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Road to Destiny

posted Nov 23, 2016, 10:35 AM by Ron Pickett

Road to Destiny

Brian turned up the radio and joined Willie Nelson in a chorus of On the Road Again. At that moment, he could have been the poster boy for both spring fever and wanderlust. The intoxicating fragrance of roadside sweet clover swirled through the open windows of his aging Ford pickup as he headed west on the two-lane blacktop, and his feelings of relief and anticipation were euphoric.

It was the first of June, 1991, and Brian celebrated as he drove from his home in Indiana to a summer job in the Oklahoma oil field.  A week before, he had aced the dreaded calculus final to finish his junior year at Purdue with higher grades than he had expected. The grades would assure renewal of his scholarship, and, with his summer income, he would have the funds to carry him through to graduation. He knew that there were always multiple job offers for graduating engineers with good transcripts.

The world really is my oyster, he thought. The stage is set for a great career and wonderful life. If I work hard, make good decisions and don’t screw it up, I can have it all.

Skirting the congestion of Indianapolis traffic by taking country roads, he made his way to Interstate 70. As he merged onto the highway and accelerated to the speed limit, he thanked himself for investing in a cruise control for his pickup. Traffic was light as he crossed into Illinois and drove past endless cornfields with clean rows of young plants posing as fat grass. A few miles west of Effingham, he pulled into the Circle D Truck Stop for lunch and parked his pickup among acres of gleaming eighteen-wheelers.

When Brian had been a boy, his Uncle Hank had told him, “Always eat where the truckers do. They know where the best food is.”

 The café was filled with truckers who looked well fed. He concluded that most were sitting in booths because they had outgrown the stools at the counter.

Well, they say travel is broadening, Brian thought as he slid onto a counter stool. At the far end of the counter, a buxom, thirtyish waitress with frizzy blond hair served a generous slice of pie to a huge driver with red hair and a red face. She turned toward Brian and raised her right hand, which held a Pyrex coffee pot, and her left eyebrow. He nodded in reply to her wordless question, and she brought the coffee, along with a plastic-laminated menu.

“And how are you this mornin’, honey?” she asked in a voice that was cheerful while conveying that she didn’t care at all how he was. The plastic name tag on her blouse announced that she was Faye, and her eyes were focused somewhere beyond Brian.

“Sick in bed,” he replied. It was something that Uncle Hank used in such situations.

She grinned. “Cute. I like that. You don’t know how tired I get of bozos that sit there and just say “fine” or nothing at all--just grunt. Which rig are you drivin’?” She glanced out the plate glass window at the parking area.

“The white Ranger,” he said as he studied the menu.

”Oh, I didn’t think you looked raunchy enough to be one of them big-rig jockeys.” Her loss of interest was palpable. He was a mere civilian, not part of the fraternity of the road and not destined to be one of her guys.

“I’ll have the hot beef sandwich special and a glass of milk,” said Brian.

As he waited for his order, he heard two truckers in a nearby booth engaged in a loud diatribe about how tough it was to make a living since the industry had been deregulated. Pay was too low, diesel was too high, driving hours were too restricted, there was too much paperwork, the Iowa Highway Patrol were chickenshit and wouldn’t cut any slack on speed limits, and the crummy Illinois roads were shaking their rigs apart.

Clint, a stocky driver in a green uniform, said, “Ya know, Jim, I got three kids and I’m just scraping by. Guess I might have to put Mama to work in that new WalMart they’re building--‘specially now that she’s saying she wants to send ‘em to college.”

“Yeah, sounds like my old lady” replied his tall, sandy-haired boothmate.  “I don’t know where they get these ideas that everybody needs to go to college. I told my kids that when they turn 18, their butts are going out my door. They can damn well get a job. They want to go to college, they can pay their own way.”

Clint edged his bulk out of the booth. “Well, better get on the road. Got a load of furniture that has to be in Philly in the morning.”

“I’m outta here in a minute too”, said Jim. “Have a good run and keep the shiny side up, pal.”

Faye delivered Brian’s ample plate of steaming food without comment. As he ate, he reflected on the conversation he had just overheard. If things were so bad, why didn’t these men want something better for their children, and why weren’t they looking for something better for themselves? He suspected that they found their life rewarding and that complaining was recreation for them. When he compared it with his chosen field of engineering, long-haul trucking didn’t look so bad. The drivers worked long hours away from home, but they didn’t have to perform on the job while dealing with continuing education, professional licensing and liability, wearing a tie to work, endless meetings, and kissing up to suits in the corner office.

Brian paid for his meal, returned to his truck and headed for the gasoline pumps to fill up before getting back on the road.

Jim raised his cup. “Hey Faye, can you warm this up?” The waitress rushed to the booth with her coffee pot.

“Hey, didja hear that old waitresses never die?” he asked.

“Really?”

“Nah, they just lose their tips.”

“Well, that ain’t gonna happen to me for a while.” She waggled her shoulders as she leaned to wipe the table, giving Jim a view of shifting breasts.

“Now I got one for you. Did you know that old truckers never die?”

“Okay, I give.”

“They just get a new Peterbuilt.”

Jim licked his finger and made an imaginary mark in the air. “One for you.”  He paused. “You know it just so happens that’s what I’ve got parked out in the lot.” He nodded toward a rig with a gleaming candy-apple red tractor.

Faye’s eyebrows arced up. “Yeah? Sleeper cab and all?”

“Sure; you want a tour?” he asked with his own brow lift.

Moving away with a coy toss of the head, she said, “Oh, you men are all alike!”

Jim stole a quick glance at his watch and called, “Bring me a slice of that rhubarb pie, Sugar.”

Fifteen minutes later, Jim wheeled his rig out of the parking lot and onto the access road. He adjusted the cab air conditioner as the KMOX announcer in St. Louis stated that the temperature was a muggy 92 degrees and that central Missouri was under a severe thunderstorm watch. The massive engine of the Peterbuilt purred as he powered up the ramp onto the interstate. When he was up to speed, he again checked his watch. He would have to push it to make his unload time at the lumber distribution warehouse in Tulsa. He knew that he had spent too much time on his stop, but he mused that it could have been worth while. Another quick calculation told him that he could be back in the area by the time Faye got off her next shift.

Traffic increased when I-70 joined I-55 coming down from Chicago, and the Illinois farmland gave way to the squalid sprawl of East St. Louis. Jim rolled across the Mississippi and past the shadow of the shining Gateway Arch. The I-55 transition ramp skirted Busch Stadium, and he could see that a ballgame was in progress. He was glad that all those cars were parked for the moment.

A few minutes later, Jim reached for the mike of his citizens band radio and pressed the button on its side. “This is Gentleman Jim. I’m just leavin’ the double nickel and startin’ down the four-four. Anybody out ahead of me? Come back.”

The c.b. crackled; then, “Hey, Gentle Jim, this is Mojave Max. I’m just past Pacific.”

“Ten-four. What’s it look like ahead?”

“Traffic’s light. Some pretty good thunderheads to the west, though.”

“Ten-four. What about Smokey?”

“Ain’t seen Bear One. I hear it’s clear right on down to Rolla. Put the hammer down, Buddy.”

The Missouri landscape was like that of a different country. The highway cut through limestone hills, forming roadcut canyons with vertical rock walls. As I-44 plunged farther into the Ozarks, the valleys were deeper and the highway grades longer.

Jim knew his machine well and, like all truckers, he picked up extra speed on the downgrades, using the momentum to help him crest the next hill. He was doing eighty as he crossed the Meramec River, and he marveled at the engineering that allowed his huge rig loaded with hardwood to handle as smoothly as a sedan. On occasion, he would curse the “squirrels with their cruise controls” in smaller vehicles when they forced him to move to the passing lane or to downshift and lose valuable speed.

With an eye on the darkening sky, Jim recalled his banter with Faye. He had heard some c.b. chat about the Circle D offering “all the comforts of home”, and now it made perfect sense. There had been chemistry with the waitress. Except for a small good-living paunch, he still had the lean, muscular build that had made him a three-sport high school athlete fifteen years earlier. Faye was more attractive than the run-of-the-mill lot lady. His fantasy began to take on physical dimensions, and he shifted in the spacious leather seat to ease the growing pressure at his groin.

The late spring thunderstorm grew fast and fed itself with warm, moist air that it sucked from the forested valleys and rocky hilltops. Within the rushing updraft, the air cooled and released additional heat energy as its humidity condensed into raindrops. The new heat warmed more air and strengthened the updraft, fueling the growing storm.

Frank and Stella Jennings were headed home to Joplin. They had spent a week in St. Louis after attending their granddaughter’s graduation from Washington University. They rode into the squall line as they started down a grade just outside Cuba. Dusty wind gusts rocked their new BMW 525, and a shower of raindrops the size of table grapes followed. Frank turned on the headlights and slowed to 60 mph, because he was aware that his eyesight and reflexes weren’t what they once had been. Stella, who owned a continuing obligation to help Frank with his driving, became agitated.

“Frank, I can’t see in this. Shouldn’t you pull over?”

“Well, I can see fine. These wipers can handle it. Just take it easy,” he said, irritated.

The rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Frank relaxed and began to rebuild his speed. He glanced across at Stella and noted that she had loosened her belt and was leaning forward on the edge of her seat.

At the bottom of the hill, they slammed into the curtain of falling water that was the main body of the storm. Visibility dropped to zero, and Frank lifted his foot from the accelerator as their four eyes strained to penetrate the deluge. Stella panicked and shrieked, “Frank!”

Though Frank had seen nothing, he slammed his foot down hard onto the brake pedal. The anti-lock braking system brought the heavy car to a straight and rapid stop that was a tribute to its German engineering.

The Chevrolet that had been following the Jennings car braked, swerved, and shot off the highway and down an embankment.  The third vehicle, a pickup, locked its brakes and slid sideways. The passenger-side door impacted the rear of the BMW, compressing the truck to half its width and causing the driver’s door to spring open.

Dazed and injured, the driver struggled to release his seat belt.

The Peterbuilt’s speedometer registered 70 when Jim realized how dense the second wave of rain would be. His foot was moving toward the brake when he saw the wreck--far too late.

Clouds of steam rolled off the big rig’s brakes as the power of compressed air drove wet linings against steel drums. The howl of the brakes and the shriek of rubber on concrete ended in a booming crash as the heavy tractor struck the wreckage and the weight of the jack-knifing trailer sent it up and over the two cars, flatterning them onto the pavement.

The tractor had come to rest atop the other vehicles and was tilted to the right at a steep angle. Jim hung suspended in his seat belt, willing his trembling hands to relax enough to release the buckle. He was aware that nothing was hurting except for a rising knot on his forehead. A strong odor of diesel fuel filled the cab.

Jim released the belt and slid down the seat to the passenger-side door. He unlatched it, and it fell open. Fighting to control his rubbery legs, he climbed to the ground. Fuel was pouring from a ruptured saddle tank and splashing onto the pavement to blend with the falling rain. The mixture ran under the pickup’s bumper where it merged with the flow of something darker.

A flash of lightning illuminated the bumper, revealing a mangled Indiana license plate and a Purdue University parking sticker.

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