On his own turf, in his own home with his stunning young wife and precocious adopted daughter, Chuck Berenson was a different man from the firebrand we’d observed in the Idaho truck stop. Lean and tanned, looking more like a weathered cowboy than a seat of the pants trucker, he was calm, thoughtful, and keenly aware of those around him.
He didn’t use the f-word once, though that might have been because of little Diffie’s presence.
We took our time getting down to business. After first checking with us to make sure we’d be staying for supper and could wait on the heavy stuff, he spent his first hour off the road in deep conversation with his girls, 80-20. That is, 80% of his attention was on the five year old, 20% on her mother.
Not that he ignored us. We were included, and Carrie kept our coffee cups filled–as well as pointing out the bathroom after about the third cup.
Diffie helped her Mom set the table. She was good at it, too. A tad compulsive, even, making sure the silverware lined up just so on the proper sides of the plates. We were seeing a junior perfectionist in action.
The crockpot stew, bolstered by great slabs of whole grain bread fresh from the oven and topped with real butter churned from cream their lone Guernsey cow produced, came about as close to gastronomic paradise as a man could get this side of Wayne Bruce’s cooking. Even at my relatively young age of 25, I’d learned one thing about cooking of this quality.
It came from love.
I’d eaten meals prepared with negative emotions ruling the chef’s heart. Such dining was always a dark, deadly, desperate affair. This was much better.
My own efforts are…somewhere in between. Not negative, but certainly never the sort of things that would earn me the title of Chef Treemin, either. I could put food on the table that nobody would die from, but at best I’d be termed a camp cook.
After the dishes were cleared–simply stacked in the sink for the moment, which marked the Berensons as human–Carrie and her daughter disappeared into the living room. Home schooling going on, from what I could hear. Sounded like the little one already had her alphabet down, forward and backward, both. Not bad. I’d been six when I’d mastered reciting the alphabet backward. This kid had me beat by a full year.
But then I quit eavesdropping. Carrie had sliced up a pumpkin pie, with Diffie serving, before they left the kitchen. Our coffee mugs were topped off with a fresh carafe hot and ready.
Time to talk turkey.
Chuck got the ball rolling. “So, gentlemen,” he said, “talk to me.”
Jack Hill remained silent. After all, I was the sole owner of Rodeo Iron these days, and he wasn’t even listed on the paperwork. Not that I could have run the operation without him having my back all the way as an “unpaid consultant”.
I took a deep breath, a sip of coffee that burned my tongue, and started. “Bottom line, Chuck, Rodeo Iron is just about getting too big for its britches. As you know, we’re based out of Ovando, but not even really Ovando. The operation is sited on what used to be Trace Ranch property some miles back up on the dirt roads, tucked right up next to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. With satellite phones and Internet, that makes it possible–we can reach out and touch the world without leaving home, and all that–except for one thing.”
Berenson nodded. “Transportation.”
“Let me guess.” He looked thoughtful. “Any time you get a new supplier for steel, or a new route driver for UPS or FedEx, the bull manure hits the fan. Drivers get lost finding your place, or God forbid you need a few extra loads of steel in January right after a snowstorm when nobody but an off road oil patch driver would even know how to get through to you. If it’s Christmas time with UPS going nuts and you need a few small parts at the last minute, forget about it. Outgoing loads of finished products are even worse; some of the drivers never do show up, and you’ve had to quit doing business with more than a few of the flightier carriers.”
He paused, reaching for a fork as he realized he hadn’t yet tackled his pie. “That about it?”
“You’ve been reading my mail.”
“Well…how do you reckon it’s been going from my side?”
Whoa. Turn around is fair play, eh? Thankfully, I’d just shoveled a batch of pumpkin pie into my face. I thought fast, held up a wait-a-minute finger, swallowed, then chased it with coffee–which didn’t burn this time, though my tongue was still nervous.
“I’m guessing,” I said slowly, “that you’re having Hell making ends meet. Competition for any decent load is fierce, your cut of the revenue generally sucks, the federal and state regulators keep adding so much paperwork it’s ridiculous, and there are days when you go nuts trying to figure out how to pay for the Pete’s next engine rebuild or even a new set of tires without having to settle for low end recaps.”
I stopped there…because that’s all I had.
“Not bad, Tree. I’m impressed. So, what are you thinking we should do about that, you and me?”
The deal was done. From there on in, it was just a matter of hashing out the details.
Chuck Trucking, it turned out, had leased to larger carriers a number of times over the years, but the results had never been all that great. Huge trucking companies grab huge chunks of business, but they also carry huge overhead in the form of office administrative staff, dispatchers, repair shops with mechanics, losses due to accidents arising from having hired incompetent drivers, and the like.
Most often, including all of the last three years, Berenson had flown solo. He hadn’t been happy as a cog in somebody else’s big, grinding machine.
The lone trucker avoided many of the hassles that were part of daily life for the big outfits. He had freedom…but like all freedom, it came at a price. Hunting for loads, basically dog-snarling over the scraps left by the giants, was always an interesting proposition. Collecting his pay for loads hauled and trying to deal with all the regulatory paperwork had just about destroyed him before Carrie had come into his life; the former lot lizard didn’t mind the detail work, and she was good at it. Maybe not quite a Judi Minske clerical genius, but then, she didn’t have to be.
My original idea had been to give Chuck a trial load or two, see how that worked out, and then offer him more. Once we got down to brass tacks, it was clear that wasn’t going to be the way of it.
It was all or nothing, and we were voting for all.
“Tree,” he told me during our third hour of discussion, “we’d both be idiots not to do this. Right off the bat, you’ve got enough deliveries to keep me twice as busy as I’ve been for the past year, and at a rate that looks to me like I should be able to triple my gross and double my net. Not enough to make me Donald Trump or anything, but enough Carrie and I won’t have to give up this place–which was about to happen. Another six months at best, and we’d have been out of here.
“And on your side, you get a trucker you can rely on. Them snow drifts up near the Bob don’t scare me one little bit. I started driving in the oil patch, over in North Dakota, when I was in my early twenties. Most of the OTR guys I know, the long haulers that ain’t never been off the pavement in their lives, they don’t really even know what a full set of chains is really for. I’ve seen it happen, middle of the night in Oregon along the Columbia River, state troopers out there looking for the fool who ain’t chained up. More’n once, I’ve throwed on my coveralls, stuck one of them little flashlights in my mouth, been chained up all around and rolling while the pavement pounders were still bitching about it.”
Hill and I both had to grin at that. Living where we did, we understood chains, all right. Even the big tractors used by Trace Ranch to pull hay wagons out for feeding cattle in the winter, those had to be chained up, too.
We talked about the pros and cons of maybe bringing Chuck Trucking all the way in under the Rodeo Iron corporate umbrella. The cons won. Turned out Chuck ran his one horse outfit as a Sub S corporation, just like I did Rodeo Iron. We were two strong–some would say bull headed–men. It seemed pretty clear to both of us that we’d do better as contracted allies than with me as his boss.
What neither Jack Hill nor I mentioned, of course, was the repeatedly proven fact that getting too close to us could prove hazardous to your health. If our enemies were finally well and truly whupped, that would be one thing, but knowingly putting a five year old girl child like Diffie in harm’s way was out of the question. Better to keep a degree or two of separation.
It was nearly midnight when we took our leave, but neither Jack nor I minded. We’d be home before daylight, and both of us were wound up. As Chuck Berenson had surmised, transportation problems had been dogging us for some time. As Vice President Joe Biden once said about the Unaffordable Care Act, this was a “big f*cking deal”.
“Damn, Tree, look at that moon!” We were just about back to the highway. Hill was leaned forward in his seat, staring up at the sky.
I couldn’t quite get myself positioned right to look where he was looking without running off the road, so I stopped the car, got out–and stared.
Jack stepped out on the other side and stood there staring with me.
“Hungry moon,” I observed, not quite sure what to make of it. The clouds were blocking just enough of the orb to form two dark eyes and a black, gaping mouth.
“Kind of looks like old Pac Man.”
“Pack Man?” I was clueless.
He chuckled. “I keep forgetting how young you are, Tree. Pac Man was one of the early video games. He’d go around gobbling up the bad guys, trying to eat them all before they ate him. Or something like that; it’s been a while, and I only tried the game once or twice.”
“Huh.” I considered that while we climbed back into the Pontiac and got moving. It was getting downright cold out; I’d need to watch for black ice the rest of the way home.
“Way too major not to mean something,” I muttered after making the turn onto the pavement. “But what?”
My partner agreed. “That,” he said, “is the $64,000 question.”
We drove on through the night, together yet alone, each lost in his own thoughts.”