Benny Doolin and a Jump Start
May 1, 2013
When Benny came running out to meet me in the parking lot I thought to myself, “He’d been waiting for my arrival all morning.” I hadn’t even turned off my motorbike when he walked happily towards me, asked me my name and told me there was a fresh pot of coffee brewing inside. I turned off my bike, unstrapped my helmet, placed it on the seat, then removed my gloves and stuffed them in my pocket as I followed Benny inside the small convenience store at the gas station in the rolling hills of western Kentucky.
Benny inquired as to where I was coming from and where I was going to. “The open road to freedom,” I replied. He rolled back in the chair he had taken just inside the entrance of the store and laughed a toothless laugh that shed more sunlight on the already crisp, sunny morning that greeted me on Tuesday. I intended to awake early to the sound of my alarm, but the birds greeted the new morning with such a symphony of song that I awoke before my alarm sounded. I lay there listening to the Kentucky woods welcome a new day. I recorded the sound thinking I might be able to create a personalized digital alarm on some device of my making.
Benny drove trucks his entire life. He’s two months from retirement. He said he’s going to buy a motorcycle and travel too. He told me about his days on the road. He drove all over the United States, but never New England. The roads of New England have a reputation among truckers, he said. They’re narrow and the towns are small. He prefers the wider, open roads of the Midwest and West. Once when he was traveling on a personal trip he was pulled over by a policeman in Florida who found pot on him. He was fined a couple thousand dollars, if I’m remembering correctly. This story led him into a ramble about how marijuana should be legalized and how alcohol, in his opinion, is more dangerous. He wished he had some to smoke right now. I thought his story meant to test whether I had some to give him. Clad in my black leather and boots, perhaps he thought I fit the bill. Alas, all I had to offer was some conversation and some photography, which got him laughing again. He gave me his address so I could print and mail him some pictures.
Somewhere in that 45 minute conversation a fellow walked into the store and asked me if that was my motorcycle out in the parking lot with its lights on. “Shit!” I declared, and ran out to remove the key. But first I tested if the bike would start. Dead. I walked back in the store and told Benny my dilemma.
“No problem, I’ve got jumper cables in my truck.”
“Thanks, Mate!” I replied in an Australian accent. That got another toothless laugh out of him.
As I was preparing to leave Benny said a push start would probably do the trick. He grabbed another man from the store, I hopped on my bike and with not more than a few steps the motor on my bike was humming again. I circled back around the lot to thank Benny and the generous stranger, gave a last wave and was on my way to the Mississippi River and out of the last of the rolling hills of western Kentucky.
By mid-afternoon the Mississippi River stretched out before me. My view was to the south the way it twisted between Kentucky and Missouri from the town of Wickliffe . I had seen the Mississippi as a child when my family took a vacation to Hannibal, Missouri. But a child’s memories are different. Then, the river was about Mark Twain’s stories of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Now I looked out across this powerful body of water and wondered at what the early pioneers thought as they stood on its eastern banks with their wagons, oxen and horses considering its crossing and what lay beyond for them. The young European settlers of this new nation took on risks that I believe a greater populace today finds unimaginable. It’s not that we don’t have risk-takers in this 21st century world, but the sheer number and percentage of people who take those risks just doesn’t seem to compare to 18th and 19th century America. I felt the spirit and energy of that movement west as I stood on the banks of the Mississippi.
In Wickliffe I had to stop for gas before crossing into Missouri. I paid Kathy for my gas (“No credit cards – too many drive-offs”) as Joy served me a scoop of cookies and cream and one of strawberry shortcake into a waffle cone. They inquired about my travels. I told them and with that they said I needed to stay in Kentucky one more night in order to visit a small Civil War battlefield just down the road. I was curious. I felt Kentucky tugging at my shirt tail urging me not to leave just yet. So with their directions in hand, I hopped on my bike and traveled south 15 miles rather than west across the Mississippi that afternoon. But before I left the gas station Kathy shouted a few words of wisdom: “Listen to the advice of the locals before depending on that GPS of yours!”
30 minutes later, after stopping to photograph some of the flooding from the recent storm front I eventually escaped in northern Tennessee, I landed at the most peaceful state park settled on a lightly forested, manicured hillside.
This is where the Battle of Belmont took place. In 1861 the confederacy stretched a hug chain across the river to prevent Union ships from passing. By 1862 the Union had defeated the small Confederate contingent defending this area.
The following morning I got on the road early again. Before crossing into Missouri I stopped for breakfast at a small restaurant where I met Jean Thomas Belanger, the first person I met with a New England connection. He was sitting alone sipping his coffee as I ate my eggs and pancakes. I noticed he kept looking at me. He had that look of wanting to talk, so I welcomed him to sit with me. When I told Jean I was from Vermont, he exclaimed in a thick accent I could not yet identify, “Vermont!” He declared he was originally from Quebec, but had lived in New Hampshire most of his adult life. He retired to Kentucky because he claimed the taxes were too high in New Hampshire.
“Why Kentucky?” I asked.
“Because my daughter lives here.”
“How did she come to live here?”
“She was in the military and Kentucky was one of the places she was stationed. She told me it was cheap to live here. So my two sons, my daughter and I moved here. I used to pay over $5,000 a year in property taxes in New Hampshire. Now I only pay $268.”
All the while Jean is speaking to me I can hardly understand a word he’s saying. He has such a thick Quebecqua accent. I’m wondering how any of the locals understand him. I have to ask him to repeat himself after every other sentence. Jean Belanger was the first person I met who left New Hampshire because taxes were too high. In New England we know of New Hampshire as the place where you go to avoid paying too much tax. Life’s full of irony. When I asked if I could take his picture he enthusiastically consented. The lines on his face told a thousand stories. One story he told me was about his days working in the paper mill in Berlin, New Hampshire. It’s a town north of the White Mountains near the Maine border. When I told him the mill had closed down some years ago, he was surprise, but only for a moment before he launched into his next story, which he shared with reflection and fondness. He had labored hard his entire life, something he was obviously proud of. And so he should be. We walked out to the parking lot. He wanted his picture taken in front of the restaurant sign.
By 9 o’clock I had crossed the great Mississippi into Missouri. The road opened up into vast, flat fields that told a story of America’s bread basket.
I’ll be visiting with my friend, Jimmy Pierotti, for the next few days. I’m staying on his farm in the Ozarks. More on Missouri, Jimmy, his family and the charity and love that I’m gifted to experience with these beautiful people.
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