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- Tales of Adventure
Salt Lake Skeeter Saga
I once dragged a double-drop flammable load from our company yard in Otay Mesa, CA, to treatment facilities in Aragonite, UT, and Hannibal, MO. When I say double-drop, I'm not referring to a lowboy trailer; I embarked midmorning on Thursday, hammered out 800 miles and delivered half the load to the Safety-Kleen facility in Aragonite at noon on Friday, with the remaining half-load scheduled for delivery nearly 1300 miles away in Hannibal on the following Monday. The first drop was not completed until 1400 (2 P.M.) Friday afternoon, which left me in a quandary with regard to timing and traffic...
When I made this run in the year 2000, Salt Lake City was undergoing serious road construction with an eye toward the upcoming Olympics; with numerous detours, lane closures, etc., I knew the Friday afternoon clusterf#%! would be well under way by the time I drove sixty miles east from Aragonite to the state capital. After a moment of reflection, I reckoned that a bit of paid tourism was in order---I could "trash around" all afternoon and evening, grab a nap, wake around 0500 Saturday morning, and ease through all that road work while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was still sleeping.
Briefly consulting my atlas outside the gates of Castle Safety-Kleen, I resolved to take an afternoon boat ride on the Great Salt Lake. Having driven Interstate 80 past this body of water a thousand times with no opportunity to explore the nautical scene, this was the moment of truth... I would make my way to the South Shore Marina, book passage or rent a boat, and fulfill my lifelong dream of cruising Mormon waters with an ice-cold beer or stiff mixed drink in hand. Brigham Young, meet John Paul Jones, with a fierce alcoholic buzz and a disposition to match: "Arrrr!!! Pass the bottle... I have not yet begun to drink!!!"
It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and pleasant as I tooled east at eighty miles per hour, stereo cranked to the limit. I stopped in Tooele to throw a case of beer on ice, then drove another five miles to the South Shore Marina. Parking my placarded vehicle off to one side and killing the motor, I quickly pounded a cold beer while I studied the layout. One fair-sized commercial vessel seemed most promising, with numerous smaller craft hinting of further possibilities. Worst-case scenario: I would roam the docks, searching for a private party willing to exchange a boat ride for generous monetary compensation. My wallet was well-padded with C-notes from a recently-cashed paycheck, so money was no object when it came to securing my passage.
Stashing my empty in its original container, I descended from my truck and strolled down to the largest vessel, pausing at a signboard to examine and compare available excursions and respective fares. The "Sunset Dinner Cruise" sounded like the ticket, with visions of cold beverages at the rail followed by a delicious gourmet meal... this would spare me the trouble of scrounging a meal or slapping together a sandwich in my sleeper, and my mouth watered at the prospect of a juicy filet mignon with all the trimmings. Seeing a member of the crew emerge on deck, I hailed him and asked where I might sign on for the voyage. He turned out to be the skipper, which seemed fortuitous until he told me there was only one excursion scheduled on that day, as the boat had been chartered in advance by the "Class of '60" for its fortieth reunion.
"What, you mean I can't pay for a regular Sunset Dinner Cruise fare?," I enquired.
"No, I'm sorry, but the boat's already fully booked."
"Dude, I'm in that truck up there and I'm jonesing for a boat ride. I've sailed all my life and worked as a deckhand aboard an offshore fishing boat... let me go as a 'deckhand' and I'll give you a hundred bucks, steer clear of your passengers and nobody will be the wiser," I proposed.
To his credit, he considered my offer before politely declining due to "insurance reasons." While recounting this story years later, a friend told me I should have offered this skipper an additional fifty bucks. Maybe I should have... at the time, with no other cruises scheduled for that day, I chose to investigate alternate possibilities after sighting several small sailboats in the entrance channel of the marina. Thanking the skipper of the commercial vessel, I wandered over to the dock where the small craft were landing. There I encountered a sailing instructor who courteously informed me that these craft were not for rent, as they were used solely for instruction and every boat had a full complement of kids, with more kids standing around on shore waiting their turn. Strike two...
Bidding farewell to the instructor, I spent the next ten minutes roaming what few docks were left, looking for signs of life in every slip and pitching my "C-note for a boat ride" proposition to two or three nautical enthusiasts... much like soliciting hookers, I reckon, with the usual inevitable success replaced by dismal results and polite rejection. Aboard one boat, a man and woman were actually preparing to embark upon a romantic sunset cruise... I didn't bother pressing the issue with these folks, since their float plan was impeccable and we all know three's a crowd. Quietly embracing the harsh reality of limited nautical prospects, I admitted to myself that there would be no boat ride that day on the Great Salt Lake.
Squaring my shoulders, I walked back to the truck and reviewed my situation. To the north, Antelope Island loomed in natural splendor, an exotic destination in its own right. I decided to travel along the South Shore frontage road in roundabout fashion to see what opportunities for tourism lay in that direction. Firing up the truck and putting it in gear, I took one last look at the marina and slowly eased the rig forward. Winding 'er up to a whopping twenty-five miles per hour, I rolled toward Saltair Beach in Great Salt Lake State Park. Shoreline salt flats broadened on my left, reflecting the orange and yellow glare of the afternoon sun. Ducking through an underpass, I saw a VW Bug sunk to its rear axle thirty yards from the road, two guys furiously digging with inappropriate tools in a valiant struggle to free it. Other vehicles were visible in the distance, roaming the salt flats... a pickup truck carefully navigating the soft unreliable surface, two quadrunners and a dirt bike flying away on a tangent.
Looking ahead along the frontage road, I saw a turnout leading to this recreational area, with what appeared to be a hardened jeep track angling across the treacherous flats toward the now distant shore. Without hesitation, I geared down and swung the rig to my left, grabbing gears once I completed the turn just in case the jeep track was not as hard as it looked. There I was, dragging a placarded flammable load (Class 3 & 4) across the salt flats at thirty miles per hour, praying all the while that the f____r wouldn't bog down, heading for the beach to camp, kick back and watch the sunset. Approximately one-third of a mile out, I passed another stranded vehicle, this one only buried rim-deep (although it had oversized tires), with a guy behind the wheel and another at the rear bumper, pushing with all his might as I thundered past...
By this time, all other vehicles had come to a halt, with slack-jawed operators literally gaping at me as I roared down the jeep track. I began searching for a suitable parking area a half-mile out; I could now see the water's edge and I didn't want to press my luck by bringing the rig too close to shore. They say God watches over drunks and fools, and I wasn't drunk yet so I guess that narrows things down a bit---a hard-packed circular area similar to a cul-de-sac appeared directly ahead, just large enough for me to swing my truck around on the morrow and depart. Covering my clutch pedal in readiness for disaster, I brought the thundering rig to a dead stop and loudly set the brakes.
As I faced the afternoon sun, one vehicle remained in my field of vision: a pickup truck forty yards away, with the actual shoreline another fifty or sixty yards beyond. Two guys stood by this pickup, talking and gesticulating to each other in a frustrated manner. Leaving my rig on high idle with the A/C cranked, I unfastened my seat belt, crossed the companionway, slid over the other seat and leapt from the shotgun side, comfortably clad in shorts, combat boots and sunglasses. I landed with a soft thud on the flat, which prompted me to immediately check the tires for evidence of sinking. All seemed well, just a slight ridge of salt and sand built up around each tire, so I turned and walked toward the pair by the pickup truck.
As I approached, I could see that their vehicle was still riding high on the flat, although they were off the beaten track in a place I would not have particularly cared to venture. I held up my hand in friendly greeting as I walked up to them.
"What's up with you guys? You don't look stuck, and that pickup truck looks as if it's in good shape," I said.
"We're not stuck, my damned key broke off in the ignition," replied the driver, frustration and anger clearly written upon his countenance. I suppose he had an important agenda lined up for the evening, and he was stressing hard over this callous twist of fate. For the next forty-five seconds, I stood in that glorious afternoon sun and basked in its warmth as I listened to the poor sod relate "The Saga of the Key." When he paused for breath, I calmly leaned forward, looked into his eyes and asked, "Would you like a COLD BEER?" His train of thought was instantly derailed, so unexpected was this interrogative. He turned to stare at my placarded wagon, bad-a$$ tractor gleaming in the sun like some friggin' truck advertisement, then he looked at me again in total disbelief.
"You've got BEER???," he asked, in an incredulous tone.
"Damn right... on ice. Be back in a minute."
I trudged back to the truck, climbed through the shotgun door (it's easier to enter and exit a rig from this side), grabbed three bottles of lager out of my impromptu ice chest (two large plastic sacks lining a cardboard box), and returned to my new acquaintances with their promised attitude adjustments in hand. They gratefully accepted these beverages, and the three of us quickly cracked and pounded the deliciously cold liquid.
"Say, you wouldn't happen to have tools in your truck, would you?," the pickup driver enquired.
"Yeah, I have tools. Let me look at the key in your ignition."
Walking over to the pickup, I leaned into the cab to check the slot---the key, or what was left of it, was buried deep in the ignition. Needle-nosed pliers were out of the question, just as baling wire, tape, sewing needle, knife blade, magnet, etc., would serve no purpose. The only way to start his truck was to jimmy the steering lock and hot-wire the ignition like a friggin' car thief. THAT we could do with the tools I possessed, if he wanted to give it a shot. When I expressed my opinion, he considered it for a moment and then asked if I had a cell phone.
I plodded back to my idling rig, grabbed the cell phone and three beers, plodded back to the waiting pair and distributed the necessities. The driver called a friend or relative to set up a rendezvous on the interstate nearly a mile away. When he finished his call, he thanked me and returned my phone.
When he finished his beer, he stated his intention of hiking to the interstate in order to meet his party.
"Sure you don't want another beer?," I enquired, as I empathized with him in his plight, but he politely declined, bid farewell to his friend (who agreed to stay with the pickup until the cavalry arrived), and resolutely set forth upon his mission, never to be seen again by my eyes. However, his partner was a sociable fellow and an excellent conversationalist, so the two of us cracked another beer and stood in that glorious afternoon sun, chatting away like old friends and watching a fiery Salt Lake sunset slowly develop in the western sky. Additional beers flowed like water as the colors intensified.
Miles to the west, beyond the horizon, a wildfire raged out of control, spewing ash particles into the sky and enhancing the colors of the sunset in a big way... the reds, oranges and yellows were especially vibrant as we made repeated observations through the ends of our bottles. My new friend's excuse for drinking was that he had been appointed "designated guard" for the stranded vehicle. For my part, I was in trucker heaven, chillin' like a villain in the glow of sunset, pounding ice-cold beer and taking in the colorful panorama on the beach. What the f___, life could be worse...
As the fiery sunset waned and dusk began to fall, we were besieged by a droning horde of voracious Salt Lake skeeters, small yet fierce in their harrowing onslaught. We endured this pestilential assault for a good half-hour, periodically slapping ourselves as we strove to prolong our pleasant conversation. Soon our slaps became continuous, like some ridiculous sequence lifted from a Three Stooges flick. Sunset was over, and so was our conversation. I turned and spoke to my drinking partner as I delivered another ringing slap to my own face.
"Hey, man, these skeeters are tearing me up... I'm going to jump in my truck and pound another beer. I have stereo and A/C---you're welcome to join me if you want. Damn, these bugs don't know when to quit!!!"
He considered this offer while loudly slapping himself, then told me he was going to follow his friend's trail back to the interstate, just to see if he ever scored a ride.
"Okey-dokey. I'm outta here. Good talkin' to ya."
I turned toward my truck and he headed for the interstate, never to be seen again. As I approached my rig in the gloaming, I became aware of a puzzling new development. The truck was idling away as I expected: whether I'm driving, partying, or sleeping, I prefer a cool cab in warmer months and I often leave my engine running at high idle with the A/C cranked to the limit. On my last beer run, I had purposely left the dome light on in my sleeper; in the gathering darkness, a soft radiance illuminated every window in the truck. Attracted by this light and by the heat of the engine, a living veil, an entomological cloud---a colossal swarm consisting of thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes---surrounded the cab of my truck, producing a whine clearly audible above the steady hum of the motor.
"Holy sh!t!!!!!," I said to myself as I stopped in my tracks to assess the situation. I would have to be quick and agile upon entry, unless I wanted to be eaten alive. Running and leaping to the grabrail and upper running board on the shotgun side, I vigorously waved one arm in a sweeping motion to clear the area by the door. I reached for the door latch, pulled the door open just enough to squeeze through the gap, turned like lightning and slammed the door shut, all in the blink of an eye... or so I thought. As I congratulated myself upon successful execution of this Guinness World Record Book maneuver, I heard a familiar whining crescendo... despite my efforts, at least two hundred of the obnoxious blood-sucking little bastards had slipped into the truck with me.
Thus began my epic battle with the Salt Lake Skeeter Horde. Attila the Hun and his men had nothing on these pesky little f____rs. I probably killed a hundred that evening, pounding beers and uncharacteristically smoking cigarettes while slapping the sh*t out of myself and cranking my stereo to the absolute limit (an experimental form of audio-warfare employed to combat their incessant drone, this also served to mask the brutal slaps and painful cries of rage associated with my masochism). At the outset, I whacked several skeeters with each slap, and their chitinous carcasses piled up on the deck of my cab. Relentlessly continuing their assault, the remainder of my tormentors were smug in the knowledge that, sooner or later, I would tire from my exertions and fall asleep... at that moment, the truck would be magically transformed into an All-You-Can-Eat Class 8 Roach Coach, with yours truly serving as the only source of food for at least a hundred hungry skeeters.
With that dismal thought in mind, I resolved to consume as much alcohol as possible, not to dull my senses but to kill a few more of my enemies by subtle and nefarious methods---alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related gas, etc., etc. Beer followed beer and slap followed slap until I found myself staring at the last empty bottle. Out came the short dog of peppermint schnapps I keep hidden in the sleeper precisely for such an emergency... eventually, in an alcoholic stupor, I crawled into the lower bunk and covered all but but the upper half of my face with my blankets. The entomological symphony lulled me to sleep and I slept the sleep of the dead, never feeling the slightest discomfort as the skeeters gorged upon my blood. Kind of like multiple date rape, except this time the perps were hauling off the victim's bodily fluid.
I woke with a hangover at 0500, looking like a friggin' poster child for domestic violence, chicken pox, smallpox, and the German measles. Not an insect was stirring inside my truck; evidently, the little bastards had sated and concealed themselves, probably sleeping off the hangovers produced by my alcoholic blood. Peering through the windshield to ascertain whether any more of my winged little friends were waiting to board the Roach Coach, I flicked switches, grabbed my hammer and flashlight, and hastily exited the vehicle to perform my daily PTI (Pre-Trip Inspection). A cool breeze now blew across the salt flats, and I was relieved to discover that the air was free of insects. While bringing my "comic book" (driver's log) up to date, I opened both doors in the vain hope that some of my unwanted house guests would depart... no such luck.
Easing into gear and hitting my high beams, I flipped a bitch and wound 'er up as I headed for the frontage road. Once on the pavement, I turned west and drove past the Saltair Resort. Rich in history, the Saltair appeared lonely and desolate at this hour. I crossed an overpass and made my way onto I-80 eastbound, opening my windows as I hit freeway speed---an unsuccessful bid to rouse and clear the skeeters still on board. Cranking up the stereo and spraying citrus air freshener to rile my undesired hitchhikers, I thundered down the interstate toward the Mormon capital.
"C'mon, you bloodthirsty little bastards!!! Rise and shine!!! We're on our way to Hannibal, by God, and the Angel of Death has arrived!!!"
This last was a reference to yours truly... I planned to kill as many of the winged varmints as I could before climbing back into my sleeper. With the dawn, my little friends once more became active, but they were hindered by blasts of air from my open windows. Since I was wearing shorts, the Horde began to attack my calves, particularly the backsides, which were exposed to a broad opening under the skirtless frame of my air-ride seat. A vigorous round of calf-slapping saw me through the City of Latter Day Saints, up the grade, and over the Wasatch Mountains.
When the sun rose, the temperature inside the truck rose with it, and I decided to roll up the windows, sacrificing protection in favor of air-conditioned comfort. Now every inch of my exposed flesh was accessible to the hungry Salt Lake Skeeter Horde, and the battle raged in earnest across Wyoming and into Nebraska. Skeeters probed and skeeters died, although I no longer scored multiple kills with the fortuitous slap---their numbers were declining, and the survivors, hardened by combat, were more wary of the unforgiving hand. Exposed and often difficult to reach in time, my calves, underarms, and neck became targets of opportunity and took a beating in the struggle.
For my part, some of my "victories" (i.e. kills) came at a tremendous price, not in terms of pain or blood loss but in terms of dignity. In Nebraska, I distinctly remember delivering a resounding slap to the left side of my face, thereby ridding myself of one particularly obnoxious assailant, only to look over at a vehicle passing at that precise moment in the hammer lane, every face turned up toward me in shock and disbelief. Solid citizens with Midwestern values, the lot---some farmer on his way to town with the wife and kids. I mentally cringed at the thought of their inevitable conversation:
"George, that man was HITTING HIMSELF!!!"
"Martha, he's a TRUCK DRIVER..."
After a long day filled with distraction and mosquito death, I spent the night in a truck stop in North Platte, NE. By my estimate, I had whacked another fifty or sixty of my little malarial vectors---the odds were slowly tipping in my favor. Indeed, their ceaseless whine was less audible than on the previous night. I gloated as I lay in my bunk, even in the certain knowledge that the drinks would be on me the minute I fell asleep. I had eaten a variety of spicy condiments with my meals that day---jalapenos, onions, garlic, horseradish---in the crazy notion that my spicy blood would prove to be unpalatable. No dice... a restless night ensued, although, in fairness, this could be attributed to the condiments and not my blood-sucking little friends.
Dawn, Sunday: I'm flying down the interstate, windows wide open and stereo cranked. My swollen face feels like a thick sheet of India rubber. One glance in the mirror and I write off the possibility of meeting the woman of my dreams on this day and winning her tender heart. I look like some bizarre cross between a spotted leopard and the friggin' Elephant Man. With the light, the entomological onslaught is renewed, and I do a thumping hip-hop number on my lumpy calves. Masochism has become a way of life. It's going to be another long day...
I rolled into Hannibal that evening with about a dozen wily skeeters who had survived the trip. Easing down to the waterfront, I parked my rig in the vacant lot next to the old Mark Twain Hotel, locked the doors, and walked down the street to "The National" to buy a cold beer. The bartender took one look at my face and set my beer down without a word. When I loosened up enough to relate my skeeter saga, he roared with laughter and gave me an imported beer on the house. As I sat there on my bar stool, practically within spitting distance of Mark Twain's boyhood home, my thoughts turned to the great author and his wonderful sense of humor... how the great man would have appreciated the comical aspects of my situation! I lifted my glass in silent tribute:
"Here's to you, Samuel Langhorne Clemens! May you rest in peace!"
I downed a few more beers before returning to my truck. This would be the final chapter of the Salt Lake Skeeter Saga. Retirement was not an option for my remaining passengers. Folding the upper bunk against the aft bulkhead, I proceeded to violently swing a small towel into the highest corners of the sleeper. This was followed by a dose of cigarette smoke, with air freshener thrown in for good measure and my stereo cranked to the utmost limit. Sweet strains of The Dead Kennedys added ambience to the site of renewed death and destruction: "HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA, WHERE YOU'LL DO WHAT YOU'RE TOLD..." Ah, yes, the tide of battle was turning in my favor, and I foresaw total victory in the immediate future.
The last skeeter actually met his demise the following morning. The pesky little varmint made it to the grounds of my receiver, the Continental Cement Company, located on Highway 79 just south of Hannibal. Missouri Fuel Recyclers (MFR) have a facility on this property. The Omega Skeeter went to that Vast Malarial Swamp In The Sky as I waited in the dock for MFR employees to fork palletized drums and boxes off my truck. The silence in my cab became oppressive... I had become inured to the incessant high-pitched whine of flying insects since my departure from the shores of the Great Salt Lake. I carefully selected cheerful tunes to take my mind off my newfound solitude. Painfully-swollen features aside, I almost missed the bloodthirsty little bastards... the epic mobile conflict had ended at last, and there was nothing left to do except mourn the fallen enemy.