Russ Ringsak

Truck drivin' songs, wild boars and crocodiles

February 3, 2001

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, one of the all-time favorite truckers' bands, were on our stage January 20. It prompted me to dig through my old LP record collection and pull out the 1972 release "Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites," with "Lookin' at The World Through a Windshield," "Truck Drivin' Man," "Truck Stop Rock," "Semi-Truck" and the heart-wrencher, "Mama Hated Diesels." All these plus "Kentucky Hills of Tennessee," "Rip It Up," "Watch My .38," "Diggy Liggy Lo" and "It Should've Been Me" make this a real collector's item. It has a fabulous picture on the cover of a classic long-nose Peterbilt tractor, tastefully painted black and white and coupled to a stainless steel gasoline tanker. And Andy Stein's signature on the back, with all those truck pictures there, that doesn't hurt either. I mention this not to start a bidding war that might allow me to retire in comfort but simply to make an obvious point: they jist don't make'em the same like that'n no more.

And a week later, January 27, we had on some other favorites, Leo Kottke and Robin and Linda Williams. Robin and Linda don't do a lot of truck-driving songs but they could if they felt like it. And they are the only people coast to coast who I can stop in and stay with because they live on this marvelous old farm in Virginia with a drive long enough to park an 18-wheeler. (Well, my sister lives on a farm in North Dakota where you could set a rig, or four or five, but we've never done a show up there.)

Leo doesn't do a lot of truck-driving songs either, but he's a good story-teller and that's a skill that'd carry weight out on the road on (CB) Channel 19. Of course anybody who can play guitar like that would never have to go near a truck at all, and if a person heard that Leo had gone truck-driving they would only shake their head in sadness and sympathy.

But thinking of the Williams' driveway: there is a long-standing myth that truck drivers know where the best cafes are and if you see trucks parked you can pretty well trust both the food and the service. This belief goes back to a two-lane America, and it wasn't true then and it still isn't. Truckers stop where there is enough room to park something high, wide, long and clumsy; and given a choice, they generally go where fuel is cheapest. Nowadays if you see a huge parking lot and it's empty and the other truck stop across the road is packed it might tell you something, but the simple presence of a couple of trucks by a cafe is a guarantee of nothing other than acreage. Of course the food at Robin and Linda's is great, but there's only room for one truck there; and I'm not giving out directions anyway.

Here's a tip, though: if you were in their part of the country, on Interstate 81 in Virginia, and you took the Raphine-Steele's Tavern exit at milepost 205, on the east side of the freeway you would find White's Truck Stop, which is an historical institution in the Shenandoah Valley. They have a display in the main entrance of old racing motorcycles and on the long wall back to the restaurant there are big mounted fish and glassed-in display cases of knives and firearms of amazing style and construction, dating back to before the Civil War; maybe not as elegant as some at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City but still real interesting, if you're the sort of person who finds that interesting and a lot of truckers are. Not interesting themselves, I mean, the drivers aren't, but they're that type of person. Who might find that interesting.

The fish up above the cases aren't your beautiful colorful tropical fishes; they're mostly large and menacing, barracudas and tarpon and swordfish, and there is the head of a Great White Shark coming right through the wall.

And then back in the professional drivers dining room there are a couple of the ugliest wild boars you've ever seen in your life hanging up there; big crazy heads with coarse black hair and wide-open jaws and mouths shaped like big Cs with long nasty yellow tusks spiraling off asymmetrically in mean directions. Their eyes are black and wild, eyes of rage and madness. Killer swine. If you look at'em long enough and then go out to sleep in the truck they'll give you nightmares and if you get back on the road and it's dark you might get the heebie-jeebies.

But even those guys aren't the piece de resistance. Crocodiles on nature shows look scary enough, all jaws and teeth and all; the ones they wrestle go maybe 200 pounds. A really huge one is 500 pounds, big enough to eat a deer. But on the wall of that truck stop there is a crocodile from Australia that weighed 1400 pounds. Heavier than a Brahma bull. The monster is long as a limousine and it's scales are the size of saucers. If you had boots made from it you'd only need one scale for the whole lower boot, but it wouldn't work anyway because the hide is about an inch thick. This croc would not fit on an average city truck. A grown man could put his arms only halfway around the belly, like around a horse.

It is a creature from another time, of awesome design and dimension. First time I saw it I kept getting up from my turkey dinner for a closer look at it. It has small eyes, about the size of a human eye, but they're yellow and have the vertical-slit pupils of a cat. You would fit easily into the great jaws; if it were on the floor you could sleep in there, like in a sleeping bag. A mighty beast, survivor of the extinction of the dinosaurs, hung up on the wall of a truck stop.

I stop in there every chance I get, but it occurred to me last time on the way out through the darkened corridor, illuminated mostly by the light from the display cases of scores of knives and guns and with a giant shark overhead, that this place for some people might be considered less a folk museum than a chamber of horrors.

I'd bet Edgar Allen Poe would stop there, if he were a truck driver.

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