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“Anyone a-settin’ here?” he asked. “No sir, it’s waiting on you,” I answered. The counter at a truck stop about an hour west of Chicago was filling up. I normally sit at a quiet booth and read news, Ricochet, and email, but after a fairly hard day behind the wheel from Kentucky north through Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Chicago, the idea of commiserating with other truckers wasn’t so bad.
“You know how long I been at this?” he asked. Before I could say no, he answered, “fitty-seb’n years.” I looked up and beheld the quintessential old time trucker. Deep lines crisscrossed his face like a roadmap, his bright blue eyes set ablaze against skin that looked like dark, tanned leather toughened by years of exposure to the elements. How many millions of miles of highway had those eyes navigated?
Most of his teeth were gone so that when he closed his mouth it looked like his chin might bump up against the bottom of his nose. He had a laugh like Walter Brennan, and a wry sense of humor. “I’m 75 years old, and I retired twice already.” “Government work?” I asked. “Oh no,” he said. “I ran my own trucking company for awhile,…had a few trucks. Then I bought some nightclubs too.” “Nightclubs and trucks?” I asked. “Yep, it was dumb. That was Mickey Gilley’s doin’ too. Never shoulda listened to him. Sold the trucks and the nightclubs and retired a young man,” he continued. What happened? “Blew it all away, got back on the road for a few years, then got into cattle,” he said.
“Cattle?” asked another voice. Another trucker sat down to my right and announced that he still owned some cattle. So I sat between these two cowboys, looking from one to the other as if at a tennis match, enjoying the exchange. “Say, do you have one o’them ‘lectic fences?” asked the old timer. “Yep,” said the other one, adding, “but I don’t even have to keep it running now. The cows won’t go near it. Hell, I even took down part of the fence and just left the posts up and they STILL won’t go beyond the posts. They don’t even know the fence ain’t there.”
“Well,” said Old Timer, “I got one of them ‘lectric fences years ago, and you wanna know what happened?” Pushing his black baseball cap back for effect, he continued, “I had one o’them whatchamacallits,….the big ones on my pants…” “Belt buckle?” I asked. “Yeah that’s it…looked like a satellite dish but I was young n’ stupid. Well sir, I got a mite too close to that dad burned ‘lectric fence, and it arched over to that belt buckle and lit my world all up!” Even the waitress who had been hovering nearby listening joined the laughter.
“You was in the military?” he asked while looking over my hat. “Yes sir,” I answered. “I caught what they call a ‘hop’ when I came back from Korea,” he said, “but it weren’t in no cargo plane. They put me in a little jet. The pilot liked flying upside down a lot, …made me sicker n’ a dog.”
I asked him why he was back on the road this time. “Gets in your blood I suppose,” he answered, adding, “my daughter keeps fussing at me and saying I need to sell my motor home because I’m never gonna use it.” Then he asked about the weather up around Appleton, Wisconsin because he has to be there at sunrise tomorrow. The driver to my right had just come from that area, so he gave him the latest reports while I pulled up the exact mileage and best route on my smartphone for him. “They got me runnin’ those damned ‘lectronic logs now. I cain’t figure the [expletive] things out. Do you know those idiots in the office I work for couldn’t even find my truck for two weeks with their little gadgets?”
Just before he left, I asked him what he missed most about being retired. “The kids,” he answered. He explained that he used to take groups of children, some of whom were disabled to an extent, and teach them to ride horses. Then with that priceless hoot of a laugh, he bid us a good evening, paid his bill and went on his way.
Not once did any of us mention anything in the news. No politics, no primaries, no twisting or spinning events, no mental gymnastics in support of, or in opposition to a candidate or a cause. Just three truckers, from different walks of life, with different stories, but with a common purpose, …to deliver the freight and share a few laughs. It was a hard day,..but a stellar evening.