Russ Ringsak

A Glamorous Business

November 13, 2006

No matter how glamorous something is, or someone, there's inevitably a secret side; some unusual aspect the average person wouldn't expect and might be amused to learn about. For the tabloids and the media in general it's a nonstop business treating the public to this stuff.

There's an unexpected side even to operating something as pure in concept, purpose and execution as this very exciting truck we've put our name on. Back when we rented the big ugly plastic ones I felt like a pariah when I'd pull into a truck stop to refuel next to some high-stylin' polished Peterbilt. Nobody ever asked me how I liked driving the yellow rental thing, or where I was headed, or where I came from or who I ran for. That truck was less interesting than the trash barrel sitting there on the fuel island, and if it actually registered on other drivers they sure never let on.

Now that we're in a trucker's truck we're on equal footing — we might even have the upper foot sometimes — and they'll strike up a conversation; perhaps about the food there, or the price of fuel in the next state or where to find the nearest truck wash. I like that. It was no fun, year after year for twenty years, to go shuffling across the truckstop parking lots, checking out all the pretty trucks and then climbing the steps of the worst dog out there. Nobody looks with envy at rental equipment and not many are all that proud to drive it, and envy and pride are two of your better seven deadly sins. Things have changed now and I'm living large and proud out there on the road.

The secret behind the glamor I'm letting you in on here isn't under the truck itself but in the paperwork. The ladies in the windowless rental office no longer are doing this for us. Now we have our own DOT number and our own IFTA number, and now it's all my job. Covering this in the last week of October I rose, at last, to my highest level of incompetence.

As if it wasn't enough keeping track of the forms relating to the leases, the insurance, titles, licenses, my health certificate, my drug test, my driving record and all the road expenses, we are also invited to submit a quarterly International Fuel Tax Agreement form. I feel you about to doze off here, but hang on for just a minute, because this actually turns out to be more fun than one might have expected.

Interstate trucks have a three-inch square IFTA sticker on each side, pasted where someone in a scale house can see it; you renew it every year. This year it's a mustard yellow. What it means is that the truck is involved in a vast international conspiracy to ship fuel tax monies back and forth among the states and the Canadian provinces, and the way it works is that every truck keeps track of every mile it runs in each entity, as well as every gallon of fuel it buys there, each of which has a different tax rate. If you buy all your fuel in Fargo and run mostly in Minnesota, for instance, then North Dakota will owe Minnesota the taxes Minnesota didn't get on the fuel you burned there. Likewise the other way around. Kind of wonderful, when you think about it, that they would care so much about each other.

So. If you're running interstate you get to fill out this cool monster two-page form with teeny horizontal spaces to write in, listing the states and provinces down the left side and divided into ten vertical columns. The first time you see this form you think surely this must be a joke. But it's for real, and what a jolly piece of work it is.

The columns are titled State, Rate (the tax per gallon), Total Miles, Taxable Miles, Taxable Gallons, Tax Paid Gallons, Net Tax Gallons, Tax, Interest (1% per month if you file late), and Total. You compute the computations and add the columns and print in all the totals. You put overpaid taxes in parenthesis and if you come up short for the whole thing —' we were, by $39.67 — you write the Minnesota IFTA a check, which gives you a most satisfying feeling of peace and perfect symmetry.

The states total the entire pile of all the trucks and compensate each of the other states for what they owe them, and the other states and provinces do the same thing right back. We owed, for example, $1.73 to Massachusetts, for driving 40 miles in the state without buying fuel. We owed 83 cents to West Virginia for the 14 miles we went across that little neck up there in the north. Golly, it's all just so doggone interesting. And Kentucky, Indiana and Virginia have extra surcharges so they get two lines each, which is also a nice bit of charming whimsy.

We bought 131 gallons of fuel in New Mexico and drove 533 miles there, and we average 5.31 miles to a gallon, meaning we left the state with an extra 27 gallons. They charge tax at .2100 so they now owe the pool $5.67. So how cool is that? They all round off the miles to the nearest mile and the fuel to the nearest gallon, but they figure the tax to the nearest one hundredth of a penny. Very hip.

U.S. fuel taxes run from .0000 in Oregon to .3875 in New York. Pennsylvania's next (.3810), Illinois (.3500), California (.3300), and Wisconsin (.3290). Virginia's a modest .0350, and, as you'd expect, Canada's way up there: Prince Edward is a whopping .6475; Quebec is .5271. Fascinating, no?

The Agreement lady had given me three sets of forms, for three quarters, and I spent four fun-filled days going through my log books and receipts, taking up the whole back porch, tracking my every mile and every fuel dollar, and managed to make a grand glorious mess of all three sets. I cobbled together what I could for April through June and brought it back to their office in downtown St Paul, mindful of feeding the meter outside. (The parking police there are on quotas, which they like to call "expectations." Whatever they are, it just makes it all the more exciting.)

She entered my numbers into her computer and it kicked them around inside and spit out that I had overdone it by $3.14. So we got off even cheaper than we thought, and what a thrilling moment that was. Ya just gotta love it.

The terrific idea of states paying each other to have their home trucks run on the other's roads suggests all kinds of other Agreement opportunities. For example, if a young person learned geology at a state-subsidized university in Colorado and then went to work for an oil-drilling outfit here Bemidji, why wouldn't Minnesota send a part of his paycheck down there to help cover the cost of educating the kid? Seems only fair, since we're getting the benefit. And they'd naturally be wanting to pay us for our U of M-trained drug counselors who work in Aspen. There's a fabulous world of reciprocity out there, just begging to be energized. Hundreds of thousands of exciting new jobs could be created, filling out the forms, sending the money, getting money back. Beautiful harmony everywhere.

You have to be wondering by now why I'd bother you with all this, and I'm wondering myself. But it was what I did. I didn't have anything else to write about. The Agreement consumed all my time. If I had been thrown in jail for four days I would have written about how much fun that was. I hope I never write about it again. We made it through. And thank you for your patience.

* * *

Volodymyr Palahniuk died last week, at the age of 87. He was born on February 18, 1919, in the Lattimer Mines region of Pennsylvania, the son of a Ukrainian coal miner. He worked in the mines himself until his late teens, when he took up the heavyweight business, fighting under the name of Jack Brazzo; won 15 in row with 12 knockouts. Lost a decision to a contender named Joe Baksi and then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he joined the Air Force. His B-24 Liberator caught fire on a training flight in southern Arizona; he was badly burned when he bailed out. He needed a lot of surgery on a face that had already taken an abundant punishment.

He was awarded a Purple Heart and was discharged in 1944. Earned a B.A. degree from Stanford in 1947 in drama; that same year he understudied Marlon Brando and made his Broadway debut as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. By then he had become Jack Palance.

When we were teenagers in North Dakota, going to mostly action films, our favorite guy wasn't Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster, or John Wayne. Our favorite guy, no contest, was Jack Palance. From that first time we saw him as Jack Wilson, the malevolent gunfighter in Shane, through well over a hundred other films (most of which I missed) he was the only actor I ever really looked up to. I knew he could do one-handed pushups before he did them at his Oscar acceptance in 1992, and I figured that might be the one thing I could learn from him. I never quite could, but I still do the regular ones.

I saw him once in the lobby of the Murray Hotel in Livingston, as he checked in and slid through a crowd to the stairway. We have the same birthday, and his first wife was named Baker, my mother's maiden name. So we might even have been shirttail relatives.

Anyway, Jack, rest in peace. And thanks.

© R.Ringsak 2006

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