Road Trip to Beckley

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Once again the craving to examine learning has taken a turn toward the humorous. This is another true story about the truth that can only be taught from the hearts of family when a dash of duress gets mixed into what turned out to be a learning moment.

</Humor Alert>

When my in-laws decided to move from Virginia Beach to St. Louis my eager-to-help-self suggested renting a U-Haul so we could minimize cost and enjoy our own moving adventure.  So we did…and we did have an adventure. Everything following is a true account though may have been embellished as I am wont to do at times.

We rented the biggest U-Haul truck they make; 24-footer if I recall. It was old in terms of mileage; well over 200K at the time of rental. My mind’s eye saw us in a flaming breakdown in the West Virginia mountains someplace. There were some flames in those mountains but not from the truck, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

My brother-in-law, Tony got sucked into the move as well, and we loaded for over six hours. The mother-in-law, Shirley…or Memaw…depending where you were in the family pecking order, was fully engaged in the “adventure”. As she was known to do at every opportunity, she helped. She provided more help than necessary. We probably could have loaded that truck in under four hours were in not for a magazine rack…the only thing she could lift…that kept showing up in the doorway as Tony and I carried the heavier items to the truck. I swear we put over a hundred miles on that magazine rack before it ever got put on the truck. Move it out of the way…and as soon as we were out of sight…she would put it back in the doorway.

After we wrestled an upright grand piano onto the truck, nerves were becoming frayed and I was beginning to develop anger issues. Rather than get up in Memaw’s grill, I decided to put a suggestion on the table for the father-in-law, Mel, to consider. I found him sitting in the empty kitchen sucking on a pipe full of Granger tobacco; barnyard blend I think. He had possession of one of the last remaining chairs in the house. Mel was blind by most standards though he wore those glasses that made post-cataract surgery eyes look huge. He had to look directly at anything he wanted to see, and even then he was at risk of crashing and burning over coffee tables, ottomans, and sleeping dogs.

“Mel, I’d like to make a suggestion. Memaw is helping us to the point of never getting the truck loaded. Why don’t you guys go get a hotel room for the night and let Tony and I wrap this up?”

He laughed and a huge plume of smoke and sparks shot out of the bowl of his pipe. Those big eyes settled on my face and he muttered something along the lines of, “Good [bleeping] luck with that.”

Now Mel never swore for as long as I knew him, and I’m not altogether convinced he swore then, but the timing and cadence of what I though he might’ve said certainly sounded vulgar. He looked away, crossed his legs and laid his cane across his lap. Request denied. Back to the magazine rack once more.

We finally got the truck loaded. It was maxed out and loaded to within six inches of the top of the truck. Tony and I sat down in the grass as exhaustion weighed down upon us. Memaw and Mel were exhausted too. I mean carrying that magazine rack to the same spot over a hundred times had to be tiring.

When we came back inside to encourage them to go get a hotel room, we found bedding and sleeping bags laid out on the floor for Tony and me. Memaw and Mel planned to sleep upstairs on the floor for the night. Mel had a bad back and we knew right away that was not going to be pretty. Sleep quickly took us away from what might ultimately transpire upstairs.

About 2AM we were awakened by a terrible racket upstairs with swearing I DID hear for certain this time. Mel was lost in the bedroom closet and banging around in the dark with his cane to find the door. It turns out that all of his familiar landmarks used to navigate had been stowed away on the truck. He was disoriented, lost in the closet and thought he’d walked into the bathroom.

“Mel! You fool!” That was Memaw’s favorite phrase to shout at him whenever he did anything she disapproved of…blind or not. “You’re in the closet!”

I know our reaction was cruel, but Tony and I cried ourselves laughingly back to sleep. Not sure he ever made it to the bathroom.

The next morning we awoke fresh with sore muscles to make final plans and discuss the travel logistics of Memaw following the truck. They had two vehicles to get to St. Louis. Memaw and Mel would drive the 1980-something El Dorado and we would drag the Ford Fiesta [known as the puppy] behind the truck on one of those two-wheeled dolly devices. The plan was for Memaw to follow…not lead…follow. She was only supposed to lead when they needed to hit a rest stop for Mel who peed every 63 miles or so. That did not work out as planned and proved to be the source of those flames I mentioned earlier.

Before we hit the road, Memaw inspected the big cooler we had in the truck to confirm it was not full of beer. She found only Gatorade and bottled water. The old truck only had a 2/60 air conditioning system [two windows down and sixty miles per hour]. We needed every drop of water and Gatorade in that cooler.

So now we’re on the road and leaving Va. Beach behind us. The plan was to drive half way and spend the night in Beckley, WV. It took forever to get to Beckley. When we hit the mountains, Tony and I had no clue where Memaw and Mel had gone as they blew by us on the first long climb. Uphill we managed a flashers-flashing 25 miles per hour. Downhill we discovered there was no governor on that old truck and soon learned that momentum was our friend. Neither Tony nor I thought about the risk of plunging down a mountainside with every possession Memaw and Mel had in this world going with us.

We had become separated and eventually were only a few miles from our objective. One exit before Beckley we spot the old Caddy sitting along-side the road with Mel taking a pee over the guard rail on the exit ramp. You do what you have to do I guess. We pulled in behind them to catch the wrath of Memaw who had convinced herself we had crashed down a mountain and took all her stuff to destruction…including that damn magazine rack. Reminding her that she was supposed to follow us was a waste of words. “Y’all were going too slow…and Mel had to pee.” She had a point and arguing would only poke the bear. Needless to say we were all fried by the time we got to Beckley.

When we got into town we discovered that every hillbilly with a penchant for horses as well as all horse owners from 7-states were in town for some annual event. The place was packed. It looked like Atlantic Avenue in Va. Beach with trucks pulling trailers and trucks without trailers cruising the main drag. The directions to the Holiday Inn were not good and we drove in traffic at a crawl, missing our turn. Memaw was leading since she had the directions. Now that I think of it, the directions may have just been in the wrong hands.

As we follow them we could see Mel half reclining in the back seat, blowing smoke and sparks, and pointing over the seat with his cane. At least he looked like he was pointing; could’ve been encouraging MeMaw to turn or something. He had to be hurting and just wanted out of that car, hurting to the point of whacking Memaw’s skull when it was time to turn.

Memaw finally pulled into a tiny parking lot about a hundred yards or so in front of us. Knowing the Battle Star Galactica I was driving…and dragging a puppy to boot…would never fit, I pulled into a larger strip mall parking lot about fifty yards shy of where she parked. Tony ran down to find out what was going on and returned with explicit instructions to turn around and hang a right at the intersection where we missed our turn earlier.

This would have been easy to do most nights, but the street was packed with traffic in the lane we needed to pull across. We waited with signal flashing and hoped somebody would allow us to pull across traffic and head back in the other direction. Memaw was doing the same thing downstream from us. Mel blazed in the back seat, still brandishing his cane.

When no other driver appeared willing to give us an opening, we had to make one. So I did, and scared some redneck to the point of him nearly swallowing his chew when that battle star and puppy lunged out into traffic in front of him. Not sure what he yelled but is had something to do with my lack of intelligence and a female dog. When we got the lane totally blocked off,  I came to a halt, and Tony began to wave for Memaw to pull out so she could follow us. What does Memaw do? She sits there, craning her neck to look beyond the truck and puppy to see if anything is coming. NOTHING is coming, Memaw! NOTHING could be coming. The Galactica has traffic blocked for miles. There is no reason to look for oncoming traffic. But she did and she even looked pissed that we were blocking her view. She refused to pull out into an empty street for there was nothing coming the other way.  I put the hammer down with silent thoughts that she could sit there all night if she wanted to, and we left, heading back up the street to our turn.

The street we missed was poorly marked, and once again, we did not see the street sign until we were too far beyond it to make the turn. To our good luck, there was an abandoned filling station immediately to our right on the corner adjacent to the street we needed to be on, and the empty lot would allow us to cut back across and complete our turn. So I maintained what little momentum we had left and shot across the empty lot at an angle. In the dark it was impossible to see the huge speed bump that had been installed to discourage people from doing exactly what we were doing.

I did not see the curb-sized obstruction but made an instant discovery when the front wheels struck it and came off the ground. Tony and I both came off the seat; my hands came off the wheel; and both feet off the pedals. No steering. No brakes. By the time we stopped bouncing the rear wheels did the same thing. The entire load ascended in the box part of that truck into the full six inches we did not fill before plunging back to the floor. The piano graced us with the ultimate chord as all 88-keys went down together on impact. The piano continued to resonate as the dolly and the puppy wagged along behind banging and clanking something terrible. When I checked the mirror, I was amazed that the puppy was still behind us.

Tony hollered, “keep ‘er rollin’!” And we did, shooting out onto the street and headed up the hill to the Holiday Inn. Through all of this, Memaw was still sitting in the parking lot about a half mile away and thankfully did not hear the musical confirmation that we made it over the speed bump. We pulled into the Holiday Inn and waited for about 20-minutes for the Caddy to show up. Flames were rising, and I had no clue that I was going to be the spark to set it off.

Memaw had finally arrived. Mel was still prone in the backseat, smoldering with the scent of Granger wafting out the windows. Memaw walked up to the driver’s side of the truck and wanted to know why we did not wait for her. “Why don’t you just drive off and leave me? What were you thinking?”

I considered a quick lesson of what to do when someone has risked their life…and everything YOU own to block traffic for you…but thought better of it. No answer was going to cool her off. She was tired, and she was nearing an incendiary moment. With her receiving no acceptable answer to quench her flash point, she stomped off toward the office to check us in. The check-in process seemed to take forever. The police had not arrived so we felt confident that Memaw had not gone postal at the hotel registration desk.

The look on her face when she came crashing through the office door spelled trouble. Tony sat back in his seat and muttered, “Uh-ohh!”

He had no idea, nor did I what had just happened until she grabbed the bracket on the outside mirror and hauled herself up onto the running board to give us the news. “They’re booked solid! This stupid horse show is in town and…”

Who knows why, but my trigger got tripped and I rudely interrupted her, my anger issues had finally reached the tipping point, “Let me guess…and you did not make a reservation.” To add insult to injury, I rolled my eyes and glared at her before adding some snarky sarcasm. “That’s just great, Memaw!”

No countdown. Just ignition and blast off. Shirley burst into flames and reached inside the cab to choke me, or whatever her rage had encouraged her to do. I was thankful she did not have an Uzi or she would’ve sprayed the inside of that cab until the clip ran dry. Tony would have been deemed acceptable lose of life at that moment. Memaw was in a forehead-vein-busting-spit-spraying rage, and I was shrinking back to remain out of reach and being thankful that she was too tired to crawl in through the window.

Then everything changed. She started to cry. Game. Set. Match. What a jerk I had just been to a woman who had given me the blankets the night before to sleep on while she and Mel slept on the floor with nothing. Ever had that moment where you know for a fact you’ve been a jerk? It’s humbling, let me tell you. So with tail between my legs I got out of the truck after she’d melted off the running board and hugged her to apologize. She sobbed that we have to go on to Charleston, WV. It was the first town with any hotel rooms open. And so we did.

Tony suggested that he drive the Caddy with Mel smoldering in the back and that Memaw ride with me in the truck since she was so tired. Sure, I was sorry for being a jerk, but I could’ve strangled him. My redemption came with a price. So we drove and we drove for what seemed a lot longer than an hour. The mood changed dramatically as Memaw did what she did best of all – talk. The truck was loud in the cab, so she had to talk over the noise. At several points I thought about driving over the edge and taking her with me, but I think that’s called murder; plus, I couldn’t give Tony the satisfaction.

The rest of this story shall remain untold. There were several more moments, including the one where I called Memaw out to the truck to hand her the magazine rack when we were unloading in St. Louis. I told her to put it anywhere she wanted as long as it was not in the doorway. She missed the joke entirely. That’s when it hit me. She truly was only trying to help in her small way back in Virginia Beach. She wanted to save me a few steps and queued up that freaking magazine rack over and over. She slept on a hard floor so I could have something soft. She taught me a couple lessons on that road trip. The most humbling was how to react when someone does something that is really irritating. I now believe it may be worthy of me considering their motivations before being so quick to rush to judgment. A moving adventure for sure, and I’d do again…with a little more humility.

For more humorous learning stories, try Scattered and Smothered

Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker 
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning