Reporting for Duty

Riding down the Massachusetts turnpike from New Hampshire’s Weirs Beach was a study in agony. Just a few days ago the weather had been 72 degrees, an indian summer in September, and I’d milked the last moments of vacation from my Army leave. I had to report at Fort Bragg the day after tomorrow and so I was making my way south to the North Carolina base. I was riding my terribly ugly Honda Dream 305 motorcycle. I bought it from a soldier stationed at Fort Devens for $200. It’s once bright red coloring had faded to milky oxidation, but it ran well and got great gas mileage. But it was the wrong vehicle since the temperature had dropped suddenly to hover near freezing  and confused overcast skies alternately dropped rain and snow. Running at sixty-five miles an hour, the wind chill plowed through my Levi’s denim jacket and my flannel shirt as if they weren’t there. Inside my leans, my knees were so cold they hurt and I couldn’t feel my hands. Perhaps the numbness was a blessing. I was 22 years old and thanks to the army, in the best shape of my life. But plowing through the chilly wetness had me shivering cold and miserable.

honda-dreamI pulled into a truck stop and had a miserable time trying to get the bike to stand on its kickstand.  My slippery boots kept slipping from the stand and causing me to glance my shin off the bike’s frame. With a mouthful of epithets to help, I finally got the bike to stand on its own. I walked into the restaurant and stood my an oil heater that hung from the ceiling, reveling in the warmth it blew over me. I stood there looking out the front window, dry washing my hands to get circulation and feeling back. After a few minutes I reached into my pocket to see how much money I had left. I’d started with thirty two dollars, more than enough for gas and a few meals for the 1200 mile 25 hour trip. It cost about $1.80 to fill the 2.5 gallon tank, each tank taking me about 300 miles. I figured I had about $20 bucks to eat on. Nothing in the first pocket, I checked the other. Then back to the first. Then came that frantic search of all pockets, front and back, pants, shirt and jacket that ended up with the sickening realization that I’d managed to lose the little fold of bills I had. No doubt when I reached into a pocket for my lighter or pawing for change for the toll booths.

“You look like somebody just shot your dog.” said a voice off to my side. I looked over to see a middle aged guy in a flannel shirt, gray work pants, and a belly that hung over a fancy western buckle. A chain looped from his belt to his back pocket. The uniform of the over the road trucker. “You need a hand?”

I sighed. I’ve never been one to share my problems, but I mumbled that I’d apparently lost my money. I turned a circle looking at the floor but there was nothing there but the wet footprints of customers. He asked me where I was headed and I explained I was on my way to Fort Bragg. “Well,” he said, “I’m stopping by New York to drop my trailer and pick up another and then headed down to Macon, Georgia. Why don’t we put your bike in the rig and you can ride on down with me.”

“Well, that’s pretty generous, but I was thinking of making a straight shot of it.”

“Well soldier, you can do that but the weather says its rain all up and down the east coast for the week. That’s some miserable travel on a bike.”

I had to admit that was true. We headed out to the parking lot and I rolled my Honda over by his trailer. He had a hydraulic lift on the back that made it easy to lift the bike up. He pushed it against the trailer wall and fastened it down with some cargo straps to keep it from damaging itself or the cases of Western Auto hardware that filled most of the space. Then he took me into the diner and bought me a good meatloaf dinner. I hadn’t realized how famished I was until I began to eat, and I wolfed the meal down barely chewing. He drank coffee, smoked a cigarette and watched me with an amused grin. Twenty minutes later we were in his cab and rolling down the highway.

The weather was awful. The rain fell hard enough the windshield wipers barely kept up. I tried to imagine being on the bike out in the cold, feeling as frozen and miserable as I had when I pulled into the truck stop. The driver’s name was George. He was divorced, his kids were off in college and his life was the road. He told me that he rarely left the eastern states and had been driving truck for twenty five years. He was fifty-six, he said. Except for a few turnpikes, his routes were mainly two and four lane blacktop. The freeway system was just beginning to appear, but it constituted only small runs close to major cities.

We rolled into Manhattan and he dropped off his trailer at the Port of New York yard by the Hudson River and then bobtailed it across the George Washington Bridge and headed to Newark, New Jersey to pick up his next trailer. We chatted through this and I started out of the windows at the crowded bustle of industry and people. When we dropped the trailer, we both almost forgot about my bike, but I remembered it as we were climbing back into the cab. I stood looking at the trailerless tractor and wondered how we were going to get 300 pounds of motorcycle up there. That’s not someone to worry about in the transit yards. In the wink of an eye, a giant wheeled forklift appeared and we made a lift of nylon straps. Zip! The bike sat behind the cab and was refastened with cargo strapping and not going anywhere save where the truck took it. It made the ride from New York to Newark without problem. At the Newark terminal we moved it into the newly attached trailer, again with the help of a large wheeled forklift.

truckersWe stopped at a truck stop just outside of Washington, DC and both of us took naps. He was comfortable in his sleeper cab, and I did just fine laying across the front seats. It was still dark when movement jarred me awake. George was climbing over me. I started to speak and he shushed me. For a minute I wondered if this was a come-on of some sort although George didn’t strike me that way. But that thought evaporated when he reached into the glove box and came out with a large and nasty looking revolver. Even though the truck engine was running, I made out the sounds of someone in the trailer. The truck moved a little transferring motion from inside the back throughout the vehicle. George quietly opened the passenger side door and dropped to the ground. He held his hand out, palm us in a gesture for me to remain where I was.

Of course, I didn’t. As soon as George disappeared toward the back of the truck, I climbed out and padded about fifteen steps behind him. He swung around the end of the truck trailer and I heard him yell “Hold it. Stop what you’re doing.” The words no sooner left his lips when I heard the bang of a gunshot and saw George stagger backwards a few steps. He raised the pistol in his hand and fired three shots into the trailer before he seemed to just sit down. He landed hard on his tailbone and sat there staring into space. I ran over to him to see how he was when I caught motion in my peripheral vision. Grabbing George’s gun, I fumbled it into my hand as I peered into the darkness of the trailer. A men rushed out of the darkness and leapt off the rig and hit the ground running. I was too startled for a second to do anything, but then I raised up the pistol and took aim at the running man. He ducked behind another rig before I could pull the trigger.

I looked back at George. He was still sitting up and had blood all over his face. Other rigs were starting to move and one of them focused its headlights on us before stopping. There was yelling through the cluster of rigs parked at the truck stop but I was focused on George. There was a gash in his head where a bullet had grazed his skull. I ran back to the front of his truck and found his first aid kit bolted to the sidewall. I opened it and grabbed a handful of gauze and tape and ran back to where George was. Another trucker was already holding a pad on his head, cleaning up the blood with a daubing motion. I handed him the gauze I was holding and he ripped open the wrapping and placed it over the wound. It seemed like no time had passed, but an ambulance pulled in and a couple of guys got out carrying satchels. They took over with George, placing a thick pad over the gash and then wrapping his head like a mummy.

“This is going to take some stitches at least,” said one of the medics. “He may have a concussion too. We need to get him to a hospital.” Willing hand from the growing crowd of other truckers helped put George on a gurney which they loaded into the ambulance. It took off with its red lights flashing but no siren.

“Who saw what happened here?” asked a voice from behind me. I turned and saw a cop standing there. From the crowd a group of hands reached out and pointed at me. The cop looked at me and and then down at my hand. I was still holding George’s gun. “Relax now.” said the cop. I held the pistol loosely and handed it over the the policeman.  ”So,” he said, “was it an argument or what?”

“Whoa there, officer.” said one of the truckers. “He’s not your shooter.”  The cop looked a bit confused, a peered at me and then looked back at the guy who spoke up. He looked about to ask something when the sounds of angry voices and some scuffling interrupted. The circle of truckers parted and three burly men dragged a fourth into the circle. The man they dragged looked a mess. His face was swelling and he had blood streaming from both nostrils, along with more blood from a nasty looking split on his lip. His clothes were rumpled and the knee of one leg was torn and his shirt had a sleeve almost torn off.

“We got the little bastid.” said one of the beefy escorts. I recognized the guy as the man who’d burst from the trailer, the one I’d almost shot. The truckers had seen him run and caught him. Apparently they’d tuned him up a bit, adjusting his attitude. He had nothing to say, he just stood there sullenly looking at his feet. “He had this wid ‘im.” said the trucker and handed over a pistol. It was a snub nosed .38. The cop took the gun and put it in the pocket of his coat.

“So then,” said the cop, “someone tell me what we’ve got here.”

It took about an hour and a half  for all of the explanations to be taken, after which the cops told us we could all be on our way. The cops had been talking to us and taking statements inside the truck stop restaurant. I came out and saw that George’s truck was gone. Asking around, I found out that a relief driver from the company George worked for had picked up the rig and taken it on to Macon. The goods had to arrive on time. My bike was one of the goods being delivered to Georgia, which put me in a bad way.  My plight spread around the truck stop and another trucker, a guy named Ben, said he was going to Fayetteville and would take me right to the gate at Fort Bragg.  I took him up on the offer, figuring I’d have to find a way to get my bike another time. No way did I want to be late checking into Fort Bragg, AWOL is not a good thing to have on the record.

I got checked in and well before my deadline. The following day I was called into the company office and the company clerk told me that a package for me had been dropped at the front gate. It turned out to be my bike, delivered by yet another trucker, one I’d never even met. He was just doing a favor for George, who’d heard how my bike and I got separated.

I had no way to contact George. I knew that he pulled a trailer for True Value Hardware, but that wasn’t his company, just a customer. I spent time trying to track George down but failed. I wanted to thank him for all he did. He picked me up, broke and freezing, and gave me a helping hand. Thanks to him and his friends, I made it to Fort Bragg on time and got my motorcycle delivered too.

It’s been forty years since George picked me up on that freezing late afternoon. I think about him from time to time and wonder if he’s still alive. If he is, I hope hes doing well. Guys like George are what America is all about.