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Never Met a Stranger: Me and Frankie and the Oh Hell! Bar

By T. W. Burger

Frankie and I had quite a few adventures during our time working for the sanitation department. We were guys, mostly young, so we had a good time.


We got to work in and around trucks.

All kinds of trucks.

Trucks for picking up branches and brush. Garbage trucks. Even an old 1948 Chevy dump truck that I drove around picking up road kill and smoking Tampa Nugget Sublime cigars. They were terrible cigars, but cheap, and they masked the smell. The trick is to exhale through one’s nose. Pretty soon all you can smell is cigar. Trust me, it’s a good thing.

So, the guy in charge of all this, fretting that we employees might spend winter days huddled in the cabs of our trucks, heaters blasting, encouraged us to brave the elements by having the trucks’ heaters and doors removed.

The trucks had the old-fashioned bench seats, upholstered with slick vinyl.

The lack of doors and the slickness of the seats made life very interesting on curves and corners, because the part of one’s anatomy that meets the seat is not very good at grabbing, try as it would.

The passenger side of the cab had a metal handle bolted onto the dashboard. It was called the Oh Hell! bar, because that is what you usually hollered when you had to grab it when the truck went into a sharp left turn. It worked pretty well, and we hardly ever lost anybody.

Since I drove, I could hold onto the steering wheel.

One chilly autumn day, Frankie and I had what was officially called "brush duty." This meant that we drove around town and picked up branches, shrubs, and leaves that residents had left at the curbside. This was the same gig for which we had graduated under the inspiring Dauphus.

Frankie and I would pack the truck as full as possible to reduce the number of trips we had to take to the county dump. We always got a load of grief from the dump manager, an ugly fat man who had all the wit and charm of a snapping turtle. Frankie and I firmly believed Mr. P had never been within spitting distance of a bathtub, at least not in our lifetimes.

Mr. Personality did not like hippies, a category into which Frankie and I fit at the time.

Actually, Frankie fit into it better than I did, because he had overindulged in any number of recreational substances in the previous few years, and had become permanently, if cheerfully, muddled.

Understand that our destination was a dump in the old sense, where great mountains of garbage burned unchecked for days at a time, and rats scurried everywhere. In a job that subjected us to all sorts of smells; this smell was exceptional.

It smelled even worse than the manager, which took some doing.

Frankie hated the rats. He would not get out of the truck at the dump. I did not especially mind the rats, but then, I was not looking at the rats through Frankie’s chemically altered neurology. Judging by his reaction when he would spot even one, they must have been horrific, filtered through his Technicolor synapses.

Anyway, this one afternoon, Mr. Personality instructed us to back our truck down a long slope of newly bulldozed ground to a mountain of discarded brush and tree trunks.

No problem. I swung the truck around and started rolling down the hill in reverse, the big old V-8 gas-guzzler muttering away – it had no muffler -- as we picked up a little speed.

"Hey, man, not too fast," said Frankie, who leaned out the passenger-side door, keeping an anxious eye out for rats.

It was somewhere along there, I guess, that an enormous tree root sticking out of the ground ripped loose one of the brake lines. The old truck started to move along, muttering faster and faster.

I pushed down on the brake. The pedal hit the floor with a morose thunk.

The truck picked up more speed. "Frankie," I started to say, when the left rear wheels dropped into a dip.

The cab of the truck rocked violently to the left. When it rocked back to the right, the slippery leather seat slipped right out from under me.

Actually, the entire truck slipped out from under me.

I found myself on my back, on the ground, the wind knocked out of me. I could still hear Frankie.

"Hey, man!" he said, still looking out his side of the truck. "Hey, man, hey man, slow...”

There was a long pause, then, "AAAAAAH!" I believe that was the point where Frankie discovered that I was no longer actually driving, or even in, the truck.

It slammed into the wall of dead brush and stood straight up, front bumper heavenward. It teetered for a moment, and then crashed back onto all six wheels.

I staggered down the hill, gasping for air, fearing the worst for poor Frankie. I expected to find him impaled on a tree branch or something.

Nope. Frankie was in the cab, both hands locked around the O Hell! bar. I do not believe any force on earth could have pried him loose.

"Frankie!" I wheezed. "Man, I figured you’d be slung out and all over the ground!”

"No way, man," he said, tossing the hair out of his eyes. "Too many rats, man.”

T..W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

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