This saga began in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Bob Ryder and I had been covering the F-100 Supernationals. Bob had flown home to SoCal, and I was sitting in a hotel lobby flipping open my iBook when I got the call from Mickey Harris, the artist who painted the mural on the Heroes truck. He and his family were expecting me. Once I hammered out a story for Issue No. 10 and hit the send button on my e-mail, I hopped into my rented Pontiac Vibe and sped to Cocke County
Monday: Moonshine MargaritasNurtured in the isolated nooks and crannies of the Smoky Mountains, moonshining in Cocke County long ago receded as the illicit commodity of choice for black-marketers. But, the crafting of it remains a family tradition and a point of pride for some in the self-described Moonshine Capital of the World, and an accepted cocktail for locals who don't harbor their own still in an abandoned barn or secluded grotto.
I got to Mickey's farm in Cosby, about an hour after leaving Knoxville, and was immediately embraced by the hospitality of his wife, Laura, the appreciation of his daughter Rebecca and her boyfriend, Matt, and the skittish enthusiasm of a pack of Chihuahuas that ricocheted around like a handful of marbles tossed across a hardwood floor. I chatted with Mickey and his son Matt (an artist in his own right) about the Heroes truck's upcoming tour to Washington, D.C., listened to stories of derring-do from Mickey's father (an ex Air Force pilot), and sampled a "local" version of a tangy, blended drink. We wrapped up the evening at midnight, and I curled up with the rest of the baby bears at the nearby Cub Motel.
Tuesday: Turn Left At The HollerThe next morning, I overslept, skipped breakfast, and drove off for Washington, D.C. Blinking through sleepy seeds, I saw that the freeway signs read North Carolina (the wrong freakin' way). So I flipped a U on I-40, pausing at The Bean Trees Caf at exit 447. It's a cool place to get directions, a hot cup of joe, and a meal to tame a growly tummy. Five women emanating a Left Coast vibe run the place. Mustering my inner-hipster, I ordered a mocha and bobbled through a conversation. But, it was too soon after rising for me to serve up even a demitasse of charm, so I snapped some pics and drove away.
I was in a hurry but didn't need to be. My rendezvous with the Heroes truck wasn't until Thursday. Blame the espresso, blame the excitement that comes with traveling in unfamiliar places, blame the Dixie Dirt and Ray Charles tracks that fueled my mind, but I drove hard and fast with only one detour planned.
Two great tunnels pierce the mountains of Virginia, easing I-77's stretch through the southwestern part of the Commonwealth. Named Big Walker and East River, these are huge burrows built with blocky, post-modern utility but emanate permanence. I passed through both of them on the way to see a friend and car enthusiast, only to discover that the failure of his single remaining kidney had sent him to the hospital. Unable to do anything but worry, I continued on my way, arriving in D.C. that night feeling a mixture of anticipation and regret.
Note to travelers everywhere: Never try to find a hotel vacancy at the nation's capital on the same night that you need it. The worst rooms in D.C. share the distinction of being among the most expensive in the U.S. I had already made a back-up reservation weeks before at the Crystal City Hilton, because I had no idea what to expect as far as accommodations in the D.C. area. But, I cancelled it in favor of keeping my job. You see, Truckin' may be our parent company's No. 3 magazine in terms of gross revenue, but that doesn't mean that I can justify a room that costs $295 a night. After settling into a hotel that fit my budget, I sat by the window at midnight and stared at the Section 8 housing next door, as I ate a cheese sandwich for dinner. A rattling air conditioner kept me company.
Wednesday: Not Much To See HereNothing but the typing of a busy editor.
Thursday: Party At The PentagonThe Pentagon belies its status as the largest office building in the world. In fact, if it weren't for the sign on I-395 that reads "Pentagon," hinting that it must be nearby, hayseeds like me would never recognize the massive complex. From ground level, it lacks the five-pointed majesty evident in overhead photos. On the inside, however, it looks more like a bustling, well-appointed airport designed to keep bad guys out and good guys in. But, unlike the Microsoft campus, where perks such as free super-caffeinated sodas keep busy programmers chained to their desks, the Pentagon offers employees its own shopping mall.
I met truck owners Dale and Connie Ison, truck builder Jon Watt, Mickey, and the rest of the Heroes truck gang in the outdoor, grassy courtyard at the center of the Pentagon where people can take a break and buy pizza and hot dogs at two lunch stands. The casual atmosphere contrasts starkly with the submachine-gun-wielding guards, buzzing Blackhawks, and multiple ID checks at the front door. A short ceremony in this courtyard celebrated two paintings donated to the Air Force Arts Program by Mickey and his son Matt. After remarks by Mickey and the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Michael Mosely, the Heroes truck was unveiled.
The pickup captured everyone's attention. More Pentagon employees filtered out to the courtyard as word spread about it. They ogled the Heroes truck for hours.
Friday-Sunday: Heroes WorshipEach year, the Department of Defense puts on the Joint Services Open House at Andrews Air Force Base, located in Maryland about 15 miles from D.C. It's essentially an air show that showcases aircraft flown by the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines, and the Coast Guard. The event draws around a quarter million spectators.
Rain soaked the flight line on the first day, forcing the opening ceremonies into a cavernous airplane hangar. Service members-some in uniform and others in civvies and accompanied by their families-and journalists watched honor guards from each service parade piecemeal into the hangar and take their places in formation. Then senior military personnel marched in and stood at attention by their seats at the fore of the audience and facing the troops, and waited for the ranking officials to walk in. But, nobody came for 20 minutes. Finally, the troops got the signal to snap to attention, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers, entered the hangar, took his place at the podium, had his say, and then introduced Secretary of Defense Donald Rums feld. Once the Secretary made his remarks welcoming everyone to the event, he stepped into the crowd and glad-handed.
People swarmed around Rumsfeld like he was a rock star. Men jammed their hands into his for a drive-by handshake, photographers elbowed their way to the front of the crowd like defensive backs trying to strip a photo op from the competition, and young women giggled about how they lost their words when confronted with their one chance to make a passing remark to him. Eventually, Rumsfeld's aides cleared an escape route to his car, and he left. And with all the jostling and gee-whiz that buzzed about him, what stood out for me about the man? Oddly enough, it's that he's much shorter than I expected
Great weather prevailed over the rest of the weekend. Performances by the Air Force's Thunderbirds and their F-16s, flybys of the B-2 stealth bomber, a parachute drop by the 82nd Airborne Division, and other aerial attractions adorned the clear blue sky like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Ground displays of airplanes and helicopters scattered across the flightline like half-opened presents. I suspect that the Heroes truck drew just as much attention as the military hardware arrayed around it. Jon Watts demoed the truck by turning its engine on and off, lifting and lowering the body, and cranking the stereo when power permitted. Jon, Mickey, and Dale signed posters of the truck for passersby. Waves of gratitude washed across the three of them as grateful servicemen, moved by the patriotic theme of the truck, shook their hands, and showered them with coins bearing their unit seals and hard-won combat medals. Meanwhile, Dale continuously insisted that the honor was all his-a constant refrain that almost reduced him to tears.
We see so many custom trucks in this line of work that it's easy to get jaded. I still grapple with the "why" behind the upwelling of emotion toward this truck. Not even reaching back to my time in the military helps me to truly grasp it. Maybe it's this: While war inflames the passions of the American people for or against the merits of its endeavor, the military silently waits. And if they get the word, each service member must pocket their own fears or misgivings and go to work. They are the rubber that meets the road, and it's a long, hard road that lies before them. The Heroes truck chronicles their journey, and says thanks.