Sunday, February 13, 2022

Character Sketches from the Road

I had stumbled back to truckdriving just before Christmas last year. The engine on my sv Ruth Ann was kaput and I needed to raise the funds to buy a replacement. I went back down to Florida to drive for a company I had driven for before. I knew the people, the system, and the schedule. I just didn’t get a good feeling from any of the trucking job ads I was reading near me in North Carolina.

In the first week back, I found myself in Albany, GA. There is a large Molson Coors Brewery there where I picked up a load but didn’t have enough hours left to drive any further. The Pilot truckstop in town had been a convenient stop for fuel and to use their scale, but I had rarely slept there. Across the road was a Walmart and I needed a wastebasket. Yes, a wastebasket … and a something for supper.

I wandered around the Walmart and found a few other things for my life in the truck. It was crowded at the front of the store and people were lined up behind the small order self scan areas. Using a human cashier is preferable to me anyway, so I got in line behind one of the few open lanes.

The woman ahead of me in line was a good looking young woman in a bright green tracksuit, with yellow, almost golden piping down each leg and accenting the jacket. She had incredibly long, brightly colored fingernails and impossibly large false eyelashes. Her long braids that were knotted together intricately with little golden strands accented several of the large braids. She was very busy organizing her stuff.

She must have been moving into a new place and had piles of household stuff; mops, cleaning stuff, a laundry basket and a broom. A small knick knack frame containing an inspiration quotation was causing trouble. It wouldn’t scan. The cashier didn’t seem sure how to handle the glitch. Or perhaps she was stalling hoping that the woman would say “just forget that one.” The customer was holding out.

Off to my left were some larger self scan aisles and I began to move my cart. The lights were all on as if the aisles were open, but I noticed that all of the register terminals were opened up for maintenance or something. As I abruptly turned back into the aisle, I nearly bumped into another guy approaching the registers.

He motioned for me to continue and got in line behind me. I smiled and nodded asking how he was.

“Well, I’m all right, but this eastside Walmart has the worst customer service.”

“Yeah, it’s amazing all the customers backed up behind so little help at the registers,” I replied.

He craned his neck back and forth. Then gave up and started unloading his stuff onto the belt behind the divider bar I had placed behind my stuff.

“I never come in here anymore, but I was on this side of town,” he grumbled.

The guy must have been coming off work; a contractor of some kind. He had a plain windbreaker, work t shirt and some jeans; topped with a Buffalo Bills hat. He laid out his groceries and proudly explained the excellent crockpot meal he was going to create when he got home.

I explained that I had walked over from the truckstop and had forgotten to bring a mask. We shifted from bitching about Walmart customer service to talking about the pandemic craziness in the world. He was wearing a mask as was the tracksuit gal, still waiting for a price in front of us.

I explained that I was trying to stay out of the fray.

“I worked for a wise Dutch guy when I was in Indiana. He used to always say ‘Never argue with a fool in public, because bystanders will start to get confused about who is who.”

“I know that’s right!” exclaimed the track suit woman. She hadn’t said a word up to that point but I had apparently struck a nerve.

The three of us had a short chat on keeping our cool in the crazy world. The cashier finally got a price on the inspirational knick knack and the gal was off with a cart piled high. Just the way she carried herself, she seemed like she was starting a new life as much as getting a new place.

The cashier was mildly apologetic and scanned my items. I told her not to worry and poked my card into the machine. As I pulled my card and stuffed it back into my wallet, I told my new Buffalo Bills friend that it was nice to meet him and that I hoped he had a good year.

“It has to be better this year, eh?” I said as I nodded to him.

“It already is better, because I met you.” he declared before turning to the cashier.

I smiled, waved, and walked back to the Pilot. Maybe this will be a good year.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

My Poet and I

There is a poet inside me,

Struggling to get out. 

He leans against my heart, 

And presses against the back of my sternum,

Scratching with the sharp toes

Of his cold feet. 

Yet I long to live with him again,

To chat over lonesome coffee,

Somewhere just off the road. 

I can't always hear him, 

But I hear him walking,

Getting nearer. 

And as I prepare for his return

I see Poetry everywhere. 

Not just from the poets, 

But as the birds beat at the air

To let go of the earth. 

And in the leaves of the trees


In gentle applause.

But also in the cracked sidewalk,

The potholes,

And the dirty truckstop shower. 

It is everywhere,

Just waiting, 

For my poet and I. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Sailing the Atlantic at Night


Suspended between starry sky

And dark sea,

Sailing the Atlantic at night.

Not a sound but the waves

Rushing past,

Or is it stars brushing by sails?

Where do the stars begin or

The sea end?

Feeling the unseen ocean swell.

Mysterious invisible sails

Obscuring stars,

Black triangles against a dark sky.

What began as a smudge

To the East,

Hardens to a line as stars fade.

Slow motion explosion of color,

Shimmering waves,

The sun burns a hole in the horizon.

Topaz waters fade to blue green,

Clouds flout on.

This will suffice, to me, for a church.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Panic In The Gravel

When I was in Michigan truckdriving, I drove for a company that mostly hauled office furniture, but a small part of their business was baby formula. A well known brand of infant formula was produced near the company’s base in West Michigan. A truckload of product was worth about a half million dollars. And - if you’ll pardon the pun -- it was a highly liquid commodity. 

The trucking company and the company that produced the formula feared that someone could hijack a truckload, roll into practically any location, and sell the formula out the back of the trailer before the cops could show up. Hence, the rule was that the driver who picked up the load had to drive 250 miles without stopping to reduce the chance of a possible hijack. 

The infant formula always went the same route: the plant was in Zeeland, Michigan and the formula had to get to a warehouse in Mt Vernon, Indiana outside Evansville. Back then the most efficient route was to head down the west side of Indiana. US41 was a lonely road through miles and miles of dairy farms and cornfields. A huge wind turbine farm along the way was the only break in the monotony. After running the formula down south, the driver would pick up a load of drawer slides that were manufactured in Southern Indiana and bring them right back to the furniture manufacturers in West Michigan. 

The biggest trouble with driving 250 miles without stopping … was coffee. I needed some to get my mojo up for the drive, but eventually the coffee and nature would call. The 250 mile mark was about two thirds the way down the length of Indiana; just past I-74. However, I often snuck a quick pit stop at the exit off I-65 near Roselawn. This was where I cut across to US41 from the freeway and the long exit ramp made for an easy place to quick pee on the gravel shoulder or in a bottle; depending on the weather. 

On one particular night, as I approached the Roselawn exit, I started to hear a grinding noise from behind me near the drivetrain. I pulled over on the exit ramp and called the night mechanic. He knew the trouble before I finished my sentence and had me get out to confirm that the tractor suspension was low.

Below the catwalk and between the drive axles of the truck was a lever arm to control the pressure in the air bag suspension. The end of that lever was secured with a small plastic part. When that part breaks, the lever arm sags out of position and the airbags deflate. This caused the back of my tractor to sag. The grinding noise I had heard was the driveshaft struggling to spin; it wasn't designed for highway speed and deflated air bags.

Road Service would take two or three hours to get to me or if I had some zip ties or duct tape, I could crawl under the truck and reconnect the lever arm. I liked the idea that I might be able to get myself back on the road, so I volunteered for the latter. I dropped the trailer and moved the cab up about ten feet. The easiest approach was to crawl between the drive tires on the right side. Actually, I can’t remember if I decided that or if it was suggested to me, but it led to a pretty healthy panic that surely cost me a couple years of longevity. 

I grabbed three or four zip ties and wiggled my way between the tires (I was skinnier then). Coming in from the side indeed led me right to the lever arm. I raised the arm back to horizontal and immediately saw where it had to be reattached. To secure it with a couple zip ties was an easy fix. The mechanic had told me there wasn’t much stress or strain on the attachment. This is exactly why Volvo thought they could get away with a fragile little plastic part. The shop would do a proper repair when I returned. 

The truck’s engine was off but the air tanks were full. As soon as the lever arm was back in position, the air bags started to refill. In between the tires with my back against one and my belly touching the other, I suddenly felt the truck moving!

It’s a hell of a thing to be lying in the gravel on the side of an exit ramp in Indiana and to suddenly feel like you were about to be run over by your own truck!! I.had.a.moment. 

After a few seconds of blind panic, I realized that what I was feeling was just the suspension wiggling as the air bags filled. Brakes were applied, the stopped engine was in gear, and the tires were not going to turn. They would move enough to make me almost shit myself but all was OK. 

I wriggled my way back out, took a deep breath of free air, and carried on driving in the foggy darkness down US41. Wide awake now. I wasn't going to need any more coffee; maybe for a couple days.   

Friday, July 24, 2020

Rolling Rolling Rolling ...

The Cut River Bridge
About 1986, I nearly lost a brand new Bronco II into a ravine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While living in a house across the road from campus at Michigan State University, my housemates and I made a road trip up north. Somewhere along U.S. 2, west of the Mackinac Bridge, we spotted a roadside park on the shore of Lake Michigan. It was most likely by the Cut River where U.S. 2 crosses the river's ravine and empties into the lake. There is a newer park and scenic lookout there now, but I remember a small gravel lot and a couple latrines on a bluff just before the bridge.

From our vantage a hundred feet or so above the lake, the rippling waves danced in the moonlight like a thousand shards of a shattered mirror. The gentle summer breeze whispered through the lush green trees that looked black against the bright reflected light of moon. Most of the guys were awed into silence as we stood in the gravel parking lot … and I heard a strange crunching sound. 

Without an actual thought coagulating in my brain, I suddenly spun around to see my truck slowly rolling toward the ravine. The only thing between it and the bottom of the ravine was one of those almost-oval-shaped ‘landscape timber’ boards the DOT had haphazardly laid around the perimeter of the gravel. I walked back to my truck, which I had locked for some reason, unlocked the door and stepped on the parking brake. The scrunching noise of the brake broke everyone’s bliss and caused them to turn around. There I stood one foot on the ground and the other standing on the brake of my truck. I never heard the end of that for the rest of the weekend.

Well, I just did it again! I can’t believe that this has happened after more than a million miles on the road and countless – literally thousands – times climbing out of a truck. I had dropped an empty trailer and hooked to a load of CHEP pallets. I only had to roll over to the office, collect the paperwork and I’d be on my way. Simple enough. 

I backed into an empty spot near the office, but my trailer was a little close to another tractor so I pulled back out, straightened up, and backed in. There were no lines, no parking spaces there, but a “real” truckdriver leaves his rig straight and square to the world around it. I grabbed my notebook and a mask, and climbed out of the truck. 

As I stepped away, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wheel turning; the lugs on the wheel were just barely moving. They shouldn’t be moving! Downhill from me was a bunch of other trucks backed into docks, getting unloaded. I couldn’t stop to think about that. I couldn’t stop to think about the fact that I had locked the door. I just started moving. 

I walked back around the front of the truck; set my notebook and mask on the top step; reached into my pocket for the keys as the truck gradually rolled faster; shuffle stepped to the left as I unlocked the door; opened the door; climbed the steps; leaned in to reach for the air brake knobs and yanked the yellow one. The yellow knob controls the truck brakes, and will set off the trailer brakes too. Truck brakes are controlled by air and the system had to evacuate for the brakes to engage. The air spilled out of the brake system in a familiar hiss as the truck rolled another eight or ten feet toward the other trucks. The brakes finally grabbed as the last of the air escaped and the truck stopped -- with about twelve feet to spare.  I had crab-walked next to the rolling truck for sixty or more feet.

It was only then that my heart started to race. What a morning that would have been. My truck was aimed toward the trucks getting unloaded at the docks. Most of those drivers were likely sleeping, waiting for a phone call to tell them they were empty. A lot of those trucks are owner/operators; guys who own their own trucks, buy their own insurance, pay their own repairs. 

I’ve forgot the brakes before; probably many times. However, as soon as I took my foot off the brake pedal and could feel the “looseness” of the truck, I pulled the brakes. Most honest truckers would admit the same. To take my foot off the brake and climb out of the truck without being mindful of that looseness and to have walked across the front of the truck toward the office not knowing, is unbelievable. Distracted parking? The parking lot didn’t look like it had much contour to it, but my truck rolled downhill right at the building and those trucks. I likely would have been fired over that. Amazing that I was so stupid. Amazing that I got away with it.

Do I have to say it again: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

Image by Gittensj

Friday, April 17, 2020

Mom's been gone a year.

Mom has been gone a year and I still don't know how to consider that that fact is true. 

I wrote this while helping care for Mom in the few weeks before she passed.  I wasn't sure that I would ever share it and I'm not sure why I have. It makes me feel her presence, perhaps it will for someone else as well. 

My mother is dying, and I don’t know what to say.
She’s always been beside me; even when I was away. 

Now it takes a bear hug, each time I help her stand. 
This untameable cancer was never part of the plan. 

In everything I’ve done, she’s been with me from the start. 
She taught me cooking, and living with an open heart. 

My mother is dying, and I don’t know what to say. 

I just sit and hold her hand, a bit tightly … today. 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Rock n Roll Moments

Recently, a musician friend posted this picture of a band playing while people danced. From the 1960s, the picture was part of his “Rock and Roll and the Decline of Western Civilization” series (tongue firmly in cheek). I replied “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the high you get when people are dancing to what you're playing. Even as a high school hack rock n roller, I got the chance to feel that a couple times. Still carrying that juice.”

I was thinking specifically of the time when a band I was in got to play a few songs at our own high school dance as a preview of an upcoming variety show. It was a hell of a moment. Our signature cover song “Jesse’s Girl” - yeah, I know - was all me for the first couple bars. I cannot describe the feeling when people started dancing. That was the thing. That was rock n roll. All kinds of kids in my school got the mistaken impression that I might be cool; instead of just awkward and goofy.

Some towns are football towns; some are basketball or soccer. I grew up in a band town, where it was cool to be in the band. Just like in sports towns, the recruitment and training started deep in junior high and funneled the best players into the Marching Band and the Symphonic Band. The more I thought about my friend’s picture, however, the more I realized that my rock n roll moment came a couple years before that dance.

The Charlotte High School Marching Band got invited to participate in Edmonton Alberta’s Klondike
Days, a ten day celebration of Canada’s Gold Rush with a marching band competition on the side. I remember getting into the marching band a little early in my Charlotte Band career because they needed members to go to Edmonton. There was lots of practicing to be done. We had a tradition to uphold and, eventually, judges to impress. Under the tireless leadership of Director Karl Wirt and with a really good show - a halftime show - based on the band Chicago’s Greatest Hits album by a recent Charlotte grad, Keith Richardson.

In addition to the main show, we had to prepare a variety of other music. I think there was a main parade. There were these cool showcases in downtown Edmonton where four bands would march toward an intersection from different directions. When they met, one band would march out into the intersection, play a song or two, and retreat. Then each of the others would do the same.

The marching band competition was inside an arena. We were the only high step marching band among corps marching bands and corps marching judges. They didn't know what to make of us; we didn’t do so well. Mr. Wirt got a kick out of reading us our scorecard where one judge thought it was inappropriate that we had played “Proud Mary.” Apparently, the judge didn’t know his Chicago from his Creedence.

My rock n roll moment came at an Edmonton Eskimos Canadian Football game. Somehow, our high school band got the gig to play the halftime show. We sat in the stands during the game behind one of the end zones. All the low brass players were sitting in the back row; where we usually were. In fact, most of us low brass players were the kind of guys that sat in the back row in class anyway. We put on airs as slackers, but when the chips were down, next to the drum section, we were driving the band and could be counted on to do so. If I remember right, Karl Wirt and Keith Richardson were each low brass guys; they would understand.

Right behind us in the stands was a group of taxi drivers enjoying the game on a company outing. When they heard that we had a kickass marching band tribute to the band Chicago, they were very excited. In my memory, they told us Chicago had just been through the area, but I found an archive of Chicago’s tours and there’s no mention of Alberta. Maybe it was Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Keith Richardson’s show was incredible; the score and the marching routines running through a selection of Chicago’s hits. At one point, three soloists stood in a triangle, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, and shuffled in place for each to face the crowd as they played their part. The finale of the show was brilliant.

(I’ve Been) Searching So Long was the final number. On the band’s recording, the song begins quietly with strings, then the horns come in with just a hint of the power of what’s to come. The ending is a blast of power; a Midwest Rock n Roll Anthem. We played the somewhat dreamy main part as the band marched slowly, corps style I think. The song slowly intensified and the band ended up in a single file line along the edge of the other side of the field. The music swelled, we turned toward the ‘home side,’ all our horns snapped up on angle, and we blared the finale of the song slowly, strongly, the full width of the field (starting at 2:54 in the youtube above). Some of the lyrics are interestingly appropriate:

“As my life goes on I believe
Somehow something's changed
Something deep inside”

Now, when we nailed that in practice, it was fun. All the low brass guys, and the drum section, gave all we had to the thrumming bass line and rhythm of the song; a song that we still heard on the radio. The vocal melodies were filled in by our trumpets and woodwinds. In band, we usually didn’t play music that we could recognize, music that was ours, music that we listened to on our own. It was a thrill. I literally tingled with delight though all our practices.

To do this show, this same music, in a packed football stadium was something else entirely. In my memory, the show went well. ‘Searching So Long,' the finale came, we marched slowly, entwining the field and ending on the sideline. When we all snapped our horns skyward, nailed the song’s surge, and marched, victoriously, the full width of the field - roaring - the crowd went wild. We could almost feel their approval physically. They roared back at us. The taxi drivers threw their hats in the air. The crowd was with us, yelling and screaming the whole march across the field. That right there. That is what Chicago knows. That is what Mick Jagger knows. That is the power of rock n roll.

The hair stood up on the back of my neck. We nailed it. The crowd loved us. With each breath, each step, I felt less and less of the field beneath me; floating on the power of that moment. It was literally out of this world and I have never felt that again. Except in the telling of the story, and writing this now, I can feel the emotional pressure in my eyes, the knot in my stomach, a little catch in my breath. The magic is still there. I only have to tell the story to feel that surge again.

“There's a strange new light in my eyes
Things I've never known
Changing my life
Changing me”

Thank you, Mr. Wirt. Thank you, Keith.
Rock. and. Roll.

Character Sketches from the Road

I had stumbled back to truckdriving just before Christmas last year. The engine on my sv Ruth Ann was kaput and I needed to raise the funds ...