Russ Ringsak

Quarterlies, Waterbirds, Nashville

April 26, 2010

It's not that I quit writing these last months. But all I've written is so dry that only government employees will touch it: log books, safety inspection forms, expense accounts; IFTA mileage and fuel consumption and taxation tallies. I've been writing checks and receipts and columns of numbers about income taxes.

IFTA means International Fuel Tax Agreement. There are other words the letters might stand for. It is a truly incredible bureaucratic wonderment, wherein the states have agreed that no truck rumbling through can do so unmolested and must be gouged even beyond the enormous license fees already laid upon it. The tax is on the fuel, and if the truck bought fuel in another state they want to skin off their cut.

They regard the truck not as a worker, bringer of the useful and the necessary, but rather as a wrecker of the precious highway and a nuisance to the valuable tourist trade. Fuel used in agriculture isn't taxed because farmers are good guys and don't need any more punishment than what nature deals them. Truckers presumedly need fulltime supervision and a daily tapping of the vein, all duly recorded.

It takes a lot of paper and pixels to track each truck's every gallon and see to it that no state misses its divine share of the big fuel pool. Each state's tax rate is different and every truck gets a slightly different mileage. So you have to fill out forms with nine columns and a line for every state and province, and you have to do the math. And do it quarterly. It burns a whole day and sometimes two. More if you do it over. They also skin you fifty bucks if it's late.

The number of numbers — called numbers because it makes you numb to read them — help explain why I haven't written dialogue for a while. We've been in 33 states and two foreign countries just since the start of the year, including a ship cruise and a couple of trips to both coasts. The combined highway, air and sea distance was about 26,800 miles. Not a real big deal but enough to go around the world.

IFTA doesn't make us report air or boat mileage, or even car travel. But I'm not grateful for that. Because it would be like saying well okay the government is intrusive and stupid but we should all be grateful it's not even more so.

Truckers just don't think like that.

* * * *

So much for the ranting on the revenuers. One's first sea cruise puts those thoughts quickly out of mind. The ship is to the truck as the semi is to the wheelbarrow, which is to say pleasantly ponderous and fourteen orders of magnitude more comfortable. And the food is way the hell better too.

The first stop from Tampa was Key West, everything one would expect it to be, and then on to Belize City, where a bunch of us boarded two lurching former Greyhound buses on a hinterland tour of exotic birds. We stopped frequently along the scattered roadside enterprises to check out the birds the eagle-eyed lady in charge would find on the wires and in the trees beside the ditches.

They were a most remarkable collection. A Black-bellied Whistling Duck, a Plain Chachalaca, some Green, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons; a Yellow Cheeked Parrot, a Purple Gallinue, a Squirrel Cuckoo, and Kingfishers: Ringed, Belted, and Green Kingfishers. Great Herons and Least Grebes.

There were Swallowtail Kites and Bare-Throated Tiger Herons; Magnificent Frigatebirds, Black-necked Stilts, Limpkins, various rails and egrets. The White-faced Ibis and the Royal Tern. Laughing Gulls, a couple of Vermillion Flycatchers and a White Ibis. The driver would stop at her call and sometimes back up so all could get a peek at the specimen. Seventy-two species were counted.

I don't think we saw a Resplendent Quetzal, and neither a Violaceous Trogon nor a Slaty-Tailed Trogon; nor the Brown Noddy nor a Green-breasted Mango. But we saw a lot. Birds of
incredible design and color, as if from some designer's sketchbook, living in patched and faded neighborhoods along a narrow beaten-down highway.

The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary sits at the end of the run, a woods and a village and a long curving shore graced with flocks of long-legged graceful flyers. I still wouldn't know a kite or a rail from a stilt. But I liked 'em all.

There were two more stops, Costa Maya and Cozumel, where three of us guys experienced deep sea fishing without so much as a light nibble. In that way it was like my deer hunting trip to northern Minnesota last fall. Could have left the fishing tackle and the gun behind.

After our ship left the Mexican coast for Tampa on the last night out I laid with my nose to the porthole, watching the wake as the lights along the rail above illuminated the shipside froth of the sea below. Leveling out the whitecaps. It was around midnight. A bird flew directly alongside the window at the same speed and height and would occasionally dip into the wake and grab something.

It flew more like a duck than a gull, more energetic flapping and less graceful gliding, and it stayed exactly in position except for the periodic dive into the froth. I watched for twenty minutes and then fell asleep. I'd had a beer or four and woke up somewhat after two, maybe two-thirty, to heed the natural call; on my return the bird was still holding its exact position out there, flying hard over the dark water. In the morning it was gone.

We docked and began the massive off-loading of passenger luggage and our stage gear. It went smoothly. Tom Gohman had flown in the day before and he took the first driving shift up to Atlanta. We set Big Hank by the curb at the Paramount Theater in Seattle two days later.

* * * *

As to the actual road and plane travels, it seems nobody has put it better than Willie Nelson did, writing in his 1971 hit, "Me And Paul":

It's been rough and rocky travelin' but I'm finally standing upright on the ground
After taking several readings, I'm surprised to find my mind's still fairly sound.

Paul is Paul English, his longtime drummer. Merle Haggard also nailed it with his "White Line Fever," (1970) as a truck driver with a "Sickness born down deep within my soul" and the striking lines:

The wrinkles on my forehead
Show the miles I put behind me
They continue to remind me
How fast I'm growin' old. . .

(A redundancy, perhaps, if one already is old. But it still resonates.)

(The British rock band Motörhead did a pharmaceutical hobbyist's tune with the same name but for them the white line was on the table rather than on the highway. "It's a slow death — but it hasn't killed me yet." Not much poetry there, to my ear.)

With two-week stops in both San Francisco and Seattle, and now a three-week stand in New York, I'm flying home more than in past years and grateful for it. The cruise ship and Music City have been the season highlights so far, what with all the live bands. The young and old pack Broadway and Second Streets in downtown Nashville way into the night.

In a crowded raucous bar on the wilder side of Broadway a young woman grabbed me to dance and upon seeing the snaps down the front impulsively ripped open my western shirt. The hairless white chest and belly were perhaps a surprise, because she quickly started snapping them back up, keeping in time with the loud country rock beat from the stage. She may have thought I had a flounder in there.

The bands look pretty much like they do in bars and clubs all across America, but if you plan to bring your own hot group to Nashville you should first check out the competition. They may be relaxed and grinning up there, playing with a tip jar onstage and no cover charge, but young or old they are all scalpel sharp and hard driving. And they can, like — Dude — really play.

I had lured five friends down there for their first time and they all want to go back. It's a real treat these days to see a downtown string of bars jammed with people. Most cities just empty out and go dry after the offices lock up. Nashville begins to stir about then. It helps that the Ryman Auditorium sits there across the alley, barely a long slap shot from the hockey, basketball and concert arena. Just across the Cumberland River sits the football stadium and a block away stands the Country Music Hall of Fame. I meant to get the iconic t-shirt and forgot; the one that says "We're Not Bashful, We're From Nashville." I'll go back for it later.

On the third floor of the Hall a knockdown stunning 1960 Cadillac sedan finished in 40 coats of ground diamonds and oyster pearl sits near a brilliant white 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible, with silver Colt revolvers for door handles and hood ornament and silver Winchester rifles set in the side trim. The leather interior is inset with a thousand silver dollars and a very wide set of longhorns graces the grille. The Cadillac belonged to Elvis Presley; the Pontiac to Webb Pierce.

And in a quiet shadow of this highlighted utter flamboyance stands the display given over to Chet: some guitars, some photographs, some notes. On the darkened back wall, not that noticeable, is a brief passage, here quoted to the best of my memory of it:

"The isolation, the poverty; that's what I came from. It's what makes you fight. It's what makes you work to develop your talent, if you have any, to get out. I picked my way out of East Tennessee." — Chet Atkins.

There is an outdoor street-corner plaza at the BankAmerica building, on the downtown hill to the west of all the music. On its stone floor there is a sweet bronze statue of Chet, sitting on a simple stool and playing a namesake Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar. Lifesize; left foot on the floor, right foot on a rung. Head cocked a bit and a slight smile on his face. An open stool sits next to him. You can sit down next to him. Have your picture taken. You can bring your own guitar and sit next to him and play along. He'd like that, I know.

It is a hard statue to walk away from.

* * * *

© R. Ringsak 2010
(His address, in code, is: russring at visi dot com)

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