must therefore be left or North [the Final Assumption?]

The smoke test will be the two stop signs and the jog. If I turn left and see them right away, I've made the right guess. If not, I'll need another large space to turn around in a big circle and a new assumption.

Before I even complete the turn, I can see two stop signs, askew. I'm on the right path. From completely lost to making the delivery, I ended up only twelve minutes late. Another nearly Zen night on the American Byways.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Snapping Turtle That Ate Milwaukee!

It was a classic Monster Movie motif; big city traffic jam confronted by raging prehistoric monster. South of Milwaukee, I was diverted off the highway and straight into its path. But no screaming pedestrians, no thump thump thump of police helicopters, no city bus lifted to the monster's bloodshot eye. Just an ancient Snapping Turtle lumbering across the pavement.

He was huge for a turtle. In each cautious step, a foot would stretch forward, almost pointing the toe and then drop to the ground. Each stride just less than the reach of his toe, oddly mimicking the strut of a majorette. In a panic, his neck stretched impossibly far out of his shell, like he was taking turtle enhancement supplements. Yet he stared straight ahead and strode on like a general into battle. Rather than medals, he wore a shawl of moss. It looked less like a turtle shell than an old stump crawling out of the swamp.

The detour had taken me off the highway. The road widened into two lanes just as I spotted the majestic turtle. I made an exaggerated arc into the left lane and around him. The first several cars behind me caught my drift and followed me around him. It was a good start. I hope he made it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I used to have a driver's license with the address of the main Post Office in Sarasota. While living on a boat, with no address but a P.O. Box, I tried to update my license. The girl at the counter balked at issuing the license. I explained that I couldn't furnish a street address. When she asked if there wasn't someone's address I could use, I had an idea. I left and walked down the street to a phone booth. Armed with the "address" of my mailbox, I returned. No one batted an eye and I got my license.

This week, Mom was digging through some St. Patrick's Day stuff in preparation for their celebrations in Florida. She came across a letter I had written in 1994! Dad typed the whole thing into an email for me. It was a pleasure to revisit the memory of a book I really liked and it is completely topical for this week. So, here it is, just the way it appeared back then. But please don't use that address. I've worked hard to lose the Florida Marine Patrol and the I.R.S. :o)

What is especially funny is the tag after my signature. Here it is 15 years later and I am almost in the same spot! Don't doubt for a minute, however, that I have never been as close to doing just that as I am today. Happy St. Patrick's Day!!!

Here's the letter:

From the bilges of . . .

Todd R. Townsend
PO Box 49821
Sarasota, FL 34230

March 15, 1994

Dear Irish Friends,

This won’t make it for St. Paddy’s Day because it is the 15th already, but as St. Paddy passes I thought you would like to know of an Irish bombshell that I discovered in my readings. The Irish discovered North America 400 years before the Vikings and a thousand before Columbus!

A Welshman who was an expert on medeival English literature was discussing a certain tale of the voyages of an Irish monk with his wife, an expert on medieval Spanish literature. (A terribly exciting couple I’m sure) They were struck by the fact that the story lacked most of the “special effects” of medieval Christian writing; that it seemed rather factual in its presentation. The story was about St. Brendan, an early Irish monk and his voyage along the “stepping stone” route from Ireland to North America by way of Iceland and Greenland. To cut a long story sideways, the Welshman (almost as good as an Irishman) decides to build traditional Irish leather boat and sail to North America in an attempt to prove if it could be done.

It seems that in the third and fourth centuries, the intellectuals of Europe were fleeing persecution to Ireland. The monks collected their books and recorded their knowledge. The Welshman’s research led him to think that most Irish monks believed the earth was round even then; having read of Ptolemy’s calculations and other astronomers’ work. Further, it seems the Irish, always intensely religious, made a habit of going off to some deserted shore to commune with their God. This made them accomplished navigators.

There is a modern lighthouse on a small island off the Irish coast. The windows, several hundred feet above sea level, are sometimes blown out in gales. During the construction of the lighthouse, they found evidence of a monastic community on the island!

St. Brendan was a bishop in Ireland in the fourth century. He tells of a long voyage to a land west of Ireland. Another church official, writing later about the geographical scope of the Catholic Church, complained that not enough had been written about the westward travels of the Irish. St. Brendan’s story was probably a story of many voyages, not one and a tour by a church “bigwig” rather than a voyage of discovery. In the story St. Brendan travels from Ireland north to the shores of what is now Scotland and then to the Faroes Islands. His voyage took him to Iceland and then Greenland and then to a land of plenty past Greenland; probably Newfoundland.

The voyage in 1976 and 1977 by the Welshman and a crew brought new light to certain aspects of the story. The ancient monk/mariner spoke of a pillar of crystal in the water – likely an iceberg. An encounter with s sea monster was probably a whale; a creature the monks would never have seen before. The modern voyage found the whales were quite smitten with the hull of the leather boat. An island called the Land the Smiths, throwing hot rocks at the monks, could have been volcano spewing lava from its shore. St. Brendan encountered tremendous fog before reaching Newfoundland; weather conditions that exist today.

The Welshman and his team made it!! In fact, they discovered that traditional wool clothes and traditional dried meats were better suited for the trip than hi-tech materials and dehydrated rations. There is no evidence yet of the Irish on North American soil, but the Brendan Voyage 1976 and 1977 prove that it could have happened much like Thor Heyerdahl’s Pacific voyage in a Polynesian raft. _May_ 17th is St. Brendan’s Day in Ireland. The true Irish will have another occasion to imbibe, while our loyal fans will wonder anew why the Irish don’t rule the world.

The book, “The Brendan Voyage” is very well written and should be available at a good library. I hope you enjoy St. Patrick’s Day and propose that you remember St. Brendan in May as well. An Irishman and a mariner; he must have been a good guy.

Warm Irish regards,

Todd R. Townsend

Living like a monk,
Wishing I was a mariner!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lost in a River Town.

Leaving Chicago to the west, I was soon reminded that Plains reach all the way into Illinois. I should have known, but it is hard for a guy from Michigan to realize the wide open plains are so close. The wind slashed at my windows and hit the trailer like Pacific Surge on the rocks of Big Sur. I was weaving my way across US30 toward Clinton, IA.

All the prairie towns seem lonely. Usually huddled around a river or a lake. There is a little car dealer, maybe only one fast food joint, a family restaurant, a hardware store and a sporting goods store. Sometimes these last two are the same. Today, the snow is gone and the rivers are swollen. In the prespring days of early March, the mud along the road looks more alive than the lawns. Everything is brown and grey, waiting for resurrection and the green and blue of spring.

Before I reach the Mississippi, I cross a National Wildlife Refuge. Not much wildlife, but all the trees, bushes and clumps of grass are wearing ice skirts. The rising water had frozen and when it receded, left a little ice tutu around each.

Truckers will tell you, with a wry smile, that Dispatchers lie. A broker is a dispatcher who will probably never talk to you again. How much care does he have to put into this transaction? I'm hauling a broker load. The directions seem easy; US30 west, go south on US67 which turns into 2nd Ave, to 1219 2nd Ave South.

I cross the bridge and the "Big Muddy" into Iowa. It is a typical rivertown trying to make in the modern world; touristy stuff and a casino mix with the remnants of industry on the river bank. Huge refinery stacks and old brick buildings form the romantic backdrop to your big weekend at the blackjack table. Turning South on US67, I am confronted with construction. Everywhere. Apparently, the casino is spending some money on Civic Pride and Beautification. The road, that I would have guessed I need to take, is closed. A bunch of guys in orange vests are doing their best to keep warm rather than finishing the fancy brick pedestrian crosswalk.

US67 curves West and then South again. I've lost 2nd Ave, but there is nowhere to turn around. Clinton is chock full of heavy industry. Refineries, food processing, packaging. All the way through town, I never saw 2nd Ave. again. There is, however, a small truckstop. It is time to call for help.

Dispatch gave me the customer's phone number and a very nice lady, who says she is in a different building, gave me directions to where I need to be. She knew the address I had, she must be right. The Broker's directions were completely wrong! I needed to go North on US67. My new directions are US67, stoplight North of US30, turn right, turn left on 2nd Ave, under a bridge and then under a Railroad Bridge, second on the left.

I wind my way back through town and cross US30. My stoplight is right where it is supposed to be - turn right, then left. I turn into a city street that hasn't changed since the war. I mean the big one - WWII. There is Nora's Cafe, Herb's TV repair, Family Furniture and Lexington Apartments - a real honest-to-goodness apartment block. It is 5 stories and the whole block. Miscellaneous retail fills the first floor along with a State Agency and the Landlord. "Furnished Apartments Available. First Week Free."

I am looking down a long Main Street from the old days. It used to be a concentration of trade. Everyone went downtown to buy anything. Those days are long gone. There a couple mumbling bums walking around with plastic grocery bags dripping with collected cans, but it is just me and them. This is exactly why First Weeks are free around here. It is why Ace Remodeling, Flaming Dragon Body Art and Joe's Comics can afford the rent.

It occurs to me that this long, romantically retro, main street goes on for a long while without going under any kind of bridge. Waking from my internal monologue, the addresses are going up and I am in the 1400's already. This is a problem. It sneaks into the back of my head that the address suffix was "South" - 1219 2nd Ave. South. I'm going the wrong direction. The road is getting less retail, more residential, and narrower. Turning around 80' of truck and trailer, as always, is going to be interesting.

US67 turns left on the way out of town. The turn is tight in a secondary downtown strip going East and West. It is my best option, and luckily, in a couple blocks there is a gas station/convenience store with a large plaza and fuel area. Left off US67 and left on another side street and I can turn through the plaza and head back down US67 the other way.

As you might have guessed, I'm still 5 blocks away from the intersection where this all started and I can already see two bridges. Back past the Lexington Apartments, which should really be Lexington Arms, I'm going under a bridge. The bridge I crossed the Mississippi on. Directly after it is the Railroad Bridge. I've arrived.

If I had kept my head up and my wits about me, I would have made the right turn. From the stoplight, I could have seen the two bridges if I had only wasted the calories on turning my head to the right. I've got good instincts, when I use them. My morning would have been smoother and less stressful. All for the turning of my neck!

It works for life too. So what are you doing? Are you paying attention to where you should be going? Or are you just following someone else's directions? Take a stake in your destination.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Karmic Deficit Imbalance

So, just when I thought I was pushing my luck with Weigh Stations, I hit the jackpot and drained my Karma all in one fell swoop. I'm upside down like the Chinese Trade Deficit. I had passed closed stations when I knew I was pushing the GVW limits, I've gone East when only the Westbound Coop was open; only to find the West closed and East open as I passed the other way. I bless my luck but thought I was near the end. I even wove my way through the Irish Hills of South Central Michigan to avoid scales on I96 and I94; wasting hours and driving miles I would never get paid for.

Monday I picked up a load in Lexington, KY. I meant to scale at the Pilot at the 129. Talking on the phone, I drove right past my exit - oblivious. Suddenly the Kentucky scale on I75 Northbound appeared around a curve. I was "all in" whether I wanted to be or not. I rolled on through and assumed I had been blessed. No holy water or chants, but I figured if they didn't stop me my weight was OK. You know what they say about A S S U M E.

Well, I sauntered my way through the hills of Kentucky and down into the Ohio River Valley. I passed through Florence Y'all and into Cincinnati. The bypass is a broad circle and way too many miles. In midafternoon, after hitting I71 just over the river, I pulled right through town. I was on a tight schedule, but was doing good. I had had to take a 10 hour break in Lexington and picked the load up at the very end of my pickup timeframe. This left little time for breakfast or any other goofing around on the way to Delaware, OH.

As I came upon the Ohio Scale, their sign glowered "OPEN." No problem - I've been blessed by Kentucky DOT. Imagine my shock, dismay and general put-out-ness when Ohio had the audacity to tell me to pull around behind. Damn! This is never good and often the worst possible thing.

I gathered my logbook, checked that I knew where my Medical card was, got the Bills of Lading and climbed out of the tractor. The scale lady poked her head out of the building and told me to pull back around front, but stop on each axle.

I pulled around and got rechecked and carefully weighed. This is the trucking equivalent of a colostomy. Her voice scratched and tore at the intercom, "Pull around back again and bring in your truck and trailer registration."

She didn't say logbook, and I was at least 45 minutes ahead of my log, so I left it tucked away in the cab. I pried open the trailer capsule and took the paperwork inside.

"Today's your lucky day," she cackled.

"I don't feel lucky at this very moment," I moaned.

"Well, they just called my Trooper away to an accident," she informed me. "There's no one here to write you a ticket. They just saved you $157."

If it wasn't for the clinical stainless countertop, the security cameras and her badge, I would have climbed over and hugged her. Instead, I thanked her and made my way to the door. I fought off the smile until I was completely out of the building, out of sight.

Then it hit me. I need a Trillion Dollar bailout just for my Karma. I've been walking old ladies across streets, kissing lepers, dropping change in tin cups and prostrating myself in front of all kinds of craven images ever since.

I'd rather be Lucky than Good, but this is ridiculous!

We stand for freedom!

A regular feature on the Prairie Home Companion, "Dusty and Lefty, The Lives of the Cowboys," is a old timey radio show featuring two cowboys, one a poet, often trapped somehow in the modern world. I heard one recently that was fabulously appropriate.

Dusty, played by Garrison Keillor, abruptly finds out that Lefty, Tim Russell, is considering retiring. They argue a bit back and forth. Lefty says "There aren't Cattle Drives anymore, beef is delivered overnight to your doorstep. They don't need us anymore, come with me . . . just retire. Dusty says "They do need us. They may not know it, but America needs us because Cowboys stand for freedom; like Hobos, and Truckers, and Sailors." If I bought a cowboy hat or some boots, I'd be 4 for 4!! It's just a service we provide. Fly and be Free.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Nothing . . . to be afraid of

Sometimes what is not there is scarier than what is. Sort of the devil you know from the other perspective. Long ago, I sold plastic parts in Florida. I was based in Tampa and went to the Southeast Coast about every three weeks.

It was faster, especially during the perennial road construction, to cut across the swamp. I would take FL-70 through Arcadia. If I was headed to West Palm Beach, I would stay on 70 and go around the North Side of Lake Okeechobee; to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, I would take US-27 around to the south.

Out past Arcadia and around the lake is Florida's cattle country. Cows and Steers with Cattle Egrets on their backs, lolly-gagging in verdant paddocks, sweating and switching flies with their tails. From Arcadia to US-27, there was very little evidence of human occupation - few houses, the occasional farm truck or tractor. One of the few places to find a Cadillac with bullhorns on the hood outside of Texas or Oklahoma.

One trip through this part of Florida, I got behind a guy in a pickup truck eatin' chicken wings. Every couple minutes, he would fling a bone or two out his window. With sinew and bits of skin hanging on each end, they arced through the air and bounced off the windshield right in front of my face. The wings must have been plain as he just left me with little grease marks and no sauce on the window to wipe clean.

On another trip, I drove past the Clock Restaurant on the east side of town, where their sign said: "Try Are Pies".  Just down the block, a garage sale sign advertised a "Hudge Sale." I was surprised they were having the sale while Mom was at work waiting tables.

Yet another trip, I was driving across in the dark. Shadowy visions of pastures and clumps of Live Oak trees ghosted along beside me under a full moon. For miles, it was just me, the road and a ditch on each side, barbed wire undulating on the outer banks. And then, I had to pee.

A smile turned up into my cheek. I hadn't seen another car for a long time. I popped on the four way flashers and stopped; just stopped in the middle of my lane. It's a guy thing -- alright, a little boy thing -- but there I stood in the middle of a state highway, peeing on the yellow center line and chuckling.

It would have been a pleasant Florida evening, but there was no wind; just the moon and a clear cloudless night. And no other sound. No buzz of an insect, no clunk of a cowbell, no steer grunting in disapproval, no rustling of the Spanish Moss. Just the pitter patter of me peeing in the road

... which suddenly stopped.

Had I known, I would have left the car running. There is something unnerving about stone silence. A full moon, the barbed wire, Live Oaks across the pasture but not a sound. In any scary B-movie, this same silence precedes something really bad happening. It is also hard wired into our fight or flight instincts; obviously the flight side. Just nothing. Scary, spooky, chilly, nothing.

Flip! Zip! Slam!!! I was back in the car - scared out of my wits . . . at nothing -- I don't know why! I'm a fairly rational guy but gooseflesh, hairs-on-end and fingers fumbling with the ignition - I'm outta here!!

This week it happened again. Somewhat more civilized as I'm driving familiar roads and know where the rest areas are.

Just west of the Portage River, west of Port Clinton on OH2, there is a little rest stop. One side serves both directions of highway. Just behind it and over a field or two is Lake Erie. I like the trip through here; especially in summer. I had just driven through an early winter storm -- fog and torrential rain -- which luckily stopped a few miles back.

I approached the Rest Area in the slick metallic wetness of a recent rain at night, past the Air National Guard Base and turned to the left. A lonely car passed me on the right. Just past the Rest Area is a low slung "No Tell Motel." It was probably quite a place in the days before the Interstates. Now it did weekly rentals. I've lived by the week. I know the kind of crowds that live there. Check out Dave Alvins' "30 Dollar Room" if your not sure.

I'm not paranoid, but on this job it pays to be alert and aware. As the air brakes sighed and I climbed down from the cab, I scanned the lot. Especially in the direction of the motel: 15 or 20 rooms, 5 or 6 vehicles, no obvious activity. I glanced back down the road as I walked around the front of the cab. Nothing. A car rolled by on the highway like a long pan in a Hitchcock movie.

Coming out of the Mens John, the rest stop lobby was all glass, lit from the inside with the Governor and his Lieutenant smiling down from the bulletin board, and I couldn't see outside at all. Stupid, but there's that icy finger on my spine again.

I pushed the door open and looked around; motel one way, air base the other. Nothing. Not a sound either, like the storm had drug all the sound away with it. I walked toward my truck with forced nonchalance. Herky Jerky as one leg wanted to lift too high too fast; left brain wants to run, right brain is faking cool. I look left and right as I cross the curb from the Car Lot to the Truck Lot. The wind comes back but I feel it more than I hear it. That icy finger tickles my ear.

The spooked left brain reminded us there could be someone hiding on the other side of the truck. I peaked under the trailer as I walked toward it. Rounding the truck, I casually got my keys out to unlock the door. SLAM! I was up and in the driver's seat, locking the door without remembering the climbing of the steps. My heart was racing . . . and for what! Stupid Human Tricks, I guess. I think I would have been better off if the lot was full of Harleys and lowrider Cadillacs.

I started the truck and checked my mirrors -- still no one around. I pulled out and started heading east again; chuckling at my self.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Ice Dancing

It was clearly a night that I should have called in sick. Or at the very least bailed as soon as it started to go bad. We had had a slight warming and then a ferocious cold snap. The drop yard was thick with ice and full of ruts and clumps and holes from the last traffic before the freeze.

Creeping along in my pickup, I bounced and shimmied and shook across the lunar lot. Occasionally, the violence of falling in a hole or clammering over a ridge was almost painful. My forward progress interrupted enough that I wasn't sure I could get moving again.

Dispatch had given me a tractor number to use. After two painful trips around the yard, I was convinced it wasn't there. Calling back in, I got "Well, let me see here . . . damn, someone else is in that one." Armed with a new, and successful, truck assignment, I started packing. I've got a duffel of clothes, a cooler, a tub of truck stuff and another tub that serves as my pantry. As usual, I also have a 12 pack each of water and Diet Mountain Dew. This week, I didn't bring my guitar. All that and a broom to hang on the back of the cab; I'm ready to roll.

It takes a couple more trips bouncing around the lot to find that the trailer my load is on rests across the street. I get hooked up and check the paperwork. I am 1200 lbs. over gross; not legal for the highway. The previous driver thinks its the ice on the roof. He's probably right but this load is very heavy - bottled water for a warehouse store somewhere in Illinois.

This is where right and wrong, risk and reward, get paved over for a new Bypass to maintain economic activity. I could call in and refuse the load. More politically, I could call and ask for advice. They can't tell me to go around the DOT Scales but they would really rather that I did. It is unspoken and retains the Clintonesque plausible deniability. Anything I do, other than drive away with the load, is going to cost me a couple hours and damage my working relationship with dispatch. I craft a plan.

I've got 7 hours to make a 2 1/2 hour trip. Its a set appointment, so getting there early won't do me any good. There is only one scale between them and me. If I leave now, and get past the Indiana Scales, I can take a nap at a truckstop and then go in for the delivery. At this hour, on Dec. 26th, the scale is likely to be closed up tight. I take the gamble and drive off.

The trip goes fine. I run down the West side of Michigan. In the summer, I can smell the lake from the highway. I scoot through Michigan City, past the Scale and stop at Burns Harbor. The forecast is for warmer weather with the possibility of freezing rain. All I need is a three hour nap and I can roll again.

Halfway through my nap, I wake just enough to hear the rain. It must be getting warmer. I roll over.

When my alarm goes off and I climb out of the truck to make a pitstop, the last meddling detail of the forecast slaps me awake - Freezing Rain! The entire earth, as far as I can see in all directions, has been glazed over like a Krispy Kreme Donut. I can barely walk.

My well planned, half executed, plan has gone to hell. Rumors are that the State Police have closed the highway. I need to fuel up and get on down the road. I gotta go!

I break out my Motor Carrier Atlas and paw to the State Road Conditions page. I call Indiana and Illinois. Each prerecorded message gives weather conditions that sound hours old and cheerfully better than what it looks like now. Neither mentions any highway closures.

To get to the fuel island, I have to pull forward and off to the left. There is a small ridge of leftover snow right in front of my steer tires. Ice is everywhere.

I back up to nudge my way over the ridge with a running start. It seems to work, steer tires, then drive tires, both axles, lumber over the ridge. The trouble comes when I have to start turning right at the moment the first trailer axle reaches the ridge. It stops me cold, like a cow looking at a new gate. I back up and try to hit it a little harder, but the acceleration causes the drive tires to spin. The lot is so slick I can't turn and clear the ridge at the same time.

A driver steps out to repeat the rumor that the highway is closed. I know its a mess out here, but I don't want to shut down on hearsay alone. I back back into my parking space.

After a few moments' contemplation, considering the lot is only two thirds full, I decide if I back up, there is no ridge to intercept my turn. Trouble is the parking lot imperceptibly cants down toward the back row. When I back up to come around the other way, the weight of my load takes over. Now I don't have enough traction to pull the load up the slope. Back was easy; downhill. Forward is now impossible. Luckily no one is behind me, and I back into a slot in the back row. Now I've got to call this in. I'm not going to make my appointment.

Dispatch gives me to the shop and they call a wrecker to winch me out. The shop calls back to tell me the wrecker is two hours out if the highway remains open. The day is shot and I've driven 137.5 miles.

I jump out and slither my way across the lot to get a newspaper. About halfway across barely able to stand, let alone walk, an icy finger runs up my spine. The keys I confirmed were in my pocket are still my personal keys. I've just made my morning even better - I've locked my rig keys in the cab. It's then that I notice the trucks sitting out on the highway. The State Police have shut it down. The wrecker can't move.

Six hours, three newspapers and four cups of coffee later, the highway is open and the wrecker arrives. The ice has melted enough I could drive out, but I need him to pop the lock. I spent the entire time in a booth at McDonalds and milling around the truckstop, chiming in to complain about the ice, not letting on that I would rather be in my truck reading or sleeping but for the lack of a key!

Things were looking up for a minute or two. Then I learned the customer won't take the delivery late. The warehouse store concept calls for deliveries after midnight but not during store hours. Dispatch has me take the load to a drop lot in Hammond. Someone else will take the load in tomorrow night.

Everyone on the highways is still a little skittish but they are moving along. The exit is fairly well groomed. The service road is pretty sloppy. Around the curve, first drive past the International Dealer, the drop lot is slick and white; like the underbelly of a great fish. Ice all the way back between the buildings, beyond the parked trucks - some waiting for Monday, some rusting hulks.

If I don't pause, don't hesitate for a split second, I can move over the ice. I see another of our trailers and turn toward it. My forward motion doesn't even change. There'll be no turning here. As I coast to the last curve before the fence, there is just enough traction at this speed to go around to the right. Carefully positioning the truck, I back into a hole next to my sister trailer.

I can't get out from under the trailer. Traction, or lack thereof, still devil's me. Dolleys are down, king pin unlocked, but my tires just spin. I try taking weight off, putting it back on to no avail. For traction, I decide to pull out and back in a couple feet to the right. There is snow there where no tires have travelled.

Halfway back in the lot, the trailer is not traveling with me! It has followed me out but is lolling side to side on the fifth wheel. When I bumped the trailer to re-lock the kingpin, the lack of traction psyched me. Luckily, the dolleys are still mostly down. If I'd have lost the trailer it would still be standing. I manage to get out from under the trailer but it is in the middle of the yard. Amazingly, the truck slips back under and I back in over the snow.

The snow offers no help - no traction. I've spun the drive tires a couple times. I might as well be on a lake Ice Fishing.

Over by the back of one of the warehouses, a skid with a built up crate of 2x4's and big thick cardboard rest akimbo at the edge of a pile. The long sides are three foot by four foot pieces stapled on. I yank them off and skitter back to the truck. Stuffed under the drive tires, they might offer some grip. My Kingdom for some traction! Of course, my Kingdom is 8 or 10 boxes in my parents basement, mail at my sister's and a boat that doesn't float yet.

Easing the clutch out as slow as I can, in a gear just a notch too high to prevent spin, I eye the cardboard in my convex mirrors. Sweet potential savior cardboard, hear my croak; my anguished plea for mercy.

The tires begin to move, is it?!?!? Come on! And Zip!! . . . the cardboard slips under the first drive axle and curls up in front of the second. Like a Cash Register Receipt paper jam - my transaction could not be completed. Plenty of traction on top of the cardboard; absolutely none on the bottom. I call dispatch for my second winch out of the morning.

Same company, same model wrecker, new driver. A wrecker to haul semis is a special beast; one huge animal. He has little trouble on the ice. The wrecker is part crane for trucks in ditches. He backs in front of me, hooks a cable and pulls forward.

The crane part has feet that fold out to stabilize like cranes and overhead lifts do. Rather than folding the feet out flat, he stomps the toes into the ice and pulls the cable taut with a dip of the crane - like a Transformer doing the Macarena.

I'm literally yanked out from under the trailer. He left me in a spot of ice, so there's a second yank. I crawl under the empty sister trailer but can't get out. This time he connects the cable and tows me all the way out to the road. I'm back on the lake, but Water Skiing rather than Ice Fishing.

I sign his ticket and get on my way. A glutton for punishment, now I'm chasing the storm into Michigan with an empty trailer. What a week and its only my Tuesday! Two days in, I've spent $385 of the company's money and, for me, I've driven less than 150 miles; about $50 before taxes.

The very next day, I made it to Ohio and sat for four hours to get a twenty minute fuel filter change. Things are looking up! It'll cost you a case a beer to hear that story.

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,...