Russ Ringsak


April 18, 2006

Its regal presence has graced the low hill in the back yard for two weeks now—industrial art in bright red enamel and high-shined aluminum—and I get an urge whenever I pass a window to go out there and verify the reality of it, sitting there alongside the old galvanized shed. It is the stuff of daydreams for guys in my trade, a new Kenworth W-900, usually called the 'W-9,' with the big old-style square hood and chrome radiator grille. A truck that causes young boys to stare wide-eyed and older guys to nod slightly their approval.

After twenty-some years of working low-dollar rental trucks and surviving breakdowns from dead batteries, exploding turbochargers, broken fuel lines and a complete engine seizure—none of which ever caused us to miss a show—it finally dawned on me that we might be running on borrowed good luck. We ought to be moving into the big leagues and into something with a warranty. I talked to dealers and did some math, which looked good, and our people at higher pay scales agreed it was about time. We ordered this beauty from Rihm Motors in St. Paul, where I bought three of my own KWs way back when. It's on a direct dealer lease so it's their truck, and it's of course decked out in a way that will make it a most salable piece when we turn it back in. It's only my coincidental good fortune that the truck makes me smile just walking up to it.

The notion to push for this had been simmering for some time, but it came to full boil when I stopped in Nashville for repairs on the way to Miami this last January. There's a musician-approved funky cafeteria there named Arnold's, just east of downtown, where I had lunch with Guthrie Trapp. Slapped on the customer side of the big old shiny cash register there is a decal that reads:

"This Is Not A Dress Rehearsal. We Are Professionals And This Is The Big Time."

 –Waylon Jennings

It got my attention. We're still a one-truck show, no roadies, no makeup or wardrobe lady, so 'big time' may not quite fit us. But we're not small time either, and even if you're a medium time outfit, missing a show would be a calamity. Even worse to miss one for a weak truck.

So I've been in great spirits these last two weeks. Seeking the license and the IFTA sticker and the DOT number, I sat cheerful in the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles in downtown St Paul for two hours, smiling even when I got back to the expired parking meter and found a 25-dollar ticket slapped on the windshield. And I was not all that ripped up by another 25-dollar hit the next day over at the US Department of Transportation, where the computers were down so I'd have to come back and then go back to the DMV the day after that. That next time I got up and fed the meter every hour for most of the afternoon, happy through it all. And I hand-carried the lease to our legal folks, bounding through all the paperwork hoops that normally drive me and almost all others in the transport business into high apoplexy.

It also didn't bother me a bit to spend an entire day at Classic Lines with Mike, the third-generation sign painter who did the graphics and who was a French major in college. He has a photo on the wall there of a WWII pilot standing in front of a P-47 his dad had lettered. The nose was emblazoned with its name in big letters: "SAM SENT ME". Mike did a very tasty job on our truck.

To drive a machine like this one is worth whatever it takes. It looks a lot like the old Pete I hauled beets with last fall, but it's smooth and quiet, with a 475-horse Cat C15 engine and a 13-speed Fuller transmission that's slick as butter. It has 18 gauges plus the tach and the speedometer, and it'll tell you how hot the exhaust gases are running and how much weight is on the drive axles. It has AC and AM and FM and a CB and a CD and they all work. No microwave, no fridge, no TV, no internet connect and no GPS. It has a flat top and a small sleeper because I don't have to live in it.

It has a name, a large numeral 7 on the nose, not unlike the fat 7 on a bottle of Jack Daniels. It fits because it's a lucky symbol and it's a 2007 model and it's the seventh new truck I've driven, and a few other cosmic reasons. But I might also just call it Hank because it always looks like it's hankering to get on down the road.

* * *

I had a driver named John in one of those early KWs, a 1980 cabover version with the wide cab and the flat front and sides. He was a free-spirited country kid, strapping and good-natured. He was a very good driver but I could never get him to turn around and climb down the ladder when he got out of that truck; he'd always leap out and it was about a five-foot straight drop to the ground. He'd wear sandals when he drove and it worried me that some day he'd fly out of that thing somewhere out on the road and break an ankle, and I'd probably have to catch a plane to go get the truck.

He was driving through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one night, up on US 2 where the shoulders were narrow and highway relief stops were few, when he felt a most intense call of nature. He knew of an all-night convenience store about thirty-five miles ahead and he gritted his teeth and tightened his lowers and he hung in there, so to speak, with all his youthful strength and energy.

It was a painfully long half an hour before the lights of the place finally showed through the forest, and he sailed into the gravel lot there and yanked the air brake plunger and the rig locked up and slid in; he had the door open even before it skated to a stop, so great was his urge, and he gratefully leapt out into space in his standard paratrooper style. But he hadn't released the latch on his seat belt and found himself suddenly grabbed by the shoulder harness in midair and lashed firmly against the side of the truck, crucified, legs kicking and arms waving helplessly, "like a cockroach with a pin through it."

He couldn't get leverage to free any appendage and it took help from inside to lift him loose. The instant he was freed he took off like a cheetah for the men's room; his rescuers must have thought they'd unleashed either an extreme claustrophobic or an utter madman.

He was the kind who generated stories. Later that summer he and his brother were walking the grounds at the huge We Fest celebration up by Detroit Lakes, I think it was, where major country stars like Willie were putting on a weekend show. It was a blazing hot August day and in strolling the crowd they came upon a pair of young ladies in shorts and revealing halter tops and sitting in the shade of an RV in lawn chairs. There was a cooler full of iced beer between them. John, ever the friendly country boy, said, "What would we have to do to get you girls to give us a couple of beers?" They looked up and coolly checked the brothers out for a minute, and finally one said, "Show me something I've never seen before." John grinned his big old grin and said, "You ever see a guy take off his shorts without pulling his pants down?" They looked at each other and she said, smiling, "Let's see ya do it,mister big talker."

And John looked back at them, challenging, and I can just see him doing this, delaying the moment, keeping them on the string for a while, and then he put his hand down the front of his jeans, got a good grip, and with a mighty yank ripped his shorts right out. He held them up at shoulder height, triumphantly, grinning like they were a prize fish, and the girls sat back stunned. They were incredulous. Unbelieving. He could have pulled an iguana out of there and they wouldn't have been more shocked. And then his brother began laughing so hard he nearly fell down.

They collected their beers, made some small talk and then continued their circle until they came back to where their wives were waiting at the pickup. The brother said, "You'll never believe what your husband just did," and she said, "Oh ya. I'll believe just about anything, any more... But what was it this time?"

I heard that John bought his own Kenworth a few years ago. Next time I'm through central Minnesota, I intend to look him up. Now that we're back on equal footing.

© R. Ringsak 2006

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