Russ Ringsak

Out and Back for the Hundredth Time

March 26, 2007

A woman named Mary Lou worked for many years in an office in St Cloud, which is a moderate city about seven-twentyfourths of the way through the farming country between Minneapolis and Fargo. It's moderate mostly in size; some don't consider it moderate in other regards. But this isn't about St. Cloud anyway. It's more about a truck. As you'd expect.

Here's her chicken-truck story directly as it was passed on to me:

Mary Lou and an office mate stopped each morning at the Dew Drop Inn to pick up coffee and one winter morning they saw a white chicken semi-hiding not far from the Inn's door. They saw, in the parking lot, a truck loaded with chicken crates from which thousands of scrawny necks and heads were protruding.

They went inside and saw at the counter, drinking a mug of coffee, a guy whose jacket was a dead giveaway. "GOLDEN PLUMP CHICKENS". Mary Lou stopped next to him.

"One of your chickens is loose."

"I ain't got any chickens."

"No, I mean one of the chickens is loose off your truck."

"I ain't got any truck, neither."

Mary Lou looks around. Everyone's grinning. Mary Lou hates to be grinned at.

"Well, I don't know whose chickens are on whose truck, but the truck you drive is full of chickens and one is loose."

"If it was one of my chickens I'd chase it down, but I ain't chasin' somebody else's chicken."

"You don't have to chase it, for God's sake. It's just sitting there, hunched up."

"Now I know it ain't my chicken. I'd never let a chicken hunch up. Too dangerous."

I asked Mary Lou what happened to the chicken. She doesn't know, but after that she never bought Golden Plump chickens.

My storyteller here is also a poet. Our common interests include trucks, farming, small towns, World War II, and our parallel annoyance with becoming what are politely called "seniors." We were discussing the health subject after my big flu crash and a few days later I received this poem, which gets better every time I read it:


CAN I MAKE AN APPOINTMENT?

For the everyday things
Like a cinder grinding near the eyeball,
The toenail that gets completely out of line,
The gash from an axe that had a mind of its own,
We want Doc, who shaved only three times a week
And drank whiskey with Miss Kitty,
One eye on the swinging half-door.
Or we'd settle, even, for the new guy
Who grew up in this very town
And now lopes around the office in tennis shoes,
Clipboard held against his chest
Like a shield protecting him from our memories
Of what a brat he was in second grade.

But on the day the little thing
That began as a bump as large as a currant
Then went up through the food chain
As a raisin, then a Concord grape,
Until it was a Virginia peanut with at least
Two kernels,
Well, then we want to see someone
Who wears alligator shoes,
Starched shirts even in the summer,
Suits cut and sewn by God's own tailor,
And if we see a woman who was chosen by fate
To care for the afflicted
We want her to look like someone
Who listens to Mozart or Bach
As she sails to and from a world famous clinic
In her red Porsche Carrera GT.


That two kernel peanut,
Close to our ribs,
Changes everything.

          —Anon.

The poet said I could use the piece only if it were attributed to Anon. Poets are not people to be messed with. They remember things. So I didn't even go with Anonymous. Just Anon.

After getting the letter I drove to the East Coast again, for what could be the actual hundredth time, and am now getting ready to go back next week. The trip isn't the sort of thing that keeps getting more enjoyable with repetition; not like, say, shoveling snow or washing clothes. But of course if it were fun they wouldn't have to pay people to do it and I'd be out of a job. And I'll admit it got a bit easier when Ohio raised their medieval truck speed limit (but only on the I-80 toll road).

They didn't change it out of goodness or mercy or from an interest in efficiency, or even out of a dim awakening to reality. They did it because truckers began, in increasing numbers, to use two-lane US 20 instead of the Big Ohio Moneymaker. They clogged the towns along the way with big rigs to the point that locals began to pressure the Grand Ridiculae to quit contemplating their bellybuttons and get to work. And they did, not only raising the limit up to the same as the cars, 65, but also dropping the toll fees. It's a smooth-flowing river of commerce now.

For the truckers it was an example of a basic but oft-ignored tenet of the profession, the one that says: Stop Whining And Do Something About It. After decades of bellyaching on the CB (as if assembled lawmakers would be gathered somewhere, attentively taking it all in) they finally mustered a loose coalition and made something happen.

Not all problems can be cured by reversing government loopiness. The problem of road apples, for example, was solved in 1903 by the automobile itself. Most horse manure before that time came from the private sector. Same thing with bad breath and lifeless hair. No need for government assistance. We dealt with that stuff on our own.

And, happily, it still pretty much works that way. Massive as the government has become, and as obsessed as it is with each of us, a person can still go out and finance a truck, let's say, and hire on somewhere. From there, depending on how they play it, they are free to either go broke or become a captain of industry, or anything in between. And our phones work and we can drink the water; buildings don't fall over and you can trust the bridges. So a person shouldn't complain.

And in spite of my fundamental optimism I have to admit that grinding through the never-ending Chicago construction this last trip made me think I'd rather undergo another colonoscopy without painkillers than slog through that place again. It takes about the same amount of time and is a less hostile process. I was put in mind of the city's early history as a giant stockyard, the animals crowding dumbly in a vast mob, barely moving, all waiting to pass through that one single chute way off there in the dim distance. "Stop whining and do something about it," you're saying, "Go around it, dummy." And I have tried that, and it's a long detour. But I think I'll take your advice and do it this next round.

The rest of the outbound leg of that trip was fairly routine. But it began snowing in New York City early on Friday morning during our load-in to Town Hall, and the return ride started with a 300-mile mountain snowstorm through Pennsylvania. Counted 19 wretched automobiles and 4 mournful semis strewn in the ditches along the way. Somewhere, maybe close by, people were frolicking in all the fresh snow, but we drivers were just happy to come down from the high country and hit that flat rainy toll road in Ohio. Slept in the truck in Indiana and sneaked back early Saturday through the City of Big Delays, catching it in an off moment, and was set free once more into Wisconsin.

Stopped at the Petro in Portage for breakfast and sat at a fairly lively counter in the driver's section. It's not always that way; maybe the good weather brought it on. The talk was of the usual, loads and destinations and what company they run for, but it turned more to my favored topic, the equipment. Truckers don't talk about brands of truck as much as they do about the running gear. A soft-spoken Tennessee type said, "I had a '93 Pete three-sebenny-nine... bought it new... thought I'd git rich haulin a reefer coast to coast... run produce east, frozen seafood west... had a 600-horse Kitty Cat an' a eighteen speed, three-thirty-six rears and the big tires, an' I tell you what, that sumbitch would flat git it... ran 'nem mountains like they were jist little hills. Barely broke a sweat... hell of truck, she was..." After a pause he answered the question hanging in the air. "Money wasn't that bad... I could stay ahead of the payments and the insurance... but I was young and we pretty soon had two kids, y'know, an' I got to thinkin' I'd like to watch'em grow up. Sold the Pete finally 'n hooked up with a gravel hauler, drivin' a Mack. I'd git home late an' leave early, but at least I got home..."

It occurred to me that one of the reasons I like listening to casual truck stop talk is that I never hear the words that scrape my ear like a rasp. The today words, like closure, vibrant, lifestyle option, bipolar, unfortunate choice or unfortunate anything; precipitate, differently abled, socioeconomic, hyper, inappropriate, anal; all that stuff. You get the picture. On that last one, you do sometimes hear the seven-letter word beginning with A that refers to the same geographic area and also indicates a personality trait, but it's problem of a slightly different nature. Although a person could be both.

Anyway, it's back on the road and the world is just fine. No toll booths, no bellyaching on the CB — you sometimes wonder if it's even turned on — and no goofy speed limits. Not much traffic, roads all clear and fast, all blue sky overhead. Breathing deep and sitting back. Cruise control, take me home. A person could write a song.

© R. Ringsak 2007

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