Sunday, April 30, 2017

Today's Mostly True Short Story: Rich Man, Poor Man

F LoBuono

We were boys, really. I was 22 or 23, fresh out of graduate school, and my kid brother, Joe, was about 20. We were like the main characters in Irwin Shaw's 1969 classic novel, Rich Man, Poor Man. I was all about learning with dreams of eventually making it to medical school. And, all my brother wanted to be was a Steel Cowboy, trucking all over the Country. As kids, while I buried myself in my books, my brother played almost incessantly with his Tonka Toy and Matchbox trucks. After graduating high school, I went off to institutions of higher learning while my brother went to work driving big rigs. He was serious enough about it that he even convinced my parents to take out a second mortgage on our home so that they could help him finance buying a tractor trailer.

And, what a truck it was: a bright red, cab-over Peterbuilt with a 350 Cummings engine, chrome wheels and 2, 100 gallon fuel tanks. To quote Tom Waits, her dashboard lit up like a Madame LaRue pinball machine! She sure was a beauty. In truckers parlance she was called, simply, a BIG TRUCK.

Even though he was inexperienced, my brother was an awesome driver. I swear that he could make that thing stand up on its hind legs and howl if he needed to. He was masterful with that rig. The only problem was that trucking involved more than just driving - it involved running a business. And, as good a driver as he was, he was simply a shitty businessman. It would eventually cost him his livelihood.

One day, my brother called me with some exciting news: he had a job for his new rig. He was to go to the Port of Newark and pick up a trailer of chemicals to take to California. After delivering the chemicals, he would pick up a load of fresh oranges to bring back to the East Coast. He wanted to know if I wanted to come. Now, I had no clue as how to drive a tractor trailer and my brother knew that. But, I could keep him company and at least give him a hand loading and unloading the truck. I was substitute teaching at the time and we were on Easter break so I would have the time. I jumped at the chance.

I remember meeting my brother at my parent's house (my brother was living at home and I had my own apartment) at dawn to begin our journey. We loaded our travel gear into the cab of the truck and my brother fired that diesel up. The image of my father, tears in his eyes, waving from the corner as we pulled away is one that I will never forget. The truck gradually accelerated and we headed down the New Jersey Turnpike to Newark.

This was not only MY first trip by truck to the coast, it was also my brother's. So, we had no idea what to expect. All we knew was that we were free. An almost infinite, open road and adventure lie ahead. We found all of that - and, so much more.

We made good time our first few days and traveled virtually trouble free. We stopped only for fuel and food, covering almost 500 miles a day. However, after the fortuitous start our luck began to run out - we started blowing tires. The open road and 500 miles/day hauling nearly 70,000 lbs. of freight can be murder on a truck's tires - and, we started blowing them with startling regularity! We would hear a loud PATSSSTTT followed by a FLAP-FLAP-FLAP, signifying the loss of yet another tire. Calling a tractor trailer an 18 wheeler is literal: there are 18 tires on a big truck. So, unless it's a front tire, you can live  temporarily losing one or two of them until they are replaced. But, replace them you must. That requires a stop at a repair shop. One does not change a truck tire on one's own. So, now you have the cost of the tire itself - which is considerable - plus, the labor to mount and balance it. At this point, we had already lost 3 or 4! Throw in a few other minor repairs and we were rapidly running out of $. Maintaining a tractor trailer on the road ain't cheap!

It took nearly a week of hard driving but we actually made it to California. The problem was that we were almost broke. The repairs were killing us. My brother calculated that if we had no further mishaps and conserved our money, we just might have enough to make it home - but, not with much to spare. In fact, Joe would be lucky to actually MAKE any money on this trip.

I asked, "what do you mean by conserve"?

"It means rationing our meals and sleeping under the stars in rest stops - no more motels or big meals for us"! he replied.

I shook my head in disbelief.

We made our first delivery at a warehouse just outside of LA without issue and headed for the orange grove to pick up our load for the return trip. I remember feeling the warm, golden California sun on my back as we packed the orange crates into the trailer. I felt like a character out of Steinbeck novel. By the time we finished, it was approaching evening. My brother figured we could still make a few miles before nightfall and stopping for the day. We got as far as Barstow where we found an empty field to park the truck and get in a few hours of sleep. While my brother crashed in the small bed located in the back of the cab, I pulled a few orange crates from the trailer and fashioned them into a makeshift bed (at least it would keep the scorpions away). I slept on top of those crates and under the spectacular, starry dessert sky, the smell of fresh oranges wafting me to sleep. All was right with the world. It was a magical moment.

The next day, at dawn, we lit out to continue our journey.

We made it as far as the Midwest, Nebraska, I believe, without further incident. And, then, whatever luck we had, ran out. The truck had a transmission issue that simply could not be ignored. It would have to be fixed and THAT would be expensive. I asked Joe if would have enough money to make it home.

He said, "well, yes and no".

What's THAT supposed to mean"?, I asked.

Joe replied, "no, we won't make it if don't cut back on our expenses like eating full meals 3X's a day. We won't have enough $ to buy fuel - and, yes, we might if  don't spend much and nothing else goes wrong".

Exasperated, I inquired, "does that mean we can't eat until we get back - in about 3 days"?!

"Not exactly", he responded. "Here's what we are going to do. When we stop to eat, we will ask for separate checks. I'll order a bunch of food - enough for the two of us to eat well. You order coffee and a piece of pie. When it comes time to pay, you take the more expensive check, go into the bathroom and flush it down the toilet. In the meantime, I'll pay the other check and bring the truck around. Of course, we'll leave a good tip for the waitress (we don't want to screw her). Then, sneak out. I'll pick you up out back and we'll be on our way before anyone knows what the hell happened".


But, we had no alternative. Borrowing more money from our folks was no longer an option. And, we were in the middle of nowhere!! The situation had become desperate. We were thousands of miles from home with barely enough money left to put fuel in the truck for the journey. We HAD to do something. My only concern was why I had to be the one to "flush" the check. Joe reasoned that since he was the only one who could actually drive the rig, I would be the one who would have to do the running. Unfortunately for me, he was right.

I remember that the first time we pulled the routine I was nervous as hell. It's not my style to be ripping off Truck Stop restaurants. My brother and I were not brought up that way. Besides, I was the one with the college education - why should I be the brigand? But, I understood the logic and did my part. Besides, I was hungry and we were desperate. So, I walked as calmly as I could to the men's room, check in hand, went into one of the stalls, and flushed it down the toilet. I preceded to do my best to casually stroll back out of the restaurant as if I hadn't a care in the world. But, my heart was racing and my head pounding. I tried my best to maintain my composure as I cleared the front doors. I saw my brother heading around the corner with the truck and coming in my direction. I fought the urge to run until I just couldn't stand it any more. First, I broke into a fast walk, then a trot, and, eventually, into a downright sprint until I reached the passenger side of the truck. Slowing the truck down, but not stopping, my brother swung the door open. I quickly climbed in. Together, laughing and howling, swelled with victory,  we were back on our way without missing a beat.

After my initial trepidation, the routine got easier and easier and we pulled it off without incident for the next few days and we got back into New Jersey - without starving.

I'm sure that my brother lost money on that trip, unfortunately, like he did on most. As I said, Joe was a spectacular driver but a shitty businessman. After a few more years, he was forced to sell his beautiful truck. He still drives - just locally now - no more cross country trips for Joe. As for me, I went back to my academic pursuits. But, I'll never forget the adventures I shared with my brother on that trip and many others. In the end, we are both very rich men for having spent that time together.

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