Yesterday morning, after perhaps thirty minutes of preparation, I departed Virginia on a 1,137 mile journey for the express purpose of liberating a pair of pants held captive at Uncle Caesar’s homestead in Oklahoma. I was unsuccessful in securing a travel companion, to my great disappointment. Driving alone is boring, and I often have difficulty staying awake. Thank God for telephones. But in reality, though it may be fun to swear up and down that I undertook a half-country trip solely for a pair of favored pants, this was actually a planned event.
My old sister, who is a physicist, is scheduled to speak at a physicists’ conference (I prefer the term nerd convention) in Salt Lake City late next week. To capitalize on the free flight into the Rockies, she will be leaving early and spending a few days whirlwind touring through western slope Colorado, southern Utah, and potentially a few sights around the Four Corners area. I, driving out by car, will meet her at the airport, accompany her as I again visit Meeker, Colorado, and she sees it for the first time. A location so significant to our family history should not be overlooked. Uncle Caesar’s home in Oklahoma is merely my first stop on this trip.
I had been somewhat concerned that my travel by automobile would prove uneventful when compared with my more unique exploits of motorcycling last year. Without all the leather, the chaps, and a shiny motorcycle, I would no longer be an oddity. I’m just another guy passing through in a car. The entire drive, I feared, would be boring. To my great pleasure, however, two days of driving have yielded a plethora of interesting encounters that have convinced me that I either attract strange people, or perhaps they attract me. There were dry spells, clearly, but chance meetings and conversations have thus far served to disrupt the monotony.
Knoxville, TN will always be memorable to me, since it was where my motorcycle least year chose to break down, requiring my reliance on kindhearted strangers with low-bed trailers. Knoxville was also the place where I spent the night on a concrete stoop, shivering in the cold, while moths dropped on me from the security light overhead. Lastly, Knoxville was also the place where I came closest to being mugged in a bathroom by an insane man. Correction: it was the closest I have come as a civilian to drawing a weapon in self-defense. (Read about this event here)
Being stranded and at the mercy of strangers is probably what encouraged me to pick up the young man walking down the interstate in Knoxville, which turned out to be a memorable conversation. Joe, born in Utah in a tent to parents he described as “dirty, filthy hippies,” eventually migrated to Tennessee before a stint in the military was abbreviated further by some legal trouble. “It was probably for the better, though, since I didn’t want to go to Iraq. My unit ended up going into Fallujah, and they took a lot of casualties there. I mean, if I’m going to go to war and die, I’d prefer it be a war that I really believed in, which isn’t Iraq.”
Currently working in the construction trades and merely a year away from an electrician’s journeyman license, he’s hopeful the economy has seen its worst and will be soon improving. The building trades, perhaps more than any other, have been hard hit by consumer timidity. As is, he remains employed, but the business is nowhere near as lucrative as it was. He puts only enough gas in his ’83 Ford to get to and from work, which was probably the reason he was stranded on the side of the road – trucks don’t run on fumes. At any rate, while we chatted, he navigated me downtown to his bank, got me thoroughly lost, and I dropped him off and wished him the best of luck with repairing his truck. “It’s either just running on fumes, or maybe the fuel pump is gone.” Regardless, I hoped it would be a quick fix. Having been stranded before, I’m intimately aware how unpleasant it can be.
Several hundred miles and a dozen phone calls later, I stopped at a Waffle house for dinner, hobbling in as the older biker in the parking lot yelled something about “mind your own damn business” into his cell phone. He was pacing the curb with cell phone in one hand, and Waffle House coffee mug in the other. The food, typically Waffle House, was unimpressive, but edible. The waitress was lamenting she had made only a mere six dollars that shift. I had to wonder if it even covered gas costs to get there.
Back in the parking lot, I asked the biker how far he was riding on his ’05 Harley. Jack explained he was local, and immediately began apologizing for his language.
“I’m sorry for the words you may have heard as you walked inside. They weren’t very nice.”
“It’s life,” I assured him. No harm done.
Jack, too, had some military background, and also abbreviated. He had enlisted, lying about his age, and spent four weeks in Navy boot camp in the Great Lakes before they determined his real age and honorably discharged him. He had been fifteen.
“At least they gave you an honorable. Did you ever think about going back in?”
“Well, yeah, but I think I would have killed our drill sergeant. I hated that man’s guts so bad…”
My waitress came out and joined the conversation, plopping down on top of a newspaper stand on the curb and smoking. After lamenting the late night crowd that comes in and has pickle races down the windows, she shared the story of her friend that wrecked his motorcycle in a curve and wrapped himself around a fence.
“Did he live?” I asked.
“Yeah, but they had to graft some skin from his leg to cover the hole in his forehead. He wrecked just down the road from my house. I even heard it. It took me almost thirty minutes to find him, and when I did I just started screaming. ‘You’re hurt!’ I told him. He said no, he wasn’t, but he thought his nose was bleeding. I gave him a shirt I had in my trunk and told him to just hold it to his head.”
Jack piped up. “Is this the same guy that wrecked his bike for a second time not long ago and messed up his leg pretty bad? I just heard about it.”
“Probably. He drives too fast. Oh GOD!” She buried her head in her hands.
I started looking around, startled.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s him, over there.” She pointed to a pickup truck pulling up to the diner.
“You know him?”
“It’s the foot licker.”
“You mean, like, he licks windows or something?”
“Oh no. He likes to lick feet. He was on Jerry Springer not long ago. He offers women twenty dollars to let him put mayonnaise on their feet and lick them.”
Apparently Jack knew about him, too. “Actually, he offered one girl $150.”
As the older man stepped out of his truck, Jack announced suddenly that he needed to leave. My waitress did as well, and I, too, chose to make my exit. As I backed up the car, I observed the man immediately approach the waitress and grab her necklace, which was a large brass knuckle pendant.
“I like your necklace, girl” he said, too loudly. One of the line cooks, a towering man well over 6ft, 5in stepped in between her and the old man. Confident the situation was under control, I left. Later, I checked on the internet to see if I could find a photo of this foot licker on Jerry Springer. I think I was successful, but the image is too small and grainy to be worth linking to here. I apologize for my lack of evidence. I am simply amazed that such people actually do exist. I have been told that Wise county, VA, also has a number of repeat Jerry Springer “stars.” We live in a strange world, I suppose.
By the time I stopped yesterday evening, I had driven 840 miles, which put me ahead of schedule for today. Now, back in familiar territory, after driving over 1,000 miles without referring to maps, I am again holed up with Uncle Caesar for a night before continuing. I am pleased to find things as they were last August. This is my home away from home, and I like it here. The gas station still stocks Yoohoo’s – perhaps I am the only one that drinks them.
The entire countryside is flush with armadillos in their natural habitat, which as far as I can tell is dramatically and decidedly dead along the roadsides. Some things never change.
Tomorrow: "We Won't Kill You."
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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