Midwestern God strikes back: Mild winter gives way to tough decisions this COVID-19 season

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Updated Apr 7, 2020

There’s a cattle rancher who lives down the road from me. A hard-bitten old bard of the land, so imbued with agrarian wisdom that I used to find myself working for him on my days off from trucking — splitting firewood, opening gates, grinding feed, all in hopes of being there when he dropped yet another nugget of rustic wisdom that I might convert into a song. He shall here be called Lucas Brown.

I bumped into Lucas down at Shore’s Garage in Modoc, Indiana, back in January, smack dab in the dead of another Indiana winter — or at least what should have been the dead. This last winter here was the warmest in a generation.

I asked Lucas whether the mild weather was helping or hurting his ranch. His sun-worn face was lined with worry. “Pneumonia weather,” he said. “Hard keeping old brood cows alive when it’s 38 and raining.”

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Being from the rural Midwest, one’s worldview is affected by the weather more than you realize. After months of unseasonable warmth and easier-than-usual heating bills, some ol’ boy with white socks and a seed cap down at the garage could be heard saying, “We’re going to pay for all this.”

There’s that part of me that just wants to say, “Why can’t you just be grateful, grandpa, and simply enjoy today? Why do you have to down-mouth everything?”

I don’t say it, because I know the old man is right. Sooner or later, the Midwestern God will cut you down, and the weather in Indiana proves that axiom time and time again. Ergo, giddiness about any run of good fortune is proscribed here. You learn to talk poor, even when things are dandy, and not to go flashing your good luck around.

I was reminded of this while taking a tanker load of milk to Kentucky on Christmas Day. It was a sunny, gorgeous 64 in Cincinnati. The road was bone dry, and I was doing my best not to enjoy it. A traffic snarl at around the eight mile marker found me getting on the brakes fast, and the surge of that 49,000-pound load of liquid bucked hard. Moments later, when road speed resumed, there was a man in a fancy convertible with the top down pacing me, riding right alongside.

I didn’t look down. I’ve learned not to. There are some things you just can’t unsee.

After about a mile he sped away, shaking his fist in the air. Now just what was this guy’s problem? After while I see him pulled over on the side of the road, all dressed up in his Christmas outfit. Out he comes, brandishing a smartphone pointed straight at me.

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This time I do look, and … is that milk all down the side of his car? Now, I didn’t know this before I pulled a milk tanker, and maybe you didn’t either: the tanks are vented up in the top dome. The first time I saw milk down the side of my tanker, it was my second day on the job. I was petrified. I thought maybe the guy at the farm closed the lid in a cockeyed manner, and it was all my fault for not catching it when I climbed up there and checked the seal.

Turns out, it was completely normal for a little bit of milk to spill out.

A hard brake in a traffic snarl can also cause a little more milk to get out, and that milk can get on people’s cars.  So, sure, go ahead and put your top down on Christmas Day and ride through the center of Cincinnati, Dapper Dan. Yes, I know it’s 64 degrees. But as for that milk that’s leaking out of the vent and onto your fine upholstery and your crisp Christmas clothes, know this — I had nothing to do with that. That was an act of the Midwestern God, brother, rebuking you for your giddiness, reminding you that we’re all going to pay for this.

It’s about an hour and a half to my Indiana farmhouse from the Ohio terminal I run out of. Going home for a truck driver these days can be fraught with a complex psychology, for sure. There are plenty in my loose circle around the nation who, for now, just won’t do it until the smoke clears for fear of what they might not know they’re bringing home. Pacts of socially distanced support have been made by many – careful transfer of clean and dirty linens out on a carport between driver and spouse, a good night’s sleep or two in the old Pete out in the driveway, load up the cooler, then back to the road.

My wife, Denise, and I haven’t yet hammered out any solid plan ourselves when Denise comes down with a fever, asking me to pick up a thermometer on the way home from the terminal. I’ve been on the road just four and a half days.

A little checking around by both of us, and it becomes clear the answer will be the same everywhere: “No sir, we are completely sold out of thermometers, and we have no idea when more are coming.”

Who goes through a global pandemic this woefully unprepared? That would be me, dear reader. Turns out, I should have been hoarding hand sanitizer and medical supplies back on Black Friday.

The payment for that 64-degree Christmas has officially commenced.

I make it home, empty-handed, and at wit’s end. She tells me her fever has broken for now. I wash my hands and feel her head. “Still feels pretty hot to me.”

There’s a lot of bugs going around now. Folks here think it never got cold enough to kill off the germs. Still, every sniffle carries the threat of COVID-19 these days.

We call the doctor in the morning.

With the fever break, her symptoms don’t warrant an appointment as of yet. The nurse tells us to call right away if symptoms return. Denise tells me she’ll be all right, and by the next day I’m back on the road.

In the days that followed, we decided to forge a different path. We chose, after three weeks of isolating ourselves from one another as best we could, to simply be together all the time, come what may. This wasn’t a decision we took lightly. The anguish of uncertainty for both of us, now in our 60s, of what might come upon the other if we were 1,000 miles apart, became a more immediate contagion than the plague itself.

Paul and Denise MarhoeferPaul and Denise Marhoefer

I know to some this will come across as Beach Bro 2.0, but it’s our decision, arrived at over the course of several agonizing conversations, and we are at peace with it.

Godspeed to all.

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