He was impossible to miss. He had to stand a good 6’5” and weigh in somewhere close to 320 lbs. I ran into him, quite literally, at the Flying J truck stop just over the North Dakota line between Billings, Montana and Bismarck, North Dakota.
As many of you know, in this, the afterlife for myself and America, I now spend my not-so-abundant free time delivering buses for a local delivery service when I’m not hauling cargo for the DOE/DOJ. This run was on behalf of the aforementioned alphabet-soup government agencies. And I was delivering . . . what shall we call it, a load of cargo? – Yes, that will do quite nicely – to a supply point somewhere in central Manitoba. You’d be surprised at the agreements this country has with our neighbor to the north. Well, maybe shocked would be a better word. Take your pick. Either way, I just drive the truck and deliver the merchandise. Anything that clears a check these days.
So there I was, on a six-day run out of Long Beach, California, a little past the halfway point in eastern Montana. There’s a reason they call it big sky country up there, I came to understand. That particular day, a Sunday it was, running east out of Billings, I counted the vehicles running in both directions of I-90 on the fingers of one hand. That part of the northern plains really is the great American nowhere. And at one point, the scenery was so magnificent, that I crested a hill, pulled off the road, turned off my diesel engine and just surveyed the landscape.
But it is quite a spectacular version of nothing if I do say so myself. Amber waves of grain. Can you dig it? Right there for all the world to see. Endless grain fields at all points of the compass; not a building in sight, billowing white cumulus clouds following the previous night’s rain, and a sky so blue, it hurt your eyes. Living in California, sometimes we forget the sky can get so blue. Brown skies, congestion, high prices and chronic rudeness everywhere you go – that’s life in the golden state. Every now and again, it’s nice to get a reminder of how magnificent the scenery can be in the heart of flyover country.
And then there was the quiet. You can actually hear the quiet up there. Nothing but the breeze, the grain fields rippling in the wind, the empty road and that fevered fiery blue sky. A man of faith might be reminded of a verse from the Bible:
- “Be still, and know that I am God . . .” – Psalms 46:10
But, faith or no faith, tempus fugit. I had people to see, places to go, things to do. So, after an appropriate moment of spiritual communion, I fired up my rig and was back on the golden road to wealth, happiness and prosperity. Time waits for no man, and time was a wastin’.
It was early evening when I realized my massive diesel fuel tank was pushing uncomfortably close to the finish line. The problem with eastern Montana – that part of the state that opens up onto open plains after successfully navigating the Continental Divide – is that there’s no end to it.
There are also no truck stops. Or so it seemed.
But, there wasn’t much in the way of an alternative as I traversed the highways and byways of the great northern plains. Billings was two hundred miles or so to the rear. And I couldn’t make it back there even if I wanted to. Jamestown was some hundred miles ahead and seemed like a better bet. So, I forged ahead.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. And to the truth of this fact of life, I can readily testify. There also are no atheists among truckers whose rigs are sucking fumes. Not one to do much praying these days, I nevertheless shot one skyward for deliverance from getting stuck out in the vast empty expanse of the open range, where the deer and the antelope play, but there is no cell phone coverage, no fuel stops, and no state trooper patrols that I could see.
Never let it be said God turns his back on us, even when we turn our backs on Him. Out of the golden afternoon sunshine, like an oasis in the desert, arose that beautiful Flying J just over the North Dakota line in the middle of this road without end. The Lord doth deliver, even when we’re sometimes past the point of believing He can or will.
Now, ever since I crossed into Montana and set out on I-90E from Butte the previous morning, I couldn’t quite figure out why there were so many bikers on the open road. The further along I went, the greater the number became. It wasn’t until the Flying J in North Dakota that I realized this was the week every biker in the world was winding his way to Sturgis, South Dakota like Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. O.K. Maybe that’s not the best analogy, but it’s the best I can come up with on short notice.
Still, it appeared everybody who owned a motorized two-wheel vehicle was on the road to Sturgis. From weekend enthusiasts to outlaw Nazi biker gangs. And everyone in between. It was an armada of bikers, clogging the roads, jamming the motels, filling the truck stops, all on their way to the same place. And there was yours truly, right in the middle of it all.
So, when I pulled in to the Flying J, and prepared to fill my tank, I ran into a literal convoy of Harley Davidsons – representing different groups as it turned out – all pulling in at the same time. No problem, I thought. I’m there to fill up and pull out. Piece of cake. And it was. But fate took a turn when I realized I was out of bottled water and turned back to the mini-mart only to run into a group of six road warriors on their way back to the asphalt blacktop.
I literally collided with a walking mountain of a man, coming out of the mini-mart with his five compadres. I soon came to know him as Hippie Doc.
We stopped and stared at each other for a moment. And in that moment, I came to quickly regret my ailing prayer life. Considering in that moment, I thought life was all but over.
He was an aging gray-haired vagabond – with a chest-length scraggly beard and a braided ponytail. He wore a white tee-shirt over an expanse of massive belly, with an orange emblem that was unmistakable – Satan’s Stepchildren. But it was his leather vest that caught my eye. For one side of the vest bore the distinctive yellow and black shoulder patch of the Cav, underneath which was stitched “1st Cavalry Division Airmobile ’67-’68.
My response was immediate, “Garry Owen, sir!”
He grinned at me, took one look at my 101st Airborne hat – something I feel comfortable wearing in the heartland, but nowhere else, and responded, “Airborne! You’re close, but no cigar, trooper. 3/9 Charlie Blues, 1st Cav medic.”
Whenever I run into a fellow veteran – particularly of that era – my response is always the same, and automatic. “Thank you for your service.” I said. “And welcome home.”
After which, I got a bear hug that almost stopped my pump. Much back slapping ensued. And I ended up buying dinner for seven in the small diner of the Flying J truck stop between Billings, Montana and Bismarck, North Dakota. C’est la vie. I was on an expense account, and something told me I was on to something with this encounter.
Turns out Hippie Doc was indeed a medic in the 1st Cav, specifically among the 9th Cav forward artillery observation battalions. He was 61 years old as we sat down to eat together, which would have made him a 20-year-old medic during the Tet Offensive. That was before my time in the ‘Nam, but legend has it no unit sustained more fire or took more casualties than the Cav in the first few months of 1968.
And Doc was in the middle of it.
War stories are like elbows (not to mention another, less polite portion of the anatomy). Everybody’s got one. So, we didn’t spend a lot of time comparing notes. It’s typical of most war veterans. We just don’t go there. Our WWII fathers spent sixty years keeping quiet before they finally opened their hearts and shared their stories with their families, friends and a nation aching to hear of their exploits. So, in a way, our reluctance to revisit that dismal time was part of the tradition of men who’ve stared down the barrel of a gun. I considered it no great loss. What piqued my curiosity was what happened since. Particularly, how Doc ended up in the twilight zone in the great American nowhere – a drifter on the open road.
His homecoming was typical. He left home with a vague desire to make a difference. He came back to the bitter truth there was no difference to be made.
I asked him if he ever considered taking his skills as a medic and parlaying that into a career as a doctor. Lots of medics went down that road. Some made it. Some didn’t. But the desire to do some good was a powerful motivator back in the early 70s with an army of baby boomers all busy elbowing each other out of the way, in their grim, ruthless struggle to claw their way to the top, no matter what. And those in pursuit of the holy grail of wealth, prestige and power that the letters M.D. alone could bestow were the most ruthless of all.
Turns out, Doc traveled that very path. He spent two years at Mississippi State University in the pre-med program before he got fed up with the politics of academic destruction, and his own personal demons overwhelmed him.
“Oh, man.” He told me, reflecting on the cutthroat academic environment of aspiring doctors in those days. “It was screw your mother, fuck your buddy, and throw everybody, and I mean everybody on the grenade to save your own ass. Heal the sick? All we wanted was to play god and not answer to anybody. Man, I just couldn’t deal with that. We were supposed to heal the sick, not sniff after the brass ring like a mongrel dog after a bitch in heat.”
I could have quoted him chapter and verse on that score. I’m the only one in my family without the magic letters after my name. And I could tell him we were prepared to pay any price, bear any burden, destroy any competitor, and burn any bridge to attain the lofty status of swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood only an M.D. degree can confer. I know that story very well.
But I didn’t burden him with it. I was more interested in how an otherwise articulate, insightful man ends up on the fringes of society getting into God knows what.
During his time at MSU the nightmares came. His girlfriend freaked and left him high and dry. That kind of stuff happened back then. Some of those night terrors got to be pretty ugly. Especially in the years immediately following the now-legendary American bug out from the embassy roof in Saigon. It took a woman with some steel in her spine to deal with that. Some women had it. Some didn’t.
Then came the drugs and the booze. Anything to get some relief from the terrors, and get through the night uninterrupted. A stint in a VA psych ward gave Doc some relief, but not much. And, back in the days before Ronald Reagan, a VA psych ward was the last place any veteran would want to be.
Doc did a stint as a long-haul trucker – something I’m currently engaged in now. And it gave him some relief. I can see why. There’s something seductive about the open road. There’s a sense of freedom and peace if you work it right. But the road can also wear you out, which, after a six-day run into Canada, I can also attest to. You can’t live out there. Pretty soon, you’ve got to come home. And that presents a thorny problem when there’s no home to come home to.
But the same cutthroat practices in the trucking companies made Doc’s situation intolerable. “Man, they didn’t value the work we did, and they didn’t value us. They spent most of their time fucking over the very people who were making them rich. And they did it again and again.”
Then Doc bought a Harley and discovered the brotherhood of the shadow culture.
There were certain questions I didn’t ask him. How he got initiated into the brotherhood of the biker world was one of them. What he did to make a living was another. I knew enough to know that while this man may have been a disillusioned true believe, he wasn’t a plaster saint. His eloquence hardly qualified him as some latter-day poet laureate of the interstate. Biker gangs of the type he rode with have been linked to drug trafficking, racketeering, kidnapping, rape and murder. Hardly the romantic 21st century riders of the purple sage Zane Gray had in mind when he developed the genré.
But I did ask him how long he’d been riding the roads and what he got out of it. Turns out he joined his first gang in 1975 and had been riding ever since. What did he get out of it? He answered in one word.
“Respect, man. People treat us with respect, they get respect back. If they don’t . . .”
What a novel concept. Respect. Seems to me I read somewhere recently men crave respect more than they desire love. In my own experience, I know this to be true. I don’t know, in the midst of the contempt that is now my lot in life, as I grow old and useless in the new global utopia, that I would be driven to the fringe element of the back roads to scratch that itch. But that’s my choice. Other men made other choices.
We were getting ready to leave and I reached for the check when Doc said, “You know, this used to be a hell of a good country.”
All of a sudden I felt like Peter Fonda sitting around the campfire listening to Jack Nicholson say the same thing in Easy Rider. Nevertheless, Doc continued.
“I don’t know if we started to fuck ourselves over before we went over there (to Vietnam), or after we got back. I just know this ain’t the country I grew up in, it ain’t the country I recognize, and it ain’t the country I can abide anymore. It’s all about the money. Go ahead and fuck whoever you want in the ass, just so long as you get the money. Who knows? Maybe it was all a lie from the start.”
I asked him what he was going to do after Sturgis.
“Same thing I’ve always done. Keep on ridin’ ‘til my tank runs dry.”
Somehow I didn’t think he was referring to the gas tank.
And so, in the encroaching twilight, I watched Doc and his fellow members of Satan’s Stepchildren ride off to Sturgis, South Dakota. Somewhere between Billings, Montana and Bismarck, North Dakota, in the dusk of a summer evening, I felt sad and empty, as if something important had been profoundly lost.
I considered the parallel paths each of us walked as I watched this small group disappear over the horizon, the distinctive roar of their Harleys fading in the distance. Maybe the only difference between us was that I bought the lie longer than he did. Maybe Doc saw the truth of how dispensable all of us are and did something about it. And maybe he saw it early on. Maybe he recognized the fraud and the lie that we live in a country which no longer values the lives of each of its citizens or is committed to the provision that they should rise as far as talent and ambition will take them. Maybe he recognized that he was simply fodder to fuel the golden calf of international commerce, never to share in the fruits of its bounty. And maybe he acted out of the conviction men come to when they recognize that the foundation of their world is built on a swindle.
Somehow, I got a sense that the pond scum of the new world order rode in the shadows of the empty highways. Somehow, I realized what I knew all along – the wretched refuse of the world’s teeming shores were not welcome in America unless they worked cheap. What was left, got discarded like yesterday’s leftover garbage, whether they drove a rig for the DOE or rode a Harley Davidson for Satan’s Stepchildren.
I never caught up with Doc and his fellow riders along the length of I-94. I don’t make a habit of pushing my rig. Bad things happen when you do, I’m convinced. And since I was well ahead of schedule, there was no need to make time.
But I did come away from the encounter that to plan for a future in which the best leadership we can hope for is a left-wing Pontius Pilate or a rightist Judas Iscariot is folly. Doc and his compatriots live for the moment, and they live in the now. I’ve been doing that for the last three years while trying in vain to pound my eternally square peg back into the corporate round hole in which it never fit in the first place.
Maybe Doc was on to something. Maybe the now is all we can cling to because it’s all we have left.
Among the convoy of bikers on their annual pilgrimage there were other noteworthy happenings along the way . . .
I did notice, that along the entire length of Montana, and into North Dakota, I never heard a single word, nor glimpsed a single sign in Espanól. I must confess, I got used to it. I will admit that the further north you go, the English/Spanish signs morphed into English/French, which I can’t say is much of an improvement. But it is different. And everywhere I went, white people were working. Everywhere. In the restaurants, the motels, the truck washes, the grocery stores. So this is where they all went.
They bear the same malaise carried by Doc and to a lesser degree his compatriots. They’re tired, worn out, and suffused with the certainty that their work is not valued, and their individual value as Americans is not respected. They have no place in the global utopia, and are content to live out what’s left of their time on earth in the heart of the great American nowhere.
The run into Canada was uneventful save for two noteworthy events. Crossing at Emerson, I was lectured at length – and by that I mean at least five separate occasions during the checkpoint examination – that firearms were not allowed in Canada. There is no private ownership of firearms, I was informed. And to be taken with a weapon of any kind would result in my immediate arrest and possible imprisonment for up to thirty years. (They don’t execute anyone in Canada. They’re far too humane for that. At least as far as I know).
The other significant development that I learned was my Bible was considered contraband and would not be allowed into the country. How could I explain that I hadn’t opened it in weeks, nee months? The customs agent wasn’t the least bit impressed. It was the DOE that came to my rescue. Since I was dropping my load and flying back, I wouldn’t be coming back through Emerson to pick up anything I might leave in the custody of Canadian Customs. So, by the grace of the Canadian Immigration Office, I was permitted to bring this dangerously subversive volume into the country, provided that I never so much as mention anything about its contents to anyone.
Hmmm, let see. No guns. No Bibles. There’s a certain connection there. And it makes sense, considering Canada is a member in good standing of the brave new globalist utopia.
Other than that, Canada was wonderful. Hospitable people, magnificent scenery in the middle of high summer, and a government program for everything. What’s not to like?
I came home after a week on the road. I’m too old to be sleeping in airport terminals, but sleep there I did. The accommodations at Winnipeg International border on plush, but I’m about 30 years past the point where I can get more than an hour or so of uninterrupted sleep on lounge chairs. Oh, for the days of being able to sleep through rocket attacks at Ton Son Hut air base!
My first day home, I forgot that I routinely walked around the local area heavily armed and extremely dangerous. All nice and legal, of course. I have a California CCW which I put to good use every time I leave the house. On the road, and particularly on this run which took me across the northern border, there was no way I could carry my customary weapon for reasons already discussed. And, in truth, when I’m out there, I feel peculiarly safe, as if there’s some inherent level of stability in the heartland that I don’t enjoy at home. So, the day after I came home, I was still walking around unarmed and didn’t give it a second thought.
But, I quickly learned the difference later that afternoon.
I ended up at the local Barnes & Noble to kill some time. Let’s face it, when you don’t have a life, have nothing to do and nowhere to go, Barnes & Noble is a great place to do all of that. Oftentimes, bookstores like this and Borders will play selected CDs that they happen to be promoting at the time. I pushed through the revolving door of the bookstore and was instantly bombarded by the most oppressive, booming mariachi music I’ve heard this side of Tijuana. It was instantly capable of generating a migrainesque headache the likes of which I thought could only be inflicted by the worst hits of KC and the Sunshine Band.
During my absence, it appeared fully half the titles available for sale on the shelves were now in Espanól, up from perhaps a third the week before I left. And I didn’t hear the English language until a sales clerk called for a price check from her manager. Seems management hasn’t been replaced by the appropriate bi-lingual, cheap labor serfs that raise all boats by lowering the price of the goods we buy. But give it time.
Well, my pounding head needed a measure of relief, so I passed through the bookstore out in to the mall proper. On my way out, I ran into a group of Latinos – you know the type, young, shaved heads, tattoos, looking strangely reminiscent of the group that jumped me at a local eatery over Labor Day weekend last year. They shoved me aside, and had some choice comments in Espanól which I didn’t understand. One of them spat in my direction. He missed. But I did get the drift. I was a solitary, useless old man who didn’t belong anymore. They were young and strong and the wave of the future. And they worked cheap, whatever they did. I was also unarmed, as I suddenly remembered.
I went home and got my Glock 30. I’ve been carrying it ever since.
Sometimes it’s very good not to be afraid. Sometimes it’s very good indeed.
Welcome home, asshole.