"This is the nightmare scenario," I said to my passenger. My best friend, military retiree Bob Lee, was on his final full day on the road in my 18 wheeler. The hour was late and we were very tired. The truck stop parking lots were full, and the electronic logging system onboard the truck (whose voice is that of a scolding, grating female) was nagging and warning me that I was within mere minutes of exceeding the federally allotted 14 hour work day. If I couldn't find a place to shut down soon, I would be in violation of federal law and possibly subject to draconian action. What's the use, after all, of taking your hotel room with you if there's no place to put it so you can actually rest? Aside from traffic accidents, this is the situation truckers dread perhaps more than any other.
We were on the east side of Nashville, Tennessee. It didn't make sense to try and find parking in the city itself, so we headed further east on I-40 hoping to find something. There was an old mom and pop truck stop I had been to years earlier, I thought. There aren't many of those left, most of them having been bought by the large chain truck stops, and far too many of the ones that remain have fallen into horrible disrepair, their unique flavor replaced by common mold and food that motivates little more than the hundred yard dash across the parking lot later in the evening. But late at night, with the level of fatigue rising even as the clock counted down the minutes until a potential career-ending legal disaster, any blank space in any parking lot would be like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There was was just enough space at the end of a row where a truck could fit without blocking the drive path. Usually, parking on the very end of a row is an invitation to getting your mirrors knocked off by passing trucks, but we couldn't be choosey.
The following morning we ventured into the restaurant for a quick breakfast. Uncle Pete's Truck Stop is a refreshing reminder of days gone by. The waitresses are pleasant, the food perfectly prepared, and not a single square foot of wall space is left untouched by framed pictures or photographs. Higher up, where it would be impossible for anyone to inspect photographs and murals without a ladder or a telescope, there are wall-to-wall shelves of coffee mugs.
I was looking over the collection of autographed country music stars that adorned the wall directly behind me when Bob spied a drawing of a helicopter on the far wall. Rather than having him and his cane maneuver across the room to the drawing, I went over and snapped a photo of it with my phone so he could see it in detail. It was then that I noticed one print after another dedicated to veterans in general and Vietnam vets in particular. Looking at the chopper drawing, we saw that it was flown by one CWO Haywood P. Norman. "I wonder if the 'P' is for Pete, as in "Uncle Pete?" mused Bob. So we asked our waitress about Uncle Pete, and it turned out Bob was exactly right, as he is from time to time.
A few minutes later, the owner of Uncle Pete's walked over and greeted us. Seeing Bob struggle to stand up and shake his hand, Pete told him he didn't have to do that. But Bob and his cane would hear none of it, as he insisted on greeting the gentleman right and proper. With the greetings taken care, we got down to the business of trading stories. Chief Norman flew choppers in Vietnam. He described one particular mission where four of our guys were injured and pinned down by enemy machine guns. Pete radioed the guys and told them that he would be coming in low and fast, and doing a "rock and roll." Pete flew in from behind the machine gun nests, low enough to stir up a dust storm in their midst. He proceeded rapidly to our guys' position and then nosed up just a bit to bring the chopper to a hover while keeping the skids just off the ground. Then, as our guys jumped in, he rocked the chopper forward to quickly egress the zone, hence the term, "rock and roll."
The stories continued as Pete showed us a jigsaw puzzle that had been assembled and framed. It was one of the original Flying Tiger aircraft from General Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group, complete with the signature teeth on the nose of the aircraft. As it happens, the Air Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers, later became the 23d Fighter Group and, still later, the 23d Tactical Fighter Wing was our old unit. Bob and I were both assigned to the 23d when it was stationed at England Air Force Base, Louisiana. We explained to Pete that after we were transferred from the base, the government decided to close it down entirely, though the 23d is still active today down at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. Soon we were discussing the Air Force's early and lamentable reluctance to embrace the Close Air Support mission with the Army, the differences between the draft force that both Pete and Bob knew and the all-volunteer force, and the regrettable trend toward political correctness in today's military.
As his business called Pete back to reality, and our freight called us back to the road, we shook hands and promised to have another visit next time we were in the neighborhood. On this last leg of our journey, Bob told me that the trip has been a "life changing," experience for him. He hasn't left the state of Tennessee in the 12 years since his retirement from active duty. We travelled over 2,700 miles, through 7 states, in 11 days. We had Chinese food and Bible study with Bob's family in Martin, Tennessee; some goodness-gracious-it's-delicious gumbo down in Rayne, Louisiana; spent the better part of a day laughing and ratting each other out to my family in nearby Lake Charles; pressed 1 for bad directions in English down in Laredo; listened to Bob play DJ while introducing me to some of the weirdest, most off the wall confusion of indecipherable alternative, Celtic, Scotch Irish hallucinatory music this side of the happy house while enroute to San Antonio; watched vehicles try to drive into each other in Dallas; made disparaging remarks while driving through Hope, Arkansas; and met my dispatcher down in Memphis.
We argued politics, relived stories from our days in uniform, listened to trucking music, and ate apple fritters outside while watching an armada of clouds that looked like fluffy mashed potatoes pass by in formation. "Getting out like this has restored some of my faith in humanity," Bob said while we sat on that wooden bench that day. I didn't really know how to respond, because my own faith wanes from time to time, …that and I had a mouth full of apple fritter. Bob isn't able to drive anymore, and he doesn't get out as often as he'd like. It was good to see his mood lighten as the days progressed. It was good to see him get in and out of the truck with greater ease as his strength increased, and to see him and that cane moving at an ever quicker pace. I think the trip was good for both of us.
During our final few days on the road, the schedule and constant movement took a toll, though. Even for a passenger, it's a tiring lifestyle if one isn't accustomed. Add to that the disabilities he incurred from his military service, and you have one tired G.I. But when his wife, Jan, came to pick him up yesterday, Bob was wearing a smile big enough to have its own zip code. "That smile is worth a million dollars," Jan said. And the knowledge that my friend so thoroughly enjoyed our time on the road is absolutely priceless in my estimation, though I was quick to tell Jan that a small slice of that cool million wouldn't be a bad thing either.