Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The old truck stop where I used to buy cheap gas for 18 cents per gallon had changed hands between when I had graduated from high school and had gotten kicked out of college because of my grades. It had been a Gulf station when I was in high school, but a guy from Wheeling who owned the Pure Oil station in Roney’s Point near Elm Grove bought it and made it a Pure truck stop just before the company name became Union 76.
College had been a lot harder for me than I had imagined when I was in high school. I was mostly a “C” student in high school. When I started out bad in college, I got down on myself, started smoking cigarettes and allowed myself to be drawn into a distraction that has ended the career of many a promising young college student — beer. I was still all banged up from the motor scooter wreck I had in high school, and the draft board confirmed my surgeon’s prediction that I would never be drafted when they classified me 4-F. In my world, I was a total failure. Time passed, but I kept going and going until I got real sick and had to spend a week in the hospital to survive.
When I got out of the hospital, I didn’t have much hope. The old Exit II Truck Stop was within walking distance of my home, and when I saw an advertisement for an afternoon shift pump jockey job I took it. After about a week on the job, the manager moved me back to midnight shift and I started the process of finding out what I was going to do with my life. The wreck ended my dream of being a professional baseball player and closed my door into the military. Flunking out of college closed some more doors, but my parents were willing to let me stay at home long enough to figure it out.
My 11 p.m., walks from home to the truck stop were silent, and I didn’t really interact much with the truckers. I worked with an old U.S. Navy sailor who worked the night-side desk and a punch-drunk G.I. boxer who took one too many beatings during World War II. Sometimes, the guy who owned the place would hire ex-cons who had just left Moundsville for special projects. Those guys — the ex-cons — would tackle any kind of manual labor jobs just to make a little money so they could move on. Black and white, they worked night and day until the work they were hired to do was done.
It used to break my heart working with these guys, but not because I thought I was any better that them. To the contrary, I had loving parents who rooted for me all the way from my Little League baseball days through my senior year in high school football. I had never dreamed that my last football game would be the end of my playing career, but there at the truck stop, I saw guys who probably had dreams just like me. For one reason or another, their dreams didn’t work out like they thought they would.
I remember watching a couple former Moundsville inmates — one black and one white — who were setting a form to pour the concrete slab for a new fuel pump. They talked to each other, but only answered direct questions from other people with “yes” and “no” responses. They wore khaki coveralls and khaki hats, and talked with each other like they were the only two people left on earth. The desk man, Jackson, told me to stay away from them, and said they would probably slice me open if I dared to say “boo” to them. But I thought they were shy because any time I walked near them, they looked away from me and got real quiet.
Although I saw myself as a failure in terms of scholastic pursuits, I started to realize that I could learn a lot about life from people. When I decided to go back to college, it was all about proving a point to myself. With each new semester, I gradually inched my way out of the academic hole that I had dug for myself until I was finally off of academic probation and I could graduate. I was working part time as a construction laborer then and had a contract to install insulation on the weekends. Finishing classes gave me more time to fulfill the requirements of my insulation contract. Both jobs ended that year, and I was staying at my parents home in Claysville when the package with my diploma came in the mail.
I admire people who travel life’s highway with no twists and turns along the way, but I’ve seen a lot of curves on my path — mostly of my own doing. Each bend increases the strength of metal, and I think that overcoming challenges builds character in people. I still have a lot of overcoming to do, but I hope I can be a better person tomorrow than I am today.
Graduating from college didn’t make me any better than anyone I worked with at the truck stop and it certainly didn’t make me any different. The most important thing I learned about in college was that if I worked hard enough, I could pass enough classes in college to earn a degree. I learned a whole lot more about life at the truck stop where people spent a lot of time in silence.
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.