Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Fire Hallway: BORT

Have you ever not remembered someone? The Summer of 1979 I remember, and I remember Sarge and his hat, and Spiffy and his nice neat hair and freshly pressed clothes, and I remember Hitch with his flat tone of voice when he was telling truly hilarious stories that snuck up on his listeners like a large monkey with a rubber hammer, but I don’t remember one other minion. I know he was there, and I remember he had sort of an unusual name, but I swear I remember nothing at all about him, except he was snarky before snarly was ever invented. Ghostly, I now dub him, was a lot like my father in he could find fault in everything I did, but he tried to wrap in some smart ass remark that was never funny. “Oh, you finished that task on time for once? Great job in not hurting yourself!” I ignored the hell out of him and maybe that’s why I don’t remember anything about him.
            One of the things my father had tried to teach me for many years was the operation of a standard shift truck. He wasn’t a very good teacher because he was a lot more worried about the clutch on the truck than teaching me how to drive. He acted as if I choked the truck down one more time the clutch would burst into flames and explode, killing everyone in the county who had not already crawled into a bomb shelter once they heard I was driving. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was seventeen because my father told me I was a wreck waiting to happen. Other guys got their licenses on their birthdays or near to it, but there I was explaining to people if I drove I would get into an accident and that was why I couldn’t get a license. Truthfully, nothing made me more nervous than driving with my father in the car. He braced himself for impact at all times and screamed at me if I made a mistake. We went to the beach one time and he harassed me to the point I pulled over and just sat there. He yelled and yelled but I couldn’t move at all. I finally got out and started walking, forcing him to drive. But I was convinced I had zero driving skills and a standard shift, with all those gears and the clutch and all, was just plain beyond me. Ghostly was the one who had to point out, at each opportunity, that I was more or less hobbled in what I could do as Summer help because I couldn’t drive a stick shift.
            One day Sarge and I were eating our sandwiches at lunch and he was sitting n the driver’s seat of BORT, the Big Ole Red Truck we rode out to the various projects we were assigned. He listened carefully as I described my various attempts at driving a stick shift and didn’t say another word about it until it was time to go home. Then he got into the passenger seat and waited. No, I couldn’t drive a stick shift. Then we’ll sit here until you learn, he told me. He sat there as the truck sputtered and choked and died and lurched and smoked, and finally I managed to get it moving forward. Sarge just sat there, serene as a Buddha, and never did more than say, “ I think that might be third, not first, no, that’s second, not fourth, yeah, that’s third, now go up and over, yeah, fourth, you got it, go!” This is the same patient approach I used a few years ago when I taught a nineteen year old how to drive a stick. I told him I was going to get really and truly pissed after he had stalled out fifty times, but he had fifty times before I was getting mad. We started this insane backwards countdown and it was actually funny. At thirty-six, with thirty-five to go, he finally began to get into it. I remembered Sarge at that very moment and whispered, “Thank you “to him.
            It was an odd feeling that day, of riding down the road in the driver’s seat of a stick shift truck. There was something I was told I could not learn, and in less than an hour, I had learned. I was driving BORT down the road, and life seemed incredibly good at that very moment. When we pulled into the yard where the shed was, to unload all the equipment out of BORT, Hitch was there, and he grinned at me driving a stick shift. He liked it. I deftly backed BORT up to the shed door and it was if I had just landed a space craft.
            I was still living in the same house with my father but we didn’t speak if we could avoid it.  I learned never to mention anything that had anything to do with work to him, and had long since learned the phrase “I don’t know” was the safest around. He stomped his way up to my room and said, “Why couldn’t you learn to drive a stick from me?” Not “Gee, congratulations”, or “Glad you learned how” or anything like that, no. He was actually mad about it. He stomped out muttered about me having to pay for the clutch in the truck, but at this point, I realized I hadn’t harmed the truck at all. The next day, Hitch defected away from being a Minion.
            He hadn’t say anything to me about it, but my father told Hitch not to allow me to drive BORT because I would surely wreck the truck. Hitch hadn’t say anything to him, but he and Sarge talked it over, and they decided drive I would. Hitch was an ex-Marince. There was a certain level of integrity that he was going to maintain in his life, regardless, and that was how it was going to be. Ghostly and Spiffy drove up behind us a couple of days later, and that was when things really got weird. Sarge was polite, but reminded them I was an adult, and could drive. If there was a reason for me not to drive, then he would hear it, but if there was not, I would drive. Hitch came up in the middle of all this and told them he had made the decision, and he would take responsibility for what happened, and he would talk to my father. It was the first time in my life anyone had stood up to my father for me.

Take Care,
Mike

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