One long-standing rule of life I generally live by is not to form serious long-term relationships with people you meet at highway rest stops. Today, I made an exception to this tenet and I bonded with an older guy named Rex and the girl, Jenny, who sat at his feet.
We had been ripping down I-5 in Central California at a tire-melting speed of 54 mph. I swear the paint was about to peel off the leading edge of our camper as we flew along. Grove after grove of Olive trees sped passed us. Each of these plantations were manicured like a vineyard in Provence. At one point, we passed an articulated open truck carrying a ton of garlic heads. Now this was the land Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck wrote and sang about. Every few miles was a sign that reminded us that “Farmers Feed America”. This is what Willie Nelson is trying to save with his Farm-Aid concerts. I felt like pulling over, climbing the barbed-wire fence and running through the Olive trees singing Nessun Dorma…reaching the high C until the mile long diagonal row of trees ended in an irrigation ditch.
Yes, this I would do to demonstrate my love for this land to anyone within the range of my voice. Only two things prevented me from doing this wild and crazy thing: I really can’t sing (much less reach a high C) and I had to urinate like Secretariat.
We pulled into the next Rest Area. My wife stayed in the car and I meandered (with haste) to the men’s room. I exited by the rear door and walked back to the fence to look at an Olive Grove from a better angle. It was on the way back to the car that I heard the singing.
There were no other travelers there save for two guys who were sleeping on the picnic tables. There were two maintenance workers wearing day-glo green/yellow vests. I changed direction and walked through the breeze-way between the men’s and women’s units. In the center was a bench. It was occupied by an older gentleman playing a guitar. His carrying case was to his right. There was a plastic cut-off milk carton just to his left that contained several dollar bills. A crude music stand, a reject, perhaps, from a defunct junior high school music program or a hand-me-down from an ancient bluesman. He was singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. At his feet, was a small dog wearing a short lease that was tied to nothing. I stuffed two dollars into the container. When he stopped singing, he began to talk to me like he had not spoken to anyone in weeks. He told me how important country music was to him. Not the new stuff, no sir, but the old, the pure songs that came from the heart. He played “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and his ancient voice bent around the lyrics like a narrow roadway up to the summit of Mount Heartache. He said that was Hank Williams…I said I certainly knew that. Then he said I can’t really sing this but I’ll give it a try. It was sad to hear him struggle with the yodel of “Honky Tonk Blues”.
By this time I had motioned to my wife to come over from the car and hear him. He told us how he was setting up one afternoon at a Rest Stop to the south and in the space of ten seconds, he said, someone opened his car and stole five of his song books…books with lyrics, scores and his own notations.
Why would someone steal his song books, he asked?
I just shook my head.
Just as he was starting another story, I put another dollar in his bucket. I said we had to move on. What was his name: I asked. Rex, he said.
What’s the dog’s name?
We turned and left Rex and Jenny at the Rest Stop. He was starting to tell the story of the stolen books to another man who had wandered up.
Rex will probably never remember me, a guy named Pat who stood and listened to him sing at the Rest Stop.
Me, who can’t sing or play the guitar…but knows an old and pure song when I hear it.