Not really, I’m just joshing.
In fairness, perhaps none of the current malaise is the fault of 46th state, though its interminable flatness besieges the senses at every turn.
Flies are everywhere, as is Fox News.
The landscape is ugly, and the women are fat.
(That last crack is utterly unfair, and 25 percent untrue.)
We’re tired, cranky and stinky. We haven’t showered in a week, since visiting a YMCA somewhere in the Bay Area a week ago.
I almost feel like we fit in around here.
We’re in El Reno, 26 miles west of Oklahoma City. People around here are quite proud of the professional basketball team a couple of the state’s more prominent carpetbaggers stole from Seattle a few years back. A sign on the door informs patrons and loiterers (we haven’t bought anything yet) that McDonald’s is a proud partner of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
I know only one thing about El Reno, aside from the meaningless anecdotal evidence manipulated above to tar an entire state with one malicious, moon-sized brush. (Editor’s note: On second glance, Oklahoma’s not that flat at all. It’s replete with little rises and dips which you barely notice as you’re trying to get the hell out of the state). And Leslie, the sweet, solicitious girl who served Max at Braum’s ice cream parlor in El Reno, is anything but fat. Mea culpa.)
I once met a man who did a little quality time in the federal penitentiary here. His name was Bill Cory, and I know more about his life than I should, given what I’ve done with that knowledge.
William Cory, a safecracker and rooftop burgler of estimable skill, was one of a rogue’s gallery of miscreants who popped up as suspects in the unsolved 1970 murder of a well-known attorney in Bremerton (Washington).
The deceased, Fred Cohen, had what might charitably be described as a brusque personality. In other words, he was a dick.
I’ll never forget the words of one former detective: “You couldn’t have picked a better man to murder in all of Kitsap County than Fred Cohen. Lots of people had lots of reasons for blowing him off his porch with a shotgun.”
It’s too convoluted a story to get into here, except to say my pal Blind Charlie and I got together to “write a book” about the murder. We interviewed countless people over the better part of a decade, including Bill Cory, and dredged up a legion of fascinating stories. I even spent a day in the archives of the federal prison system outside of San Francisco two years ago digging up dirt on Mr. Cory.
And we never wrote a lick. That’s how we roll.
He was incarerated in El Reno for nine months in 1941, getting transferred to Leavenworth five days before Pearl Harbor. When he tried to break out of there, they shipped him to Alcatraz. Before getting into the federal system, he did a stint at San Quentin.
Too bad he didn’t come along 30 years later. He might’ve had a chance to see Johnny Cash live.
Back to Oklahoma. One nice thing has happened here: We got a chance to spend a couple hours with our beloved friend Jun, a photojournalist turned cross-country trucker.
Talked to Jun late last night, and he said he’d make it to Oklahoma City between noon and 1 p.m. today. We were still in New Mexico, trying in vain to find Mexican food in Tucumcari, and figured we better get moving.
Becky drove through the night like a madwoman, into Texas, past Amarillo and on into Oklahoma. She finally pulled off the freeway at Exit 71, Custer City Road, and we spent the rest of the morning at Love’s truck stop.
We were within 80 or so miles of Oklahoma City, and figured we’d have to time to get there in order not to be late for Jun.
The phone rang at about 10 a.m. Jun said he had made better time than expected. He made such good time he had flown right past Exit 71, Custer City Road, and was now 50 miles west of us. We would not be meeting in Oklahoma City after all.
Sweet guy that he is, he turned his mammoth rig right around and backtracked to Exit 71, Custer City Road.
Max was pretty darned excited to see Jun pull into the Love’s lot. He used to be fond of a book about a cartoon truck named Big Blue Bill, who is actually purple. One of Big Blue Bill’s truck friends is a car-carrier named “Bony Tony.” When Jun materialized, Max galloped giddily after his truck screaming “Bony Tony! Bony Tony! Bony Tony!”
Jun did not disappoint. We went inside, grabbed a table, and Max started fondling a replica car-carrier. This fetching piece of molded plastic was made in Hong Kong, no doubt by a first-grade girl who landed in trouble with Communist Party authorities after writing an essay critical of the 15th Politburo’s directive cracking down on political content in social media.
Jun snatched the object of Max’s affection and marched to the counter. He slapped a $20 bill on the counter and made Max’s day.
It’s funny about truckers. When they’re sitting high in their 18-wheel death machines and careening down the highway, hell-bent for the next payday, they’re scarier than a meth freak with a shotgun and a girlfriend problem.
I’ve always felt that way, and I’ll bet most car drivers do.
Of course they’re just average folks. But if you hand an average man the keys to a doomsday projectile, then deprive him of sleep and fill him with a cocktail of uppers and five-hour energy drinks, he’s no longer average. Something more, maybe something less, but definitely not average.
Then there’s Jun, for us the human face of long-distance trucking.
Jun’s one erudite, literate son of a bitch. He’s Korean by birth, yet he reads more English-language books in a month than I read in a year. Philosophy or sociology, fiction or nonfiction, I’ve lost count of the books he’s recommended and I never finished due to some congenital flaw in my makeup. I’m pretty sure there’s still a copy of Eric Hoffer’s classic “The True Believer” tucked under a seat in our car back in Washington.
We met in 1997, when he was a photography intern at the Bremerton Sun and I was a pretentious fuck of a sports writer. Since then, he’s worked as a cab driver in Chicago (Editor’s note: He once accompanied the author and the one and only Jefferson Pepper on a search for urban blight in Gary, Ind.) and a professor in Seoul.
He came back to the U.S. intending to get his PhD, and instead became a trucker, and I’m a vagabond trying to find a sense of purpose on the endless highway.
There’s a cultural divide that remains. He has an unbending sense of loyalty to his parents. The Confucians call it filial piety. Every month he pays the mortgage on his parents’ home outside Atlanta, sends money back to Seoul to support his 8-year-old daughter, Sydney, and incurs maintainence costs on his rig that threaten to break him.
There was the time his hydraulic system malfunctioned and dented one of his cars. He was in Tucumcari, N.M. The body shop was in Chicago. Hopped up on energy drinks, he drove roughly 1,200 miles without stopping for anything except fuel in order to get there by Saturday, since the shop was closed Sunday and delivery was scheduled for Monday.
It’s a difficult life in the best of times. He bought his own rig, which weighs in at 46,000 pounds before he loads nine cars onto its decks, a few years ago, since owner-operators make better money than company drivers. But he assumes all the risks. If he breaks down on the road, the minimum fee for roadside assistance is $350-400. That’s before factoring in prohibitive costs for parts and labor.
An oil change alone costs in the neighborhood of $400. The interstate leviathan gets maybe 5-6 miles per gallon, maybe fewer. Tank capacity is 200 gallons, meaning he might make it 1,000 miles before stopping to fill up, if he’s lucky. If a tire blows on the freeway, something we know a little about now, it’ll cost $500 or more to get a spare mounted. All it costed us was two of our annual four free AAA rescues.
And there’s more to worry about than breakdowns and maintenance.
If he fails to miss a weigh station and comes in over the limit of 80,000 pounds, or if his weight is not evenly distributed, or if his creatively documented log book doesn’t convince the state inspector, he’ll get hit with hundreds of dollars worth of tickets.
A break to consider some of the great trucking songs. Off the top of the head, some of my favorites: “Six Days on the Road,” “Looking at the World through a Windshield,” “Willin’,” “Truckers Speed” (by the Meat Purveyors), Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues” and this gem from the inimitable Fred Eaglesmith. He doesn’t actually get into the song proper till the 5-minute mark, in case you tire of the monologue. Though I don’t see why you would:
Jun’s adapted and learned in order to survive. He might kill me for telling this story, but since there’s a better chance of Becky winning the lottery than one of Jun’s customers ever reading this journal, I’m not worried. This involved the time he broke down on I-40 somewhere in the Arizona desert.
One of the airbags in his suspension system ruptured. The nearest part was 250 miles away in Albuquerque. It was a Friday, and the roadside-assistance operator said he wouldn’t be able to get the part until Monday.
In a move of consummate resourcefulness, Jun unloaded the lower deck on the interstate shoulder so he could access the airbag. He then borrowed one of the cars, drove to Albuquerque, bought the part, drove back, installed it himself and rejoined the journey to Los Angeles. He might’ve caught trouble if the customer had noticed the discrepancy on the odometer, but nothing was ever said.
Out on the road, deep in interstate void between somewhere and nowhere, you have to be creative to survive. And Jun, while depriving the world of his intellectual talents, has proven to be a survivor.
Be safe, mean brother.