I was drinking thick, black coffee at a Florida truckstop and listening to two drivers down the counter swapping stories. They were real good storytellers, too. Their yarns got me thinking about a friend of mine who died about five years back.
Totch Brown was an original. He was born in, and spent more than 70 years in and around the Ten Thousand Islands, a remote, empty place where the Florida Everglades fray into clumps of mangrove forest and shallow, fast estuaries then become Florida Bay. In his later years, he taught people what life was like when he lived it out there. You need to do the same thing. Everybody has their own stories, but sometimes we think them too ordinary to pass on. You’ve lived quite a life out there on the road, driver. Don’t just relive it at truckstops. Tell your children and grandchildren. If you don’t, you might live in their memories as a one-dimensional figure, someone like their favorite comic book character.
Totch liked to tell stories. But he didn’t talk just to hear himself talk. He realized he was a link to the past, when life out there on the maze of waterways, hunting gators or fishing, or trying to make a living off the land during the Great Depression of the 1930s, sometimes via a moonshine still, wasn’t much like it is today. Totch was colorful and he knew it, and he used it. He loved to clamber back into his little “pit pan,” a homemade skiff about as long, wide and deep as an upturned bench seat from a ’50s Chevy sedan. He’d stand in her and pole her, talking about how he’d caught gators bigger than that little boat and hauled them aboard still fighting. But he didn’t invent his life, it was real. He was one tough guy and a decorated WWII vet to boot.
Totch’s favorite audience was children, including his own grandchildren. He talked about his life because he could see young people were losing a sense of what the Islands were really like, a feel for them, and were being taught about them on video screens by people reading dramatic scripts written by people who’d never lived there. It bothered him that the knowledge young people were getting was so remote, so antiseptic and stripped of nearly all its power.
It concerned him that when young people visited the “new” Florida Keys, just across the bay from the Islands, the old Keys were all but lost to them. Compared to the Keys of yesteryear, and the Key West of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, today’s Keys can leave you with a feeling that you’ve just visited Disney’s Florida Keys Park, a sanitized replica of what they might have been like when tourism wasn’t king. I swear it’s possible to wake up in Key Largo and wonder for a split second if you aren’t really back in Wisconsin at KeysWorld and Goofy and Pluto will come in with your genuine Caribbean Pirate blend of coffee at any minute.
Hey, kids you want to know what the Keys, the Islands or life driving over-the-road was
really like? Listen to the stories of the people who lived it, don’t rely on videos.
Totch could see the detachment creeping into the way young people regarded his Ten Thousand Islands. They’d visit or vacation there, but when they left, Totch sensed they simply felt as if they’d been on a cool ride or part of a cool nature video. Their gut had never been touched. He wanted them to know about the blood, sweat and tears that men and women had left out there, the bite and sting of the grasses, the sharp cut of half oyster shells on bare feet, the skin-cracking windburn of the old fishermen and the panic that clouds of mosquitoes thick as fog can cause a newcomer as he plunges into them in the back country.
So if you drive a truck, take the time to tell young people about what it’s really like to haul coast to coast, today and way back when. Tell them and they’ll know you better and the times of your life better. Otherwise your next generation might view trucking and truckers the way most of us view the Wild West. Remember the Wild West? Sure you do. It was exactly like you saw it on television and in the movies.