31 March, 2012

The Long Haul: Paul H.

 For the money, for the glory, and for the fun. Mostly for the money. - The Bandit. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

If you think this country is bad off now, just wait till I get through with it. - Rufus T. Firefly, Duck Soup (1933)

"I think I'm going to do it," he said as soon as we stepped up into the orange truck cab. I'd never been in one before. The closet I'd ever come to being a truck driver was when I delivered newspaper stacks for The Prairie Advocate News; and that truck was only a small box truck that didn't require a CDL. Paul* has been driving big rigs on and off for 20 years. And event though he has driven for other companies in the past, now he's basically working for himself.

"You're going to do what?"

"I know it's too late THIS time," he said. "But I think... with the ideas I have... that I'm going to run for President."

He said this with all earnestness, and I took him as seriously as I could. He and I had talked politics, culture, writing, and other miscellanea over the years. We've disagreed on some pretty large issues over the years; but he is at least thinking about things, and he is willing to articulate his views and discuss them.

I mentioned that the problem with running for President is that even if he ever got elected -- which, unless he finds a billionaire angel benefactor, would be improbable.

Which, to be honest, a little sad. I wish we lived in a country where every kid could grow up to be President; but the money changers have their spindly fingers tied around everything. (And if you think about it, they have more or less since the beginning.)

I did recommend that he consider running for Senator instead.

At one point, somewhere between Columbus and Cincinnati, we talked about the gold standard. He realizes that going back on gold would be a disaster; but he also pointed out that if that were to happen, and the economy collapsed and we had to go back to a barter system, that guys like him would be okay.

"I can do things with my hands," he said. "I can repair engines. I can build things. I'll be okay."

It's others... "college graduates that don't know how to DO anything" who would be in trouble.

It's argument I've heard before, and one that hits a bit close, since I'm pretty much a scribbler. Guess I could barter with bad poetry for all occasions. But given my disenchantment with higher education, and the fact that somebody somewhere has to be hording all that gold people sell to those places that promise "top dollar", I do find myself wondering how all the chips will fall... if, indeed they do.

But down deep, Paul -- like everyone I know and consider a good friend -- is a shameless romantic. And while he may not admit it, he's something of an idealist, too. (This is a conversation I've had often with many people. You don't need to be an optimist to be an idealist. As a matter of fact, part of being an idealist is understanding that the world is not as it could be... which, if you think about it long enough, will piss you off.)

Where we differ, maybe, is that he, like many people, still thinks the institution is salvageable and that people are an increasingly annoyance.

And when I say he's a shameless romantic, I mean it in the best sense of the term. Part of the reason I know this because he could be making more money doing something else; but instead he's an independent contractor, trying to work his way up to buying his own truck. He likes not having to listen to anyone else... most of the time. And like me, he's always had that odd little itch.

And like me, he soothes his itch with the romance of the open road... that long lost American Mythos which dictates thus:

If where you are isn't working, go somewhere else.  Be someone else. Do something else.

The difference is that he still tries to have a home to go home to, and I think most  every place is as good (and as bad) as every place else. He and his wife Cathy live in the Cincinnati area, and because he likes being home on weekends -- and because his wife would prefer to see him every once in a while -- Paul sticks to local delivery routes.

On this particular day, the route would take us to Dayton, up to to Columbus, and back down to Cincinnati -- loading up for a Sunday run up to Chicago where he'll empty it out and pick up something else. He hauls what's referred to as "Special Goods."  This time, he picked up 4 hospital beds, some medical equipment that I thought looked like the machines used to separate plasma from blood (having been hooked to them in the past, selling my vital fluids, they looked familiar), two busted up motorcycles (a Police Edition Harley and a Ducati, neither of which deserved the rough treatment they received prior to being shipped), an ice cream machine, and 5 office copiers. I feel like I'm forgetting something. The point is, what Paul hauls stuff that isn't easy to pack and doesn't always fit into the trailer very well.

I've never asked him, but I suspect that Paul first thought about being a truck driver the around the same time I did... the first time I watched B.J. and the Bear. The 1979-1981 television show, staring Greg Evigan, was a cultural bubble in reaction (probably) to the Burt Reynolds/Sally Field/Jerry Reed/Jackie Gleason iconic movie Smokey and the Bandit.. which also spawned another cultural bubble, the popularity of the CB or Citizens' Band, radio. 

Which, I think, has gotten a bad wrap in the from some factions of the cultural elite. The most you can say about it is that it's been surpassed by cell phones as a common form of communication. But as any trucker or Ham Radio operator will tell you... a cell phone tower can go down. Radio waves are just floating around, and all you need is the right receiver to pick them up. No 4G required, I guess is my point.

The world is a different thing when you're sitting in a big rig. You have to keep your distance (You're supposed to, anyway.) and you have to be aware at all times of how big you are and how small everything else is. On the other hand... other drivers sometimes take this for granted and don't always pay attention.

One of the reasons-- other than getting to see an old friend -- that I jumped at the chance to ride with Paul on his Friday route was that while I long ago figured out that my wanderlust is a different sort of thing than can be fixed behind the wheel of a behemoth, there's still a 10 year old boy inside me that wants to ride in big trucks, be a train conductor in a stripey hat, and ride in the fire truck just to turn on the siren. 

I did, actually, once ask a Lexington Police officer if he could turn on the siren. Of course, I was riding in the back. And I was handcuffed. But that's another story. He rejected my request, by the way.

Part of was also curious about how a guy like Paul -- engaged in a job that, some have argued, does more harm than good to the environment -- is getting along and moving forward. Especially given that diesel prices are keeping pace with gas prices and there's no sign that it will get better any time soon. He defends what he does by pointing out that over the road is still the fastest way to get stuff from Point A to Point B. He also makes other dubious claims, like big rig engines actually clean the air in more polluted cities like Chicago and L.A. 

He's also enough of a car guy to keep track of some of the work being done to run trucks cleaner while keeping it affordable. We talked some about natural gas and propane run trucks on the west coast. (an idea that seems too dangerous to take hold). 

Underlying his defense of his livelihood, though, is an understanding that it's not just a paycheck he's defending. It's a way of life that could be disappearing...or, at any rate, could be changing to such a degree that it may not ever be the thing he wants it to be. It's already more expensive, more complicated, and dealing with increased scrutiny and oversight than at any time in the past.

 And those are things that make independent people nervous. Maybe with good reason. Maybe enough to believe that being President of the United States will actually help.

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*I should also mention that I've known him for nearly all of that 20 years.