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.

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An Empty Square

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