Santas in Insulated Plaid Shirts

Whenever the winter weather hits, I sit inside my cozy place, and listen to the wind whip across the edge of the building. I am glad not to be out in the cold, and the snow. It is weather that allows bulky cable-knit sweaters and fuzzy slippers that have been washed one too many times to be worn with a soft sigh of familiarity, anticipating the long hibernation ahead.

I really must replace those slippers.

The weather also provides me with a new set of winter memories to come to the top of my story list, just as the reminder to put on the snow tires does in my ever growing to do list. I can close my eyes and look back at the memories, without having to feel the stinging needles of sleet on my face, or the cold crunch of newly-frosted snow under my boots. It is warmth to remember them, the memories when made chilly. It is strangely warming on a cold night, to remember cold memories of days gone by.

Usually, the first trip on the highway reminds me of a memory I fondly embrace with a smile tugged onto my face.

I close my eyes and hear the crackled ” Breaker-one-niner”, and the drawl of rural roots muffled from thickly falling snow sent sideways from the wind. I hear the smoker’s coughs, the banging of boots on treadsteps, the diesel rumbles as masses of steel and rubber shake awake from their snowy slumber. The clink of ice as leather gloves clean off mirrors, lights, wiring harnesses. The shouts and laughter as driver takes to truck, and I pretend that it was very similar in times of cowboy to saddle.

I can smell the exhaust, the thickening fog of it as the trucks break formation in the parking lot, and one by one, with the precision of a lumbering ballet, manoeuvre out between parked lumps of snow resembling guard rails and onto the on-ramp, tail lights fading into the swirl of snow kicked up and around them in a furious dance.

I can see the men, grouped around a table at a deserted service station. Bellies spill out between suspenders, shirts stretch thin and worn where the wheel turns on the fabric for long hours. Plaid covered shoulders move like hulking mounds as they reach for coffees, lids off and steaming in the air to mix with the lazy cigarette smoke from the communal ashtray. Grey-speckled beards, boots worn on the right heel and left sole, roughneck coats slung over chairs with cigarette packs peeking out chest pockets…

It is a familiar place for them, and somehow comfort to me on this lonely night.

I imagine they are all Santas-in-waiting are converging on a snowy night, to ride out the storm before returning to their sleighs. They are trading reindeer feeding tips, and the latest in sleigh runner technology.

I am in this service station, getting a coffee, and waiting to see if the storm will blow in and out of the area soon enough to continue my late night journey home. The men watch me, snow on the shoulders of my long London Fog slowly melting, heels clicking on the wet, tiled floor. Keys jingle in my hand as I reach for change in my purse.

With my seat taken, I train a watchful eye to the road, waiting for the tell-tale blue and yellow strobe of a plow team to go through. In friendliness, and out of need for human contact in the not-so-human weather, I strike up a conversation with this well-worn group, eventually joining them at their table.

One is from Toronto. One from Ohio. Two are from Michigan. The rest from “everywhere”, they say with a grin and a twinkle in the eye. My idea of Santas seems not so ludicrous as I laugh at their cleverness. Truly, a pretty girl on a lonely night in a service station talking to a band of grizzled road warriors is a novelty for them, and my presence is the centre of their newly trained focus and humour.

I feel at home, I did not have any fear. I am very young, impulsive, and incapable of fearing a large band of strange men such as these.

We swap winter driving stories like children’s pictures in our wallets. I learn that antifreeze does not remove ice on mirrors all that well, and that our government is slowly putting the independent trucker out of business.

I sense the dread at that thought, in all of them. These men loved to drive, and loved the road. To lose this way of life would hurt. The socio-economic drama hangs in the air as they all nod and add their tirade to the ebb and flow of conversation, helping me understand their dieing world in a very painful and real way.

I also discover the best place to buy work boots, leather gloves, and insulated plaid shirts is the Co-op.

After several hours, and a phone call to my destination to soothe worries and update on weather, the conversation was winding down. Knowledge that roads would not magically clear, no plows had come through, and loads were cooling their heels came through. Delivery meant money, and with that was the urge to keep moving, however slow the pace. I was faced with loneliness once more, my newly found friends leaving, replacing the laughter around a scratched and dented coffee-shop table with the empty sounds of wind and sleet against a plate glass window.

One of the group sees my sadness, I suppose, and he winks at me as he hefts coat over shoulder.

“See that first hauler in the line? That’d be me. Foller me out, stay back so’s you can see my mirrors, and I’ll clear the way fer you.”

I nod, gathered my things, and out into the cold we all go en masse, me in my long London Fog and heels, them in their plaid and beards and rough hands and kind, jovial spirits. We part ways with waves and smiles and good lucks all around.

As I stand and watch the drivers prepare their rigs to move out, back onto the white ribbon of road in front of us, I smile and think that there are no kinder souls on this planet than truckers on a snowy night on the highway. I wanted to use terms such as “salt of the earth”, and “gentle giants”, and I was reminded so much of my roots, and the hard working men there.

I followed that truck all the way to my exit, and as I flipped my right blinker on, the trucker flashed his tail lights at me, tooted his horn, and then, as I turned right, and he continued straight, faded slowly into the white, and out view.

This memory is thirteen years old now. Every year since, when I am at a truck stop or service station, if there is an older bearded trucker wearing an insulated plaid shirt in line behind me at the coffee shop, I pay for his coffee, and ask the teller to keep the change as a tip.

I like to think it is paying forward the kindness of My Santas in insulted plaid shirts.

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