Friday, February 26, 2010

Some just say it better than others

Truckers always have plenty to say. Some just say it better than others.

This week, Senior OOIDA Member Roger Chastain copied me on a letter he wrote to his elected lawmakers. Roger has been a member since 1997 and lives in Woodruff, SC. He’s an independent trucker operating under authority as a contract carrier.

With his permission, let me share a really well-written letter. It’s this kind of letter that makes an impression on our lawmakers, and it’s the kind of input that frankly stomps the heck out of the trucking stereotype that America can’t let go of. Here’s Roger’s letter:

“The efforts to transform our nation’s highways from roads built with fuel tax dollars to a tolled system and efforts to privatize our highways with a lump sum payment from corporate entities do not, in my opinion, serve in our nation’s best interest.

“President Dwight Eisenhower’s efforts to establish the Interstate Highway System with federal and state fuel taxes along with the Highway Use Tax has worked well to make our system one of the best in the world. This type of taxing should continue to be the primary source of funding.

The argument is being made that this present system is no longer effective, especially with the use of alternative fuels and our ability to obtain better fuel mileage. However, the attempt to convert to a tolling system will only serve to send users to older highways, which will be unable to withstand the increased volume of traffic.

“The present system of taxation at the pump has worked well and will continue to do so if we admit that a federal tax rate increase is necessary to maintain and grow our present highways. We ultimately know nothing is free, as our highways are sometimes referred to, but to convert to a direct tolled system for using America’s highways will serve as a deterrent to continued prosperity.

“It should also be mandated that revenues raised by fuel taxes should be used for the sole purpose of maintaining our highway infrastructure and not diverted to non-highway needs.”

Again, good job, Roger; you’ve stepped out smartly to represent the professionals behind the wheel.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Trucking journalism goes gonzo in LR

“I think you’ve got to go,” Sandi said, with the knowing grin of an editor sending a reporter out on an adventure.

A few weeks ago, Sandi Soendker, managing editor and my boss here at Land Line, green-lighted an assignment for me to meet Lee, Paulette and Jasmine (also known as Jazzy) Jordan while the trucking family was in Little Rock, AR.

Not only would I get to meet and interview the Jordans in person – but I’d also get the chance to hoof it for a few miles with Jazzy, who has routinely been logging 140-mile weeks in her quest to run from California to New York by this spring.

That’s the stuff of Olympic athletes, rarely high school juniors and most definitely not casual runners who are confined to cubicles during the workweek.

This was an opportunity to do true gonzo journalism – inserting myself into the story and writing about the experience. I’d head to the Razorback state’s capital with my wife, Amy, two young children and a bag with Band-Aids, extra socks and other running gear.

(Because this is 2010 and not the 1960s, media convergence would mean my assignment would require a little more than a photo caption.)

I was armed with a digital recorder and microphone, and had been tasked with experiencing a day in the life of Jazzy Jordan.

Of course, I’d also face that addictive old friend of procrastinators, I mean writers: deadline pressure.

What would I write about?

We’ve written about Jazzy Jordan and talked about her efforts to raise money for the St. Christopher Fund for months now. I’ve spoken with truckers who have been personally helped by the fund, which helps truckers obtain medical care at reduced prices.

We’ve talked with mom, Paulette, and dad, Lee, a huge hockey fan and player in his own right who professionally wrestled for years and who knows a thing or two about showmanship.

We drove to Little Rock on Sunday and met the Jordans, joining them at a Little Rock KOA Campground. On Monday, the morning of our run, we prepared to drive to western Little Rock to start her run.

I tested out Land Line Now’s recording equipment by doing a quick interview with my 5-year-old daughter, Charis.

“Hey, that’s the ticket,” I thought. Fill up a notebook with anecdotes about my cute kids. They owe me this for their future college expenses alone, I thought, and this will solve that whole idea problem lickety split.

With intentions only slightly better than that of a children’s beauty pageant parent, I grabbed the microphone and started firing away questions.

Unfortunately, my kids proved to be difficult news sources. Charis gave me information like a star athlete (though she did thank me for the interview), and Eli, my 3-year-old son, ran away quicker than a criminally indicted politician.

My inspiration would come through running.

With Jazzy’s mother, Paulette, leading the convoy, and Lee behind us, we started running late that morning on a country road lined by large trees.

My daughter joined us, keeping up a respectable pace for 1/3 of a mile, smiling while running next to Jasmine.

A slight breeze made 40-degree temperatures feel a bit cool, and cloudy skies kept the sun from warming up.

Jazzy always hears Lee’s diesel engine rumbling behind, and she frequently hears supportive drivers honking as they pass.

Not long after we got going, a Little Rock fire truck and a police car joined us to help us maneuver through traffic.

Thankfully, we ran at a pace that could sustain a conversation during the 10-plus miles she wanted to accomplish that day. Being a casual runner myself, we talked running in general – running long distance, hills, and the zen-like state that a good run will bring.

She’s a classic overpronater, which is runner talk that means she requires high-quality running shoes that don’t allow the insides of her feet to strike the ground earlier than the rest of her foot.

Fortunately, Saucony has sponsored her, mailing 9 pairs of pink running shoes to date, as well as sweats and high-quality running socks.

After a while, I asked Jasmine to describe what she thinks as she pounds the pavement, or more accurately, lightly zooms across it.

She thinks about her friends and her brother, Levi, back home in Minnesota. She thinks about Sheila Grothe, a family friend who died of cancer last April and left her husband and children grieving while dealing with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills.

“I think about Sheila a lot,” Jazzy told me as we ran. “I think about all those people that don’t have health insurance they need. That image of her, it keeps playing in my mind. When I feel like it’s getting really hard to keep going, I just think I don’t want to ever have people go through what the Grothe family went through.”

The night Sheila died, Jazzy couldn’t calm herself down. Late in the evening, she went to a 24-hour gym near her house and hopped on a treadmill.

After several hours of running (she lost count), she emerged from the gym with a plan. She would run across America to raise awareness about truckers having difficulty paying for health expenses.

Sometimes the pain in her legs and feet make starting out difficult. But she digs deep and finds a way to hit the road again, day after day.

In Texas, she was inspired to keep going when an eagle circled high above her, like a reminder.

Of course, she never has been a quitter.

Early in high school, she and another friend decided they would play football for the high school team. Playing the very physically demanding position of running back, Jasmine played and practiced every week, refusing to quit even when the season became difficult.

“I decided I would play the whole year,” she told me.

Before starting her run across America, Lee says Jasmine was training to qualify for the 800 meters in the 2012 Olympics. The family had even hired a running coach who had trained Olympians.

The look in Lee’s eyes stops you from asking more questions. How close was she to Olympic qualifying times? Doesn’t she know how few Olympic hopefuls even make it to time trials?

Barring a serious injury, she will run to New York.

“She’s always been a go-getter,” Paulette told me. “She is very shy, but she’s been doing great in interviews. She will do it. She will finish.”

Between miles 9 and 11, Jasmine noticed that I’d become noticeably less chatty. I needed every ounce of oxygen my lungs could produce.

“Are you OK?” she said, looking over with genuine concern.

“Yes…thanks…for…asking,” I replied in between gasps.

Needing a distraction from the pain in my feet and the lack of oxygen in my lungs, I reverted back to story ideas.

I thought about the millions of footsteps she’s taken to cover more than 1,700 miles, and the nine pairs of running shoes she’s burned through. We’d written nearly every angle in the book.

Lee had told me that two OOIDA members recently stopped and met Jazzy as she ran along Arkansas Highway 67. One driver in particular kept talking about how long he’d been following her running.

“I’m very proud of my daughter,” said Lee, as Jazzy’s PR executive/handler and chef turned serious. “I couldn’t ask for a better kid.”

Fortunately, I was able to finish running 13 miles with Jazzy, just as we happened upon Little Rock’s Engine 14 Firehouse.

As we ran by the fire station driveway, a veteran firefighter respectfully stood and silently held his hand over his heart, with misty eyes acknowledging Jazzy.

Without speaking a word, he said it all.