Russ Ringsak

A Persistent Question

January 8, 2009

I'm in the cab of our truck, basking here in the bright golden tiara of its own clearance lights. It's nighttime a half block east of Times Square and we are surrounded by truck fans in their colorful all-black New York holiday outfits. Hank can dominate even against the tall neon here and you can tell they don't get a lot of highway rigs in this part of town. I haven't seen one here in three years. Seems as if nobody else has either.

A loud wash of music comes down 43rd street from Seventh Avenue and a fire truck whoops its way slowly past our cab window, pushing itself into the thickness of red taillights running all the way from here to the Hudson River. Sometimes in city traffic you feel like you're knee deep in hyperactive puppies but when it's really curb-to-curb thick and barely moving it's more like wading in a paste of guppies. And you're not allowed to touch any of them.

That's how it was coming in tonight, thick and slow as syrup. But now settled in here, flashers blinking and clearance lights aglow, it feels fine. People stop and read the door. They have their kid sit on the front fender or stand on the step for a picture. Guys will pose possessively beneath the big chrome air cleaner or framed in the classic vertical grille and have the girlfriend or pal take a quick shot. If they seem interested I'll let them climb up and have a look at the dash of twenty gauges and thirty switches.

Foreigners will say things like In Italy we don't have big trucks like this, only small ones. I say but in Italy you get to hear the Ferraris and Lamborghinis. He says but that's the big money, you know? I know, I say. Five times what this truck costs. But faster. More fun, too, I'll bet. He grins. Very fast, yes.

It would be an incomplete narrative if I didn't mention that when you sit high like this right next to a crowded Saturday night sidewalk in an international city you will see some shockingly beautiful women walk by. Given the raised aloofness of their elegant high cheekbones most of them are obviously not truck fans, nor would one expect that. Their escorts admire the truck and the trucker admires the women, a fair enough exchange.

The show ends and the sidewalk fills, smiling and crowding around the cab or scurrying off to a presumably fine dinner somewhere. Stagehands come out and I open the trailer doors and they set the ramp in place and roll off some bulky cases we have kept lashed to the walls, stored since we loaded in here four weekends ago. In due time the truck begins to jostle from full cases coming aboard, taking two hours to pack and load while I sit and type and enjoy my immunity from the heavy labor just behind. It brings to mind old seafaring books wherein a tall ship would be in port for weeks before it was loaded and ready to go back out.

Replenishing my own stores is no more than a quick walk through a parking ramp to a deli on 44th Street. I come back with a bagful of Red Bull, Diet Snapple, Coke Zero, a ham sandwich, a bunch of protein bars, a piece of chocolate cake, some cheese crackers and a pack of Oreo cookies. Nothing in the trucker's pack to deal with scurvy or malaria or cholera. Pirates, maybe. Pirate problems are to be dealt with by the captain of course, and are a rare occurrence. And even more rarely reported.

The truck has a personality, smooth and tough and luxurious, forgiving of some operator errors and not so of others, and when I speak of driving it I use 'we' even when I'm the only one in it, which is almost all the time. In that sense, we left our slip alongside the Town Hall just after eleven and eased gingerly westward among the cabs and limos. With the green lights at Seventh — right under where a luminous idol would in four days' time descend to announce the new year to a vast pilgrimage of green ball pagans — we moved aggressively through the pedestrian sea and into the narrow labyrinth of West 43rd, sneaking oh so carefully between the stretch Lincoln double-parked on the right and just beyond it the yellow taxi doubled on the left and then beyond it the delivery truck on the right. The mirrors tell of the skinny inches the trailer cleared it by; the blind right side under the long hood is simply a matter of prayer. Especially in the dark.

Ease down to Eighth, cross Ninth. It begins to clear. At Tenth there is confusion but it scatters when the big dog with all the lights comes bombing up and we wheel wide through the intersection to roll uphill with a head of steam and into the greenlit one-way valley to the north, the lights changing before us at a 32 mile-an-hour clip. We catch them all, right up to 72nd, a nonstop run of twenty-nine in a row, and turn up a quiet Broadway for the old system where they all change together instead of in sequence. You make seven blocks at time if things go well. I row the gearshift and Hank does the heavy pulling, 106 blocks to the Interstate and the George Washington bridge.

Westbound Jersey is not all that bad but I wonder why all that eastbound traffic is running at midnight on a Saturday. Maybe they all knew what a mess it would have been if they had gone through when I did earlier that afternoon. I had slept late and had good energy and a clean log book and now figured to make it well into Ohio before sleeping.

And as soon as I hit the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania I began to have doubt. Fog came on in thick rolls like big sleeping bags and traffic slowed to 55 and then to under 50. I figured it would most likely clear west of that range and it did but only for about twenty miles. After that it got worse. The driving lights barely picked out the edge of the highway. Drove tentatively for a half an hour. Everyone was spooked.

And then a car went by at sixty. New car, big bright taillights. Thought he was a fool but perhaps a fool I could use. I could see him about two hundred yards after he went by and figured it'd be a whole lot safer and faster to have a scout like that than to poke along and hope not to hit anything in the mist. I kicked it and kept within a football field of those bright beacons. I knew if he saw anything the lights would get brighter yet and I had a lot of time to stop. And then another car went by like a shot, and now I had two scouts. Like happy bird dogs out there, they were, just having fun.

They passed cars and trucks and I just kept tracking. I lost them and had to slow down a couple of times and each time the fog cleared long enough for me pull back into range. By Clearfield the visibility went to nearly nothing as the east and westbound lanes ran very close, with the eastbound side higher, and suddenly out of the fog there appeared a truck hanging nose down on the embankment on the left. Wow. Very close. It looked like a construction truck, a squared-off shortnosed shape, but it was gone so quick I couldn't make out any detail other than that its lights were off.

Called 911 and said This is probably not an emergency but I'm westbound at mile 120 on I-80 and there's a truck hanging nose down in the median. He said I was maybe the three-thousandth caller about that truck and I said I kinda figured that and sorry to bother you and he said no problem and we talked briefly about the weather and hung up. I can still see that thing hanging there, like a plane suspended the instant before it hit the ground.

At the DuBois exit at mile 97 I lost my escort service and not long after that the fog cleared and I cruised into Ohio. Pulled into the pumps at the Petro in Gerard and when I checked the mileage the green thermometer said the outside temp was 67 degrees. It had been in the high 30s and low 40s all night and I thought "Great. Fog all night, and now that's busted." I climbed down and was amazed. It was like a summer night. The guy at the next pump said, Weird, ain't it? I agreed. I'd just come through a couple hundred miles of thick fog at over 60 miles an hour and had driven straight into summertime.

Back on the superslab I got my ticket at the Ohio Tollway booth and fell in with traffic westbound out of Youngstown. I followed a car in the right lane that was running down the road like a dog. You see this once in a while: maybe the result of a broadside hit. It was raining a little, enough that the car left tracks. Except it was four tracks. It was so bent out of shape the back tires ran entirely to the right of the front ones. There was a three-inch space between the tracks. Never saw it that bad before.

I looked in the window, easy to do even from behind. I expected to see an actual clown in there but it was just some doofus guy in his late thirties maybe. My take on it was he probably didn't have a girlfriend. Maybe nobody would ride with him. It would be hard to carry on a conversation in that car and you'd have to bend your neck to look at the road. You'd be thinking you were in a slide.

I thought I'd make it to the Indiana line and sleep at the truckstop near there. But there was soon new drama in the wind and in fact it was the wind itself. And it didn't take long before it got strong and the guys on the CB were saying it was sixty miles an hour out of the southwest, gusting to over seventy. And then it started to seriously rain. I was grateful to have all that heavy stuff in the trailer. The rig was shuddering and lurching and feeling very much like the tall ship I had thought about earlier.

And then it got worse and then it went past the shudder stage into the part where you could feel a heavy gust slide the trailer over a little which is the part where you decide to make landfall at the nearest oasis. Which wasn't that far. We parked and I took off the boots, slid into the bunk and got under the sleeping bag. Woke into a cold gray windy morning and went inside for coffee and the egg and sausage hot takeout sandwich. Decided I really didn't need to be home that quick. It was Sunday. I could get a motel room around Maumee and watch football for six hours.

I did that and took an Ambien around six and woke up at two. On the road at 2:30 AM put me into the Chicago loop by 6:30 AM and running with the Monday morning go-getters in fast traffic. Lots of cars but everyone wide awake and no damn fools messing around at 40 miles an hour. No sudden brake lights. Out of there and off the Illinois potholes in a couple of hours and from there we were On Wisconsin, rolling free and smooth. Got Hank washed and fueled at Portage, dropped the trailer at the lot in St Paul and drove home.

A few nights later I sat looking out on a pure northern backyard of fresh crystalline whiteness, lying beneath a large and warm-looking moon, trees throwing big bent shadows around. It was utterly still, so soundless it seemed like traffic had come to a standstill for forty miles all around.

It was below zero. Still as death out there on the back hill, rising as if to meet the big moon partway. But it wasn't like death out there. It was death itself.

I could walk out there and sit down and by morning be dead. Anybody could. If the gas quit the pipe and the electricity quit the wire there'd be only the fuel in the car's tank. Without electricity there'd be nothing at the downtown pump and the car would stop cold long before it reached southern warmth. Every year I wonder this same thing: How the heck did the people on my Indian side ever get through these terrible winters?

I know there are answers and I'm sure they're complicated. I'd rather just wonder about it.

© R.Ringsak 2009

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