Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

October 28, 2013

Truckers didn’t waste time judging others with stories left to be told

— — When William T. “Rabbit” Martin Jr. introduced himself to me a few years ago in the assisted living dining room of the Maples Retirement Home, he wanted to talk to me about trucking. I only knew of Rabbit because of reputation. I knew he was convicted under the three-strike habitual criminal law, and I had heard several stories about his notorious life of crime through the years. Somehow the person I met that day didn’t fit the stories I heard. Rabbit reminded me of every other hard-working trucker I had ever met. I immediately figured that he was OK. I never asked, but I naturally thought that he served his time.

Rabbit was driving tractor-trailer at the time and wanted me to take a trip with him. Time was the foremost commodity that I surrendered after mom had her stroke on Oct. 18, 1991. By the time of that conversation, most of my daily minutes were already spoken for. Rabbit understood. He and his wife, Lillian, who had been one of Mom’s caregivers for several years, were so kind and thoughtful to Mom. After Lillian retired, they still made regular visits to Mom at the Maples while they could. Rabbit was in his 70s and still trucking. I didn’t feel guilty though. I figured I was where I needed to be.

Rabbit was running freight south out of Bluefield. I trucked a little in the south, but I was ignorant about southern ways. I mean, southern people understood truckers better than Yankees, but I never questioned what I considered to be southern ways. For example, I stopped to eat one night at a Long John Silver’s Restaurant outside of Pikeville, Ky., and when I noticed that the only condiment on the table was malt vinegar, I assumed that’s the way southerners ate their Long John Silver’s fish. I slathered my fish dinner with malt vinegar as if it was ketchup, and later thought that I didn’t like the southern way of eating fish. I learned when I paid my check that I had to ask for ketchup when I ordered.

It was OK. During my trucking days that every experience, good or bad, is always a learning experience. Most of the people I met when I was trucking had a preconceived notion of the kind of person I was. But like I started to do with Rabbit before I caught myself, back then people rarely took the time to look beneath their perception of what they thought truckers were back. If they did, they would soon find out that we were just regular people who were trying to make a living.

I was carrying more weight around my waist than I should have back then because of the lifestyle and the greasy spoon meals that all truck stops served, but I would never hurt anyone. I was thinking about the guy in southern Indiana who flew into a rage when he accidentally drifted his vehicle into the front spread of my trailer as I was making a 90-degree turn. He jumped out of his car like he was going to kick my butt, and when I stood up to get out of the cab to see if he was OK, he took one look at me, got back into his car and drove away quickly.

I’m still the same, sensitive person that I was back then. I still have bad dreams about the dog that ran beneath my trailer tires as I was driving 55 miles-per-hour on a two-lane road somewhere in Illinois. There was no way I could have stopped in time. Even though I was under load, I did find a place to turn around a couple of miles up the road so I could go back and look for him. I didn’t see him on the road, but there weren’t any landmarks on the road for me to know where to stop and look. I turned around well beyond the place where I thought I made contact, turned around and didn’t see him as I resumed my trip.

God blessed the wheels of my tractor-trailer in a way that I came to appreciate. I learned that all life is precious. I grew in confidence as I trucked around the country and improved my truck-driving skills. I ultimately became a different person from the person I had been before I started trucking. I reverted to an earlier version of myself for a few years after I came off the road, but I’ve returned to being that trucker person again as I’ve aged.

Somehow, Rabbit knew that person through these columns and figured that I probably wouldn’t be the kind of a person who would judge him because of the opinions of others. I’m not going to say that being a trucker was all about being good and kind. To the contrary, we were a tough bunch of people who were fiercely independent and willing to stand up for what we believe in. But none of us wasted much time judging other truckers. All of us had a story to tell.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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