June 16, 2018

A Memory on Father's Day

As I reflect on this year's Father’s Day, mine has been gone for more than 20 years. Still, it’s a day I want to remember him because of who he was, what he was, when he was, and for all the times I forgot that. This column is for him.
            My father was a farmer and a truck-driving man. Not the kind of trucker who drives the 18-wheelers on the interstate highways today. His trucks had no air-conditioning, sleeper cabs, cushion-ride seats, AM-FM or Sirius radios, GPS systems or any other comfort modern technology provides.
            No, he drove a regular two-speed axle, two-ton straight truck. The only bigger truck he ever owned was a 10-wheeler he took west a couple of years to follow the wheat harvest from the panhandle of Texas to the Canadian line. And the trucks were almost always Dodges. In a trucking career that spanned from 1939 to the mid-‘80s, he had only two trucks of a different make that I can recall with as many as five during World War II when he had a deferment from military service to support the farming community.
            With these trucks he hauled livestock, hay, grain, coal, lime, fertilizer, furniture—anything he could get in a truck. He and his drivers hauled through all kinds of weather. I’ve seen him scoop coal in the driving rain, load livestock in the bitter cold and haul hay in the blazing heat.
            Probably the only things that kept me from trying to follow in his footsteps was a trip I made to the Indianapolis stockyards with him one hot July or August when I was 10 or 11 years old.
            He had several stops to load a cow here, a calf there and a few hogs somewhere before being full loaded. A couple of places with just a calf or two, he wouldn’t even set up the loading chute. He just raised the end gate, tossed the animal in and drove off.
            The sweat dripped from his face, stinging his eyes while a river of it poured in; his shirt was completely soaked. As he wrote out the bill of lading for the woman at the last stop and wiped his eyes with a red handkerchief, the sweat trickled through the small hairs on the back of his hand, smudging the pencil lead on the paper as he wrote.
            ”Would you like a Pepsi, Harold,” the grizzled, white-haired woman asked.
            “Be good,” he said, still furiously scribbling and holding out his left hand for the drink. One gulp, two gulps, a breath, another gulp. The Pepsi was gone.
            “Thanks,” he said, handing her the empty bottle. Almost before he had the copy of the bill of lading ripped out and had given it to her, he was shutting the door, switching the key on and grinding the engine to life.
            As we turned out on the road, and headed east toward Indianapolis, he said, “Don’t ever do anything for a living that you have to work this hard.”
            Except for those trips, there were times I hardly ever saw him for days on end. He’d sometimes put on his clothes on Monday morning, load for Indianapolis, sleep in the truck at the coal mine in Brazil, Ind., while waiting for a load of coal for the return trip. And he’d scoop the coal, load for Indianapolis and do it over again.
            Or he‘d get home in the wee hours of the morning, sleep a little and be gone long before I got up. Even when I did get to go with him, he didn’t talk much. And when he did, it was about being honest or always paying his bills. 
            He slowed down as the years passed, had only two trucks for a while, then only one after he started farming. Then he’d work from six in the morning until nine at night—sometimes earlier, sometimes later—day in and day out, unless it rained. When I worked with him, I prayed for rain 24 hours a day. He never told me not to farm, but I remembered his advice about hauling livestock. Farming didn’t seem any easier.
            Just before he quit hauling livestock in the ‘60s, he took a straight load of cattle to Indianapolis and put four lambs on the upper deck at the front of the truck. Livestock hauling had dwindled and coal hauling was almost a thing of the past. He unloaded the cattle and was home by midnight.
            The next morning he woke to the sound of lambs bleating. Jumping out of bed, he bellowed, “What the devil is that?”
            “Sounds like sheep,” my mother answered.
            “Thunder and mud, I forgot to unload those lambs.”
            Another trucker going to Indianapolis stopped by for the lambs, and my father’s friends razzed him for a while. He’d smile and shake his head, but he never forgot his family or friends as he had those lambs. And it seems to me that a man who worked hard all his life needs to be remembered on Father’s Day.
            Thanks, Dad, I wish you were still here to share the day.