Our Bird encounters the Teamsters in an old trucking story that shows what it was like to be in St. Louis during a union strike.
It also is a commentary on how to live life asking the pivotal question of what would life be if you didn't do what you were meant to do.
Bird was only in his 20’s, and not nearly so clever, likely to survive or good looking as he is now. That would be his opinion, not his wife’s.
Bird had hair on the top of his head then, all brown and combed nice, and a face that was smooth and round, not squished and lined.
He rode with old John, who told him stories about what it had been like to be one of Merrill’s Marauders fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. These were usually ferocious tales, nearly all true , including atrocities committed by various Asians as well as the Marauders themselves.
John was the driver, and Bird was the attendant, on a bus that picked up children with cerebral palsy for school.
John and his wife had a half-dozen biological children as well as a half-dozen adopted children, 9 of the 12 already grown and out of the home.
“Why do you drive this bus, John?” Bird asked one morning after their first 2 or 3 trips. “I guess you need the money with all your children, huh?”
“No, actually Bird, I don’t really need the money although it’s nice to have a little pocket change. I just always have to have something to do,” replied John. “And besides that, look at these kids. How could you not do something for them after you’ve seen them. Look at that Kevin back there in his wheel chair grinning at us. He listens to what we say, don’t you Kevin, bright as a light.”
In response, Kevin stretched as much as he could in his chair, freckled face tilted up, mouth stretched wide gurgling a laugh.
“Wipe his mouth there for him, Bird. Kids like Kevin are a relief for me, something that makes me feel better away from my regular work. Hey, what’s your first name again? Bird’s your last name isn’t it? I don’t remember what you told me.”
“Just Bird’s good enough.”
“No, really what is it? I want to know.”
“Okay, it’s Luellan. My mother liked it. I don’t. So, just call me Bird, okay?”
John grinned, Bird blushed, and Kevin yowled, “Arrgh, arrgh, arrgh.”
Old John liked the attendant for his innocent looking embarrassment and for his attentive naivete listening to his stories. Nobody had called Bird “Grump” yet, least of all his wife, who usually knows the truth.
After several weeks of lifting wheelchairs, and assisting children in and out, John leaned toward Bird one day, looking first at Kevin in the rearview mirror, then lowering his voice. “Say, Bird, I’ve told you I’m a truck driver for Railway Express, haven’t I?”
“You realize there’s a Teamster’s strike going on right now?”
“Well, I saw something about it in the paper, but I don’t know anything about it. You aren’t short of money being on strike or anything, are you?”
“No, no, nothing like that. But you know a Teamsters’ strike can get rough, really rough, almost like a war.”
“Sure, sure, I guess it could,” said Bird, raising his eyebrows and thinking of John’s South Pacific tales, almost like a big movie in technicolor.
“Guys hauling things through the strike lines have had shots fired through the rear of their trucks. A guy I knew was whipped with a lengtrh of steel pipe after he got out of his tractor. It’s really rough.”
“Kind of out of the trench, and up the hill, eh?”
“Something like that. I have longevity. I’ve been a union steward, and now I’m a local chief. That means I can still drive my truck if it’s marked, but only if I haul critical things like drugs and bodies—things that have to go through no matter what.”
“Bodies? You mean dead people? You get a lot of extra money for that?”
“Sure I get paid, but it’s not the money. Teamsters have morals and ethics too. People still die during a strike, don’t they? Their bodies still have to go home for services. You wouldn’t expect their families to wait around until the strike’s over, would you? And people get sick. The pharmaceuticals have to go through.”
“Yeah, I see, John.”
“Anyway, I have to make a run to St. Louis late tomorrow night, and it gets a little lonely. Want to go with me?”
“Sure, I’d like to take a truck ride.”
“We’ll be just fine. They know me and my truck.”
That’s how Bird came to be standing on pavement in the dark and beside a rattling big diesel semi-truck with a cold, north wind pinging ice crystals around his ears.
“You got to go to the bathroom or anything?” old John hollered over the engine and the wind. “We won’t stop once we start.”
All Bird wanted to do was take the high step up into the warm cab, and settle in while John mumbled, incoherently to Bird, on a radio mike. They throttled up to full power through all the gears on I-70, and the engine was so loud and vibrating that Bird only heard John when he hollered.
“Raise your flaps, Bird. We’re taking off. The patrolmen know what I’m hauling, and where I’m going, so they close their eyes when I go by.”
Bird looked at the speedometer from time to time. It held at a steady 90 miles per hour going down the left lane past all the other traffic.
“We got to make time. Don’t worry, Bird. We’ll be fine. Relax, they’ll have a pot of coffee at the docks in St. Louis.”
Bird wasn’t worried. He knew he had lots of years left, and anywhere in America was the safest place in the world. It took years for him to get clever and grumpy. He thought maybe the heavy truck could hold the road better than most vehicles running over the ice crystals, and he fatalistically watched distant lights speed by.
Names on signs like Fulton and Wentzville passed in the night, and before he knew it, there was St. Charles and then St. Louis with heavy urban traffic and mile after mile of brightly lighted urban area. He hoped the cars got out of the way before old John‘s truck swallowed them under the hood like a shark swimming through fish.
The semi went down a ramp into a warehouse landscape spread out like a great plain with occasional street lamps and security lights standing lonely sentinel duty. Ice crystals still danced through the wind past them. His watch said 2 a.m.
In the distance, highlighted by half-dark aisles past the buildings, Bird could see huge orange glows against the sky—just like home when purposely set springtime prairie fires moved through the night.
As they got closer, he saw smoke climbing through the glow, then the huge bonfires by the buildings made with piles of shipping crates and scrap lumber.
Crowds of men stood around the fires, some of them carrying three-foot lengths of lumber like war clubs.
John’s truck crept past the crowds at what seemed now to be a very slow rate. Most of the men seemed to be either talking animatedly to each other, or hunkering over, wrapping themselves against the cold. A few of them turned to stare silently at the truck. When the truck stopped, a great crowd of them began to gather around it.
For the first time on the trip, Bird was feeling a little nervous. Staring faces, most of them older and more mature than his own, looked up at him without expression.
“Do all of these guys drive for Railway Express, John?”
“ No, kid, but they’re all Teamsters. Come on, let’s open the doors. It’s OK.”
As Bird opened his door, some of the men seemed to make way for him, but then he realized they were all trying to get to the other side of the truck toward the swelling sound of conversations. He joined them trying to press his way to John.
John was there on the other side of the truck, a dozen men trying to talk to him, one of them with a hand on his shoulder in supplicant-like gesture.
John gestured Bird to his side, and said, “Come on inside. Just stick right by me kid wherever I go.”
Bare light bulbs hung suspended by long cords in the warehouse that spread out like a giant cavern before them. John pulled Bird with him as he and a half-dozen other men went into a glassed-off corner office while a couple-hundred other men stood outside the windows. John poured a cup of coffee, shoved a steaming styrofoam cup into Bird’s hands, and took a second cup for himself.
“This is my friend, Bird. He’s OK,” John said.
The others shook hands with Bird, and one of them, a short, dark man with black, oiled-back hair and hard brown eyes that looked directly into his kept Bird’s hand in his own for a moment.
“My name is Benny,” the man said. “And, what would you be to John, a relative?”
“No,” said Bird. “I work on a bus with him, taking kids with cerebral palsy to school.”
“Part of his hobby then. Good, good, I bet the two of you enjoy that, visiting and everything.”
“Yes, John’s told me all about his World War II experiences.”
“Good, good,” said Benny turning his attention back to John who had kept talking with the others, but also had watched Benny with Bird.”
“What are they trying to pull here, John?” one of the men was asking. “We specified we’d compromise on the over-the-road rate close to where they were at, and now Brown’s stalling. What do we do?”
“We hang in there, John said looking at Benny who was nodding,“They’re stalling, and we can stall longer than they can. They know it. We’re hurting them. All the membership’s with us. Our men have stayed here on the docks. The companies couldn’t even lock us out.”
“Can we ask the men to hang on much longer?” another man asked. “They need paychecks, not just promises.”
“I’ll talk to them,” said John swallowing the last of his coffee.
They tipped a heavy crate over on the warehouse floor for John to step up on. He raised his arms to the couple-hundred already there and the others coming in through the doors. Benny and the others from the office stood at the foot of the crate. Bird leaned against the wall by the office door knowing he was very, very tired.
“Men,” said John, “we’re close, really close. We’ve made our points, and we’re going to get the increases we want and the benefits we want. On article one of our list....”
Bird listened to John outline a contract that meant nothing to him. He hoped it wouldn’t last long, so they could go home.
Finally, when his ribs and back began to ache, and he could hardly hold his head up, they were walking back to the truck. It was 4 a.m.
They drove past the smoldering bonfires, out of the city lights to meet the foggy gloom and early-morning diminished traffic to where they started. Bird couldn’t sleep thinking of the sights he’d seen.
In the parking lot, old John tapped his forehead to the steering wheel, and looking up, said, “Well, Kid, I made it again. Thanks for going along. It was good having company.”
“Glad I could go, John. It was a different experience.”
“You know that guy, Benny, you were talking to?”
“Yeah, he seemed a little different.”
“He’s killed three people that I know of. He’s mob,” John nodded his head watching Bird who was looking back at him with eyebrows half-furrowed in disbelief. “They have an interest in this too, and he watches what I do.”
“Golly, John. Why do you mess with such a thing? You could just work some job like you do with me. Take an early retirement or something.”
“I can’t shoot Benny or control him or his group without help from somewhere. It’s a tough world out there for guys like you and me, Bird. We just want to work and get along.
"I haven't always done what I should have done, and I'm a simple type of a guy. But I decided I didn't want to finish life short.
"So, I decided I have to do it becaus it's there. I'm expected to carry on in life. It's what I am.
"I'm trying to be what I was meant to be. Somebody has to serve, just like I did in the Marines. They expect me to lead them, and who am I not to do it for them?
"I don't mean to be preachy, Bird, but what would life be if you didn’t do what you were called to do?”
Copyright 2008, Jerry W. Engler
Site: Jerry W. Engler
Reader Reviews for
"The St. Louie Bird Call"
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|Reviewed by Jean Pike
|It's a good story, Jerry. Nice characterization of the two men. The action moved seamlessly from point to point, reaching it's very well taken "moral." I like it :-)|
|Reviewed by Cryssa C
|Wonderfully written story! You completely drew me in with your mesmerizing words. Maybe it helped that the little stretch of I-70 between Wentzville and St. Charles (O'Fallon to be exact) was my home for the past 4 years... so I could ride those ice crystals with Bird and could recognize those signs. :~) It took me home again.
But... What I loved most about the story was John and his quiet teaching of doing the right thing... doing "his" thing in a quiet and unobtrusive way...yet through his actions teaching and lifting and helping others, including Bird. It made me think of those in my life who I have learned the most from...they didn't teach with just their words, but by example, and that is what made me want to emulate them. Mere words are empty without the actions to back them up.
And... John endeared himself to me when he explained why he drove bus for those with cerebral palsy. Those with handicaps often have SO much to give, but are discredited because they may not look the same...when in reality we all have our handicaps and disabilities...some just aren't as easily visible.
|Reviewed by P-M Terry Lamar
|Very well done. My husband used to be a trucker - actually a lorry driver in England. He was a union rep to the place he worked. He had some difficult times and I know he like this story.
|Reviewed by JASMIN HORST SEILER
|Jerry our trucker friend Ann should really enjoy this, I hope she is reading this, you are as I said before a great story teller, keep on trucking, story tellers make life real interesting. Blessings!
|Reviewed by Gianetta Ellis
|You have a way of drawing the reader in to an almost instant intimacy with your characters. It's like walking in on a conversation between friends. It's amazing how well I feel I know these characters after such few lines. And, you know - the last line was pure perfection.|
|Reviewed by Mr. Ed
|Yet another most captivating story, my friend; it kept my attention throughout. And I love those last lines!|
|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|Great story, Jerry; very well written! Enjoyed~
(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in Tx., Karen Lynn. :D
|Reviewed by Elizabeth Price
|I'm glad I came upon this story. I have a few trucker friends. But mainly I was captivated by your easy suspenseful style. I'm a Missourian, mainly the west part and your name is familiar to me. Great write. Liz|