I had what I thought might become a near death experience two weeks ago, and my mind started playing back a lifetime’s worth of memories like I’ve heard happens to drowning victims. I barely got past the vision of a smiling Dr. Fred Denzel Large looking at me with a smile, before I caught my bearings and resumed living life in real time. Doc Large was a general practice doctor in Claysville, Pa., who brought me into the world.
I had been following a cluster of empty coal trucks up U.S. Route 52 to attend the final day of the Rebecca Hatcher murder trial. I managed to pass one of them in Brushfork, but I was mostly in what we used to call the “rocking chair,” a position in the middle of a line of trucks. I was never much of a rocking chair type of trucker, but on Route 52 that morning, it was the best place for me.
One of the most important lessons I learned as a trucker was to always be patient. In that particular context, I knew the guys were just making a living and they were driving as fast as the conditions and highway would allow. As a frequent traveler to the Free State, I know to allow a little extra time for unexpected coal truck traffic. After all, they represent the region’s lifeblood, and I for one, am glad they’re here. It’s reassuring to me.
Anyway, the mini-convoy reached Welch and the trucks in front of me were swinging wide to negotiate the turn onto Wyoming Street. The first couple of trucks made the turn OK. As the truck directly in front of me swung wide and made the turn, I looked back at the old Tomchin Furniture store building to check for traffic, and seeing none, I started to follow the dump truck. Suddenly and without warning, the truck came to an abrupt stop. I was already in the turn, so when I looked back, I was already heading beneath the dump bed with the truck frame looking me in the eyes.
I nailed my brakes — thankful that Brian Davidson had just replaced them three weeks earlier — and my little Buick stopped within an inch or so of the rear trailer tandem and the trailer frame. That’s when the first moments of my birth started rolling in my memory banks, and my imperfect heart started pounding. I didn’t hear air brakes or see brake lights. I backed up a little in case the truck in front of me started drifting back and got out of my car to see what was happening. A trucker behind me who called me by name — go figure — as he was walking up to his buddy’s truck said he knew what had happened when he heard the loud pop. I was listening to a cassette tape of Bill Withers singing, “Lovely Day,” and didn’t hear anything else.
The truckers got the truck going again and I watched as someone retrieved the drive shaft from beneath the truck. One of the universal joints was dangling from the yoke, and the other one wasn’t even there. As the truck limped up the hill to the courthouse, I cut down the alley next to McDowell County National Bank, circled back around to the parking lot across from the police station, parked and walked up to the courthouse annex.
I had it in mind to write all of that up last weekend, but there was too much news on Sunday to spend an hour or so on a column. In the days since then, I learned of the passing of my friend, Jimmy Ramey Jr. We were friends from way back in the 1980s when I was with “The Observer.” We always got along well. I can remember he raised Cain with me once over an article in the newspaper, but even at that, we laughed and parted as friends.
When we didn’t know the details last week, I looked unsuccessfully to find a picture of Jimmy in our files. I called my wife and asked if she would look in my old “Observer” files, and she found one. “It was the next to the last photo in that file,” she said. I went to the house, picked it up and looked at it. Suddenly, my memories of that moment flooded over me, and I became almost too emotional to keep driving.
The date was on the back of the photo. It was in February of 1991. Ramey Chevrolet had won a “Best of the Virginias” contest we had in the paper, and I was going around photographing the winners. That was just six months after I had buried my sister, and two months before my brother’s inoperable brain cancer had presented. My sister’s son, Brett Archer, was having a tough time dealing with his mom’s death and my mom was struggling with the death of her daughter. My brother died five months later, and mom suffered a stroke three months after that.
Jimmy couldn’t have known all of that, but he put the “Best of the Virginias” ball cap on, struck a funny pose with a silly smile and made me laugh. He couldn’t have known the changes that were taking place in my life at the time, but his smile made that one moment a little easier for me. I’ve been stuck in the moment of remembering Jimmy’s smile for the past several days. That’s how I remember my friend.
Bill Archer is the Daily Telegraph’s senior editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org