Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hospitality on 18 wheels

According to Google, hospitality is “the friendly and generous reception of guests, visitors and strangers.” I would add “good food, a comfortable bed, and lively conversation.” By these criteria, my youngest brother Dave treated me to fine hospitality, albeit in unusual surroundings. During a recent five-day visit with him, I stayed in his home away from home, the International Eagle 18-wheel semi that he drives for Erb Trucking.

The week before, Dave had driven out to British Columbia from Ontario with my 89-year old mother on board for a visit with the western contingent of our van Schaik family: brothers Rich and John in Vancouver and the baby of the family, my sister Patricia in Powell River. We all gathered in Vancouver on the weekend that Dave and my mother arrived and celebrated Patricia's 50th birthday. Then my mother flew back to Ontario and I hopped in the cab for the drive back with Dave. It gave us a chance to spend long hours with one another and rediscover the connection of siblings.

When we were growing up on our farm near Mount Forest, Dave was on the periphery of my attention: a thin young rascal with cow-licky sandy hair, habitually dressed in a tan T-shirt, dark brown pants and white-toed running shoes. Richie, Dave and baby Patricia made up the “little kids.” The older brothers John, Steven along with me made up the “big kids.” Peter hung in the middle, neither big nor little.

As the oldest of the clan, and my working mother's stand-in housekeeper, I was too busy sweeping floors and too immature to appreciate my siblings' unique personalities.  I thought my brothers were annoying nuisances. They used to call me “The Boss”, and bossy I was. “Pick up your clothes! Clear the table! Keep your dirty boots off my clean floor!” I don't remember harbouring warm tender feelings towards them.

If I was the Boss, then Dave was the Helper. He willingly pitched in with farm chores: milking cows, stooking hay bales, handing tools to my father when the cultivator broke down. As a young man, and then an adult with his own young family, he continued his helping role, spending a good portion of his career leading L'Arche communities, inspired by the example set by L'Arche founder Jean Vanier.

A natural connector, Dave is the one to organize family reunions and offer his home as the venue. He's the one who makes the regular phone calls and stays in touch with family in Canada and abroad with an annual Christmas letter. He's the one who is most likely to suggest to my mother that they make the long trek from southern Ontario to Ottawa to visit John and me in Wakefield, my mother's old friends in Ottawa, and friends in Arnprior from the years that he and his family lived there. And yet, I rarely spend time alone with Dave: our phone calls usually center around family news, and during visits there is always family present, children to play cards with, meals to be prepared, and others to converse with.

So here we were, youngest brother and oldest sister, five days captive in the 6'x8' space of the semi's cab. If we didn't get along, it would be the week from hell. It was anything but.

The rig and its load
First, I discovered life on the road, starting with the truck and its load.

You've probably seen Erb trucks on the highway. The cab is fire-engine red, the trailer white. The same bright red displays the company name and its slogan 'Another Cool Move' on each side of the trailer. Even though the lettering looks as if a high school student back in the 60s dreamed it up, Dave set me straight: the slogan refers to the fact that Erb ships only refrigerated items. Hence the “cool move”. In truck parlance, refrigerated trailers are called “reefers.” Nothing to do with the marijuana that may or may not have influenced the Erb company logo and slogan.

Dave's rig, like he himself, is middle-aged: it's seen roughly one and a quarter million kilometers and lost its new vehicle smell ages ago. Two tan upholstered bucket seats with fold-up naugahyde armrests and serious lumbar support made for comfortable, if somewhat bumpy, rides. The driver's console displayed enough switches and gauges to rival a pilot's cockpit. Three extra-large cup holders were molded into the lower half of the console, and three more hugged the inside edge of the passenger seat. Truckers, who typically drive 11 to 13 hours a day, drink a lot of coffee.

The rear of the cabin boasted two comfortable bunk beds, each with a decent foam mattress and convenient bedtime reading lights. Thick industry-grade plastic curtains in a dull brown separated the front of the cab from the sleeping quarters. Similar curtains could be pulled across the side windows and windshield, affording complete privacy. Dave gave me the lower berth and levered himself onto the top bunk by placing a foot on one of the several cupboards bumped out from the walls. One cupboard contained books and CDs. Another, fastened with a bunjee cord, held an accordian file folder and Dave's backpack with his two changes of clothes. A toolbox with screwdrivers, a drill, flashlight and other tools sat in the cupboard right behind the driver's seat. A 5' x 2' piece of plywood, tucked against the back wall served as Dave's yoga board. To ease the inevitable stiffness that accrues from hour after hour of sitting, he does yoga stretches morning and night. Dave's thoughtfulness as a host extended to anticipating the female nightly pee. Hidden in one cupboard was a white plastic portable toilet, complete with seat and cover that he had bought at a garage sale. Inside, a removable green plastic bowl. (I took responsibility for dumping the contents in the morning.)

Various cables crisscrossed the floor of the cab, supplying power to a battered blue refrigerated picnic cooler -- another garage sale find -- and to Dave's two computers. The first looked a bit like an ancient Etch-a-Sketch toy. It connected Dave to Erb's dispatchers back in the home office. From time to time it would beep urgently and Dave would haul it onto his lap. At a break in traffic, he would check whatever message the dispatcher had sent him. The second computer, a heavy IBM Think Pad, displayed “Streets and Maps” which gave him directions on how to get from point A to point B. Dave admitted that he's too cheap to buy a GPS.

We constantly checked Streets and Maps. Starting out from Vancouver, our initial destination was Salem, Oregon. We were almost at the bridge, ready to cross to the U.S. when the Erb computer barked sharply. Dave pulled over to the side of the road. “Holy moly,” he said as he read the message. A last minute change of plans meant finding somewhere to do a U-Turn and head north to Pitt Meadows (where was that?) to pick up 40,000 pounds of frozen organic blueberries. I fired up Streets and Maps and acted as navigator. Our route then took us through the Rockies and the northern border States to Hartford, Michigan where we unloaded the blueberries. There, a switch of trailers and we ferried 30,000 pounds of some Campbell Soup product back to the Erb truck yard near Kitchener, Ontario.

Except for one pancake breakfast, we bypassed truck stop food, which is probably why my brother is considerably slimmer than most of the truckers we saw. He had prepared ahead of time all the meals for the week. Our menu rarely varied. “That way, I don't have to spend a lot of time planning meals,” Dave said. Breakfast consisted of diced apple chunks in yogurt, sprinkled with walnuts. Lunch was chicken salad on a soft baguette. Morning and afternoon, we snacked on carrot sticks, green beans, snap peas, radishes and red grapes, all neatly portioned and packaged in re-usable plastic bags. Our dinners were chicken or beef stew topped with rice and then mixed vegetables, all of which had been frozen in a serving-sized glass containers before the trip and placed in the cooler, where they gradually thawed out over the week. About mid-afternoon, we placed one of the frozen containers inside a metal-lined lunch box, which had a heating coil in its base, and plugged it into the cigarette holder. Two to three hours later, the food was piping hot. I spooned half the mixture into a small yellow plastic bowl for myself; Dave slid the other half into a wooden maple bowl, then set that bowl within a larger and flatter cherry bowl that acted as his tray. He had turned both bowls himself on his home lathe. We drew forks and knives from a black milk crate that carried odds and ends, including cloth napkins that did for the week. Meals were always eaten while rolling. Dave ate with one hand and drove with the other. During this week, I served as waiter. When my brother is on his own, he sets the cooler in between the front seats, right behind the gear shift, and places the milk crate on the passenger seat. His right arm takes on the swing and precision of a robotic instrument as he reaches across the cab to retrieve food, utensils and computers.

We spent an average of 22 hours out of every 24 in the truck, eating, talking, reading, and sleeping. About every six hours or so, we would locate a “Flying J” or “Pilot” truck stop and allow a half-hour break to use the bathroom and make a quick call home. Every couple of days, Dave filled the gas tank to the tune of $800. The truck stops also served as our sleeping campground. At the end of a long day, we nosed into the parking lot, already nearly full with row upon row of trucks, many with engines constantly running. Once I got used to the continuous drone, it made for a rough but effective lullaby and I slept decently. A couple of mornings, we treated ourselves to hot showers, $10 bucks each, with the second one free if the driver had a Pilot loyalty card. Which of course Dave had.

Waiting and connecting

When I told friends that I was going to be driving across the country in an 18-wheeler, everyone, including me, thought it would be quite an adventure. But Dave doesn't romanticize his work: much of the time you're not doing anything but driving....or waiting. When offloading, for example, you can spend two or three hours or even half a day waiting. Waiting for someone at a loading dock to give you the okay to back your truck into the dock. Waiting for the okay to open the back doors and get ready to be offloaded. Waiting for the forklift operators to remove the load. Waiting for the paperwork to be completed at the front office. Now repeat the entire waiting game for accepting a load.

Truckers have profound patience,” Dave told me.

We were on the road from about 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night, covering an average of 1100 kilometers per day. But we were never bored. We dissected family dynamics, and shared our very different memories of what it was like growing up in the same family. Dave admired my parents for living their Christian faith so rigorously. We both remembered the many different people who had stayed with us, some for years. They were all disadvantaged to one degree or another, from those who had Down's syndrome to lost souls looking for a refuge, to a family of Vietnamese boat people. Not nearly so generous in spirit, I recalled having mixed feelings: admiration, yes, but also a yearning for times when siblings and parents might be together just as family.

My brother and I discovered that we both loved poetry, and our conversations were often sprinkled with bits of poetry. Dave was making his way through Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy, and I shared favourites of my own. We read letters and stories about our family. We mused about Dave's former life as Executive Director of various L'Arche communities. After a serious burn-out about seven years ago and tired of hiring and firing, he decided to make a radical switch and turned to trucking. “It has saved me,” he grinned. “I no longer need to help anyone and everyone whether they want it or not,” he said. “Most runs, I'm all by myself. I have literally hours and hours in which to contemplate life. Some days I almost feel like a monk.”

L to R, Annette, Dave, Luke, Cathy, Andy and Monica
Don't take that too literally. Happily married to Cathy, his wife of more than 25 years and his beloved 'anchor', Dave is definitely not a monk. He and Cathy have raised four remarkable children. They adopted their youngest child, Andy, a boy of Asian heritage who has Down's syndrome. Growing up, Andy was never coddled and always encouraged to take responsibility and stretch himself. Now a handsome young man of 21, Andy holds three part-time jobs, pays rent for the apartment that his father carved out of their home (Dave and his renovation mania is another story), shops and cooks for himself, and, this fall, will enter Lambton College to study community living. Meanwhile, Luke is making his way around the world after teaching English as a second language in Korea, Monica is working with people with autism and plans to obtain her Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) certificate, and Annette is a talented hair stylist. 
As I recall the range and depth of our conversations during those five days, it seems to me that my youngest brother has much to teach me about what makes life so wondrously rich: as he himself noted in his 2012 Christmas letter, “good old-fashioned practical love”. The kind of caring for others that doesn't boast, doesn't preach. The kind of love that lifts the Scripture verse from the page and sets it squarely in action in the world. The kind of love that is evident in the small gestures of daily life: a smile to the clerk at the truck stop's cash register; the cock of the head and careful listening to the young forklift operator at the loading dock; the regular phone calls to check in with family and Mom.

Dave's a guy who's comfortable with the non-conventional choices he's made, comfortable to be around, and who takes each day humbly and whole-heartedly. Not to mention, with generous and friendly hospitality.

Can you tell I'm proud of my little brother? I am. And today, April 10th, is his birthday. So happy birthday, Dave, and keep on truckin'!

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