The Bootlegger Takes a Long Cold Walk

The statute of limitations has expired for any crimes committed. The following story is mostly true. Some details have been left out. Others have been changed. I don’t remember the exact wording of conversations that took place 25 years ago. Names and nicknames have been changed to protect my own ass. These stories are not being told in chronological order.

It is important to understand the difference between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is merely not knowing something. Stupidity is knowing something and still acting to the contrary. Today’s story features a little bit of both.

Our story takes place in the absolute dead of winter. January to be specific. Record setting low temperatures are the order of the day. We’re talking single digits and below zero. Not to mention the brutal fucking windchill.

And at the time, I’m just a dumb kid who doesn’t know any better. I’m making stacks at this point. I’ve moved up from warehouse lackey to driving a truck full time. Not just making the distributor run. Doing deliveries directly to bars. But how we got to that point is a story for another time.

It started off like any other day. I got to the warehouse early and started loading up my truck. Of course, I was smart enough to start my truck before I started loading. That way the cab would be nice and toasty when I got in. You just have to love a Ford heater.

Looking at my route for the day, I suppressed a grumble. Only 4 stops. I’d be back at the warehouse by noon. And with nothing else that needed to be done, it would be a short day. Things had been kind of lean lately. I needed all the hours I could get.

Now at this point, you’re probably wondering about legalities and logistics. By this time, we’re full blown breaking the law. This isn’t a one time thing in a pinch. This is my primary duty. And we know it is illegal. So, we’ve got a system worked out.

First, the rolling door on the back of the truck is locked. None of the keys on my keyring will open it. The key to the lock is stashed in one of those magnetic things, stuck to the inside of the rear bumper. If I were to get pulled over, the standard story is I’m taking the truck to be serviced for my boss and as far as I know the back is empty. And if the truck breaks down, I put as much distance as I can between myself and the truck then call Jimmy from a payphone. If I’m approached while unloading (AKA caught red handed), I was to identify myself and then shut the fuck up. When given a phone call that call was to be to Jimmy who would take care if it.

Most of the time, all my deliveries were in a city about an hour away from home. The biggest “risk” was the stretch of interstate between the two. But I never sped or did anything stupid behind the wheel to attract attention to myself. Well, technically I sped a little. The speed limit was 65, so I did 67. Because Jimmy said a truck doing exactly 65 screamed “I’m up to something”.

All the bars on my route for the day wanted us to deliver after 10:00am. So, I left the warehouse at 9:00am. I stopped and got fuel and a cup of coffee for the road. Then I was on my way. Just another day in paradise. Or so I thought.

It is at this point I feel the need to remind you we are experiencing record cold temperatures. And I’m a dumbass kid of 18. I am wearing (or have in my possession) a stocking hat, a t-shirt under a leather biker style jacket, a pair of work gloves, jeans, and combat boots. Combat boots with a steel plate in the sole. I found that out when I stepped on a nail one day. I am not dressed for record cold weather.

And things went according to plan. Bullshit. If things went according to plan, I wouldn’t be bothering to write this story.

I was about 10 miles or so from the city where my stops were. All of the sudden, the truck starts bogging down. No power to speak of. Oh shit. Well, I’ll try to limp it to town and get pulled over. Yea fucking right. The truck just dies a few minutes later. Uh oh. This is bad. This is real fucking bad.

And the highway is deserted. Traffic is always light that time of day. Couple that with weather nobody in their right mind wants to be out in. Thumbing a ride isn’t going to happen. Well, the first thing to do if the truck breaks down is to put some distance between me and the truck. I did some quick calculations.

Going straight to town would be 10 miles or so walking along the interstate due west. Or I could cut across a farmer’s field, hit a side road that was close by, and have about a 4 mile hike to one of the bars we delivered to. I’m a lot of things, but dumb isn’t one of them. 4 miles sounds a lot better than 10. Especially if it got me off the interstate and away from potential passing state troopers.

So, like an idiot, I did exactly that. I climbed down out of my rapidly cooling truck and started hiking. I knew I had to keep myself moving as fast as I could to keep my body temperature up. The trip through the field sucked. Uneven ground combined with blasting wind made walking at any sort of speed difficult. By the time I hit the road, my feet and hands started to hurt from the cold. But at least I was on steady pavement and could stick my hands in my pants pockets for a little warmth.

I know about how fast I could have made that trip under optimal conditions. I’m guessing it took about twice that long, if not longer. I don’t know for sure. I do know that by the time I was roughly a mile away from the bar, I couldn’t feel my toes and parts of my feet. And my left eye had literally frozen shut. I had a couple of cars drive right past me without even slowing down. About 2 blocks from my target, a car finally stopped to ask if I needed help. I thanked them politely and trudged the fuck on.

I walked into the place and found the manager behind the bar. It was a dimly lit shithole of a bar. But on that cold day in January, it was paradise. The following conversation is as close to the real one as I can remember all these years later. Most of my words were said while shivering uncontrollably. For your sanity, I will not try to recreate that in prose.

“Hey Dave, I didn’t think we had a delivery today.” The manager said.

“You don’t. The truck broke down. You were the closest place I knew I could find a phone.”

“Where did you break down?” He asked me.

“Out on the interstate about a mile from the exit.”

And it was about that time that the manager reached over and grabbed a glass and poured me a double shot of the brown liquid I’ve come to love. Nothing like bourbon to take the chill off.

“You want something to eat while you thaw out?” He asked in a way that said I didn’t really have much choice.

“Sure, I’d love a burger if it isn’t too much trouble.”

By this time, I’d finally stopped shivering enough to speak reliably. So, I went over to the payphone and called Jimmy. Collect of course. I’ll give the man credit. I figured he’d be pissed. He wasn’t. He was more worried about me than the truck or cargo.  

While I waited for him to come get me, I ate one of the best cheeseburgers of my life. I’ve had some great burgers, but that one was on another level. By the time Jimmy got there, I’d had another double shot of bourbon and a soda. I was still miserable. But it was a brighter shade of miserable than when I’d walked through the door.

It was about halfway back home when I finally started getting feeling back in my feet. And then I wished for the sweet release of death. Words cannot express the pain I felt. By the time we got back to town I was in tears. And I was going to receive medical attention. Jimmy made it very clear that wasn’t up for negotiation. I was going to be seen and he was footing the bill.

The man may have been a criminal. But he took care of the people who worked for him like they were his own family.  

The prognosis wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Pretty nasty frostbite. But not so nasty I would lose toes or anything like that. I’d gotten lucky in that regard. I didn’t feel very lucky.

What happened to the truck? Well, remember how I said that thing about ignorance and stupidity? We’ve come to the pay off.

Nobody had ever told me that diesel fuel will gel up if it gets too cold. So, I hadn’t been using any kind of fuel additives. And that is exactly what happened to the truck. A 2 dollar bottle of fuel additive could have saved my ass that day. But I didn’t know I needed it.

The truck had to be towed, have the tank drained, fuel filter replaced and was a good as new. I was off work for about a week while I got to a place where I could walk without my feet hurting. Then I went and bought some better cold weather gear. Coat, coveralls, boots, socks etc.

To this day I have problems that can be traced back to that day. Once you get frostbite you are more prone to getting it again. And I’ve had a couple cases since that probably wouldn’t have been an issue if that day hadn’t been so severe.

So, the moral of the story is this: My ignorance put me in a bad situation. But my stupidity made my situation so much worse. I got fucking lucky that day.

I didn’t have any good winter pics to attach. So I just used one that reminds me of walking through that field.

Author: dave