Sunday, June 30, 2013

For You - An Inspiration Moment - Or Two

by Bert Carson

Me and Harry rolled through St. Charles, Missouri a few minutes after 10 PM.  We were east bound, headed for Nashville, Tennessee, with 60,000 pounds of Washington State’s finest apples.  

There was a light mist in the air, and the temperature was dropping like the price of fireworks on July the fifth.  All the forecasts said snow, and we knew that our problem, if there was going to be one, would be in Kentucky.  Kentucky is a wonderful state, but no one there knows jack about snow removal.

Twenty-five minutes after blowing through St. Charles, we were crossing the Mississippi River, on I-255, just south of St. Louis.  Another fifteen minutes and Missouri was in the rear view mirrors, and we were clearing East St. Louis, Illinois, heading east on I-64.  Traffic thinned dramatically at that point, and I eased the throttle down, finally letting let the big CAT engine level out at 2100 RPM which works out to 78 miles per hour.

I glanced over at Harry.  He had come out of the sleeper box in St. Charles without so much as a "Hello, how are you?"  That's not unusual.  We sometimes go for hours without saying a word.  We've been together so long, there just isn't much left to say.

I met Harry at Fort Benning, Georgia, in December, 1965.  We were both fresh out of high school.  Harry was from Detroit.  I was born in Birmingham, Alabama.  

A judge told Harry either to join the Army or go to jail.  Harry chose the Army.   In the years since those days, there have occasions when I told him he made the wrong decision.  There have been days when he agreed.

My father kicked me out of the house the day after I finished high school.  He said he couldn't afford to raise a grown man and added that he had his hands full with six kids.  I was glad to move out, and the Army seemed a logical place to go.  At times, I would have taken a "do over" on that one.  But, there are no do overs in life.  What’s done is done and reliving it over and over doesn’t change a damn thing.

From Basic Training, we went to Advanced Individual Training.  After AIT, me and Harry went to Cu Chi, South Vietnam.  We survived our first tour with the Twenty-Fifth Division and, since neither of us had much to go back to, we volunteered for a second one, taking the Army up on its offer of a free thirty day leave anywhere in the world.  We didn't go to Europe or Thailand or Australia or any of the other exotic places we could have chosen.  Instead, we hitchhiked all over the United States for thirty days.  That wasn't always easy, since we are the odd couple of all time.

Harry is 6'5" and hits the scale at 240 plus.  I'm 5'10",  and on my best day, I might reach 145.  That's not the biggest difference.  Harry is about as black as a man can get, and, he has told me about ten thousand times, I'm the whitest white man who has ever lived.

Back in the late sixties, there weren't a lot people anxious to pick us up.  But we managed, and, somewhere during those thirty days, we decided that when we got of the Army we would buy a truck, a tractor-trailer, and we’d spend the rest of our lives driving it from coast to coast.  We also agreed that we would never pick up hitch hikers who looked like us.  

Though we didn’t talk about it, ever, neither of us thought we would see the dream come true.  Hell, we didn’t think we’d survive the next twelve months.

One night, two months short of our going home for good, Charlie overran our firebase.  There was no moon.  The world was as dark as it gets and then the
crickets hushed.  We knew what would happen next and knew it would happen quickly.   It did.  Minutes later the Lieutenant shouted retreat, and we began moving back, in an almost orderly fashion.  That's when the second wave of the attack began.  I took two rounds, one in my right thigh, the other in my right shoulder.  The force of the bullets slammed me into a tree.  My head bounced off the trunk, my steel pot hit the ground, and I was out cold.  I was also alone and bleeding to death.  The rest of the company continued to withdraw, unaware that I was down.

When they re-formed, about a mile away from the firebase, Harry realized I was missing.  Against orders, and in the middle of the heaviest attack we had ever faced, Harry came back for me.  I don't know how he found me.  I had regained consciousness, but I couldn't move.  I could hear the Viet Cong moving around me, and I knew I wasn't going to live to see the light of tomorrow.

  Then, without a sound, Harry was there, like some kind of angel.  He touched my lips with his forefinger, shook his head, and scooped me up like I was baby.   Against the odds, he worked his way through the VC and found our guys.   It's a wonder they didn't blow us away.  I guess they were so shocked at the sight of a giant running out of the darkness toward them they forgot to shoot.

   This is the sixth rig me and Harry have owned in the past twenty-five years.  It hasn't always been an easy way to make a living, but when the going is tough all we have to do is think back to that night in 'Nam, and one of us will laugh and say, "This ain't shit."  Then we both laugh and go on through whatever we up against.
Harry poured two cups of coffee from the fresh thermos and handed one to me.  I nodded my appreciation, keeping my attention on the highway.  That's when we saw them for the first time, two guys in a three or four-year-old, red Dodge pickup.  They had to have been going eighty-five when they passed us.  The air mass pushed by our rig rocked the pickup when they passed, but they didn't slow.  In a minute or two, they were out of sight.  Neither of us commented. 

We stopped at the scales just after they passed.  Five minutes later, we were back on the road and up to cruising speed.  Fifteen minutes after that, the red truck passed us again, still going over eighty miles an hour.  Harry took a sip of his coffee and made his first comment since emerging from the sleeper more than an hour earlier.  "I guess they have a full tank of gas now.  That should be the last we see of them."

Brilliant conversationalist that I am, I said, "Yep.  You're probably right."
A little less than an hour passed and we turned south on I-57 at Mount Vernon, Illinois.  Snow was beginning to fall, and we knew, without talking about it, we had to keep pushing.  As soon as we passed the last Mount Vernon exit, I picked our speed up to eighty-two.  Harry adjusted the sensitivity of the radar detector, and I said a silent prayer that all the Illinois State Troopers were drinking coffee someplace warm and out of the weather.

Ten miles south of Mount Vernon, I was thinking my prayer had been answered.  We had the highway to ourselves.  Then I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw lights approaching at a high rate of speed.  My first thought was,  Damn, it’s the Highway Patrol.  I backed off the throttle.  In seconds, the lights were close enough for me to see that it was the red pickup.  They swept by as fast as before.  Harry and I looked at each other for a second, and he said what I was thinking, "Those guys are up to something, and it's not something nice."

I nodded in agreement.

We didn't see them again until just south of Paducah, Kentucky.  It was a repeat performance.  Watching their taillights disappear ahead of us Harry said, "I've got a bad feeling about this.  Those guys are holding up convenience stores, or worse."

I stared straight ahead.  Harry's last words, "Or worse," echoed through my head.  There are some bad types on the interstates, but, in spite of being out there with them every day, we have never had a direct confront with a modern day outlaw.  We aren't geared for it.  We put our weapons away when we left Vietnam.  We don't even own a slingshot.  We both know that's best for us.

We rode in silence for a while.  The C.B. Radio had been quiet for almost an hour.  It was a few minutes after 2 AM.  Harry looked at his watch and said what one of us usually says at 2 AM, "Well, if Charlie is coming tonight, he ought to be here soon."

I saw an exit sign, and I backed off the throttle.  Again Harry knew what I had in mind.  "You’re going to call the Highway Patrol."

"Yeah, I don't know exactly what I'll tell them, but I think I should."

"You're right," he said.  Then he added, "I'll drive after you call.  Give you an extra hour of sleep to make up for talking to the man."  We laughed, and Harry pulled his cap low on his forehead and let his head roll forward.

I geared the Kenworth down and eased onto the exit ramp.  Harry’s head snapped up, and he reset his cap on his head and looked around.  "Convenience store on the right," he said.  I checked the traffic and rolled through the yield sign at the foot of the exit ramp.  I was concentrating on parking the rig when Harry said so softly that I barely heard him, "They're in the store."

I didn't ask who.  I said, "Anybody else in the place?"

Without looking at me, he said, "Nope.  Just their truck parked at the pumps and an old VW on the side.  It probably belongs to the clerk."

"You want to go for it? I asked.  I made it sound like a question, but we both knew it wasn't.

Harry grinned and said, "Let's rock and roll."

I passed the store and swung onto the diesel fuel island.  It was out of sight of the clerk but I noticed a video camera that I figured was hooked to a monitor at the cash register.  I locked the rig down and said, "We're on candid camera.  Let's try to look like truck drivers."

Harry just grinned.

As we came around the corner of the store, we saw one of the guys standing at the counter, his back turned toward us.  His right hand was stuck in the pocket of his jacket.  The clerk, a young girl who couldn't have been more than eighteen was facing the window.  Her eyes were the size of Frisbees and seemed to be locked in place.

As we neared the door I whispered, "Take him out when I let you know the other one is down."

"Done," was all Harry said.

The guy at the counter didn't move when we walked through the door.  Neither did the clerk.  Harry moved toward the candy rack, and I headed for the restrooms like a man on a mission.

I had almost decided that the second guy was in the restroom when I glanced up at the shoplifting mirror fixed in the corner of the store.  The second guy was crouched down on the opposite side of the aisle I was moving down.  He had a large automatic pistol in his hand.

I heard Harry say, "That's all right.  I'll wait for my partner."

I knew without looking he was standing beside the guy at the counter.  I took two more steps and saw the kneeling gunman began to rise, and I knew we were out of time.  I moved pretty well for a middle aged truck driver, slamming into the shelving that separated us with all the strength I could generate in my 145 pound frame.  

The instant I moved toward the shelf I called, "Take him, Harry."

I didn't know what was on the other side of the shelf.  Unfortunately it was paper towels and toilet tissue.  Not something that will stop a man for very long.  However, the shelf went completely over and slammed the gunman to the floor.  I was on top of him before the last roll of toilet paper came to a stop.  He had dropped the pistol and covered his head with his hands when the shelf toppled.  The pistol, lying beside him, was forgotten for the moment.  

I kicked it away, put my foot on his neck, and in my best Clint Eastwood imitation said, "If you move you'll die."  That Eastwood imitation is powerful stuff.  He didn't make another move.
I called out, "How about it, Harry?"

"It's done," he shouted, and then added, "But I think he might have broken his arm though.  He was in too big of a hurry getting his hand out of his pocket."

I realized I had been holding my breath, probably since we entered the store.  I let it out in a rush and gasped in another which I didn’t hold.

Instantly, I was back in the Mekong Delta, seeing the sunrise and realizing that I had lived through another night of war.  I had almost forgotten how good that felt. How in touch I was with life and living in those days when I knew I could die any given moment.

Standing in that convenience store in Corbin, Kentucky, I made a promise to myself never to forget that again.

Sheriff’s deputies arrived, and we gave statements which were written up.  We signed them and everyone said, "Thank you," so many times we were tired of hearing it.  Finally, an hour and a half later, were headed south again.  Harry tuned the radio to a local news station and we heard, "The big weather news is the storm is over.  That's right folks, no snow.  The storm is over..."