13 February 2016

Chicks and Trees

Wednesday of this past week I made a delivery in Cobleskill, New York. Afterwards, I decided to make some lunch in the RV for two reasons: I was required by the DOT to take 30 minutes off within the next hour and there was a MacDonald’s inside the adjoining Wal-Mart Supercenter. An after-meal coffee would make a good day better.

After a decent lunch consisting of meat loaf I set sail through the parking lot to grab my caffeine fix. Halfway to the door, I spotted a bumper sticker that made me stop and consider its message. I liked what it said immediately, so much so that I snapped a picture of it with my phone. “Who is this John guy?” I wondered. “He is lucky that only the mountains call him. Everything calls me, sometimes all at once. It can be problematic.”

After making my way inside the corner of the Wal-Mart I was happy to see I had the good fortune to enter on the side that contained the Mickey D’s. No long walks through a cement monstrosity with too many people of questionable dress, morals, class- you know what I mean. My happiness grew when I noticed there was no line. I would be in, out, and on my way with no trouble. It was soon after the girl behind the counter asked if she could help me that the trouble began.

“I’d like a medium coffee, cream and sugar, and an apple pie if you have them.”

“Would you like two apple pies for a dollar?”

It felt like my brain stopped. These are questions meant to make you feel like an idiot if you say no because it’s surely the deal of a century or why would they mention it? I tried to visually do math in my head. I saw an apple pie in my left hand and another in the right. “Jason has two apple pies. He only wanted one, what should he do with the other? He could put the extra in the fridge, but how would it reheat? He’d probably end up throwing it out. Wait a minute- Jason should not have even one apple pie. They can’t be healthy, two might be lethal.” I figured this out rather quick, yet it seemed to take forever for me to answer out loud, “No thanks.” She took my money, gave me my change and went about retrieving my goods right about the time a second wave of trouble showed up.

I was looking around, taking in the people of Wal-Mart while I waited. A family with two shopping carts, one small kid passenger in each, was approaching from behind my left shoulder. I accidentally looked mom in the eye and she was looking back at me, smiling. I casually looked away, especially because a man was with her, likely her other half. But that smile, and how she looked at me, it was as if she knew me. “Let me look again,” I thought, so I did. They were now almost next to me, and she was still looking at me smiling that smile and it was causing me to become uncomfortable. They parked their carts at the end of the McDonald’s counter where orders are placed. One cart was filled to the brim. The other one was half full; together they probably contained two-hundred dollars of new stuff, only half of which was likely necessary for survival.

It was such a weird situation to be in. I looked over again to see if this whole thing was a fluke and to determine if I found her pretty. I hadn’t decided earlier- there was something about her that reminded me of a lady in my hometown who I don’t care for. So I took a risk and looked again. She was now ten feet from me, carrying on a conversation with her companion (who I was certain was well-armed) and leaning in my direction, smiling away at me like always while making direct eye contact. I looked at my feet to make sure I was wearing clothes, and then back at her. She had this natural brown hair, parted in the middle that reminded me of a style that might have been popular in the 70s. Her face, wearing a happy expression, was mostly sunny. I couldn’t put it all together as panic was setting in. I tried sending her a subliminal message: “Knock it off lady, what’s wrong with you. You’re gonna get me shot, or possibly knifed- either way it will probably hurt.” The dude walked behind me, but hasn’t looked at me, I’m guessing because he hated me. I tried to keep him in my peripheral vision due to concerns about my safety. There was little doubt all three of us knew what was going on and I wanted no part of it.

“Here you go sir, have a good day.” My server handed me what I had asked for and nothing more.

“Thank-you much,” I replied as a huge wave of relief settled over my entire soul. I was free to go.

I guess it’s possible the smiling woman’s companion could have been her brother, a friend, but certainly not her father. Whatever the case, a man accompanying a woman is always the protector, a wing-person of sorts to help keep a journey out of the house on the up and up. In his absence, I may have said, “Hello,” or at least briefly chatted up the adorable little kids in the shopping carts. Small children are the best to converse with. Last weekend I went to my son’s basketball game and started talking to a small boy next to me in the stands, he couldn’t have been more than four. I asked him about the toy in his hand, he went on to tell me about his Spider Man sneakers and how awesome the hoodie he was wearing really was. There’s rarely drama when talking with kids (unless they’re your own) and everything is magically important, even the most minuscule of inanimate objects. And if they smile at you, it’s an easy invitation to say hi. But if a grown woman with hair that has a natural wave reflecting her inner energy smiles at you, its best time to leave, especially if you’re emotionally and physically unavailable such as I was. So anyway, pretending I was smarter than I really am, I left.

I went out to the RV and enjoyed my apple pie while giving thanks I didn’t have to deal with a second apple pie. I glanced at the computer near my dash. The bottom line flashed the nearest town name, the current duty status, how long I’ve been in that status, and the active trip number. So far, I had racked up 27 minutes off duty in Cobleskill, 3 more minutes to go before I could put the RV in gear and get back to work. That was plenty of time to go for a walk. I looked out the passenger window of the RV and noticed that behind the shopping center there was a hill descending into wide-open fields that were draped in some light snow. “I’ll go have a look,” I thought before grabbing the camera. I almost left without the camera. There have been far too many instances when I have departed without the camera and had to come back for it because something begged for a picture. It always costs me time when I have to return for the darn thing so I have evolved enough to automatically bring it along.

I began walking on the other side of a metal guardrail that separated consumerism and nature, the latter of which I truly adore more than most anything. I was a good fifty feet from the RV when a man from the Rent-A-Center I just delivered at approached slowly in the store’s delivery van. He was wearing sunglasses, smoking a cigarette and seriously eyeing me up. I could almost hear his thoughts: “Why is the Ashley guy walking into a field? Should I ask if everything is okay?” Not all of the drivers in our company like to run off into nature every chance they get the way I do, so it was probably confusing to him. Perhaps he was worried that three days later the RV would still be sitting parked and the phone calls for a missing Ashley employee would begin. My friend might have offered, “I saw him walking off into a field shortly after he made his delivery” and everyone would be all like, “Why didn’t you stop to ask him if he was okay? Why, man, why?”

I tried to release his worries of my imagination by nodding slightly and trying to make my camera visible, as if I were saying, “It’s okay- I’m a professional on a mission. Nobody is going missing today.” He nodded back and drove away; a huge relief to us both that it was over. I was glad he was gone because by now, a tree had caught my eye. We could be together uninterrupted.

She sat deeply rooted down a steep slope, well-developed arms shooting out in all directions; she was beautiful to look at. I got within half of a football field. “I’m not going any closer, no time for that. I can get a decent picture from here. Wait…is that a small stream running by her trunk?” I walked closer. Sure enough, a brook almost three feet wide meandered by her roots. It looked like such a peaceful place to be.  I promised myself that if I ever have the customer behind me as a first stop, I might show up the night before, put down a blanket next to her trunk, lie down, close my eyes and become one with everything for a bit.

I spent a few minutes in her presence at the bottom of that hill, simply admiring her elegance among everything else good in these open fields. I had forgotten that behind me were many stores, people making financial transactions by the second. It’s amazing that everyone in modern history (sans me and a few other like-minded individuals) can be so caught up in commerce that they can’t find the truly special things not far from the storefronts. This was not a predicament exclusive to my current situation- I often run around in more remote natural locations and wonder why I am the only one there. Winter, more specifically, a good coating of snow, offers precise visual evidence that I have been the only human to tread through a certain part of god’s country. Sometimes I ask how that could be. Other times I remember the solitude is why I like it so much. (I’m reminded of a quote by Charles Bukowski when asked if he hates people: “I don’t hate them….I just feel better when they’re not around.)

With the photography session over, I figured it was time to go. I ascended the hill with my mind still on my new tree friend. I wondered if she appreciated my appreciation. Trees are living things with feelings; they even have the ability to communicate with each other on down the line, the first World Wide Web if you will. I didn’t get the feeling she got many visitors outside of birds, so she must have liked the attention. I crawled back over the metal guardrail back into humanity. I looked down in the snow-covered grass as I walked.

“Wait…is that what I think it is?”

Yes, the snow had parted in the grass to form a heart-like shape. A symbol delivered to me via the universe that my tree, or Mother Nature herself, appreciated that I was kind enough to have a look around. It was a Barney moment: I love you, you love me, we are happily wrapped up in our mysteries.” How wonderful this tail end of a lunch half-hour accidentally turned into 40 some minutes had become. 

Two days later, I listened to a You Tube documentary about John Muir while I drove off somewhere. I’m not sure how or why I never heard of him. Perhaps, I wondered, we learned about him in school. I don’t recall much of what I was supposedly taught during my school days. All my good lessons came after I walked away from the doors of conformity. John’s story was amazing- after an industrial accident that left him temporarily blinded in both eyes, he set sail for what wound up being the west and its glorious mountains. It changed him, in a good way I think. What if his accident had never happened? Listening to his story made me want to hit the battery in my RV with a hammer in such a precise manner that acid in the protective plastic case would fly into my eyes resulting in me leaving my current occupation and setting sail for the west on a discovery of my own. It’s too risky to try because luck might have it that I’d never see again. I’ll instead keep my eyes healthy so that I can see girls within mortar buildings, trees in nature, stuff like that. Using my sight and mind, I’ll eventually find my own way. Every now and again I get a sign that I’m on the right track. Everyone gets that same sort of thing, most don’t know where to look or aren’t aware they should be looking at all. (You should always be looking.) 

I may not always understand women, relationships or even humanity as a whole. Out in nature, just on the other side of a fence (or guardrail) everything becomes much clearer. In the premise of “Ask and you shall receive,” dear universe, more of that please. While it might be cool to see a quote of my own a bumper sticker somewhere down the road, I’d happily settle for making the acquaintance of some new trees.  After all, each of them smiles in their own way and it’s never weird to me.  

13 December 2015

The Sudden Demise of Wing-Girl

Monday, December 7th, 2015 was a day that shall remain a busy memory in my professional life as an over-the-road truck driver. I completed a multi-stop trip in the state of Connecticut. After that journey was finished, I grabbed a fresh box of furniture and set off in the darkness for the small town of Morrisville, Vermont, which resides in the northern middle of the state. As I neared my destination I noticed Morrisville-Stowe State Airport was sliding by outside my passenger window. I looked over, twisting my neck all around, trying to get a glimpse of just one airplane. I’m also a pilot and that’s what we do- it does not matter what kind of airplane we see, any kind of wing reminds us of our happy place and the mere sight of one is akin to aviator porn. (I think I did manage to see one half of a Cessna 172 fast asleep in the tie-down area of the airpark.)

It was after ten at night when I pulled into the parking lot of the Big Lots store I would be delivering to in the morning and quickly set the brakes. Exhaustion had set in 50 miles prior, so it wasn’t long until I climbed into the back of what I like to call my “RV” and quickly fell fast asleep. Fifteen minutes later, I found myself flying.

I was in the front seat of a Christen Eagle II biplane, no different than the one pictured above that was built by my grandfather and some of his friends. (That’s my late granddad and my grandmother sitting inside. It’s one of my most treasured photos.) I was sitting upfront flying the airplane and my friend Mary Ellen, also known as Wing-Girl, was in the backseat. This seating arrangement should have been the first red flag that things were about to go bad because the backseat is where the airplane is soloed from, in other words, that is where the pilot-in-command would sit. Apparently Wing-Girl had suddenly become proficient in such an aircraft and was taking ME for a ride. Then again, I guess I should not be surprised by this because I have exercised poor judgement before by flying with her in her own airplane as well as in a mutual friend’s Aeronca that had been fitted with skis in winter. 

So there I was, cruising along at altitude, my right hand on the control stick, my left hand on the throttle when suddenly and without warning, the Plexiglas canopy that protected us from the wind and whatnot began to shake and then completely broke loose. I quickly let go of the throttle and grabbed it with my left hand while still flying with my right. It was a rather awkward position to be in while trying to remain in control of the airplane so I turned around to Wing-Girl and asked through the headset, “Can you hold this?” She nodded her head in the affirmative and proceeded to reach up with her left arm to take a hold of it. I went back to flying. 

I have no idea why the canopy came off. Perhaps it was a design failure or Wing-Girl did not properly inspect the airplane before our departure. It did not matter now- the damage had been done and I was doing my best to fly the airplane during an emergency as every pilot is taught. Inability to fly first and instead lending complete focus on one issue has contributed to many accidents and I had no desire to become a statistic.

Coming up with Ideas about what to do next seemed slow to arrive in my thought process. I turned around to ask Wing-Girl her thoughts. I could have asked without looking, but I wanted to see how she was fairing with the loose canopy in her hands. I was totally shocked to notice Wing-Girl was gone. There was only an empty seat, two shoulder harnesses blowing gently in the wind. Instantly I figured out what happened: As she reached up with her left arm to grab it from me, it must have tilted just enough for the wind to grab it and fling it backward with a terrible force. She didn’t let go and it ripped her right out of her seat. But why wouldn’t the shoulder harness part of the seat belt keep her in place? That made zero sense. There was no time for questioning or rational reasoning. My first priority was to find her and get her back in the airplane or she could be in real trouble, especially when you consider the fact that neither of us happened to be wearing a parachute.

My first instinct was to roll hard right, almost, if not all the way inverted and then pull up just in time to scoop her up. It was the perfect cartoon move. Unfortunately for me (as well as her), I long ago learned that what works for Tom and Jerry rarely works for me. Worse yet, I had no idea how long Wing-Girl had been sucked out of her seat. A person becomes impossibly difficult to see rather quickly when something like this happens. (To my future passengers: Nothing like this has ever happened to me before and I am most certain it never will again, so please don’t worry yourself.)

It was time for me to accept the reality of what has happened. Wing-Girl had met an untimely demise. I had little to no emotion about the matter- it simply was what it was. If I were to be vocal about it, I’d probably say something such as, “Wing-Girl got to die today” as if she, quite simply, got to do something that you and I did not. That’s how emotionless I was and in truth, that’s likely no more emotional than any of us need to be when we lose someone close to us, for death is as much a beautiful a thing as birth- one just scares us more. I don’t want to put words in Wing-Girl’s mouth, however, I would guess from knowing her that she might agree with my train of thought. That said, let me be clear in saying that neither one us would ever do anything to rush towards the end of our life because we have far too much fun living it to its fullest while savoring every ounce of each day.

Please allow me to continue on with my predicament that includes having my hands full with a broken airplane that I am unfamiliar flying and now contains an empty rear seat: I managed to return to the airport and safely land the airplane on our familiar grass strip in Kralltown, Pennsylvania. All I recall is looking at the little biplane, now tucked into the hangar tail first. Wing-Girl’s husband walked up and asked, “Where is Mary Ellen?” I replied, rather casually, “She got sucked out after the canopy came off.” He simply sighed and let out an “Oh” before walking off slowly. He kind of tugged his ever-present ball cap downward and disappeared. That moment was the first time I felt real sorrow during this entire outing. I wondered how he would continue on without his wife, his best friend. It was troubling for me, yet I did not dwindle on the emotion for long. I looked back at the Eagle and thought, “Wow. I actually landed that airplane all by lonesome. That’s fairly cool!” This too should not have surprised me because I had the advantage of getting handed those double wings while in flight. With the benefit of altitude, a half-decent pilot can quickly learn the mannerisms of any airplane and get it back on the ground without too much damage or bodily harm. The fact that I put the Eagle in the hangar with no damage sans a missing canopy should tell you what kind of mad aviator skills I have.

It was not long after I stood by the hangar when I heard the alarm clock start to sing and I shot up in the top bunk of my RV. Back in the real world, I found myself with a furrowed brow and deep sadness regarding the loss of my friend. (Please don’t tell her I told you that. I’ll never hear the end of it. Displaying affection is not allowed in our relationship. Seriously, it would be worse than a Monday morning.) I struggled deeply over why that shoulder harness failed before determining that she probably must not have tightened it correctly before we took off. I’d tell you that she probably did not pre-flight the airplane properly or close the canopy correctly either, but since I am back in the conscious world I have to be honest and say that neither one of those options are likely. The folks I am blessed to fly with do things right and consider safety to be of utmost importance. The only thing dangerous I have ever witnessed Wing-Girl do is fly because, well, she’s a girl and you know…. (That’s man-humor for anyone who might be considering ripping me a new one in the comment section. Trust me, Wing-Girl can handle it and I can handle the ripping I surely will be receiving from her for writing that.)

Anyway, I inspected my rig, made my delivery and set off for my next stop. Soon after I left Big Lots, I noticed Morrisville-Stowe State Airport sliding by outside my driver’s side window. I looked over, smiled, and thought, “Even with all those troubles, at least I got to fly last night. It has been too long since I last got to do so.” I also wondered how many other truck drivers drove by that airport and had that same thought. I’m guessing the answer would be few to none because at the end of every day I’m neither a truck driver nor a pilot, I’m just a dreamer, much like everyone else.