Wednesday, April 7, 2010

It Ain't The Black Cats . . .

I always thought that the Black Cats were the ones to avoid, but a run-in with a spooky old tiger cat last week changed my mind. There is only one approved place for me to get fuel in Nebraska. About 5 miles before the exit, I called dispatch to find out where I was picking up my back haul. I only needed fuel if I was going further West. Sure enough my back haul was three and half hours further west. I pulled off the highway.

For a hundred miles on either side of Council Bluffs, Iowa, Interstate 80 runs along that bluff. To the North, the county roads roll down to the darkness of the prairie. The nearly pure blackness makes you wonder if anything exists in that direction. It looks like outer space, an occasional street light or the glow of mercury vapor around a farmhouse as the stars and moon. To the South, the roads crown away from the highway toward the crest of the bluff.

Aurora, Nebraska is North of Interstate 80. The glow of the town confirms there is more than just empty space out that way. I turn and cross the highway toward the shiny new truckstop and an abandoned gas station; the only obvious things South of the highway. Off in the dark, silhouetted against the line where the night meets the bluff, a lone tree and a farmhouse ooze into view.

As I was running my card through the fuel island pump, I saw a cat walk by between my drive tires and the trailer dolly. She was an ancient looking, but well fed tiger cat; ragged from life on the prairie. She wasn't fat, but you could tell there were a lot of missing field mice nearby. In the strange light of the truckstop, a layer of grey fur seemed to fuzz out over the top of her tiger coat. She just sauntered on by like she owned the place, the hard won aloofness of a farm cat. I don't remember ever seeing an animal, let alone a cat, just wandering around a truckstop. Sure some truckers have pets, especially dogs, but they don't wander around.

As I stuck the fuel nozzle in my driver's side tank, the nozzle just hung in the tank balanced by the weight of the hose and caught against the inside of the tank neck. Depending on the truckstop, this arrangement was precarious. It occurred to me that I should get a couple python straps to hold the fuel hoses down on each step. I roamed over to the passenger side and started fueling the other tank. I grabbed a squeegee and started doing my windows; the windshield, the side window, side mirror, west coast mirror, headlamp lens and then all of the same on the other side.

As I was doing the driver's side mirror, I bumped the precarious hose with the long handle of the squeegee. The nozzle flipped out, shot diesel fuel straight up in the air, all over my leg and the side of the truck. The nozzle hit the ground and before I could grab it, both my feet were soaked. With a grunt, I poked the nozzle back in the tank.

I finished the windows and the fueling, checked the oil, the belts, the antifreeze and the fluids. Instead of pulling up right away, I slipped into the sleeper and changed my pants. The older pair of jeans I packed as a back up had a 1.5" long spot on one of the 'sit down wrinkles' that had worn through. As I hurried to stick my foot into that leg, a toe caught the spot and tore it out to a 4" gaping hole. Another grunt and I tucked in my shirt, did my belt up and put my boots back on. I noticed that my phone was missing from the holster. I felt around in the blanket on top of my bunk, but couldn't find it. I looked around casually. Its got to be in here somewhere.

I pulled from the fuel island up to the pay line and went inside to use the john. On the way, I pitched the oiled up jeans in the trash. Back out in the truck, I looked more for my phone. The holster is handy but is old and worn and loose. I was starting to get worried and confused. After calling my dispatcher, I pulled off the highway, fueled my truck and changed my pants. I hadn't gone anywhere else. The phone had to be in the truck. I pulled the blankets and sheets off the bed and went through a duffel and a book bag. Nothing. I sent a message into dispatch asking them to call my phone. After several minutes, I hadn't heard anything from them. I looked around outside again.

Now what? I'm in the middle of Nebraska, in the middle of the night, on a schedule, and I can't find my phone. There must be a way to call a phone from the web. I broke out my laptop and googled "ring my phone" and, of course, got a hit. A bored computer geek put up a site that will help find your phone.!! If you use it, send him a beer via Paypal, I did. I did not, however, hear my phone ring. The phone was either completely gone or my web connection was so slow that it didn't work.

As a last resort, I went inside and asked the Fuel Desk Lady if anyone had turned in a beat up old cellphone. Nope, but she offered to call the phone so I might hear it. I also told her that I had spilled some fuel and that they might want to put some kitty litter on it. My head down, I shuffled out to the truck and never heard her call. How could a phone just disappear? I had 150 more miles to drive and a 06:15 appointment. I just couldn't wait any longer for the phone to turn up.

My phone was beat up and old. I had been wanting to get a new one. I had also wanted to get all my phone numbers out of the old and into the new one. This is not how I wanted my relationship with this phone to end, but it was time to go. I had just enough time to get to North Platte. One last walk around and I'll head out. Luckily, no one had pulled in behind me to fuel. The place wasn't that busy in the middle of the night.

I walked back to the fuel pump where I had spilled the fuel. My old greasy jeans were in the trash. It was beyond unlikely that the phone fell out of the holster and into a pocket, but I checked anyway. I pulled the jeans out of the trash barrel, felt all the pockets, then stuck my hand in all the pockets. No phone. That's it. I'll need a new phone when I get home.

The trash barrel was on the passenger side of the island I pulled through. I slowly turned around; just pissed off that I'd lost my phone. My eyes scanned around as I started to amble back to the truck. The maintenance guy hadn't yet put any kitty litter on my puddle of diesel. I didn't set the phone on top of the pump. I hadn't set it on the curb.

But off to my left, on the dusty prairie truckstop concrete, sat my little silver phone. I couldn't remember going all the way over to where the phone was. There wasn't any reason to go that far. To fuel, do my windows and check fluid levels, all my work was around the front bumper of my truck. The phone sat well behind where my drive axles were, out of the main aisle. I know the sound of my phone skittering over the cement, my holster sucks. I heard no skittering. The phone mysteriously got from my hip to the ground 15 or 20 feet beyond where I had been. It was clean; hadn't gotten into the fuel spill. And there were five missed calls; two from and three from the fuel desk. All that ringing and I had never heard it.

The early Spring fog swirled at me as a gust of wind rushed across the lot. The phone sat right where that cat had walked through! Had she grabbed it and hid it right there in plain sight? Or had she been holding it all this time, laughing at my frantic search? I didn't know what she'd been up to, but I had my phone back.

I climbed up in the cab, updated my logbook and hit the road. It was good to be rolling again. Hell, it was good to have a phone again. I got back across the bridge and down the entrance ramp to the highway, when my eyes starting watering. Blinking and sputtering, coughing with a thick feeling in the back of my throat, I lurched the truck on to the shoulder. What had that spooky cat done to me!?! After a pause, I realized I had changed my pants after the fuel spill but put the soaked boots back on. Running the heater lightly in the cool damp night air, the duct at my feet was blowing all the diesel fumes off my boots and up into my face. The truck was filling quickly with the thick acrid stench of raw diesel.

I can't tell you why, but I was traveling with two pair of boots that week. One is less comfortable but waterproof; the other expensive but not dry. Ironically, the good ones were now soaked in diesel fuel. Perhaps they are waterproof now. I could not store the oil soaked boots inside, so with my spare, uncomfortable boots on, I strapped them to the catwalk behind the sleeper. Catwalk . . . huh. Damn, cats.

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