His suspenders squeezed his gut together the way kids do half deflated balloons. He wore his retirement gift on his head. Truckers and their duck billed caps are common, but one that announces its owner is a member of a four million mile club is rare indeed. As rare as a coal mine pigeon.
He spent thirty years doing long haul runs between the west coast and St. Louis, bringing produce east and taking med supplies west much the way I did in fifth grade computer lab playing Oregon Trail, except he had the bladder problems that go with spending days sequestered in the cab of an eighteen wheeler.
We talked of many things, but what sticks, as time passes, is the thing he said about how things will turn when truckers start getting sick.
Never mind Senators and the sons of Senators who become senators in a world that pretends to be an even playing field and their health care and benefits package – I can care less about those fools and their pins on their lapels – all of them sold us up the river long ago – I’m talking about truck drivers here: who keep America a’movin’. At thirty five to forty five cents a mile. The ones who know how long winter is on the I-40 and the I-70 and read the sky the way some read a crystal ball– and the distribution centers, and warehouses they drop at— that there’s the metabolic measure of the health of our consumer economy- what gets tied to palettes and wrapped in shrink wrap in the back of their rigs whose sheer weight endangers their lives when they venture out on black ice and downward inclines of eight percent or more.
They can’t get sick. But odds are many of them will. And then, like the man divined, we will start to feel it.
He dropped me off at terminal five and said good luck in the way only a trucker can. Good luck. It was what Edward R Murrow would add at the end of his broadcast during another dark time in our nation’s past. Good night and good luck. There are times when any kind of anything falls short and only the words good luck suffice.
It feels like months ago even though it was only a few weeks ago when I boarded that plane or a weekend trip back to the Midwest where I am from. That was before the travel ban and when you could still get sanitizer and face masks and we were all ordered to shelter in place.
I think of those truck drivers now and wonder how empty the roads are for them now that we are being asked to do nothing. It takes a lot to be still. Or otherwise it wouldn’t be the gateway to enlightenment according to many traditions. So I don’t underestimate the gravity of the order.
There was a time when being a trucker was something to be revered. So much so that Elvis modeled his whole hair and wardrobe off their look. They were the epitome of cool. I think of them and their cool status as we try to keep up with demand and move equipment where it is needed on the interstate system Eisenhower designed for just this purpose in civil defense. The highways were not made for us to and our summer vacations but for mechanized infantry to go from coast to coast in case Russia invaded. But the war Ike imagined that would necessitate such a highway system looks very different than the big bad Soviets and their nuclear first strike capability.
As I scroll through the day’s headlines on a break from rewriting my new play, I think of that truck driver and his common sense as I try to honor what is asked of me and stay home, be still.
The image of his ancient mariner status haunts me. How he was, “hanging on with all us freaks out here in Holly-weird long enough for his wife to make retirement and they can get back to Eastern Washington.” I suspected he was the kind of man that Trump betrayed. I wondered if he knew it. But the simple faith of many of our true blood patriots doesn’t question those things and therefore had their pure faith taken advantage like all cons do. It’s part of their dignity and identity- this silent majority we pretend still doesn’t exist in our bubbles. Which is why we got in this whole mess to begin with.
As I see how different cultures battle their own systemic bias amid crisis and catastrophe the same way Malcom Gladwell so eloquently breaks down in Outliers, I can’t help but marvel at how Koreans adapt versus the French and us. We falter in our belief in our magnificence and watch powerless as those Senators bicker over what a stimulus package will look for us, and by the time we get the things we need to the people who need them it will be too late. You can not resuscitate a dead man. Not even with a super majority and bipartisanship. And that is our cultural value system at work as we battle our own inertia. The Italians sing from their balconies and we make pork fat in bills in Congress and pass the buck between governors and the federal government blaming each other and tweeting about it like bird in a coal mine.
I heard from a friend that there are over four hundred federal agencies. (443 to be exact if that number can be exact). So when the Orangeman on his golden throne tweets “drain the swamp” he touches upon a simple truth in the fundamental nature of American identity- this bureaucratic cesspool that is a fact of our culture these days and therefore our value system. The cultural bias of our value system is not set up for quick decisive concerted action. But it excels at infighting. There has been a split in our personality. And the left hand no longer knows what the right does and vice versa. Yet, we still rally behind our magnificence: Our #GOAT status. Well, we will see. We will see what comes in the wake of hubris. In the meantime, the truckers keep hauling the truth of our existence to and from Amazon distribution centers as we all stay at home and wait for this nightmare to pass. Doing our best to be still.