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Essay

Traveling Mercies

By December 13, 2012 No Comments
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 I’m not unaccustomed to traveling, but yesterday, like a thousand times before, I came up on a huge strip of truck tire, something peeled from 18-wheeler, black as coal, big as a forty-year old Florida gator.  And I couldn’t help but think about actually driving right behind some behemoth with a belly full of hogs and have that Mack kick up a beastly chunk of tire right in front of me. If it didn’t take your life, it’d lay you up for awhile, or the car you were driving, and meanwhile scare the bejeebees out of you.  

A couple days ago, a friend told me there were eight dead deer along the highway just east of our place in a section of road no more than ten miles long.  The deer are in the rut now, I think–I don’t know any of them personally–and it’s hunting season, the corn’s long gone, and it’s all very confusing, I’m sure. Eight dead in ten miles, and a whole lot of scarred vehicles and scared drivers.


I spent two and a half hours feeling like a sausage yesterday, packed into a seat built for a girl scout and floating high above the firmament in an old jet somehow built exclusively for the exact number of passengers who wanted to leave Omaha and arrive in Houston by three.  Talk about benawd (that’s Dutch, sort of, for claustrophobic).  

But not until we were high over Houston, catching some wild winds from the gulf, did I even think about the fact that the friendly skies aren’t always friendly. Flying as often as I do–and there are legions who fly more–I simply forget that we are thousands of feet up above a crash landing. You walk up a gangway, take a ridiculously small seat, strap yourself in, listen to someone explain oxygen bags, pull out a book or nod off, and–voila!–you’re in Houston.

It may well be a sign of my old age to think dire thoughts while winging my way toward some distant location, but yesterday, more than once, I thought about actually not getting there.  At a rest stop on Interstate 29, I spotted a semi loaded with squished cars wrapped in plastic (I’m not making this up) and stacked on a flatbed. One of the specimens seemed dangerously like a leaner.  Sheesh.  Imagine riding along with an ex-car slips off the back of the miserable truck in front of you.

Oh, to be young and fearless.

Reminds me of ye olde cliche from my father’s prayers–“and grant them traveling mercies.”  I never knew exactly what “traveling mercies” meant, but I was sure it referred, at least, to gas station bathrooms and their relative state of health.  

But it was more, too–it was a prayer for the people who load those humongous bales of hay on the backs of Peterbilts, a prayer for taut ropes and wires and everlasting bungee cords.  It was for deer to stay in the ditches or the woods, and for drivers who fought and fought and fought and somehow stayed joyfully ahead of the Sandman. And no DUIs.

It was a handy little phrase to toss out in a prayer because it covered the whole landscape of dangers, a cliche, a coverall, a tent, muslin enough to spread over an interstate or the canopy of half a continent.  

Anyway, this morning, here in Houston, I happy to say I got’em yesterday–traveling mercies, that is.  And for that, this morning in Texas, I’m thankful.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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