In an occupation which leaves basic amenities such as a hot meal or indoor plumbing very much in doubt from one day to the next, when a brief respite presents itself, it's best to savor the moment. Three days ago I found myself in a massive and irritable parking lot that some people call New Jersey. A day which began with the lethargic, evolutionary pace of warehouse personnel more concerned with taking their mandatory breaks than with actually loading and unloading trucks, ended with general constipation on wheels as an endless mass of vehicles bottlenecked where I-287 meets I-78. Drivers appeared to be trying to knock each other off the road so as to escape the place ahead of their colleagues. Cars tailgated each other in the mistaken belief that if you can come within half an inch of hitting the vehicle in front of you, it will magically make the two or three hundred thousand vehicles in front of that car speed up! The result, as surely as night follows day, was a fantastic assortment of traffic accidents including one real doozy when another 18 wheeler departed the pavement to examine a nearby ditch. My allotted hours to drive that day were spent sitting in this mess and watching everyone exchange greetings, generally with the same finger, so that when traffic finally cleared I had to find a parking place well ahead of a truck stop that offered hot food. Beanie weenies from a can, at a rest area, isn't an ideal arrangement, but it beats not eating.
What followed were two very hard days of driving to make up the time lost on that happy day. At a gross weight of 74,000 pounds, with a load that was 100 percent liquid (in large drums) and therefore prone to sloshing the trailer back and forth even after the vehicle was "stopped," driving this thing through the mountains and eventually down south was a bit of a challenge. But the sunset over I-20 as I approached Jackson, Mississippi, last night yielded a sublime moment. As the sun applied more and more blush to the clouds, Pete Fountain's sweet clarinet sang to me songs of home and happiness over the truck's speakers. The warmer weather, the green grass, the enjoyment of a landscape that was alive still, …it all filled me with such giddiness that I began playing drums on the steering wheel and blasting the truck's air horn on the fourth beat of every other measure. To savor the moment is to live in the present, and such is my approach because I can't know for certain what lay ahead.
Today, which began with a search for an oil leak during a rain storm hours before sunrise, has offered up yet another moment to enjoy. I had lunch in Alexandria, Louisiana. It was the home of England Air Force Base, my first duty station almost 28 years ago. It is the place where, as a child, I visited my great grandfather, Ben Beeson. A veteran of the First World War and an authentic cowboy out west, Pa Pa Ben (as I called him) spent a lot of time at the VA Hospital here. My memories of talking with him are vivid and precious. It is the town where his namesake, my son Ben, was born 26 years ago. It is a slice of home which, for someone who lives a nomadic life on the road, means a lot . About a quarter of a mile from the truck stop is a Cracker Barrel about which many jokes have been made, but up against a can of beanie weenies, it really is something to write home about.
Seated in front of the fireplace earlier, I watched the fire gradually burn down until only a small bit of flame occasionally flickered above charred logs that hadn't much of anything left to burn. Christmas music was playing from the sound system and, on cue it seemed, Dean Martin began singing "Let It Snow." Dean always reminded me of my paternal grandfather, who had an easy going humor and was about as cool a cat as you could ever hope to meet. When I spontaneously laugh at the sort of things he would laugh at, it makes me proud. My grandfather and Dean are gone now, but the song brings all the happy memories back in such easy focus. It wouldn't be Christmas without memories of either one of them it seems, yet as the years go by, the Christmas Spirit is increasingly accompanied by bittersweet memories of friends and loved ones departed. But they live in our hearts, yes? Maybe that's why we adore the look of wonder and excitement in children's eyes on Christmas morning. Perhaps their pure joy and innocence takes us back to our own, and we delight in giving a measure of that happiness to them.
The manager placed fresh logs on the fire and soon they were consumed in a blaze of warmth and light. One generation gives way to the next, and the flame lives on in each. These were the things slipping in and out of consciousness when I realized that this really was a bit of self-indulgence, therapeutic though it may have seemed, to gaze into this fire and not thank those who make these reminiscences possible. Just today I talked with a friend who is on active duty and whose young family is staring down the barrel of yet another deployment. It rips at their very hearts. It strains. It hurts, doubly so when young children will be left behind. For every memory of Christmas spent in the warming embrace of loved ones and home, there are those of Christmas spent in lonely outposts far from family, or in the surreal and bone-crushing fury of combat.
We lead busy lives, and Lord knows we are easily occupied with this urgent moment in our nation's history. The current crop of candidates is enough to induce bouts of olympic-level binge drinking. But on occasion, it might not be a bad idea to stop and savor the moment, hold dear the memories, the loved ones, and remember what we fight for, as well as those who fight for us. Tomorrow will bring a load assignment to who knows where. Where I will spend Christmas is a mystery. But that I will spend it safely in a country guarded by the very best of us is itself a remarkable testament to the exceptional nature of a free people, and most definitely a reality worth savoring,…and preserving.