Not sure what possessed me to do it, but I ended up going to the Arby's drive-through for a milkshake. I haven't been to a fast food place in years. Ordered a medium chocolate to be moderate. Got two blocks away and realized that what I really wanted was a large. Moderate schmoderate. A half-mile later I found myself making a tight turn to get around the poorly designed entrance to Burger King. Another medium shake. Chocolate. I don't exactly know why anyone would order anything but chocolate. By the time I got home both shakes were gone and remorse was no where to be found. Unloaded some lumber from my truck into my back yard where I found Ivan wandering around in my tomatoes. He's showing his brother the plants, proud as can be. Ivan and I have been sharing the burden of the garden for three seasons now. The first time I caught him back there, I protested. "You don't have to do that, buddy--"

"Aw hell, that's what neighbors are for," he retorted, popping his head up from a jungle of nearly fifty tomato plants. Everything sprouted that year. Everything grew. I'm still eating my first season from mason jars.

Fast forward two years, I've put raised beds into the garden, done away with rows, and added lattice for the beans, cucumbers, and squash to climb on. I plant extra of the stuff that Ivan likes and catch him with his arms full about twice a week. I'm glad I don't have to coax him to take vegetables because there's more than I could ever eat back there. Ivan's pointing to the basil, explaining to his brother how you put it with tomato just like in Italy. He's stuttering and smiling, something that makes my mom call Ivan one of her kids. She's a special education teacher by training. To be 'one of her kids' always meant that whoever she was talking about would have likely been in a special education class when she was teaching. I still don't know about that.

"Y-y-y-a goin' to school tomorra, Matt?"

"Nah. I got two weeks off."

"'Bout time."

"Uh huh."

"L-l-listen, I might have to ask you a favor."


"Ya know where Flagler is?"


"W-w-well I'm waiting for a phone call, but I think I gotta be out there tomorra."

"What for?"

"Rye harvest."

"You gonna work with that guy again?"


Ivan's been out of work for almost three years, doing odd jobs when they come up and living in his brother's basement. Like his brother, he worked as a long-haul truck driver for decades before his health began to fail. His job dumped him immediately. No need to pay for surgery. Healthcare until you need it, that's what I always say. He's been looking for work ever since he recovered, but nobody wants to hire a 65 year-old man to do anything if it means giving benefits.

Twelve hours later I'm sitting in the passenger seat of Ivan's pickup. We're going to Flagler where he will meet a man who runs two combines during harvest season, rotating rye to wheat to corn to milo, following the grains as they dry through the midwest. Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, maybe Iowa and Nebraska if people get behind. Sitting in the bed of the pickup is a single duffle bag that Ivan will live out of for the next three months. He'll drive the truck that the combine loads. "Might even drive the combine," he explains," but the last time I drove one of them was when they had 16-foot heads. T-t-they're 35 now." He's talking about the size of the swath cut by the monstrous machines.

I'm supposed to drop Ivan off at a little garage outside of Flagler owned by the man he will work for. It's about 300 miles round trip so I settle into my seat. I'm supposed to drive his pickup back home. He'll be driving company trucks for the next few months so there's no need to have his around. "I-a-a-a-I know you got the same transmission in your truck. You'll be a-a-awlright with this on the way home, right?"

"Yep. Second gear all the way."

"Aw, shit," he laughs. We stop at the Flying J for breakfast and I'm treated to Ivan talking big rigs with some big boys sitting next to us. Then a joke about the three-legged dog who walked into the bar looking for the man who shot his paw. Get it? Pa, paw, dad, father. I remember my dad telling that one when I was five years-old and thinking that it was the dumbest joke ever. I'm 28 now and Ivan has greatly improved the delivery. Much better 23 years later. I'm given a tour over coffee and eggs of all the broken bridges in America. The truck drivers wane long, triggered by the CNN ticker talking about the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The George Washington bridge in New York. The potholes open up to the river below. Some bridge over a giant pit in Chicago. Another one in Denver. A couple overloaded semis and a camel's hair and they're all going down into the deep waters that they span. Bridge apocalypse is nigh, so says Ivan.

As we leave the J, I get my first lesson from the 'All-I-Need-to-Learn-About-Driving-Semis' school with Ivan Holloway as my professor. On the tail of the bridge lecture, I ask him if he ever took the back roads to avoid the scales. I know the lingo from a bluegrass standard and hope it impresses my teacher.

"Shit yeah." He gives me the rundown on weight classes, axles, pre-pass scales that weigh your truck as it hurtles down the interstate without ever having to stop, and the deus ex machina powers the DOT wields when you get caught. He tells me the backroads between Pennsylvania and Kentucky, the ones etched on the tablet of his mind that kept him from the scales and inspection checkpoints when his boss would send him cross-country with an overloaded trailer. He gets bored with giving directions at about Kentucky and switches to transmissions. I learn the evolution of the big diesel trannies, the double sticked four by fours, the four by fives, the old ten speeds, split gears, twelve and thirteen speeds. He laughs when I try my lingo out again and ask him if you double clutch these transmissions. I was impressed with my knowledge for a moment after learning how to drive a few split axles in the Forest Service.

"Nah, nah, nah. Only clutch it to start out, then just listen to the engine." I feel dumb, but he continues, "They make automatics now. T-t-too many people who don't know how to drive getting hired anymore." An automatic transmission on a semi. The idea being that if the truck can drive itself, a company just needs to hire someone to steer it. Cut the human right out of it, let the machine handle the dirty work. Someone like me could drive one of "those" trucks, he explains.

A couple minutes about jake brakes, burning brakes, mountain passes, and the cardinal rule of going up the hill at the same speed you come down and I'm ready to drive a big rig. The conversation detours for a minute into something about greyhound racetracks and we arrive at our destination. I dump Ivan off with a tall cowboy replacing seals on the rear axle of his pickup and snap a few photos before shaking hands and driving back towards Denver in Ivan's truck. Two exits down, I see the blue and white Travel America sign and pull into the truckstop. I'm looking for C.W. McCall but settle for Merle Haggard. As I drive home, I wonder what it must have been like for Haggard as a prisoner in San Quentin, sitting in the audience watching Johnny Cash play, all those songs in his heart and nowhere to put them. Hell, I think. Thank god he got out. As Denver approaches, I flip over to Spanish-language radio, listening to Daddy Yankee's new hit. Cool. It oozes cool. For a moment, I debate flying to Puerto Rico to study cool before returning to my senses.

It's right next door.


shawn rocco said...

cool. always a sweet story from the slaby keyboard. looking forward to more. welcome to the blogosphere!

Brian said...

ooh please post more. i will definitely read your blog.

cameron jones said...