Russ Ringsak

Close Encounters

May 14, 2011

We were heading for New York City with a stop in Nashville this last month and on the passage through the middle of Wisconsin on Interstate 90 took a quick exit into a big landscaped rest area. The highway speed limit is a modest 65 and the exit ramp curls in to the right with an early separation of cars and trucks. I'm sweeping in there at a reasonable speed and see a semi on the left shoulder. It's an odd place to stop because it's narrow there and the big parking lot is only 200 yards away, just beyond the trees. The rig suddenly, incredibly, lurches and starts to pull out onto the pavement in front of me; there's no time to stop so I lay into the accelerator pedal to get by before he's fully on the ramp. I yank hard on the air horn and take half the right shoulder to get by this fool. We miss contact by a couple of inches and I keep the horn lanyard pulled as I blast on by: a long wailing howl of rage and outrage.

I pull to a stop in a drive-through parking slot and turn the ignition off. And here he comes; parks beside me on the right. The truck is from California. He shuts it off, jumps down and comes at me around my hood. He's maybe 25, medium build and macho and real mad about being scolded. I open the driver's door. He screams up at me: "IS THERE A SIGN THERE THAT SAYS SEVENTY? DID YOU SEE A SIGN THAT SAYS SEVENTY?"

An odd thing to be hollering about especially when the speed limit is 65. As if it'd be okay if there was a sign but the only sign was painted on the pavement and it said NO PARKING ON RAMP. I look at the guy. I'm thinking he's a kid. An angry child. I see him standing there blinking with that tantrum thing inside about to blow up. "DID YOU SEE A SIGN THERE?" he shouts again, looking up as threatening as he can. As if I should have stopped for him.

I have the high ground and I'm not moving. I maintain an expression of mild tolerance and finally say, "You pulled out right in front of me, man. You never saw me did you."

This seems to confuse the issue for a moment but he wants to stay mad. He says, "I OUGHTA PULL YOU DOWN HERE AND KICK THE SHIT OUT OF YOU!!"

I keep the blankface eye contact, letting the big stupid threat hang there in the air for a while. Then I set my teeth and give him a long slow grin. An ambiguous grin, where the lips go there but the eyes don't. It could be an I'm Hoping You'll Try That grin or it could be a You Have No Idea How Stupid You Look grin.

It confuses him. I keep my eyes locked on him and wait for a time. Then I say, "You were in a no parking zone. All you could see in the mirror was the side of your trailer because you were on the curve. And you pulled out dead in front of me. But we got through it ... And nobody got hurt. ... I was real mad when it happened but I'm not mad now."

He purses his lips, tightens the jaw and does another hard frown. I say: "No harm done. We got through it. So forget it."

He finally looks away. He can't think of anything else to say. He could be thinking it might be hard to pull an old guy out of a truck anyway, especially one who still has the safety harness on but then of course the old guy could maybe be crazy too. He could be. Might even have a shotgun up there. Sawed off shotgun.

That's what I'd like him to think. Either about that or a Doberman or a second driver in the bunk back there. But I don't have to pretend any of that. It's like staring at a dog until he looks away. I can see his little wheels turning in there. He finally looks up and gives me another threatening glower and I'm still grinning and he turns and stomps back to his truck. Drives off.

I'm wondering why he was there at all. He didn't use the restroom and there's a lot of space for dealing with truck problems in that big parking lot; didn't make sense to stop on that narrow approach.

And I'm also thinking about the hotheads who shouldn't be on the highways and especially not in 18-wheelers. There's a high turnover in this trade. Sometimes that's a bad thing and sometimes it's a good thing. I'm hoping that guy, whoever he is, soon becomes a part of it.

And thinking about it later I wouldn't recommend grinning in the face of any ticked-off fool. Unless you have the high ground.

~ ~ ~ ~

Nashville is the holy city of fast and tasty electric guitar; a lot of people find those mutually exclusive, but for fans of that stuff I highly recommend checking out the current occupant of the first guitar spot there at Roberts Western World. A lanky guy in his early 20s by the name of J. D. Simo. He's on YouTube and he's even better in person. For as long as I've been going there Don Kelley has been able to recruit the best of the knock your socks off hot guitar players. Before J. D. it was Guthrie Trapp. Johnny Hiland and Redd Volkaert before them. We ordinary players stand close, slackjawed, with our beer getting warm in the bottle. It's a tradition.

~ ~ ~ ~

The season is sliding by. From there I took Hank the truck to New York City for a four-week stand. Loaded in, flew home, flew back, loaded back out. Truck sits there under the long Town Hall marquee while they pack the gear onstage; takes a couple hours. I get dinner at the diner, catch up on paperwork, walk through the parking ramp to the deli on 44th to buy road food.

I sit up there with the window open and chat with people walking by. This time there was a trucker who had come in from the road years ago; he was from back in the days before power steering and the spring loaded air brakes. Back when it would take both hands on the same side of the steering wheel to back in and going uphill was hard work and downhill was just plain scary.

Lots of photos taken now that half of us are carrying automatic cameras that don't need film. I'm wondering if all those flashes will fade the gorgeous red paint job. Our big cases finally start coming out onto the sidewalk and are rolled up the ramp by tough looking guys with generally easy natures. They make jokes and when it's full right to the back doors they put the locks on and wave the truck off and I picture it getting smaller to them as it disappears into the 43rd Street canyon. And I picture 136 blocks to the north, where in an hour or so the George Washington Bridge will be getting smaller in all four of Hank's mirrors. You simply cannot help but smile when you finally snick it into 13th gear on Interstate 80. Westbound.

~ ~ ~ ~

Next big stop was the fantasy world of the Fox Theater in St Louis. Fitting that a city of such grand dimension near the central joinery of our mighty rivers (right now mighty flooded) would have built and have somehow kept such a marvel. Fitting also that they should have that great ballpark, that giant arch, that big brick brewery with the colossal horses, that fantastic city museum, all those terrific buildings still standing downtown. And then that sweet motorcycle museum out there by the Fox. What a town.

Our next stop Detroit has the stunning twin sister fabulous Fox to the one in St Louis; to get both in the same season could make a roadie become jaded. (That's sort of a joke.) There's a third grand survivor in Atlanta but with an entirely different theme; they are all a treat to visit.

Not meaning to bother the reader with a jaded phrase, but the detail is breathtaking. The first-time visitor walking in cannot help but blurt "Holy xxxx!!" The red granite columns are from Russia, we were told, the only place it's grown in the world. There is a little-noticed elephant above the proscenium, a request of the owner's wife who felt it needed a little something up there.

Holy xxxx.

The Necessary Elephant.

The Stunning Lobby.

This is another city with a real reason to be where it is, at the joinery of two great lakes and two great nations. They are working manfully and womanfully to get themselves back into the big city game. It's laid out organically with main roads spreading from central parks and squares and has that feel of just being necessary. How could you not put a continental city here?

Now they need to keep it up and running; it has a terrific new ballpark and new football stadium smack in the middle, like Collossi, and big green parks and a regular lake, Lake St Claire, and fishing and a bird sanctuary and a plentiful collection of fine vintage buildings. And a good freeway system and a tunnel under the river bringing in all sorts of cool Canadian tourists from the south.
~ ~ ~ ~

Our next show is a home stand at the restored State Theater in downtown Minneapolis and then a week off. After that it's into the Long Haul part of the season, coast to coast to coast bing-bing-bing and then on a ship heading out on the Atlantic Ocean and up the St Lawrence Seaway to Montreal.

~ ~ ~ ~

Last month I bought a new Harley just because it was sitting there at the dealer's and I couldn't help myself and after all that truckin' and shippin' and flyin' is done I intend to take a little knees in the breeze free bird ride out west.

After the close encounters with the nitwit, the theatrical splendor, the urban history and the excitement, I'm ready for some quiet snow-capped grandeur out there at arm's length.

©R.Ringsak 2011

russring at visi dot com

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