Russ Ringsak

The Last Day of Year Seventy-Two

March 12, 2008

A player coach on the same St. Paul men's softball beer league team I played on in the dim decades of Way Back When is still hanging in there. Lately it's not just any old league either. Most of the guys are jocks in their twenties and thirties and they hammer the ball all over the place. He's kept himself in the lineup by staying fit and taking batting instruction from Dave Winfield's brother, which raised his batting average about 200 points. A couple years ago they went 26-0 through the summer and into the next season. So I call him Twenty-Six 'n O. Not many coaches anywhere have won 26 games in a row, and especially not in leagues like the St. Paul Rec League.

I think he likes being called that because now he's calling me Seventy-Two 'n O, from the fact I just made it through 72 years and beat the hooded guy with the scythe every time. So here's how I finished up the latest battle:

17 February 2008. Woke up in Bloomington Indiana at five, made coffee, showered, checked the weatherunderground website, packed and took the tractor back to the University because the hotel lot was too small to stash the whole rig. The big campus was dead still at six o'clock on Sunday morning. Could have been a rock quarry before dawn. High stone walls, overarching trees, a creek. A thick mist lying heavy as gravy. Not a person stirring, nor cat nor squirrel nor police cruiser. All waiting for someone else to make a first move.

We did, myself and the truck. Crept in and backed to the white box trailer where it sat quietly alongside the big stone auditorium. Released the air from the truck suspension and eased back, centering the yoke under the nose, and then sent the air back into the bags, raising the flat feet up off the paving. With the brakes locked as they are in a sitting trailer, I backed the yoke in farther to lock onto the kingpin with a big heavy metal clunk. Hopped down, checked the jaws from underneath the trailer with a SureFire flashlight, cranked up the dolly legs, connected the gladhands for the air and plugged in the electric line. Lit all around in yellow and red, headlights brightening the haze, we slipped out of campus down the hill and back up through the trees and houses to downtown, took a wide right onto Walnut Street and headed north and on out of town.

Driving through a residential area early in the morning you know somebody's lying in bed and hearing the rig going up through the gears and thinking about it on its way to somewhere they've never been but might like to go. They think about that warm cab and the wide glow of the instruments and wonder what's this one hauling. (Where I live I don't need to wonder about early morning trucks. If they're cruising empty they're going to the gravel pit a mile away and if they're laboring loaded they're heading for some job not more than twenty miles the other way.)

First town up the road was Martinsburg, with a perfect cafe on the right side of highway 37. A few earlybird cars and room to turn a truck around. I parked nose heading out and went inside, took a booth with a view of the highway. I sat facing a couple in their thirties, locals I assumed, who were quietly talking about serious things, most likely involving money. She looked weary, no makeup, lean, hair limp, and he looked like a high school linebacker now working a seasonal outside job, maybe construction or farming.

You could tell they'd been close even though they weren't showing affection, nor was there anger. As if the time for all that was over and now on this early Sunday morning they were simply trying to make the best of a situation gone to hell. When my eggs and bacon arrived they reached some agreement and he left for the cashier's counter, coming back with folded bills. He handed them to her and they finished their coffee and left in a smallish red sedan outside my window. She was driving.

The breakfast was good and I was happy to have found the smalltown restaurant before hitting the freeway. After that the only possibilities would be the truckstops between Indianapolis and Chicago and beyond, all with their giant parking lots. A necessary service, and therefore one avoided whenever possible.

Two tall stacks stood in the indistinct landscape to the north, steam rising, a sign of major electricity being pumped to bigtime civilization going on up there. The day promised to be mild, and I was heading out of the northwest edge of the South and back up to solidly frozen Minnesota. Enjoy it while you can, cowboy. A billboard says "Earth's Last Greatest Hope For Survival — EXIT NOW — STEAK 'N SHAKE." A thicker overcast quickly settled in and it began to rain. Headlights came on.

Joining Interstate 465 on the south side of Indianapolis I was suddenly at work. It was like being sent into a hockey game. A great rush going on, things happening right and left, behind and ahead, no time for reflecting on peaceful country landscapes. In a largecar the freeway, especially the six-lane freeway, is what it's all about. It's the ring to the boxer, the shop to the machinist, the field to the farmer. It's the place of business. If you are on your game you sense things a quarter mile ahead and you begin a lane change or you back off and with the headlights let the truck alongside slip in front, before he has to lean on the brakes. You speed up and move over for a truck gaining on you. You watch the oncoming and the ramps, and you let up when you see a small bit of fender protruding from the center barrier. From your high perch you can pick out 'plain wrappers,' unmarked troopers. If your CB radio is working — ours isn't right now — you can go around before hitting a four mile backup.

I took I-65 over the city in medium traffic. A torn wet mattress lay on the shoulder. The view from up there was a texture of low randomness of sloping roofs spread off into the gray overcast, as if the inhabitants lived under a jumble of plates. Which they do. It was 8:20, not much moving out there, and one wondered what all these people would be doing later on this rainy Sunday. The downtown tall buildings slid by, mute and drab, and it was then out over the northern suburbs.

The scene was cheered by a bright green and chrome Peterbilt with matching aluminum reefer trailer, tastefully appointed with green trim including latches and hinges. Thirteen lights on the back and it was still a model of taste and restraint. The highway matched the drab of the sky but it only took one cool truck to brighten the entire scene.

At 9:00 the rain let up. An hour later it started again. Somehow seemed more fitting to the gray day that way. I thought about birthday 72 coming up the next day. A good number, 72. Accomodates a great range of equal subsidiaries: 36, 24, 18, 12, 9, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2. It's musical. The numbers in the four family are musical and the numbers in the five family aren't. Five, 10, 15, 20; that's not musical. There are four natural directions and twelve natural notes. About the only recurring fives in nature are the digits on primates. We wouldn't have much to do with that number five otherwise.

The decimal system is way overrated. You can maybe fix a bicycle with it but you sure can't dance to it. Divide an octave into ten equal parts and you get a murderous atonality that'll shiver a snake. The meter, one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, who can relate to that? A foot, now that makes sense. I'm proud we didn't buy into that unmusical foolishness, that grim silliness from back over there where they still have royalty and think they're better than we are. Anyway, 72 works for me because I was born on 2-18-36 and it's the logical next number in the sequence. The next one after that is 144 and it's gonna take a ton of vitamins and lots of medication to make it there. I don't know if science will even bother with it. I look like a wreck already.

Sixty miles from Chicago the sky got a serious look to it and the temperature began to drop. The TV had told me it wouldn't precipitate upon Chicago today, no matter how bad it wanted to, and they were right. I stopped for fuel at the South Beloit exit, just before the Wisconsin line on I-90, thinking I ought to, just for once, buy fuel in Illinois. It was a Flying J, which is generally a civil place to trade, but they did everything they could to stand in the way of it. First off, the traffic light at the top of the exit ramp took about ten minutes to change and I thought later I should have taken that as a sign and just gone back onto the superslab. At the diesel pump I called on the intercom to give my carrier name and she asked the truck number and license, and the method of payment. I said Company credit card and she said they had to see it before they'd start the pump. I figured it might be that way. In the more civil states they usually don't ask for that.

Went in and she said they wouldn't take Visa, not even with a company name. You take it everywhere else I've been, I said, and she said they don't take it here. She said you'll have to take it to the ATM machine and get some cash and I said I'll take it up the road is where I'll take it. Which I did, stopping again for ten minutes at that same light at the ramp. So now I don't buy fuel in Minnesota because the ethanol makes it gel up and I don't buy it in Illinois because you get hassled. Went a few miles across the Wisconsin line to the TA in Janesville and had no problem.

But I had problems soon after that. The temperature had dropped fourteen degrees since Chicago and a blustery fat-flake snowfall set upon us. Visibility got bad and it seemed that at 34 degrees the snow should melt as it hit the road. But in twenty miles the flakes became small and began to accumulate and I figured it would be a long afternoon. I backed off and switched in the differential lock, so as to put power to both drive axles. I expected it would not be long before I saw the first car off the road.

I was right. The first batch happened about ten miles into the storm, two cars and minivan stretched out along two miles on the other side of the median, occupying two troopers and two wreckers already. (If you must leave the road you should do it early in the snowfall, to save on the time you'll have to wait for the tow truck.) Then in the six lane section by Madison a van in our right lane went around a slower car and then did a big loop all the way across to the fast lane and finally came to rest facing upstream in the center lane. I had an easy time moving over and was glad not be him.

I started counting. Not much more to do, once you get slowed down to 35 miles an hour. By the time I reached Mauston it was up to sixteen cars and two semis. I thought about the early-day trucks that could only go 45 miles an hour on dry gravel and didn't have heaters. Didn't even have CD players. It became a grind it out kind of trip. Wreck number 25 was a freshly turned Mercedes sitting facing traffic on the shoulder of the left lane; the guy was looking at me, hoping I wasn't coming over any farther. Number 26 was a van lying on its roof in the ditch with its lights on and surrounded by yellow police tape. It was the only one that actually might have been serious. The rest had all just sllid into the soft banks, some backwards, some sideways, sort of like a vehicular version of a pillow fight.

It eased up around at LaCrosse, after ditched truck number four. The weather site had showed no snow forecast at Chicago and none at Minneapolis, but I hadn't asked about the in-between, where it all came down. The pavement now showed two dry tracks and I increased my velocity. I was in the passing lane easing by a company freight hauler when the guy began to drift into me. I didn't want to put the left wheels in snow and held my line and he slipped a few more inches and by then the nose of our truck was nearly at his door and I couldn't hold off any longer and I gave him the air horn, hoping he wouldn't jerk and make it worse. He moved back to where he belonged. He was young. Too young, it looked like to me.

Then, coming around the curve at mile 59 — about four hours behind expectations — the sky cleared and broke into a sunset. Not a huge dramatic flaming fiery thing but just a low-key two-color mottled pink and blue, like a print dress maybe, way out there, nothing fancy. As if to say, "Hey. I didn't mean anything by all the snow. Just fooling around. Here — have a sunset."

I woke up the next morning, 72 and 0. To celebrate I did fifty pushups. Like the Marines.

© R.Ringsak 2008

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