Friends,

I wrote this one long night in a hotel room in Beaumont Texas about 14 years ago. Both “stories” are true and no embellishments. If I can find one I’ll add a picture of the little red Toyota that inspired this bit of drivel.

On to the madness.

 

Memories

Highway 90 was a long road, impossibly long. Stretched on forever, was the term he had heard. He was only going down a “short” stretch, about 90 miles west to Houston, but it gave him plenty of time to think
The heat here was palpable, with a level of humidity that could be cut through with a chainsaw. The glowing dashboard thermometer announced from its perch that it was 99 degrees. And that at 7pm. God it was hot. The rock and roll station from Beaumont was starting to fade, and their play list was only about 12 songs anyway, He reached over and snapped off Bob Seger as Bob was extolling the misery of life on the road. Yeah, right. Off in the distance, a brief flash of lightning hit the plain like a flash bulb in a distant house. He thought about his truck.

-It was a cold December day in 1990 when the truck was delivered. A beautiful burgundy Toyota, with all the trimmings. She gleamed in the parking lot like a shining ruby against the more ordinary Corollas and Tercels. The salesman, even though he meant well, tried to cheapen the moment with the standard “Well, I wish I had that one” comment, but even a sloppy remark from a polyester clad auto broker wasn’t going to dampen his enthusiasm. He grabbed the keys and the impossibly large bank note, and got in for the first time.
The smell was that one of a kind new car smell that only comes with, well, new cars. Every corner gleamed, almost with a pride of its own, as if the individual parts of the truck were trying to out do each other. With a turn of the key the engine roared to life, eager to take on whatever roads its driver felt a need to point its mirror like chrome bumper down. –

The road went on. A lonely empty road with only stretches of fence, telephone poles, and the occasional longhorn chewing on grass as dry as a sand dune in the Sahara. As the sun set the mosquitoes, which had hidden from the broiling heat all day, were let loose from their shaded prisons to draw nourishment from any and all living things. They were drawn to the headlights of his rental like a starving man to a buffet dinner, and first tens, then hundreds committed winshield-cide when the mini-van sped by on its innocuous mission.
Just off the horizon, a thunderhead was building like a sky bound wave of immense heights. Flashes of light emanated from the billowing cloud, but the thunderhead was too far away to be heard or a concern. Such were the vast distances that could be seen as the sky drew dark in east Texas.

-The first trip with the new truck was a beach trip. Ahhh, Nags Head, the place of a simple man’s dreams. No, it wasn’t the Hilton at Maui, but a quiet, pleasant place to relax and rejuvenate. Heads turned everywhere he went, not to look at him, but at the latest offering from Japan with more than a little jealousy. He felt a sense of pride in the look and feel of a vehicle with a larger than life personality. Kind of like hanging out with Schwarzenegger, or maybe Angelina Jolie, he thought with amusement.
He took her out on the beach for the first time, and those big tires bit into the sand like a lioness ripping off chunks of flesh from a fresh kill. The engine growled and spit out torque to feed the tires, and she ran the beach with ease. He found a secluded spot and parked her by the wind swept ocean. When he got out the sun was just rising, and he savored the new day from his private beach, accessible only by four-wheel drive. A deck chair and a good book was all he needed to truly enjoy the day, and a little sunscreen along with a cooler full of refreshment was icing on the cake. –

He passed a sign which, when illuminated by the halogen beams of his rental, told him that Houston was 65 miles distant. He tried the radio, and was greeted by a host of country and classic rock formats. He settled on classic rock and tapped the wheel to some old Boston tune, “More than a Feeling”. Boston went back to Boston, and the sounds of Floyd filled the cabin. Roger Waters asked him if there was anybody. . . . Out there? He didn’t think so. He grabbed his mug of coffee and wondered when the call was going to come. The Pinkest of Floyds left the auditorium and were replaced by A Flock of Seagulls, who’s one hit wonder now played “I Ran”.

– A flock of seagulls flew overhead in a tight formation that the Thunderbirds would have been proud of. He realized he needed to get back to the beach house. Even though he had been running the tunes on the radio all day, She started right up, as if to say “Baby, lets go!” He ran through the soft sand again, bouncing along ruts made by lesser vehicles back to highway 12, to take him back to Nags Head.-

The last of the suns burning rays sunk below the horizon. The minivan rented from Hobby Airport breathed a sigh of relief, and the Air conditioning finally started to catch up with the day’s heat. Still a long way to go, as Dire Straits crooned about “Money for Nothing”

-After the hurricane there was lots to be done. Work especially. The hours were incredible, and he hardly saw his family for weeks as he helped his employer pick up the pieces strewn about by that badass girl called Fran. When at last he had a few days to himself, he worked on his own yard’s damage. There was not much cleanup on his own property, just a stray pine and a few branches that needed cleaning up, but he helped several neighbors with their fallen trees, and collected two years worth of firewood. He put a lot of strain on his back and on the bed of the truck, but the truck didn’t mind. His back, on the other hand, screamed for Advil on a regular basis. Once, while pulling into the yard to unload that precious oak for a cold winter’s burning, he bumped a tree in the yard. He quickly jumped out of the truck to survey the damage, and found a small dimple in that rear bumper he had jumped on so many times. “Sorry, girl” he whispered, as if he had somehow violated her innocence. He went back to unloading the stove lengths.-

Someone was knocking on heaven’s door when he passed the sign announcing that Houston was only 20 miles distant. It was full dark now, and the headlights illuminated a tiny patch of the road ahead like a flashlight in a rainstorm. He realized he was low on both fuel and coffee. A double whammy. He looked for a light on the horizon to point the rental towards, and dropped the cruise control from 80 to 65. After a while a sign loomed ahead announcing that Exxon was open and ready to serve. He pumped the cheap unleaded as the bugs beat against the highway sign with lackluster indifference. He guessed they were hot and tired, too as he slipped the nozzle back in its rest. The call was overdue. After paying the unresponsive clerk with his corporate card, he climbed back in his loaner and got back on the road. Grateful Dead was rocking the 4-speaker stereo so he cranked up the volume to full bore. “Jerry my man, I hope you, Janice and Jimmy are jamming somewhere out there.” He thought as a smile crossed his lips. Where was that call?

-The call came at 9 pm. Bruce and his dad was in a suburban form of hell. His dad had put their car in a ditch and they needed a pull to get the unruly Cadillac free. He dragged the towing strap from its resting place in the garage, and drove on over to the scene of the crime. The Caddy was in a ditch all right, nose pointed down like an Ostrich, head buried in the Piedmont Carolina red clay, and rear wheels pointing skyward. Bruce and his elderly father walked around the wounded car like a couple of Indian shamans preparing a dance of death. He pulled the truck up behind the Caddy, and bravely hooked the tow strap to the massive rear bumper. The weight of the immense behemoth called for more than the usual torque, so he shifted to four-wheel low range and took the slack out of the strap. The truck hesitated only for the briefest moment before dragging that Cadillac back to terra firma. The look of relief from Bruce was obvious, and his father gave a small but significant wave of thanks. All in a day’s work.-

He came into the Houston Traffic snarl and began to navigate the lights and lane changes with a practiced hand. The roadside was littered with fast foods, stop and gos and other Generica without end. Hundreds of fellow travelers were glancing left and right in a feeding frenzy of grease and cholesterol. As much as he had been bored on the lonely stretch of highway he had left, he already missed the open plains and fields that had been replaced by the fluorescent glitter of the combo meal.

-The call came at 8 am on a Sunday. He was not supposed to work, but the dispatcher said they needed his help anyway. He didn’t have the work truck home so he hopped in the Toyota to head on in. She protested, and he was reminded that he had not yet purchased the new battery she so needed. The old battery was four and a half years old, and had needed replacing for some time, but he had ignored it.” She always started on the first crank anyway,” he thought, “it will last another week.”
He got to the outage quickly, and saw that he would need his work van, an old scrappy Ford with more miles than God and the dents to prove it. First he set the four way flashers and walked down the dewy grass to the broken pole to survey the damage. A few minutes later he was headed back up the hill to head to the Yard where his work truck sat. He got in the truck, and turned the key. Nothing. The flashers had sucked the last of the batteries years of energy down to a pinprick, and there just wasn’t enough there to turn over the big 3 liter V-6. He tried one more time, summoning the gods of batteries and stalled trucks by name, but was ignored. No fault but his own, for disregarding a growing need. He looked down at the dash of his truck and apologized for his short sightedness, and for letting her down. As he started to lock the truck he heard a small voice say “Push Start”. Hmm. OK, so he got back in and let the parking brake loose. She began to roll imperceptibly, at first down the slight slope. As she gained speed, he heard that small voice again say “Not yet . . .. Not yet . . . . . NOW!” He popped the clutch in second gear and the old girl roared to life. “Not dead yet, my friend”, He thought he heard. He went to the yard to get into the Van and got the top of the line Die Hard the next day.-

He looked left and right, and finally found his waypoint. A small, rundown storefront where he could pick up the material that would allow his team to complete their task in the small town of Beaumont, an unpleasant burg some 90 miles distant whose claim to fame was a Goodyear rubber plant and a 3000 bed jail. He parked the rental and went in to pick up his delivery. The proprietor, an old man of the sort usually seen in westerns as the grizzled sidekick, processed his order and left him with that age-old adage, “Hot enuff fer ya?” Yeah, it was. Damn hot.

-The forecast was for snow. A lot of snow. The winter wonder always brought out the kid in him, and in uncharacteristic fashion, he couldn’t sleep that night. Getting up repeatedly to check the window for signs of the white stuff, much as he had when he was a boy growing up in the wilds of suburban DC. Finally sleep came, though he was up with the dawn to gaze out in wonder at- shit, no snow. Well, such was life in North Carolina.” If you really wanted snow you could move your ass to Michigan or drive to”- Hey, he got an idea. Get in the truck and take the family out to the mountains. Surely they got slammed with this storm. Sure enough the weather channel reported that Boone and Blowing Rock were under 18 – 24 inches of new powder. He got everyone up and soon, with a couple of blankets and some coffee and hot Chocolate, they were on their way, and excitement was the order of the day.
The first thing he noticed on this quest for snow was the lack of east bound traffic. Where the hell was everyone. As they passed Winston Salem the interstate showed some slippery shoulders and accumulation on the trees and grass, all of a sudden the whole road- all 8 lanes- were covered with 3-4 inches. “Now that’s a good sign” he thought as he shifted the tranny into 4X4. The truck ate up the slippery surface like an Olympic skater in a gold medal round, and soon they were exiting to take the two lane which would transport them to an icy wonderland. Or so he thought.
30 miles up the road the state police had barricaded the highway as the 2-3 feet of powder that so delightfully decorated the scenery had not been plowed from the roads, and the authorities had deemed the two lane as treacherous and unsafe. Defeat was imminent.
As he turned around, he looked on the map he kept for such occasions and saw a small road cutting across the countryside, which would take them to an alternate route into the mountains. Surely that alternate, although more distant, would be open. That was a four lane, and the only other passage to the mountains of western North Carolina. They took their chances with the road.
About 6 miles in the situation went from bad to “Oh Shit” bad. There was over a foot on the road that made anything but four-wheel drive a necessity. Lesser cars and trucks littered the ditches like some giant child’s messy playroom. The few pedestrians they passed looked up from their trudging to view the truck passing in awe, as if some feat of magic were transpiring before their eyes. The snow and ice almost seemed to reach up and grab the spinning tires of the truck, as if to pull her unwillingly into an inescapable grasp, but she pulled back, as if to scream “Hell No!” and stayed glued firmly to the center of the icy track. After an inestimable time they arrived at the four lane, only to find that it too was closed. Unbelievable. Well, “make lemonade out of lemons”, his dad always said. They found a store selling sleds and some lunch and had the time of their lives sledding down a snow covered hill by a huge closed furniture store in Hickory. Perhaps not the intended destination, but a memorable one just the same.-

Back on the road, this time headed east. Cargo area full with small plastic parts manufactured in Taiwan. He drew from his mug of truck stop mud and wondered if any Taiwanese had ever visited Beaumont. Probably not. If they had, well, never mind. For all he knew Taiwan ain’t that great either. The mosquitoes and other creatures of the night were out in force now. They seemed to dive at the windshield of the rental like the Kamikazes of the Pacific theater in 1944, with less effect on the windshield but the same effect on their miniscule bodies. The tick-tick-tick of the kamikaze bugs sounded like far off gunfire, or somewhat like riding a bicycle down a gravel road. The dash thermometer said it was now 94 degrees, and the Eagles sang about Desperado on the radio. Hmmmm. A flick of the wrist and turned the air conditioning on turbo, to stave of the oven like heat slipping in the cracked drivers window. He picked up the cell phone to call and find out where he was, but then put it down. Give them till 9:45, he thought.

-When he took his new 4X4 to see his friend he was out in from mowing his small plot of grass in front of his Lorton townhouse.  Dave turned as he pulled into the assigned parking space, and his eyes got wide and the lawn was forgotten. “What the hell did you get, you so and so?” he exclaimed. Dave slowly strolled around the truck, eying the shining waxed surface with a visible jealousy. He pulled his hand along the checked gray cloth seats, running his fingers back and forth in a sensuous motion. “Now THIS is a truck” he exclaimed. He shut down the Toro and we hopped in for a drive. We took the back roads, and Dave’s sense of awe didn’t subside. We took Lorton Rd. to Pohick, and rolled down the twisty turnies like a much more nimble sports car than a big four wheel drive perched on 31 inch Bridgestone’s. Dave asked “well, she handles nice, but isn’t this an off road truck?” “”No problem, he answered. Another mile or so down the road a small dirt track took off following the power lines as they cut through the brush and the countryside delivering Megawatts to Springfield, Annandale, and further up he line, Washington DC. The service road was unpaved, rutted, muddy, and full of yawning holes and creeks to cross. “You’re not going to. . . “ He started as we wheeled down the trail. We did. The big tires bit into the ruts and mud, cold, clear water splashed over the wheel wells and even onto the hood as the big Toyota navigated the trail with the ease of a mountain goat climbing the Colorado Rockies. After a time we came back out to another paved road and he looked over at his friend. The look on Dave’s face said it all, so they turned her around and ran the mucky track one more time! What a ride!-

He thought some more about the truck. In the last few years his job had provided him with rides. Some nice, some not so nice. He had a company pickup he used for business, and while nice enough, it wasn’t THE truck. Better though to rack up 50k miles per year on someone else’s ride than his own. The truck sat, mostly, and only got exercised on weekends. The beach trips were gone, the kids didn’t fit in the back anymore. His wife didn’t like the 5-speed, or the arduous climb into the cab caused by the same oversized tires that had served him so well. A couple of weeks back he had made up a for- sale sign, and left her by the side of the road in search of a buyer. Although he knew he was doing the right thing, it still felt like he was sneaking out on a lover after a dirty one-night stand. The Eagles finished their sad ballad and the DJ followed it with an old standard from the fat boys of rock, Bachman Turner Overdrive. The volume knob got twisted again as Randy Bachman belted out their #1 “Takin Care of Business”. “Get a second hand guitar, Chances are you’ll go far” Hmmm. Perhaps, perhaps not. “Well, you know what they say about the road not taken”, He thought to himself.

-He was working in Hickory, of all places, and had brought the truck with him to have something to drive in the evenings and weekends. It sat ready to roll all week at the hotel parking lot and greeted him in the evenings with a sparkle of chrome from the setting sun, as if to say “come on, lets take her out for a spin”. Work, however, was work, and it needed to be done. By the time he was caught up it was late, the sun gone, and the twinkling chrome but a faded memory. One of his co-workers had admired the truck for a while, and asked him if it might br for sale. He was offended. “Sell her? I would just as soon sell my mother!” he said. Still he only drove it home weekends. When the hickory job was complete and his next assignment was New Orleans. He towed the old girl home. He had to take a company truck, one of the big buckets the guys called the “T-REX”. There was no time to drive her down to Louisiana so he packed her on a trailer and she was towed home. He sensed a sadness emanating from the truck. A kind of mental telepathy of “hey, what’s wrong with me, let me drive”. He ignored the pleas and drove on, next mission at hand.-

BTO finished their ode to the workingman, and the next up was some slobbery tune, so he snapped the radio off. Getting into the FM dead zone anyway between the two Texas towns. He glanced at his watch, wondering where the hell the call was. 9:45. Time to call. As he picked up the flip phone to auto dial home, the phone rang, as if sensing it was time after all. He startled a little, and his normally sure hand at the wheel flinched ever so slightly. It was time.
It was his wife, and the buyer was there. They had all but settled the paperwork, which at glance seemed as formal as a Catholic wedding ceremony. There were questions. A few quick, but sure and complete answers. The deal was done. His heart ached for one last look, one last drive down Saint Mary’s Road, or even just to start it and let her sing one last time. Unfortunately that was not to be, with him a thousand long lonely miles away and the buyer, a student from George Mason University with dreams of his own to follow, ready and eager to drive her off into the night.
The deal was done, the truck was now a memory, becoming sepia toned and fading with the time that would inevitably pass. A memory, nonetheless, and one that will remain for a long time. He slammed the Flip phone shut and drove on, headlights illuminating the lonely stretch of Texas tarmac.