Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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March 1, 2010

Nickel slots and more: Some things about truck stops are better left unsaid

My dad took me with him to drop off the cutter bar of the hay mowing machine for our Allis-Chalmers tractor. If I remember correctly, the guy lived outside of Triadelphia, but dad planed to meet him at the Roney’s Point Truck Stop because he didn’t know where his farm was. The guy was going to drill out some of the rivets in the cutter bar blade and put in some new teeth. I was young, maybe 7 or 8 years old, and I had never heard of Roney’s Point Truck Stop. As a result, it was a totally new experience.

Dad went to the lunch counter to meet the man who was going to fix the cutter bar, but my attention was drawn to the flashing lights and ringing bells of a pinball machine. I stood and watched a man manipulate the flippers and keep the ball bouncing between the bumpers. The numbers of the scoreboard rolled into the thousands making me think this had to be the greatest pinball player alive, but he missed the silver ball with his flippers and the game was over.

On his way out the door, the man paused, dropped a coin in a slot, pulled the handle and the images whirled around and around. It stopped on a bell, three cherries and a dollar sign, and the man walked out the door. I studied the machine and within a few minutes, I realized it was a slot machine. It only cost me a nickel to see how it worked. I put the coin in the slot, pulled the lever and the images spun round and round.

I dropped a few more nickels in the slot machine before my dad told me we needed to get the cutter bar out of the car and give it to the man. I left voluntarily, but I thought it was pretty cool. Years passed before I even realized that slot machines were illegal at the time and when I looked back at the moment, I thought that my dad must have been the most understanding parent in the universe. Now, I figure he was just as naive as me, although he was worldly in many respects.

More time would pass before I realized just how corrupt some truck stops actually were. I learned in my teen years that the truck stop at Roney’s Point was regionally notorious for gambling and other nefarious activities. However, the really big den of iniquity was the old Windmill Truck Stop on U.S. Route 40 between Wheeling and West Alexander, Pa. We stopped at the old truck stop once during a storm to put snow chains on the car we had, but that was the only time I was ever there.

The newer Windmill Truck Stop came after construction of I-70 was finished. It was located on the top of Wheeling Hill about 8 miles west of the Pennsylvania state line, but when I became a truck driver myself, I realized that every trucker east of the Mississippi River knew exactly where the Windmill Truck Stop was located. It was so famous that it was infamous, to borrow a line from “The Three Amigos” movie.

I rarely stopped there as a trucker, but everybody I knew back then had an understanding of the lay of the land. When I met the late Larry White after I moved down here and we started swapping trucker stories, I told him that I kept my truck at the Exit 2 Truck Stop in Claysville, Pa., and he immediately knew it was just 12 miles east of the Windmill. Trucking friends I met in Chicago, Owensboro, Ky., Indianapolis or anywhere else all had their favorite Windmill Truck Stop story. The few times I actually stopped there to meet another trucker or to tighten the chains on my load, I didn’t actually see much going on, but the legend lived and that was for sure.

I was based at Exit 2, and the other primary truck stops in my circle included the Shenandoah in Cambridge, Ohio, one outside of Richmond, Ind., another in Indianapolis and the big truck stop near Calumet City, Ind., at the intersection of I-65 and I-90. There was always crazy stuff going on at all of those truck stops, but I felt comfortable because I was familiar with them. I knew how to get around without scraping anything or knocking anything down.

The lights were so bright inside the Calumet City truck stop that it always seemed like a bright sun-lit morning even at 2 or 4 a.m. Sometimes bright lights and coffee were the only things I had to cling to in order to make it back home in time to get empty and get loaded again for another round of Chicago. Although Calumet City could be more than an hour away from the heart of Chicago, I always felt that I had it made when I got there, or I had made it out when I got back.

When I was on the road, I never saw another one-armed bandit like the nickel slot machine I saw in my childhood at Roney’s Point, but I saw other things that I could never write about in a newspaper column. Every truck stop I ever visited — big or small — had a culture all its own, but also reflected a cross-section of life that no one ever sees unless they drive something with 18 wheels that bends in the middle and goes, “Tisss ...Tisss” when it stops.

Back in those days, most truck stops had rooms with a sign, “Truckers’ Only” above the door. No one ever checked my credentials, but I often wondered what people who couldn’t enter thought we were doing in there. I’m not going to say anything more about it here. Suffice it to say that some things about truck stops are better left unsaid.

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

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