On The Road #27 – The West !

After a night sleeping in the shotgun seat of a rumbling long-haul truck parked in the fumes of an Iowa truck stop I found myself on the road early in the morning. Thankful to still be riding with the driver who picked me up outside of Chicago I watched November’s fallow soy fields stretch into equally vast fields stubbled with stalks of the summer’s corn. Between Interstate 80 and the horizon the land was not flat, as I had been lead to believe, and not hilly either. More of an undulation into the distance. The great grassy prairie lands turned to square fields.

A speck in the distance grew to be a sign. Then a large billboard —

”How arrogant is that??!!!” I screamed in my head. “Where the West begins, indeed.” Everyone knows the West begins west of the Rocky Mountains, I harrumphed. I might have even said so to the truck driver.

A hundred miles west of the city of Lincoln the freeway followed the Platte River, echoing the route of the Oregon Trail. A continuous, gentle climb free from any radical landmarks, the valley provided reliable water and forage for wagons headed into the unknown. I thought the trees and shrubs along the river to our right would stretch to Wyoming. Actually they do but, unknown to me, west of North Platte the river heads north while I-80 heads straight toward Cheyenne, Wyoming. I didn’t notice the brush along the river was no longer in sight. 

I also missed how the cultivated prairie land slowly, imperceptibly gave way. Farms grew farther and farther apart. Some half way through Nebraska I realized the land featured stacks of bailed hay and open rangeland and feedlots full of cattle. And then not even that, but scrublands with a few grazing cattle.

Perhaps eighty percent of the way thought Nebraska the truck was pulling harder. Not struggling up a steep mountain grade, but I-80 was rising on a sweeping curve into a gentle pass. 

The engine’s guttural pull eased into a purr as we passed over the rounded summit. We looked out over a vast, open, sandy valley sweeping into the far distance between high bare hills. Other than the road there was not a bit of civilization in sight. 

I found myself breathless. 

Oh my god —

It was THE WEST ! ! !

During my two years living in the lush forests and fields east of the rocky mountains I had forgotten about the deserts. The deserts I had been raised exploring. Deserts that run from south of Boise through Nevada and Arizona and into Mexico. 

For the first time I realized the American West is not defined by the towering rocky peaks of Idaho’s mountains, but by the vast room of the Great Basin.

After two years I was suddenly dropped into home.

And, of all things, it was in NEBRASKA !

My Folks #6 – Tractors #3 – Fender Perch

When working on a tractor there is always a need to use a tool. Usually a simple plier or screwdriver or piece of baling wire can patch a problem enough to keep from having to run to the shop. 

As I got older it came time for Dad to keep me entertained, even when he was working with one of the two tractors we rented out. And it was evident that, with the clutching and braking and wrestling the unpowered steering wheel of a Ford N series tractor, there was no holding me on his lap. 

And that is why one of my first memories is perching my scrawny butt on a narrow tool box on a big fender that kept my little ass from scraping on the big left rear tire of dad’s tractor. 

There was an ever-present odor of grease and oil and gasoline and hot engine up there. To this day I think of those aromas as the smell of my dad. 

The tool box was the highest I had ever ridden, atop that big tire looking out at the moving world with just air around me. It was nothing like being shut up in a car. The road or ground was right there moving beneath us. And when Dad was plowing or mowing or leveling or disking, the action was churning just under my feet. It was endlessly fascinating to see what Dad was doing to the dirt or the grass. And more than once I terrorized myself thinking how that plow or mower or leveler or those disks would maul my bones into the scenery should I fall off that bit of a tool box as the tractor bounced and tugged and struggled at its tasks. 

Which I suppose is why I absolutely always had to have my arm as far as I could reach around my dad’s sweaty chest. No being cool and hanging on to the top edge of the fender, my body arched back and my hair blowing in the summer wind like a carefree movie star sitting atop the back seat of a convertible. 

Not that I minded hanging on, even as I got older. It was never a solid ride up there and I was glad for the hand hold. And I’m sure my arm around him made my dad confident he’d know to stop the tractor before any mauling in case my hinny suddenly slip off that bit of a fender perch.

On The Road #26 – An Iowa Night

The trucker who invited me into the warm cab of his long-haul truck on a cold November night of 1970 was looking for conversation. So was I. He was an interesting man and he seemed interested enough in my endless prattle. At least he didn’t pull over and tell me to get out.

The conversation did touch on the trucking life and he assured me that, yea, there have been times he got tired of it and tried something else. But punching a clock and getting into a daily routine soon sent him back to the road. 

And then there was the time he and his wife decided it would be good for him to be home. The kids were getting through grade school and he didn’t want to miss all of their growing up. Besides, it would do them good to have their dad around the house and his wife could use some help getting them through their teen years. So he talked with the company he was driving for and took on the dispatching job. 

Things went well for five months or so before he and his wife started driving each other crazy. Neither of them wanted to get to hating each other so they both agreed it would be best for him to get back on the road. He added, “Now I sure am glad to get home to my beautiful wife every two to six weeks. And she sure seems to be glad to see me, that’s for sure! Heck, even the kids seem to enjoy my being around for several days.” After those several days, he assured me, the whole family knew it was time for him to go haul something around the USA.

Around midnight the driver pulled us off the freeway and into a truck stop. Was this my cue to say thanks and get myself out of the truck? I sure didn’t want to jump out of that warm truck but this was my first ride with a long-haul driver and I didn’t know what was expected. Before I could ask, he described an adjustable metal stick that he could use to hold the accelerator peddle in one position while he got in his berth for the night. He then gave me a couple of dollars and asked if I’d go in the shop and get him one. When I got back with it he did not ask me to leave as he got in the back of the cab for a good night’s sleep. 

Folks, if you are looking for a comfortable night’s snooze I do not necessarily recommend the passenger’s side seat in the cab of an idling semi truck in the middle of a brightly lit parking lot cocooned in the fumes of fifty other idling diesel engines. But should you find yourself cashless on a windy November midnight in Iowa it is a comforting thing to do. 

My Folks #5 – Tractors #2 – Showing Off

When Dad got his first Ford tractor he spent one afternoon driving it out to my mother’s grandparent’s farm south of Ustic, Idaho. My mother’s aunt Ellen had been raising her three children on that land since her husband died some thirteen years earlier at the age of forty.

Ellen led a hard life, scraping together enough egg and milk money to feed her growing kids. Her daughter Dona tells me Ellen made their clothes out of feed sacks, the unworn edges of sheets, and what good scraps could be salvaged from ragged adult clothes. Her mother was so good at combining the different patterns that Dona considered her dresses to be the prettiest in the school.

The farm had a large garden to grow the food the family would eat through the coming year. Every spring the garden needed to be turned over, raked level and prepared for planting. Dona’s older brother and sister pushed a wheeled hand plow through the dirt to break it up and the whole family got busy raking and leveling the ground for planting. It was days of back-breaking work.

And that was why my dad drove his new tractor mounted with a plow way way out in the country. The rest of us arrived in our Frazier Manhattan automobile pulling a trailer with a disking implement on it.

Dad sat on his tractor pulling the plow through the garden. It dug deep, breaking up the soil and turning it over so the remains of last year’s crop were turned under to compost into the land. Then he sat on the tractor dragging the disc, a series of circular blades that broke up the clumps of dirt left by the plow and leveled the deep ruts the plow had left behind. The job was easily done in an hour. 

Years later Dona told me she and her sister and brother had watched that man they did not know sitting on his tractor. “We knew he was showing off. BUT WE WERE SURE GLAD TO HAVE ALL THAT DIRT TURNED OVER!!!!!!”

(A note: My mother’s grandparents on her dad’s side were Eric and Johanna Dahlberg. Their daughter Ellen married Earle Officer in 1925. Their daughter Dona married James Saad in 1956.)

On The Road #25 – Freeway Ramp

It was getting late in the afternoon when I walked away from the amorous plant salesman at a roadside tavern somewhere in the Illinois countryside. By the time I got rides back to Interstate 80 it was getting dark.

Always aware of flying under the radar, I knew to keep my thumb on the ramp of a freeway rather than hitchhike on the highway itself. But alas, just as I approached an entrance to I-80 a brown car had a blue flashing light put on its dashboard. Although the police were not in uniform there were the uniform questions: what was I doing? where was I going? have any ID? I had a sense these Chicago-suburb police were looking for something to fill up a quota. Perhaps drugs? No problem there. If I made a point of only hitchhiking on the ramp of a freeway can you image me being stupid or ballsy enough to be carrying any sort of drug? Ha! That’s a good one! 

Still, it was getting dark and having police rummaging through my pack and perhaps taking me in for a more personal search would leave me abandoned on a suburban street in the dead of a cold November night. 

Just as I was overthinking these things there was a crackling from their police radio. It sounded like static to me but they seemed to understand the language, handed me back my driver’s license, and left without a word.

That was not the only time I have been rescued from an awkward situation by the Gods of Good Timing – and I thank them profusely.

As soon as that brown unmarked car had driven off I walked a few yards down the onramp to Interstate 80 heading west. My intention was to get a third of the way down the ramp so folks would have a chance to check me out and pull over before the freeway. I didn’t make it. Instead, a long semi truck pulled in front of me. I scurried to the cab, climbed up to the handle, opened the door, and was invited in. 

I got out in Utah.

My Folks #4 – Tractors #1 – Renting A

My folks started renting trailers during World War II. They added two Ford N series tractors to their home rental business after the war.

Once I got old enough to be trusted with such transactions I was on the phone letting men know that, yes, “They are full-sized tractors and we have the implements you need to get your job done.” If they needed more than one implement (perhaps a plow to turn soil, a disk to break it up, and a blade to level it off) we had a heavy-duty flat bed trailer that tilted and had a winch for loading the tools. They could pull the loaded trailer to their job site with the tractor.

We rented the tractors, including implements, by the gallons of gas they burnt. “That way if you get called away from the job you are not paying for the use of the tractor.” We always gave the example that perhaps they’d have to take a phone call. And yes, kids, we had to go in the house to use the land-line phones in those Barbaric times.

The rate for our tractors was $5 for the first gallon of gas, $4 for the second gallon and $3 for every gallon thereafter. Gas was going for 20¢ a gallon at the time so this was when questions really started to fly!

I had heard the answers from my dad many times and repeated them: “How much gas the tractor burns depends on what you are doing. Plowing is a lot harder work than leveling. The tractor will burn more than a gallon an hour when plowing, depending on how hard the dirt is. You get over an hour per gallon when disking. And yes, you drive the tractor to your work site. The tractors have an overdrive for highway use and they get around 16 miles per gallon.” Our customers considered that good gas milage back in the 1950s, when cars were built like tanks and had big, inefficient V8 engines.

Usually the customer would show up as soon as he could get to us. But sometimes the man on the other end of phone let us know he could rent a garden tractor for $1.25 an hour. We’d mention we were renting full-sized Ford tractors and, of course, we certainly respected his knowing what was right for his project.

Sometimes a man would show up the next day saying he had tried a garden tractor and had barely begun his project when it got dark. Two to four hours later he’d swing our Ford tractor back into our driveway, pay somewhere between five and ten dollars, and let us know he’d be telling his friends about using a “real tractor.”

On The Road #24 – Sweet Talking Man

With clean clothes and fond memories of a fun evening in Indiana, I headed west to Illinois. Staying south enough to avoid the congestion of Chicago’s traffic I was on a surface highway, perhaps Old US 30, and was looking forward to getting some miles behind me before winter set in. An older model sedan pulled over and I jumped in beside a gent of some 50 years sporting a comfortable old business suit and eager for someone to chat with.

It turned out this gent spent his time on the road selling wholesale plants to local nurseries. He was off to a major buyer and suggested I come along and he’d get me lunch. I was enjoying his company and it felt good to be having a ride so I forgot about making miles and stayed on for an adventure on local roads. Several miles later he said he had always wanted to “check this place out” and swung into a potholed parking lot in front of a rather dilapidated hometown bar advertising food. Always up for lunch, I followed him in.

Anyone who knows rural bars would have been instantly at home. There were dart boards and a pool table. Along the left wall worn out bar stools stood before a bar top who’s surface had areas of underlying wood exposed by forty years of wiping off the original finish.  Some tables with kitchen chairs were scattered about a small dance floor tucked in the far corner. Five or six early afternoon customers were entertaining one another with familiar yarns just as neighborhood bars have had similar stories spun since civilization began.

The woman behind the bar was absolutely at home.  Perhaps fifty-five, she had the salesman and I sized up before the door closed behind us.  She was a smart, no-nonsense lady thanks to years of making people feel welcome, putting up with their antics, and telling them to behave when emotions began to run away with themselves. She had no need for makeup and was too busy taking care of business and probably kids and grandkids to worry about whether or not her waist size equaled all her other measurements. 

One look and my companion was vibrating with lust. By the time we were sitting down he was telling me she was just the kind of woman who knew how to treat a man. How skinny broads only think of themselves but ladies like her appreciate how well you treat them. Once the spigot of appreciation opened there was no stopping him. His focus was singular and set.  

Before I knew it he was at the bar telling her how beautiful she was and how he appreciates women who are overweight and not all that good looking and she and her kind are the best and he’d sure like to get to know her better and he’d treat her right. She gave him a most uncomfortable look to say the least but his manner was not rude or mean and before long she was listening. Our food came. He’d grab a bite and run right back to her, making it obvious he was just as sincere as an infatuated (no pun intended) fella can be. Before long I caught her eyes give him a deliberate once-over and her face reflect an assessment of, “Well. He’s not such a bad looking fella.” 

He explained he had to make a call on a nursery five miles away and he’d be back. She looked like she’d believe it when she saw it—but it would be just fine with her if he did.

We went off on a winding side road to an out-of-the-way nursery and he seemed pleased with the sale but it did not distract him from his obsession with the barkeep. Before I knew it we were back at the potholed parking lot. To my surprise he was eager for me to come in and have a beer. 

The beer would have gone down just fine but I had doubts about being the third wheel. I grabbed my pack, walked across the potholes, and stuck out my thumb. I hope those two had a great evening.

Heck. I hope they are enjoying a happily-ever-after. 

My Folks #3 – Tortured Christmas Eve

The grownups had no sense at all come Christmas Eve. Or was it they just loved to torture little kids?

I well remember the huge dinners at our house. Uncle Jake always brought the special full-sized Hershey’s candy bars that had to be frozen before eating so they went right in the top part of the refrigerator. Obscure aunts and uncles gathered. Cousins we barely knew showed up and it was fun to get under everyone’s feet chasing and screaming with them. Tall people with strange odors milled about chatting as if they owned the place. 

Then we were all called to dinner.

I was old enough to know the big dinner table had been extended with extra “leaves,” although to me they looked like boards that matched the table. Even so we kids often got shuffled to card tables. But there were times we would sit with the adults. I loved seeing all the colors and shapes of the food and the glasses and the plates and knives and spoons and forks. I remember the clinks of metal on china and the big plates and bowls of smelly food that passed from right to left and sometimes from left to right. It was taken for granted, listening to odd stories from near strangers who did different things than I had ever imagined—stories from farms and construction sites and offices. And it was a thrill to see these people listen when I worked up an interesting adventure to blurt out.

It never seemed long before the platters of food had stopped being passed around for refills. Chewing slowed and more of Mom’s silverware that came from the special box with soft lining was laid on empty plates. The magic time was near, when somehow everyone stood up at the same time. Then, as soon as that magic coordinated exit from the table had been executed, the torture began.

It was, after all, Christmas Eve. Presents had been under the tree for days, each pawed and shaken and dreamt about. Each bright box had been checked and checked again to see that our name was on the tag. And even more gifts had been brought by folks who had come by for dinner. It was time at last! It was fine some of the older folks were slow finding a place to sit but it was time and we kids knew the bright paper was screaming for us to liberate it from whatever burden it was carrying. 

In past years our sensible pleas and arguments had been denied but surely this year the grownups would listen to the voice of reason. 

But no. Every year it was the same. Why be so crazy? It was obviously just to torture us!

We knew why adults sometimes talked about how resilient kids are—we had to be resilient to survive the horrors we suffered, dealing with unreasonable adults. The lame excuse to put off opening the presents was always the same. The moms and aunts couldn’t relax and enjoy opening presents until the dishes were done.

The agony. Did they have to laugh and talk so much instead of just getting the dishes done? Why take the time to wipe off the table and put away the leaves? Why can’t all that be done after the presents?

Well. The agony and the torture were soon forgotten. And soon after that so were the toys. The underwear, though used for months after the agony, was forgotten before Santa got down the chimney that night. 

It’s been some seventy years since we waited so impatiently. During those seventy years I’ve never found any of those special Hershey’s candy bars that need to be frozen. Could it have been Mom was saving our appetites? No way. Uncle Jake found those bars special for us and we loved them snapping from the cold.

I am writing this on Christmas Day, 2020, the Christmas of Covid19. Between the pandemic and those seventy years my sister is not hosting the large Christmas gathering I’ve enjoyed the last several decades so I am sitting alone, finding myself writing about memories. 

I’ve always been a bachelor and don’t mind the solitude. For one thing, it has let me reflect and come to realize the greatest gift of those youthful agonies and forgotten gifts—the greatest gift is the echo of those beloved women’s laughter rising above the clattering of washed plates. 

On The Road #23 – Juicy Stories

Having made it across endless Pennsylvania I found myself headed into the heavy traffic feeding Akron, Ohio. Despite my rush to beat winter weather my higher priority was to not get left beside the freeway in a major city where I did not know the neighborhoods. So I left the freeway, swung south of town, and started walking a surface street crowded with traffic, traffic signals, telephone poles and entrances to strip malls.

The travel gods were smiling on me. Within minutes I noticed a guy slowing down and checking me out. Laden with backpack and strolling along, it seems this lanky stranger was worth going around the block for another look. I smiled and waved a bit. He pulled over. 

Within a minute he was taking me home, a shiny new trinket to share with his partner. 

It was a delightful evening. The conversation sparkled. The meal they whipped up was hearty and luscious. My clothes got passed from washer to dryer (an absolute delight when you are on the road!) And the games on the bed were jumped into, spirited, respectful and evenly shared. 

After a warm night’s sleep on a comfortable bed I packed up my fresh clothes, enjoyed a hearty breakfast, and the guy who had picked me up delivered me to a handy spot to catch the freeway on the far side of town. 

There was never a doubt in any of our minds what our roles were. Those good looking guys were gracious hosts while keeping their relationship peppy. I was the exciting stranger thankful for a meal. I took off refreshed in the morning. They got with their friends on Saturday night with juicy stories to contribute to the card party. 

I hope their friends showed a wee bit of jealousy. It would have been a shame to not get the most out of those juicy stories.

My Folks #2: Halloween Treat

A note to start: My thanks to Paul of Paul’s 16mm Film Collecting Pages for the photograph of a Bell & Howell 185 advertisement photo. For an education in 16mm films or to have some fun checking out equipment and titles, click on his site. What a great resource! 

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During the glory days of Halloween, about the time my sisters and I were cast out to knock on doors without a parent trailing us, our home became a candy-night event for the neighborhood kids. 

My Dad had talked himself into the fun of a Kodak movie camera and, of course, a projector to watch the 16mm films. Being a man he could not be reasonable and get a simple home projector made for our simple, silent, and short recordings of swinging on swings and falling on skis. Instead we ended up with a commercial-grade Bell and Howell projector with a separate large speaker box to put under the screen for sound. These were exactly what schools used to show movies to assemblies during the 1950s and ’60s.

Our place was on 29th Street, not far from downtown Boise, but it was south of State Street and not far from the quarry ponds along the river. The City did not consider the neighborhood fancy enough to annex so we kids took dirt streets and modest housing to be home. We kids were plentiful since every house in the neighborhood was home to several of us. Being in the County rather than the City accommodated my parent’s tractor and trailer rental business, which is why I was raised in a large cinderblock structure that was half machine shop and half house. 

With Dad’s new ability to show movies and Mom’s home being large enough to hold a crowd of kids, my folks decided to treat the 1950 tricksters to something special. I went with Dad to a mysterious place called the State Library where Dad picked up some round cans of different sizes that turned out to hold films.

On the big night trick-or-treaters came to our door demanding payola OR ELSE! Mom explained to them we were doing something different. “Go to all the other houses and get your candy, then come back after dark and we’ll show movies while you sit on the floor and eat as much of your candy as you want.”

By the second year the kids didn’t bother coming to our house until it was good and dark and their snack sacks were bulging. Then we all sat yelling, stuffing our faces, and having a great sugar high while leaving small colorful papers all over the floor. Dad threaded the films and turned off the lights and flipped the switch on cartoons and cowboy shoot-em-ups. I think he snuck in a bit of moving education about Idaho wonders as well. 

I can still smell the chemical aroma of the screen as it was unrolled and the hot odor of vacuum tubes and a bright projection bulb heating the vinyl and plastics in the projector and speaker. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the sound of 16mm film being snapped over a bright beam of light.

The Halloween treat of watching movies did not last long. I was seven when TV came to Boise, so it would have been 1952. Giant neon “TV” signs sprung into the windows of every furniture store, radio shop, and hotel in town, not to mention a few tire shops. Chimneys sprouted antennas like spring fields sprout corn. 

That year we had a few kids come early and say they’d rather get candy. “We have TV. We can watch movies anytime.” The next year, with the saturation of television complete, my folks bought a big bowlful of candy.