About the Author
Jerry Prince lives in Franklin, Tenn., with his wife of 40 years, Maxine. He hauls hazardous materials for Armor Environmental out of Mt. Pleasant, Tenn. He has two children, Nancy Kas and Jeff Prince. Nancy’s husband is in the Army and leaves soon for his second tour in Iraq. Jeff lives in Columbia, Tenn. Jerry also has six grandchildren. He has been writing stories for 10 years and likes to write about what he knows: truck driving. His favorite pastimes are playing golf, fishing and spending time with his grandchildren.
It was my last run. Retirement was staring me in the face. I was going into the Orange Groves of Florida, which would bring my truck-driving career full circle.
This was where I started, hauling watermelons with an old “White Mustang,” pulling a homemade reefer with ice blocks and an old gas engine that smoked and choked all the way up the East Coast. Now the reefer units are computerized, and tractors are more like motor homes.
I have listened to a lot of old drivers sitting around talking about the “good old days.” I think the best part of those so-called “good old days” was the fellowship among the drivers and the many friends that I made along the way. Nowadays you have to move so far and so fast that you hardly have time to say hello to anyone.
I thought back to when I started in the melon fields. When night came, we would get our trucks in line to be loaded the next day. Then we would build a big fire to cook with. That’s when everyone would contribute something to the pot and we would have “rainbow stew.” I think it was called that because everything under the rainbow was in it.
More often than not, someone would break out a guitar or a fiddle, and the night would be filled with music, laughter and tall tales until late, when everyone would begin looking for a place to bed down.
Finding a place to sleep in Florida at night with no such thing as air-conditioning in a truck was a problem in itself. If you tried to sleep in your truck with the windows rolled up, the heat would get you, and if you left the windows down, the mosquitoes would pick your bones.
My solution to this dilemma was to sleep on top of my trailer, where the wind would keep most of the mosquitoes at bay.
Though it was fun at the time, I would not swap my air conditioner and my stereo for it today.
During this trip, I was dipping in and out of deep thought, occasionally looking around and wondering what happened to the last hundred miles. I found myself thinking, “This is my last time to do this.”
Some thoughts I felt good about and others gave me a sad, melancholy feeling.
The day I left home, my wife was putting together my retirement party, and the man that wanted to buy my truck would be there to pick it up when I returned. The finality of it all began sinking in deeper and harder now than I ever expected.
As I exited Interstate 75 onto the Wildwood ramp, I could see the huge truckstops, motels, truck washes and chrome shops where once was a dirt field with a diner and a house trailer that the freight brokers occupied.
What I was amazed to see among all this was an old rickety fruit stand with hand-painted cardboard signs sitting in a small dirt lot. The rusty tin roof over the fruit stand was bent like someone holding up his hands to surrender.
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe I had been reminiscing too much about the old days, but suddenly I found myself pulling in beside the fruit stand.
As I got out of my truck, a young girl with bright red hair and a sprinkling of cute freckles approached.
“Can I help you, sir?”
I didn’t really know what to say or really why I stopped.
“I just wanted to look at what you got and stretch my legs if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind. I work here with my PaPa and he’s old too and has to stretch his legs sometimes.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at her answer as I followed her to the fruit stand.
Underneath the shade of a tin roof, I saw an older man wearing cut-off jeans and a T-shirt. His skin was dark tan, wrinkled and appeared leather-tough.
“Come on in, young man, and sit a spell,” he said.
A moment ago, I was an old man. Now I’m a young man. I guess it’s a matter of who you are talking to, I thought, as I settled into a lawn chair beside him.
“Young lady, what’s your name?” I asked.
“My name is Scarlett, on account of my red hair, they say,” she said. “I’m 11 now, but next month I will be 12.”
As a car pulled up to the stand, I watched Scarlett handle them like a pro.
When a man and his wife got out of the car, Scarlett greeted them and announced soundly that she had the best oranges in the whole world. The man and the woman looked at each other with a grin.
“Well, I guess we had better have some of those ‘best in the world’ oranges,” the man said.
When Scarlettt had set a basket of oranges in their car, she steered the two over to some grapefruit.
“I suppose that your grapefruit are the best in the world, too.” The man smiled.
“Yes sir, they are,” replied Scarlett.
The man shook his head with a grin. “I’ll take them too, but I think after this, I will have all the ‘best in the world’ grapefruit and oranges I can handle for now.”
“She is a real salesperson,” I said, turning to the old man.
I could see him beaming with pride as he watched her move about the fruit stand, filling up the baskets.
“Gonna need some more grapefruit, PaPa.”
“I will get some from the truck,” the old man said.
“I’ll go get it for you, PaPa.”
“No, you have done your part. I got to do mine.”
I watched as the old man reached for a walking cane. His arms trembled for a moment as he pulled himself up. Then I saw the reason for his pain. The calf of his right leg was partially missing, and there was a long scar that ran from his knee to his ankle.
As I stood up to help, I felt a tug at my shirt. When I looked around, it was Scarlett, signaling me not to help the old man.
As I sat back down, she began explaining why she had stopped me.
“PaPa got hurt in the war back before I was born. Mama says that I’m supposed to help him, but when he says he wants to do something to let him do it. Mama says it’s something about his pride.
“PaPa always says what he ‘can do he will do.’”
I understood more than little Scarlett knew.
When the old man returned, I noticed a faded tattoo on his arm.
What I could make out read “101 Airborne D-Day 1944.”
To me that said it all.
This man lived in a generation that took pride in doing their part, and even though racked with pain, he would keep his pride.
I watched him struggle with the box of grapefruit. What would have been easy for me was very painful for the old man. Though I wanted to help, just a glance from Scarlett told me no.
Finally, when he was through, he sat back down beside me.
“How is the trucking business these days?” he asked.
“Oh, about the same, it has its ups and downs.”
“I remember when I was growing up, all I thought about was driving one of those big trucks.” He smiled as his eyes darted back and forth.
I could only imagine where his mind’s eye was taking him at that moment.
“Did you ever get to drive one?”
“Yes I did. I hauled produce up and down the coast until I enlisted in the Army. Matter of fact, I had my father drive me to the Army enlistment station in an old Mack Truck,” he said, pointing to mine. “That was July 1943, and I haven’t been in one since.”
I noticed a sad look on his face as his head bowed toward his feet. I wanted to ask why he had not driven a truck since 1943. Then it hit me, and I was glad I didn’t ask. It was easy to see that his war injury had left him scared and handicapped and unable to work in his chosen profession.
“I’m glad you stopped here today. I don’t get to talk to many drivers anymore.”
“Why is that?”
“There seems to be hundreds of trucks passing by every hour. They all go to those big truckstops now. I don’t think they like pulling those big shiny trucks on my dirt lot.”
I settled back into my lawn chair, thinking of how much we owe this old man and many like him that gave us the freedom to work and live as we please. As I looked around at the modern new truckstops with acres of pavement and three-story motels and strips of restaurants on both sides of the street, I couldn’t help make the comparison in my mind between them and this old man and his rickety old fruit stand with its hand-painted signs and old rusty pickup truck.
Something just wasn’t right about this picture.
“Well, they have changed a lot. Would you like to look inside mine?” I offered.
He took me up on my offer and made his way up into the cab.
“They sure have changed. You boys have got it made nowadays. Son, you got more hood than I ever had truck.”
He laughed as he climbed down from the truck. What he said rang true. With all the hassle I go through, it is still better than it’s ever been. He thanked me as he hobbled back to his fruit stand.
As I stood there with a million things running through my mind, little Miss Scarlett brought me back down to Earth.
“Don’t you think you might need some oranges and grapefruit before you go?”
I couldn’t help but say yes. At that moment, she could have sold me some oceanfront property in Iowa.
As I got back onto the interstate and dropped the truck into top gear, I began to settle back into my seat to think things out. Finally, I reached for my cell phone and called home. When I heard my wife answer, I was silent for a moment. I couldn’t get the nerve to tell her what I had to say.
“Honey, would you be upset if I didn’t retire right away? I know there’s this party you arranged and the man is coming to buy my truck and everything, but