It seemed straightforward enough. The Appalachia Service Project (ASP) needed a new forklift for their warehouse in Johnson city, Tennessee. My friend Jack was in the used equipment business, so all we had to do was raise about eight thousand dollars and find a good used forklift for that price.
I obtained a mailing list from ASP headquarters, and sent letters to all the churches that had sent mission teams to work with ASP in the past. The necessary money flowed in, and Jack found the ideal forklift right here in our hometown, Racine, Wisconsin. Then it got complicated.
One cold December afternoon, we loaded the forklift onto a flatbed trailer, hooked on to Jack’s old International tractor truck, and headed for Tennessee. About three hours into our journey, somewhere in Indiana, Jack said, “Something doesn’t sound right.” I trusted Jack to know what he was talking about, because to me, that old diesel truck always sounded as if something was about to break. We turned into a huge truck stop where Jack listened to the engine, and declared it to be near terminal. Meandering into the dining facility, we found a seat and Jack called his wife to come rescue us. Three hours in a truck stop, eating bad chili and drinking strong coffee; not what I had in mind when we left Racine. Charlotte, Jack’s wife, was probably not thrilled either about heading out at night to drive through Chicago to pick up two grumpy men. Arriving back in Racine after midnight, Jack said he’d figure out what to do, and call me in the morning.
Early the next day, I picked up Jack at his house, and drove to Milwaukee where he rented a tractor, an International COE (Cab Over Engine) with a very hard to shift transmission (more about that later). We came back to my house to drop off my car, and then drove off in a blinding snowstorm back to Indiana and Tennessee. I clearly recall seeing my wife, two daughters, and my mother (who was visiting us at the time) staring out the living room widow as we departed. Were they filled with trepidation or were they simply astonished by our foolishness? Jack, looking at the snow coming down, said, “You’d better buckle up and hang on.” Fun times.
Back at the truck stop, we unhooked the trailer and attached it to the rental truck. We traveled without further incident all the way to Corbin, Kentucky where we stopped for the night. Good thing too, because the next day would be a long one.
Try not to hit anything
Next day, we made our way to Johnson City, arriving at the ASP warehouse around mid-morning. The forklift got unloaded, but the new operators promptly got it stuck in the mud. So Jack used his truck to get it unstuck, and we left the happy ASP crew to play with their new toy. I think Jack mumbled something about Louisville but I was a little surprised when we pulled off there on the way back north. I found that his objective was a used articulated front end loader that he had purchased for one of his customers. We got that big thing onto the flatbed, and headed out once more. I started thinking about supper and another motel room. It soon became evident that that was not the plan. Somewhere in southern Indiana, Jack pulled off to the side of the road and said, “I need you to drive for a while so I can think. Try not to hit anything, because I didn’t put your name on the rental agreement.” OK. It’s winter. There’s icy spots on the road. It’s dark out. The stupid shift lever is hard to move and, oh by the way, I’ve never driven a truck like this! So you go ahead and think, while I death-grip the steering wheel, try to shift without grinding the gears, and pray.
About an hour later, I pulled into the truck stop which was beginning to feel a little too much like home. It was then I noticed that the pavement looked kind of shiny; ice shiny. We were approaching a building, behind which was parked Jack’s old truck. I hit the brakes to slow down to turn. Trucks, especially big trucks loaded with heavy equipment, operate somewhat less responsively than my car does. The whole mess was just sliding along on the ice, my death grip exerting maximum force until the truck shuddered to a halt and the engine stalled. “I’ll take it from here” Jack said.
Behind the building, we saw another driver having ice trouble; basically his tractor-trailer was not moving though the wheels were spinning. Jack said, “Go tell that guy to hang on, we’ll help him in a minute or two..” A chain and a good tug, and the other driver was free. Then I found out what Jack was planning. He moved the front end loader as far forward on the trailer as it would go. Then he lowered the ramps and drove his truck up onto the trailer; its rear wheels just inches from the back end of the trailer. He snugged everything down tight, climbed back into the cab, and we drove off into that dark and slippery night. Surely, we must have stopped for coffee first, but I really don’t remember.
We got back to Racine about midnight. Our simple plan to buy a good forklift for ASP turned into a long (and for Jack, costly) adventure. One of Jack’s frequent sayings was, “No good deed goes unpunished..” This story is just one example of how this became his catch phrase.
Jesus said it differently however. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 (NIV)
Robert has shared three stories on Our American Stories, two more about adventures with big trucks, one about his German-born grandfather who helped build the “Arsenal of Democracy” during WWII.
Robert Frohlich has written a compelling autobiography, Aimless Life, Awesome God.