Saturday, September 22, 2007

Midnight Heathen Philosophes.

In the last couple weeks, USA Today ran a poll and found that something like 55% of Americans "BELIEVE" that the Constitution set the United States of America up as a Christian Country [emphasis mine]. Wow, that makes me crazy.

Ayn Rand wrote "facts exist independently of anyone's fears, beliefs or wishes."

I am reading Richard Dawkin's "The God Delusion" [thanks, Tim]. I highly recommend it. I've also been listening a lot to the BBC. I've practically stopped consuming news based in this country. There are times when our present administration and that of Iran are indiscernable. Simply switch out Fundamentalist Muslim for Fundamentalist Christian.

My Ex Wife used to be flabbergasted that I almost always got the bible questions from Jeopardy right. I credit Doctor Anderson at Michigan State University and my father.

Dr. Anderson was a terrific guy. He was an ordained Methodist Minister, Distinguished MSU Humanities Faculty, and a world renown expert in Samaritan literature [more on that in a minute].

I had a personal philosophy when registering for classes at MSU: No classes before 10:00 AM. Ever. This usually meant that I had to take one evening class each semester; typically Mon/Wed or Tues/Thur. Dr. Anderson's class was unique because it met once a week, but for three hours. At the time, I was also interested in his series; two semesters on the Old Testament, and one on the New. I was in the middle of my long journey to where I am.

Dr. Anderson had an amazing memory. He had us fill out a 3x5 Card the first day of class; Name, Major, some interesting fact. At the beginning of each hour of class, he would call out about a third of the stack of cards. We were to raise our hand. It was a modified form of attendance for the large class. By the third week, he was looking at you as he called your name. I was taking the class with a girlfriend and her roommate. We tested him by sitting somewhere else. He looked where we had sat, scanned, found us and called our names. There were about 300 students in this class! 300!!

I took his two Old Testament classes in succession and then, because of a professional internship I did, the New Testament class the next year. Two or three years after I had finished his series, I met Dr. Anderson on the street in East Lansing.

"Hi, Dr. Anderson," I said.

"Well, Hello," he answered, "Wait, you're Thomas or Thompson or . . ."

"Todd Townsend," I offered.

"Why, yes! And you were studying Packaging, I believe." His eyes twinkled like a sage. "You should be ready to graduate almost. How did that internship go? It was here in Michigan. Automotive, I believe."

Right on all five counts. Amazing.

From Dr. Anderson I learned that there are many different authors in most of the books of the bible; especially the gospels. You can watch the transition from one to the next by their vocabularies and style. He taught the allegorical rather than literal bible. OK, 299 students. One night this girl stood up in the middle of his lecture. At the top of her lungs shouted "The bible is NOT a fairy tale!" and walked out never to return.

I think I meat her Aunt a few weeks ago at a truckstop in Tuscaloosa, AL. I am still deciding if I should ever go back there. It is one of my fuel stops. Anyway, I walked in early one morning and there was a driver laid out on the floor. One of the fuel desk ladies was heaving on his clammy chest doing CPR. Apparently the guy had had a heart attack and dropped right there in the store.

I was waiting for a load so I was milling around. A couple hours later, back in the store, I asked at the fuel desk about the guy. This buxom patrician looking big ol' southern woman gently placed a hand to her breast, fluttered her eyes up into their lids and said, "The lord was watching over him. He was breathing before the paramedics arrived."

To no one in particular, I said, "You'd think if the lord was watching over him, he wouldn't have had a heart attack in a truckstop."

"Don't you blaspheme," she shouted. "Don't . . . you . . . blaspheme!" And waved a hand skyward.

Back to Dr. Anderson. He had a friend in the Athletic Department at MSU, way before the 'doctor' in Dr. Anderson.

Well, even before that. Imagine in the 30's or 40's, Michigan State had an Indiana Jones of its own. Apparently, someone from MSU traveled to the Middle East. I can see the trench coat, the fedora, the foggy night at the wharf boarding a rusty tramp steamer. The steamer is bound for the Suez with a mysterious crew. The Captain will have a scar, a black greek fisherman's cap and an outrageous Mediterranean accent.

So this intrepid explorer finds this large cache of Samaritan writings somewhere. I always like the Good Samaritan story. He 'one-ups' the pious and steals their thunder; almost like Prometheus and his fire. Apparently there are Samaritan books that didn't make the bible and early versions of books we're familiar with.

The man in the fedora packs up the Samaritan stuff and ships it back to Michigan State, but he never returns.

I figure he met a woman. Another outrageous accent; this one french or russian. I can see the slinky dress, the high heels, the hose with a seam up the back. She's the kind of woman who never takes off her pearls and makes you forget why it would even matter. Samaritan Who?

So these crates, that no one is looking for, get shifted around the buildings at MSU. Remember the ending of the first Indiana Jones movie?! The Ark of the Covenant in an anonymous crate in a government warehouse that no one ever inventories. Exactly like that.

Michigan State Stadium is a big bowl with tiers of concourses under it. Some of these are used at game time; souvenirs, hot dogs, the johns. Some tiers are just used for storage. Professor Anderson was a fresh faced, wet-behind-the-ears graduate student. He had a friend in the Athletic Department. This friend is in charge of cleaning out some of the crap that has collected in university storage. He is working on cleaning up the stadium when he comes across a crate or two piled with dust. He sends someone for a hammer and a crowbar. Dust flies everywhere as they clean enough to crack it open. The hollow squeak of nails being pulled out of old wood echoes under the stadium. No one know why, but they're all kind of quiet. Cleaning the sawdust and straw off the top layer, they see scrolls [might have been tablets, I don't recall]. There is odd writing.

"I've got a friend over in Humanities," says the Jock, "He'll know if we should throw this out or not. He's a minister working on his masters."

If I remember right, when Professor Anderson came over to the stadium, he was looking at the world's largest collection of Samaritan Literature. Dormant for years. Plenty enough for a Masters and PhD thesis [what the heck is that plural?]. In the process, he became a world renown expert in Samaritan Writing. This is the guy who recognized me on the street two years after the fact. Amazing.

I remember a poor Sunday School Teacher. I think we made her cry. She was so prepared for the Eighth Graders. Very early in the hour, she presented her gem. She had done the math. He created the heavens and the earth and all of us and the flora and fauna in 144 hours! Isn't that spesh-ell [SNL church lady accent]. You see 6 days times 24 hours; why that's just 144 hours for all this. We asked "Who are you to tell god his day is only 24 hours." It pretty much ended there.

Contrast that with the time my Dad taught a few Sunday School classes. I think it was the High Schoolers. He came equipped with poster board maps. The movements of people and armies were set against the land they had or wanted. Geopolitical back stories and deeper understanding. Context. I don't remember the specifics of the lessons but it was a completely different approach. I was still having those my-Dad's-the-coolest-smartest-guy moments when I was in high school.

Both my parents brought all of us up to think for ourselves. Mom was a Renaissance woman herself. She is a strong independent woman who worked, took care of the four of us [Dad included], and was on the School Board for many years. Her work with emotionally and physically handicapped kids was way more work than most anyone did, let alone what other moms did. Holding her own with some rough kids too.

So this USA Today thing is so frustrating. Americans are so frustrating sometimes.

In my opinion, the formula is simple. Facts are facts. Just as actions speak louder than words, the consequences of a system - the outcome of a system - is more important than who built it or how it was made.

Throughout history, governments of all varieties sought to protect their power from the people. The Unites States of America, at birth, was explicitly built to protect the people from the government. A historical first that we have defaced, defamed and bastardized in the last 250 years.

It does not matter whether any of the Founding Fathers were religious. It doesn't matter that they used words and phrases, like "endowed by their creator," in the founding documents. A nearly perfect system was built. These men were toiling to make something that had never existed.

You cannot square "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" with Original Sin, "Turn the Other Cheek" or "Love your neighbor as yourself." It just isn't in there.

And don't send me Paul's Letter to the Thessalonians. That is a bunch of end times hooey taken out of context in lame attempts to justify capitalism.

The beauty of our country at its birth came in spite of "anyone's fears, beliefs or wishes." Just as the whole is greater than the sum of parts, our Founding Fathers built something with timeless elegance that was bigger and better than they knew.

They also built in the freedom to practice any or no religion without the fear of persecution or prosecution. Even today, a rare luxury in the world. The only freedom left ungranted is to bring this nation down by calling it a Christian Country.

PS: The Midnight Heathen Philosophes were a group of us in John Holmes Hall at MSU that stayed up late into the night solving the world's problems. Jim C., Pisser, Eric Z. and many others.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bring Me My Brown Pants . . .

It started as a normal day. Often, nothing good starts that way. I picked up a load in Michigan bound for Georgia. The load had a tight schedule and I didn't have enough hours to legally deliver. In this situation, the company will 'repower' the load. In other words, I had to meet up with a driver who had hours enough left to take it on to Georgia.

I met the guys [a team, hence plenty of hours], at the Louisville, KY yard. They had called me and mentioned driving through the projects to get there. I had once lived in the city limits of Detroit and figured they was just another couple of paranoid white guys.

I wove my way through the southside of Louisville to the yard. It didn't seem that bad. I was even watching for a place I could grab a bite to eat. The yard was, indeed, right across the street from a public housing project. There was a gate out by the street [open] next to a building. Behind that building was an alley and then another building. It was barren old manufacturing space; abandoned and then leased to a trucking company.

The guys were waiting inside the gate. I dropped the trailer right there and went around behind the back building to get an empty trailer. There were 5 or 6 trailers squeezed back in the back. I had the number of the empty trailer that the team had just dropped, so I didn't have to hunt around. I hooked up and pulled part way back around.

I was a bit behind the back building. There was another truck parked in the front drive. I assumed someone else would be sleeping here too. Beyond my truck was a large concrete pad with a 36" high cinderblock wall around most of its perimeter. It must have been another warehouse at one time; scrapped out or burned down. There were some bundles of wood and chemical totes placed around to prevent someone from driving outside the main parking lot. It wasn't very big as a trucking yard, but someone had painted all the buildings. An effort had been made.

I was out of hours, so I was going to crash in the sleeper there at the yard. I already had a load assignment for the morning and needed rest. It had been a long day. In the immediate neighborhood, there was no where to eat. I didn't feel like walking anywhere. I set an alarm, set the Opt Idle and hit the sack.

Opt [for Optimized] Idle is pretty cool. It is a thermostat controlled climate system for the cab of the truck. The truck will actually shut down when you reach a set temperature. A Comfort Zone is set; how many degrees above your set temperature should the truck engine kick over and run the air down to temperature again. Opt Idle makes life comfortable without having to run the truck 24 hours a day.

I also disconnected the electric line to the trailer. I saw that someone had flagged this trailer for a battery charging problem. The trailers have lights and a small GPS unit. Occasionally, something gets shorted or sideways and the trailer will drain your truck batteries down while you sleep. I was planning tomorrow's drive as I drifted off to sleep.

A couple hours later, I was awakened by noises in the yard. I heard a vehicle squealing its tires. Then I heard voices! I wasn't sure they hadn't jumped up on the DOT bumper on my trailer! I listened carefully. Bottles broke! More Voices!

I pulled gently at the velcro on the vinyl curtain that I sleep behind and peeked out. I really didn't want them to know that I was in here. More yelling! Tires!

Just then, I saw a pickup truck streak past the passenger window. I'm sure they didn't see me; the truck is dark. More tires! Laughing! Yelling!

I wonder how many there are. How many people? How many vehicles? I had considered calling the police already. I wonder what the other truckdriver is thinking. Then I had the dreadful thought that he wasn't even here. I pictured him pulling the truck in the yard; waving to his wife waiting in the family car. He locks the truck up and they go home for supper and to see the kids.

Now I here a vehicle revving, not squealing, but a low rip like they are pushing on something. That something is moaning across asphalt. Are they shoving the other trailers around? the bundles? More tires squeal! That damn laugh. More bottles break! Or is it a window? Crap, I should call the cops.

Then I remember that the trailer has no electricity. I pulled that plug. If I cut and run, I'll be driving through the streets of Louisville with no trailer lights. Huge ticket; best case. Cause an accident; only one worst case scenario.

The tires squeal again. That shoving noise! If I call 911, will my cell connect to Louisville or South Bend? Yelling. Bottles. Tires.

Then suddenly BBEEEEEEEEEEEEPP! GGRRRROOOOOWWWWWWLLLLL!!! The damn Opt Idle kicked on and started the truck. My breathing probably heating up the sleeper. The drumming hum of the diesel rips through the night like a belch at a funeral. There is no other sound. Everything has stopped. Silence. No squeal. No laugh. No nothing.

I decide I'm leaving. I rip through the velcro curtain. Jump in the driver's seat, crack the door open and look around. Jumping down the steps, I race to the headboard of the trailer, plug in the lights and bound back to the door. I'm in and releasing the brakes. The air brakes are just bleeding off as I jam the accelorator down. The truck strains against the last of the brakes and I turn toward the street.

At that moment, the pickup truck races out of the alley nearer to the road. Two stupid rednecks gawk at me as I barrel toward them and the gate. David and Goliath in reverse. I tower over them.

Those damn crackers made ME a paranoid white guy; if just for a moment. I hate that!

I slow down just enough as I pass the alley to look for their accomplices. There are none. I figure the two idiots had their fun. Drank a 12 pack and then threw the bottles around; probably MGD. I still don't know what they were shoving. I didn't investigate; I left. I feel stupid. Of course, I think I scared them as much as they scared me.

Even though I was out of hours, I headed for a truckstop about 30 miles east of town. Unbelievably, I found a parking space and slept hard for about three hours, but then it was time to head for Ohio. Not only had those stupid hilljacks scare the crap out of me, they ruined my night and wasted my sleep time. I was jazzed up the whole next day. As the Captain says in that old pirate joke: Bring Me My Brown Pants!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Off The Beaten Path . . .

For all of those who are always on schedule, never off route, you have my sympathies. Many of my greatest discoveries were amidst a mistake and I made a good discovery last night.

On the way to a delivery in Jacksonville, I had passed a truckstop about 12 miles before and went back after I was empty. The Pilot at Baldwin, FL was packed full and so was the TA next door. Then, on the way out to the highway, I missed the left turn to head back to Jacksonville. Headed west again on I-10 and grabbing the Pocket Truck Stop Guide, I found that there was a small Exxon two exits down the line. Soon after, I saw a billboard for a BBQ place on the same exit. I had been craving BBQ for a while.

I found the tiny Exxon and battled my way behind the convenience store to park in muddy sand. On the way in, I spotted a Chinese Buffet next door. Well a Chinese craving almost predated the BBQ one. Further, it would save me walking about a mile, so I bought a paper and went next door.

Now, a Chinese Buffet, one in tiny Macclenny, FL, is not apt to surprise or most especially not impress. Most of you could probably recite the menu at a Chinese Buffet; almost in order. Yes, there was par-boiled Sushi, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Vegetable Fried Rice and Pepper Beef. But along toward the end, past the delicate Spring Rolls, was something labelled Peanut Butter Chicken. I had to try it. It was boneless thigh crisply fried with, duh, peanut butter. The crispy crust of the chicken was infused with peanut butter taste. It was exquisite! I have never in my life seen or tasted anything just like it. It evoked Thai, but also PB&J on Wonderbread. It was very interesting . . . and delicious. I had seconds and later paid dearly. I just don't eat like that anymore.

I discovered Boiled Peanuts in a similar way. Boiled Peanuts are a southern delicacy. And are quite simply boiled peanuts. You get a peanut with a texture that is like a boiled potato not quite all the way done. They are very good. My man, Tony, used to bring them into the office thanks to his Georgia upbringing.

When I discovered Boiled Peanuts, I lived in Florida. About once a month, or twice in three, I would go down to Miami on business. From Tampa, I would go through Arcadia and cut across the Everglades. On the way, I always passed an old Black Man sitting by an old blue pickup truck with a hand painted plywood sign out by the road that just said "Boiled Peanuts."

After going by several times, I stopped to talk to him and he gave me a sample. Scooping down into a black, briny cauldron on top of a propane burner, like a turkey fryer, he brought out peanuts in the shell. I asked him how to eat them. "Most you Yankees crack open the shell and just eat the nut. We just chew and spit out the shell." I still crack them open, but I liked the sample. They were just a bit salty; warm and soft and delicious. For a dollar, he filled an oversized Styrofoam Cup with peanuts and a little brine over the top. I ate Boiled Peanuts all the way across the 'Glades.

Down the same road, following another old pickup, every minute or so the bones from a chicken wing would fly out the driver's window and arc around in the wind back to the road. One even hit my windshield. It was years later before I discovered Chicken Wings myself.

Florida was good for new food; beyond the usual seafood you might think of. I had Armadillo and Wild Hog for the first time in Florida.

I went to a cookout at my business partner's house and an amazing feat of Redneck Engineering pulled into the driveway. This guy had taken a 1000 gallon propane tank and turned it into a portable smokehouse on a tandem axle trailer. In the smoker was a deer chopped up, several chickens, a wild hog, an armadillo, some gator and 6 turkeys. The turkeys weren't even for the party. The women knew he was coming out and that he would have lots of room. The turkeys went home to six houses for later in the week.

The Armadillo was a bit like gamey chicken. The Wild Hog was very good. I had learned to eat Gator at Skippers Smokehouse in Tampa. Better than the Hog was the hog story.

There was a legendary wild boar out in the woods by Arcadia, FL [that's how I remembered]. The hunters knew him by his one ear that was almost torn off in a fight. As he lumbered through the woods, that ear would flop around; hanging by a thread. Everyone wanted to take him, but no sooner than they saw him, he would disappear into the thicket.

The guy with the High Class Redneck Smoker was out hunting. Most of these guys hunted hog with a long barrelled, high caliber handgun. I don't remember his name; I'll call him Earl. Earl had just parked his truck and was getting his stuff together when the hog, THEE HOG, came scrubbing out of the woods. Earl shook the holster off his gun and took a quick shot. The hog was hit, but just got mad. Charging Earl, the hog rammed him and bounced him into his truck. Squealling and loaded for bear, the hog came toward him again. Earl grabbed a shovel that was in the back of his truck. He was too close to take another shot; he wanted to miss his truck too. The hog charged; Earl swung. There was a tussle. The hog backed off just enough that Earl took another shot and finished the hog off. Earl was by himself and almost couldn't get the big old hog up into his truck. He told us at the cookout that if we tasted tomato in the hog it was because his wife had borrowed his shovel in her garden the day before he swung it at the hog. Anyway, it was Earl's story, but I don't think he bought any pork that week.

While I'm at it. I discovered Mango Con Chile out here on the road too. Mango Con Chile is like Chili Con Cueso or Chili Con Carne. Con is 'with.' Chili Con Carne is Chili with Beef; Chili Con Cueso is Chili with Cheese. Mango Con Chili is dried mango coated in chili pepper and sugar. Sweet, Tart and HOT! Man, tutorsey good! I bought some in Birmingham, AL. One of the cashiers asked mine what I was buying. She whispered "They're Mexican" like some Aunts whisper "Cancer" or "Divorce." I smiled and told her "I love mango and I love cayenne, so I must be gonna like these."

Try it you'll like it. Don't plan, just do it.

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