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Chapter Three

What Gary lacked in grace on the ground he more than compensated for behind the wheel. His thirty-year skill set was evidenced by his effortless coaxing of the tractor trailer onto Highway 80. His courage and skill needed to negotiate almost seventy linear feet of rolling iron down the highway was breathtaking. It occurred to James that truckers are the unsung heroes of the world’s supply chain, especially when their eighty thousand pound missiles are making their way through an Atlanta or Houston or Los Angeles freeway system. Why these things aren’t wrapped around ten thousand SUVs a day is one of the wonders of the world. The fact that most people should not be on the roads is never more evident than when sitting in a big rig in heavy traffic.

“Man, people are crazy,” James said as two idiots in a tweaked-out Honda civic snaked around the truck at over eighty miles per hour, only to display their brake lights moments later.

“Uh huh, and if they live they’ll be there twenty minutes before we are. I hope it makes a difference,” Gary offered. James reflected on how this was the same guy who wanted to kill him an hour ago.

Once settled into his executive office behind the wheel, Gary became the CEO of his little empire. He fired off instructions via blue tooth to his bookkeeping and permit service and directed his insurance company to “get busy” faxing an updated certificate to a broker’s home office in Modesto. Gary was in the groove now and strangely peaceful. He looked like a rock and roll drummer with all of his equipment at arm’s length. Drummers can play blindfolded if the equipment is at the right height, angle and distance from the stool. Gary had his seat just right, the mirrors were perfect, CB radio microphone on a makeshift bungee cord hanging from the headliner just above his right hand. All he needed was a high hat cymbal and he could join the band.

“Hey man, how’d you know to pour that coffee? That was pretty cool. I was ready to bust you up and then …” Gary laughed and broke the silence.

“I wondered if you were gonna ask me that or just go on thinking I was a genius,” smiled James.

“Oh, I didn’t think that for a minute,” Gary joked with a friendly laugh.

James replied, “I knew a guy in Tulare — a mechanic — though that term doesn’t do this guy any justice. Dude could diagnose stuff over the phone. Craziest thing you’ve ever seen. I had a couple of trucks a few years back, ’96 Freightliners like this one, same kind of engines so I was somewhat familiar. I can do alternators, u-joints, water pumps, and of course, coffee tricks!” That got a laugh. “The truck whisperer,” he added. They laughed again.

“Why’d you get out of trucking?” asked Gary.

“Aw, it’s complicated.”

“It usually is,” Gary answered with an understanding tone. “Forget I asked.”

James wadded up his duffel bag against the surprisingly cold passenger’s window and leaned his head against it. “You can turn up the music if you want,” he said, and they drove on with the sound of southern rock and the steady roar of the diesel engine. The vibration of the window against his head must have induced an alpha state in James because he was out like a light. They drove on about forty-five minutes before the potholes on the southbound 5 freeway proved too much for his attempt at a decent nap. After several direct hits to the passenger side suspension, and rather than face repeated blunt force trauma to the right side of his head, he reluctantly straightened in his seat.

James thought about the statewide budget deficit newspaper story he’d briefly entertained at breakfast and quickly deduced that no highway repairs would be undertaken any time soon. He thought about the second law of thermodynamics and how nothing stays the same and everything moves toward decay and that the 5 freeway was concrete (pun intended) evidence of that. You think too much, he said to himself. About nothing, he added, and smiled. A quick glance at his captain indicated that Gary had not moved an inch nor changed expression since his last check over an hour ago.

“How you doin’?” James asked.

“Fine as wine, we’re making good time so far.” he replied. “’Bout six hours to go, give or take.”

James thought how another six hours of driving would appeal to the average person but how Gary just dismissed it like a trip to the neighborhood Seven Eleven. “I called the warehouse while you were getting your much-needed beauty sleep. They’ll stay open for us so we can deliver this today. Guess they need this product for production.”

“Cool,” James answered. He hadn’t given much thought to when they would arrive or what his plan would be after he got to Southern California. You’d think that with three years to plan his life he would have this dialed in but such was not the case. James had made a decision to rely on God and to avail himself to the will of God and just let things unfold in a different manner than the frantic planning which goes into most people’s lives. Not total abandon; nobody has that much faith! There should be some direction, he thought.

The initial “plan” was to find the parking structure in San Bernardino where his motorcycle was stored, and then most likely, it would involve a visit to the bank where his sister Diane had set up his account and seeded it with the seventeen thousand eight hundred dollars that remained from his portion of their mother’s estate. Diane wasn’t a big fan, as his story didn’t work well with her financial planner husband, their circle of friends, and the life she strived to maintain. James didn’t care much; the last thing he would ever do was force a relationship. He appreciated the fact that she took the time to set up his account and he left it at that.

He figured he’d deposit much of the cash he was holding and look for a small and inexpensive storefront/warehouse in the Inland Empire. The IE was a vast territory of flophouses, bars, pawnshops, street churches, malls, fast food, fine dining, apartments, communities, and mansions. The place had it all and it could change dramatically from one block to the next. The elegant foothill region of Claremont was two miles from Pomona but might as well be a separate world, such was the contrast. Every ethnicity was represented. Crime and addiction was everywhere from the missions to the mansions. The only variables were the quality of cars, clothes, crimes, and the choices of addiction. It was the perfect place to start.

The weather in Southern California is arguably the best in the world. It’s almost ridiculous with eighty degree Januarys and oil painting sunsets from any number of breathtaking mountain and shoreline vistas. Regional climatic variances allow an enterprising individual the opportunity to surf in the morning and snowboard in the evening by merely driving a couple of hours. It’s an intoxicating locale to be sure.

Yet, the entire state was careening toward the cliff and doomed to a catastrophic landing without a philosophical or spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening, or what James’ earthly father would term, a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting, was surely needed.

Inside the prison walls, James had an epiphany of sorts. It was evident that his plans and methods were abysmally inadequate. In a moment of clarity, he had arrived at a level of awareness that ‘his best thinking had got him there,’ and that to trust God as entirely as possible meant casting off earthly attire. The pursuit of such an endeavor necessarily exposes the degree of expanding or diminishing trust in one’s God or world view.

At some point in our individual and collective sojourns through life we all arrive at this realization. Some do willingly, some do it in prison, some on their death beds, but we all get there. We spend our lives under the delusion that we have control, yet we live in a constant state of panic reaction to life. Seriously, if we control everything, should we not examine our current station and ask ourselves, “Is this the best we can do?” Such introspection and self analysis will, if treated with integrity, drive us to our knees. If not to God, then to despair for the viability of our world view is laid bare.

Jeez, he thought, My mind is a scary place.

It must be the coffee. His mind continued with an uncharted foray into the subject of racism, learning quickly that prison is the most racist environment ever foisted on humankind. James had resisted all recruitment efforts into any of the white only gangs inside, preferring to do his time in the most anonymous manner possible under the circumstances. He remained segregated as this was a necessity for survival, but beyond hanging with ‘his kind’ at meal time and most certainly yard time, the rest was of little interest. It cost him some stitches and some bruises and, of course, the broken bones and re-adjusted beak, but after all was said and done he was left basically to himself, especially after word got out that he was a Jesus freak and began preaching to all who would listen and some who would not. He took the call to ‘tell people about me,’ very seriously.

James understood that there are only two types of people in the world, lost and saved, or as he called them, the ‘lost and found.’ This allowed him to remain impervious to racism, as it is not a logical position. A non-sequitur, as his philosophy professor routinely reminded him thirty years earlier. Latin for, ‘it does not follow.’ If you subscribe to lost and found, then color has no basis and is nothing other than a distraction and a tool for politicians to divide and conquer. Not to mention a substantial implement to be employed by the devil himself as a constant source of societal conflict. When your goal is to confuse and animate a society’s members in an effort to distance them from any serious spiritual ascension and maturity, any excuse is good enough. Racial animosity is repackaged and resold to each generation, yielding ever larger dividends to the master antagonist. Keep the populace enraged and violent and they will never rise high enough above the battleground to be astounded by the circle in which they’ve been traveling for decades!

James’ mind wandered further to the story of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, which should have been something like a two-week trip but due to their pettiness, infighting, and cyclical insanity, some forty years elapsed with none of them ever making it to the Land of Promise. It was madness. We are all mad. You certainly are, he thought.

He feared his head would explode if he didn’t get out of the truck pretty soon. How did a guy like him not go completely insane in prison? He regularly wondered how it would be outside those walls. The fear was upon him again and he was fighting internally with scripture that commands us not to fear and ‘to be anxious for nothing’ and sometimes it was so terrifyingly overwhelming that he wanted to scream and run but he had resolved to stop running.

Wasn’t he running right now? Isn’t there a disconnect from reality during any relocation or road trip with no accountability except to the journey? Isn’t that why people run, stop, and then run some more? The constant planning, packing, driving, and unpacking excuses us from dealing with everyday problems. Is this spiritual warfare or what? Does this ever end? Then there is the question of degree. To what degree is spiritual warfare the prevailing assault on a believer and how much can be attributed to the worldly adage, ‘life sucks, then you die?’

Wow, you are a deeply philosophical bag of wind, aren’t you? James shook his head. He focused on the cracked lens of the digital clock that was velcro’d onto the dash of the rig, one of those small black rectangular things you can buy at a dollar store. It was nearing two p.m. One forty-seven to be exact, as if the word exact and that cheap clock could exist in the same sentence. “That clock right?” James asked.

“Oh yeah, it’s synchronized with the U.S. Naval Observatory master clock,” Gary laughed. “I calibrate it twice a day, Greenwich mean time minus eight.”

James just looked at him and shook his head. Ask a stupid question, he thought. James liked Gary. A cantankerous old grouch straight out of central casting, but he was a sharp guy. Not book smart but ‘this ain’t my first rodeo,’ kind of smart. James liked that in people. He also liked that he could impart a neat coffee trick that would no doubt be replayed at truck stops all over the west coast for years to come with absolutely no credit paid to him. James smiled. “Figure what, maybe another couple of hours?” he asked, changing the subject slightly.

“’Bout that,” replied Gary, “You in a hurry?”

“Yeah, that’s why I picked a broken down truck to get me from Sacramento to Pomona,” which had them both laughing.

“Well, we might lose a minute or twenty ’cause I’m stopping at Frazier Park for fuel at the Flying J,” added Gary.

“There goes my schedule,” quipped James, who was actually relieved to be stopping. He could use a stretch and a visit to the men’s room. There was only so much bouncing around he could take after the morning’s coffee.

He also wanted to investigate the latest in prepaid cell phone technology, since James had no delusions about AT&T or Verizon soliciting his business, at least not right away. He’d read about it in a magazine in the prison library and made a mental note to look into it. This would allow him to begin his long journey toward citizenry. Not technically — of course he was a citizen — but in the ‘I have a phone number,’ sense. He had a vague plan, which included a small apartment or room somewhere, and a phone number.

James felt the truck slowing as they leveled off near the Frazier Park exit. This was one of James’ favorite gas stops back when he would ride his Harley up to Bakersfield and then over to the coast on weekends or on club business. He had always liked the weather up here. It was always twenty degrees cooler at this elevation than in the L.A. basin, which could be thirty degrees less than Bakersfield, which could be a hellish place to ride in the summer. Frazier Park could be snowed in one day and sixty degrees and sunny the next, part of the romance of the place. It was also a boneyard for big rigs. The ‘Grapevine,’ as it’s known by most who travel, is an almost forty-mile stretch of gently winding and steep grades on either side of Frazier Park and if something is going to break on these trucks it invariably happens through here. It can get scary, and expensive.

Gary jockeyed for position among the dozens of rigs pulling in and out of the Flying J Truck stop. He settled in behind a Promised Land Express Truck that was just topping off his tanks along with his refrigerated unit, so they wouldn’t have too long to wait. Gary explained that a simple fuel stop could stretch into forty-five minutes if you got behind the wrong trucks. There are as many different personalities on the road as there are trucks. Some guys are in and out of a fuel stop like a NASCAR driver and others seem to want to talk to anyone who will listen. Every driver has a thousand stories and they grow longer on down the line. Sewing circles could learn a few things about gossip from these guys. It’s an amazing network. James had always thought that if he could organize independent truckers he could be the wealthiest, most powerful man in America. The trick is the communication, and with the strides in technology, that day could arrive. Alas, he thought, that, too, would have to wait.

How could one guy have this much energy for enterprise but at the age of fifty have nothing thus far to show? Knock it off, he told himself. It’s only halftime and you’re tied in a game they gave you no chance of winning. God is in control, remember? Anything can and most likely will happen. You just have to keep at it. Perseverance alone is omnipotent. He’d read that somewhere … Calvin Coolidge said it but it was later attributed to Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve the problems of the human race. James believed this philosophy even in the darkest loneliest days in Folsom prison and now he had the opportunity to prove these words true.

Proverbs 24:16 says, ‘For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again.’ This must be the one trait that separates great from average. James was growing in grace and had begun his journey to the mastery of the greatest human accomplishment, trusting God. The biggest demon plaguing him was regret. There were too many times lately when he tortured himself with the ‘what ifs’ and the coulda-woulda-shoulda confusion that confound a person. This must be defeated as soon as it enters your head, but it has to be recognized and identified before you can defeat it. The devil can have you cosigning that nonsense before you know it. Tricky business, this spiritual warfare.

“You want anything from in there?” James asked as he pointed to the store.

“I’ll take the biggest Pepsi they got,” Gary answered.

James marveled at how this guy, a very big guy at that, could function on Little Debbie chocolate peanut butter bars and Pepsi because so far that’s all he’d seen the man eat. James was no nutritionist but he tried, when he wasn’t behind bars, to drink only water or iced tea or black coffee and eat as much raw or minimally processed food as possible. An occasional Double-Double at In-N-Out was acceptable; in fact, he had already planned to visit the one on Indian Hill Boulevard in Pomona for dinner. He did hit the gym regularly and attempt to eat decent food, but a man has to live a little. Conversely, Gary was a marvelous example of complete disregard for health. He smoked cigars, ate chocolate peanut butter wafers, and drank nothing but Pepsi, and it showed! A quick survey of the patrons of the truck stop indicated that this was epidemic in nature. The junk food purveyors were making a killing, literally.

James made his way to the technical section of the trucker store, looking like a tourist in a foreign land. There were headsets from the size of a pack of matches up to NASCAR headsets by Motorola for a hundred bucks. These weren’t even the phones! When he went to prison, flip phones were the big deal and now the phones looked like video games. This was a truck stop, for crying out loud; he could only imagine what a Radio Shack must look like now. It was fascinating but all he wanted was a darn phone. He was able to flag down an employee and asked about the possibility of a prepaid phone. He was given two choices and grabbed the first one he saw: $39.95 loaded with one thousand minutes. He could add minutes when he needed them. James could not imagine anyone talking for a thousand minutes a month but he took what they suggested. He had a phone number and that was an accomplishment. The clerk told him he’d be able to purchase the phone at the register when he had finished his shopping. Shopping? James thought. This is a Flying J bro, not Macy’s. He grabbed a bag of trail mix and filled what seemed like a gallon of Pepsi into the BIG THIRST plastic cup and made his way to the cashier; he had ‘finished his shopping.’

As he walked outside Gary was slowly making his way toward the store, his labored gait even more noticeable than earlier in the day. James wondered how old the trucker was and what his health and life would be like without the self-induced abuse. His mind wandered to the untold thousands of other men and women in this industry who were just going through the motions, dying a slow death of poor health and bankrupt ideologies. One does not have to be on the road too long to hear the hopelessness in their voices. When the most popular answer to “How’s it going?” is “Same stuff, different day,” defeat cannot be too far behind. Poverty of spirit, he thought.

“I got your Pepsi,” James said before Gary looked up to see him heading his way.

“Yeah, thanks; just put it in the tractor. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“I got a phone,” James said for some unknown reason.

“Congratulations; give me the number and I’ll write it on the wall in there,” Gary grinned.

“I’m good,” James said as he continued toward the truck. His immediate plan was to read the brochure about the phone and determine how the minutes worked. He was quite enamored by the prospect of a phone with no contracts. The less paperwork in his life the happier he was. He was a wary man and prison life did little to alter that. James believed in honor and integrity. A man’s word should suffice. He knew the world did not reflect his values but he was uninterested in compromising his methods of operation. He knew the truth had to be unwavering in order to function as truth. James not only loved God, he respected Him. God was constant and holy and James was becoming quite comfortable in that knowledge.

 

 

Chapter Four

Through the bug-splattered windshield James watched Gary ambling slowly toward the rig. He was carrying a paper bag rolled up at the top. James figured it was more Little Debbie wafers. He smiled and slowly shook his head. Then he jumped from the truck and grabbed the long-handled window squeegee and cleaned the big man’s windows before he arrived.

Gary was surprised by the gesture. “Thanks, Easy Money; worried I couldn’t see?”

“Yeah, well, it’s the only thing I’m gonna clean, so enjoy it,” James laughed.

“You ready to roll?” Gary asked.

“You’re in charge, driver.” Both men were invigorated from the break and ready to make the final two and-a-half-hour push to the delivery point.

“Mind if I charge my phone?” James asked.

“Be my guest,” Gary replied, pointing to the cigarette lighter socket. Gary ran through the first eight gears in effortless succession and after about a mile Interstate 5 freeway leveled off to where the last two gears could be employed.

They had made the fourteen-mile climb and were now on the several-mile flat portion of the highway that would become a hair-raising 6 percent downgrade where many an inexperienced trucker has lost control, resulting in mayhem. Countless people have died over the years running the Grapevine. Passenger cars and big rigs, motorcycles and motor homes have all been claimed by this monster of a hill. The Grapevine plays no favorites and is an equal-opportunity thrill ride. The irony is that it bottoms out at the Magic Mountain amusement park. The southbound down grade is the most insidious as it lulls you with its gradual pull and then you see a warning sign that says 6 percent grade! James likened it to snow skiing where you can be cruising along enjoying an invigorating run and all of a sudden the Black Diamond Expert sign looms ahead and you can’t turn around because you’re already picking up speed and heading downhill. You either sit and slide and cry or ski it. Such was the ride to Santa Clarita from Frazier Park. Have a nice day indeed! James was thankful that his captain was a seasoned veteran; according to Gary, he makes this trip every day Monday through Friday, twelve months a year. James figured he’d sit back and enjoy the ride as much as anyone could. This is where slow and steady wins the race.

Gary kept the rig in the far right lane and crawled down the grade, allowing the dat-dat-dat of the engine’s ‘Jake’ brake to slow the eighteen wheeler, thus minimizing the use of the tractor and trailer brakes. There’s nothing like the metallic smell of a hundred pounds of brake shoes incinerated by a frantic trucker. Gary joked that he should open a tire and brake shop at the bottom of the hill. James suggested he include a shower and laundry, which Gary found extremely funny. “Wash the fear off of you,” he said. It’s always funny when it’s someone else.

~

Southern California! At last James had officially negotiated the gauntlet which had oppressed him for most of the trip. It was that feeling that he was never really free and the urge to glance over his shoulder was relentless. It was sad that Northern California’s surreal beauty would always remind him of fear and dread and confinement. Maybe someday it would diminish and he could remember the great times riding up there but right now he knew he was being sent to Southern California and he was happy to be there. James could be dropped here blindfolded and recognize Southern California just by the incessant traffic noise. For those who have never had the pleasure of the combination of NASCAR and the ‘Twenty-four hours of Le Mans,’ which is the daily commute anywhere in Southern California, it is something to behold. Where else would otherwise intelligent humans voluntarily donate up to three hours each way on a violent and unforgiving cluster of freeways just to spend another eight hours in a cubicle surrounded by people who would crawl over you for another dollar an hour.

It is not unusual for a person to labor eight hours at a job and five hours driving to and from. James had priors for that behavior and was determined not to put himself in that position again. A man’s life must be more than the commute where talk radio personalities become intimate friends and thoughts and passions are controlled by news, weather, and sports. It’s insanity and it’s voluntary. The blank or angry faces of thousands of clones pushing their way in a hopeless race against the clock and each other were everywhere. Man’s inhumanity to man!

James shook the latest philosophical rant from his mind. You need your meds, he laughed to himself. This mental departure was not unusual; he was accustomed to these sojourns. He had always felt sorry for anyone who dared to share intimacy, as his constant mental meltdowns were worthy adversaries to normal conversation. The GPS voice, announcing the approaching destination in ‘point two miles on the right,’ jarred him back to reality, today’s reality. They were going to a tortilla plant of all places.

Gary’s load consisted of raw materials necessary for ongoing production. It seemed that the west coast had an insatiable appetite for tortillas. Gary downshifted once again as they reached the guard shack surrounded by freshly painted bright yellow vertical concrete protection posts. The age of the facility and the condition of the guard shack suggested this wasn’t the first fresh coat of paint these things had seen. Gary presented the bills of lading to the guard and waited while he walked around the truck, checking the door seal for compromise. The guard conversed with someone over the hand-held radio and awarded Gary door #3 when he returned the delivery documents. Gary grumbled his appreciation and pushed the gear shift forward and released the clutch. He guided the huge rig around an alley that led to the unloading dock. “Figures,” Gary spat. “These idiots stuck us in door three between two other trucks and there are seven other doors wide open.”

“Lazy and stupid,” James muttered. “Great combination.” Gary nailed the backing and James could tell he enjoyed the success. It was a tight spot but the big guy just wheeled the rig using his mirrors and steering wheel for the thousandth time. James noticed the other drivers up on the dock watching Gary’s work. James quickly jotted his new phone number on an old Detroit Diesel business card and placed it in the empty cup holder on his side. “You gonna need help unloading?” James offered.

“No way; they will unload it or they can pay an unloading service, ’cause I ain’t touchin’ it. It’s all pallets and should roll right off, but thanks for the offer.”

“No problem. I’m gonna get going; thanks for the ride. I left my number in the cup holder; hit me up sometime.” He reached across the cab and shook the big trucker’s hand.

“Appreciate the coffee trick. You take care now, biker boy.”

James gathered his backpack and jacket, took a quick glance at the digital clock, which indicated 4:53 p.m., and climbed out of the truck. He had a couple of miles to walk to get to Indian Hill Avenue. He figured thirty minutes and he’d be enjoying a Double-Double at the In-N-Out burger, which was a small but quite attainable goal. He took some satisfaction in making the four hundred mile trip for the cost of a phone and a couple of dollars in Pepsi and coffee but he was feeling hunger pangs and that burger would taste great. The weather was warmer down here during the day. He could see the wind picking up by movement at the tops of the palm trees and figured “Santa Ana’s” were beginning, which meant at least a few days of above average temperatures and decent nights. James was already thinking of saving the fifty bucks he’d budgeted for the night’s motel, depending on the weather. He had a sleeping bag on his bike but that was a good twenty miles away. Burger first, he thought, and headed east.

Comments

Oliver
Reply

Good detail, and character depth.

admin
Reply

I appreciate your kind words, glad you like it. James is a good brother, someone I’d like as a friend. Keep reading!

Valerie Nell Cameron
Reply

Both of these guys remind me of the best Brothers I have known and loved. James’ way of thinking, and the things he thinks about, and the tangents he goes off on, are so like my own, it’s great!

admin
Reply

Ha! Love it. I love that you connect so well to the story and the soul of the message. Thanks sis, thank you for the kind words.

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