'He should still be here': Remembering Flattop, gone too soon

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(Note: This story contains an account of suicide -- the national suicide hotline is 988 and is staffed 24/7 with people who can help, among other resources. Names of people and places have been altered.) 

The Dixie Tavern is a venerable old dive in the Midwest city of Rustown with $2 margaritas, red padded leather around the bar, and nary a hint that its name will ever change. Graced by a men's-room sign that reads This is a bathroom, not an internet cafe. S__ and Git!, it functioned as the scene of a wake we attended last year for a friend named Flattop. Flattop had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in September. The room felt like it was wrapping you in a warm embrace. Caterers came, longnecks were nursed, and for that afternoon, the gritty establishment served the sacred function of a house of mourning. As I rested my elbows over the leather padding at the edge of the old rustbelt bar with Flattop's friends, a fraternity that grief alone can forge, I couldn't help thinking about the roughneck patrons, southern emigres most likely fresh from some woebegone factory floor, who might have wound up bloodied and concussed in some shot-soaked altercation were it not for the bar's prescient, upholstered design.

You could do worse for a wake than this place.

Denise and I didn't know at the time how Flattop had died – only that he'd been having a lot of health issues, was in some physical pain and had been mourning the loss of his 30-year-old son to opioids.

There had been a late night text from Flattop a few days earlier:

‘"I'm not doing good Paul. Please write a song about me before I leave. I love you brother."

I responded this way initially, right back via text message:

I’m sorry to hear this. Been wondering about you. I’m just finishing up at the terminal."

The following day, when I finally got him on the phone, we were on the way to do a show in Norwich, New York. By then, Flattop was almost jubilant. His doctor had adjusted his iron levels and he was 100% better. But, apparently, sometime during our show the following evening, he passed.

A tall, stoutly built man was seated next to me at the bar, reminiscing about his time with Flattop at a previous employer. I couldn't help myself any longer.

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"Did anyone say what happened?" I asked.

"I guess it was self-inflicted," he answered, and turned away.

Anyone who knew Flattop well was flabbergasted at the news. He was always Mr. Johnny on the Spot at work, having started as a driver, then working his way into management. A veteran of the United States Army, his office was equipped with a biography of George Patton, the two largest containers of Tums and aspirin I'd ever seen, and, in a certain desk drawer, a clear libation distilled by his Kentucky kinsmen.

He'd start his Mondays at the warehouse around 4 a.m., and you'd still see him there at 10 that night. He had a little cot he'd sleep on in the utility room, then he'd be back at it by six the next morning. On Tuesday nights, if everything went smoothly, he'd sleep in his own bed, back in Rustown, about 45 minutes away. In his day, Flattop was one boss you were never going to outwork. Despite the fact it was 2011, the parent company we worked for still functioned like it was the ’70s. We were a hardworking, hard-playing bunch. The company wound up being sued for two fatal accidents that occurred within a three month span. Both drivers, from a terminal other than ours, were found to be in flagrant violation of the hours of service regulations. The company was summarily sold off to a large, Arkansas-based carrier that specialized in taking over troubled fleets. 

One day, Flattop arrived at work, and his new young Arkansan superiors had simply removed his desk. He was given no notice of severance. His job had just evaporated, and they decided to make the revelation thereof public, presumably for their own sport.

It was a blow I don't think he ever recovered from.

When it was all said and done, Flattop and I were both drummed out, as were most of the older drivers. New drivers were hired for lower pay. Flattop eventually went back to driving for a while. There were a few intermittent attempts at management posts, but they never lasted more than a couple years. Once he was let go from a terminal manager position for being “too hard on the Millennials." 

His last carrier fired him for being out sick too long with COVID. “We need someone we can depend on" was the explanation, as he told it. Flattop never fully regained his health and was collecting unemployment when he passed.

[Related: We are not along in the struggle against depression and other serious mental health risks]

What I didn't realize until speaking to TFC Global’s Ron Fraser, head of the international ministry, which has provided chaplaincy services to the trucking industry since 1951, is that Flattop's story could represent a larger, post-pandemic trend among truckers.

"We've worked more trucker suicides in the last two years than we have in our entire history," Fraser lamented. 

While "we have no hard and fast statistics," he added, he made reference to TruckersFinalMile.org, an organization for which TFC Global now provides administrative support and which was founded with a mission to assist families whose breadwinners have passed on the road. TFM “has been called upon to bring home four younger drivers within the last few months who have died by their own hand. There's such an influx of opioids and other addictions." 

Mona Shattell, professor of nursing at the University of Central Florida and a recognized expert on over-the-road operators’ mental health, reinforces Fraser's point. Shattell said risk factors distill down to three main indicators.

"Based on what we know, the three main risk factors are head injury, substance abuse and chronic pain," she explained.

In Flattop's case, substance abuse (he was a heavy drinker) and chronic pain (he suffered from chronic pancreatitis and kidney disease as a result of his drinking) placed him clearly at risk.

[Related: Driving through depression's dark valleys]

'Paul, you're the only driver I know who isn't packing.' 

There’s another factor I personally wondered about – proximity to the means.

It was the summer of 2020. The George Floyd uprising was in full swing, protesters were taking to the streets, even the interstates. In some rare but widely publicized cases, demonstrators blocked truck traffic, placing drivers at risk. Front of mind for many of us was what we should do if confronted with such a situation. A state of hyper-vigilance permeated the air. Many were arming themselves to the teeth, and posting about it on social media platforms. One night, on my way to Bolingbrook, Illinois, in the Chicago suburbs, I called my buddy Reverend Haney, asking whether he'd heard anything about the situation there.

"You've got some protection don't you?” he said. 

"No, I don't carry a gun."

"Paul, you're the only driver I know who isn't packing."

I asked Dr. Shattell whether the high incidence of suicide in the truck-transportation world (according to the CDC, at rates well above those in the general population) may have anything to do with Reverend Haney's observation.

For Shattell, access to a firearm, writ large, increases risk of suicide, simply put. "So it would stand to reason that would be the case among truckers," she said.

Speaking to OTR operators’' mental health in general terms, she added, "I hope that drivers will get both peer and professional support," she said. "In my experience, companies have not been that supportive."

On our way home from the truck show in upstate New York, I received this message:

Paul, this is Aunt Doris [Flattop’s aunt]. He died Saturday night, 17 September.’

It took me eight months to broach the subject of Flattop's death with his beloved aunt, the woman he always credited with raising him.

"What still makes me mad is he never left a note,” she said. “He just went into the backyard, sat in his favorite swing and blew his brains out.”

Look, I'm no expert on this subject. Nor do I know to what extent Flattop's time in the Army contributed to his mental state. I'm just a truck driver who writes for a magazine on the side. But I will say that when PTSD became a crippling reality in my life after I was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer, at the advice of my pastor I sought and received professional help by a PTSD counselor. It helped. I will also say there was something ironically empowering about saying "This one's too big for me."

So, on behalf of my friend, I'm compelled to plead this case -- if you've come to a point where you hate your life more than you love your family, you have options you may wish to consider. If your work schedule prevents you from getting home for an appointment with a counselor, you can still find help with an online counseling service such as Betterhelp.com (not a paid sponsor of Overdrive), which can often be covered by health insurance, depending on your specific case. 

With that option, you can attend sessions via Zoom on your phone during your ten.

For quality pastoral counseling, you can call TFC Global: 717-426-9977. They have a chaplain on duty during business hours. You can also call the national suicide hotline 24/7 at 988.   

In the meantime, if you see yourself as suffering with either of the three conditions that Dr. Shattell spoke of -- head injury, chronic pain, substance abuse -- the research suggests you may be at less of a risk to yourself if you weren't carrying a gun. Just sayin'.

"I'm still so angry at him," Flattop's aunt reflected. "When he got too sick to work he kept saying, 'I feel like such a failure for not supporting my family.’ He told me several times, 'I just want to kill myself.'  I said, 'You are not a failure. You worked hard all your life and now you're bringing in unemployment, which goes towards the household.' His little two-year-old granddaughter still asks, 'Where's pappy?' She's lost her daddy to an overdose, now her grandpa to suicide. She has no man in her life. He should still be here." 

[Related: You are not along in the fight for stable mental health]

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