The man who wasn’t there

But I got ’tickish — ’losh ’tickish. The hopelessly drunk gentleman in the cheap suit, probably one of those lonely traveling salesmen we read about in old novels, did indeed have lots of bus tickets. The bus tickets unfolded, and the zigzag streamer hung in the frigid Indiana wind, illuminated by the bus’ running lights and the truck stop beyond.

The driver, the pale green lights of the bus’ instrument panel causing his figure to loom large, called down from his seat above the shining steel stairway.

“I don’t care how many tickets you have, you’re not getting on my bus in that condition. “His right hand poised on the air valve that would shut the door — his left hand, unseen, held who knows what.

Judging by the number of tickets, this poor fellow was scheduled to embark on a lengthy bus trip somewhere. Unfortunately, he had stopped at a bar this New Year’s Eve to celebrate the arrival of 1978. He must have gotten an early start — it was only 10 minutes after the celebrated moment. That unique moment — the arrival of 1978, like the arrival of 1958, one of my earliest memories, would never happen again. Or so I thought.

With the smugness of a drinker who finds himself stone sober on New Year’s Eve, I stood by in the event that the driver needed help. He didn’t. The salesman turned and started toward the restaurant. “Hey, don’t forget your suitcase,” the driver called out to the retreating figure. “Thansh — Happy New Year.”

I guess I should explain how I happened to be witnessing this sad scene in this cold, dark, windy outpost that I could only assume to still be planet Earth.

The then not so Old Hippie (wife Stephanie) and I had moved to southern Iowa, her home state, the previous summer. With Christmas approaching, her father offered to buy plane tickets to fly us back east for the holidays. I, in turn, saw this as an opportunity to bring our other vehicle, a 1950 GMC 100 pickup out to our place in Iowa from its storage in New Jersey.

I began the journey alone. The GMC and I crossed Pennsylvania and headed into Ohio using Interstate 80, the northern route. The wind off of the Great Lakes was phenomenal. I had to correct the truck’s steering whenever the wind was momentarily blocked by an overpass. Stephanie and our then only daughter, Jessica, flew over me at 500 miles per hour on to O’Hare, Moline, then Ottumwa. On the ground, I moved along at a steady 50 mph.

The massive cast iron engine block kept the antifreeze that was circulating through the heater nice and hot and even with the slow-turning, 6-volt heater fan, the cab was surprisingly comfortable. But I still had a few things to learn about the prairie winds. At one fuel stop, I left the driver’s side door open and walked around to the passenger’s side to look for something. The moment that I opened the passenger’s side door, the truck started to skid away across the icy parking lot with me in pursuit. Lesson: Open one door at a time or they will become sails and the truck will windsurf.

Enter Indiana — more of the same. An old windup alarm clock served as the truck’s timepiece. Stephanie, a midwestern girl, taped a reminder to its side, “Turn back one hour at Illinois.” Yes dear. I still had quite a chunk of Indiana to cover before I needed to set the clock to Central Standard Time. And that’s how I happened to be where I was on New Year’s Eve of 1978.

With a large coffee-to-go, I climbed into the truck and again joined I-80. Some minutes into the journey, snow began falling — lots of snow. Having heard stories of people trapped in Midwestern blizzards, I wasted no time in finding an exit. The truck was losing traction as I slid into a motel parking lot.

There, I was greeted by a strange sight. The motel staff was gathered around a television set, counting down the new year — but that was an hour ago. Ah. I thought, I must have wandered into Michigan — they must be in the next time zone. Indeed, much of the conversation was Michigan oriented. And so I thought until I sat down to write this story when my research showed Michigan to be in the Eastern Standard time zone.

For the most part the line marking the Central time zone follows the Indiana/Illinois border. An odd exception is a relatively small area at the top of the state comprised of the counties of Newton, Jasper, Pulaski, Porter, La Porte and Lake. (Lake County, incidentally, is where a child writer-to-be had a near tragic encounter with a Red Rider BB gun in the 1930s.) I had apparently wandered into this strange place where one can even be surrounded by a different time zone in 3 directions.

I called the LaPorte County Historical Society for an explanation, hoping for tales of county secession, Canadian annexation, deposed monarchs, jilted lovers and sabers at dawn. Alas, as it turns out, these counties merely chose to be in the same time zone as nearby Chicago for purely practical and mundane reasons of economy. Dang.

Well, I guess I’ll have to scratch Michigan off the list of states I’ve visited — I just wasn’t there. The man who wasn’t there wasn’t there again today.

First published on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2014. 

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