IT WAS THE end of the day when he called. It was late and it was time to go home and he started by saying that I must get a hundred calls like his, which was nice to hear because I didn't get any that day. He said he was the vice president and part owner of a trucking company and he wanted me to write something about one of his drivers. His name was Alfred Ludwig and he died when the truck he was driving rolled over on him. He was a good man, an extraordinary man and something else, the voice said: "He cared."
The voice had an accent of the hills to it and he introduced himself as Robert Johnston. He told me a bit about himself and then a bit about his company and then plenty about Alfred Ludwig. He told the story well because I wound up the next day going to the funeral, standing in a mean, freezing rain, watching the casket rolled into the back of the hearse, watching Johnston as a pallbrearer, watching the whole funeral procession take off down Rte. 1 in Hyattsville on a cold, nasty day.
Earlier there had been a service. Earlier a minister had come and read from St. Paul's letter to the Romans and women had cried and big men, the kind who can never get their nails clean, had looked straight ahead. There was a flag over the casket because Ludwig had been a marine and there was organ music coming from somewhere and then later everyone had gone to their cars and sat, windshield wipers going, while the casket had been brought out.
The night before had been the telephone conversation. First came an accident report of sorts, not all the details, but enough. Ludwig was hauling insulation from a factory in Lorton to Petersburg, W.Va., on icy roads, but not impossible roads - not roads that a good driver couldn't drive. "The accident happened in Front Royal," Johnston said. "Rte. 55. You come into town and there's a curve. It's not a very sharp curve and it goes down a half-mile grade to a light. Whatever happened on that curve and he went down over the bank."
He went on talking about Ludwig, about how he had walked in off the street in answer to a newspaper ad for a driver and how Ludwig had once dirven for himself but he grossed something like $40,000 and netted maybe $5,000 and he went broke. The truck broke down and he didn't have the money to repair it and he became an over-the-road driver for someone else. He was married, 35 years old, had a house in the Maryland suburbs and a monster truck in the driveway that he didn't have the money to fix. He was also the most careful truck driver Johnston ever met.
"He had a briefcase that had everything in it," Johnston said. "You could ask him what he had hauled last Sept. 10 and he had it in his notes where he picked it up and what he took and where he took it and what his mileage was. We pull 26 differnt trailers and he took the time to type out a page with the heights of the trailers. He said, 'You'll never know me to hit any underpasses,' I never knew anyone to keep records like that."
Then we stopped and we tried to think about why I should write something about a man I never met. I tired it once before and some of the people who knew the man never called me afterwards and some who did told me I had made a mess of things. They were nice, but I had hurt them and I told this to Johnston, saying maybe I shouldn't try again. But he was insistent and a person who reads and so he tried hard to provide the hook for the column, something to hang it all on.
We talked about the romance of trucking, that business you hear in country-western songs about rolling the road and being independent and facing death a slippery turns, but Johnston said that that nonsense. Trucking was a job and about as dangerous as any other.
We kept looking. It was worth noting, he said, that Ludwig was driving truck number 113 and he died on Jan. 13, which is 1/13 all over again. I liked that for a while because I've been meaning to something about superstition and astrology and how it grips us. But the next day at the funeral, Johnston took me aside and we went into a little room at the funeral home and he said that business about number 13 was nonsense. He didn't believe it. "I think that business about 113 is a cheap shot," he said.
So there we were in that little room and outside in the chapel the organ music was starting and Alfred Ludwig was lying under an American flag. A man came in wearing a plaid suit with a stickpin in his tie and he said something to Johnston and then moved off. Johnston turned and said he had thought it all over and he thought that the meaning of it all was how even a careful man can't be careful enough and maybe that's what it's about for him.
For me it's about something else. It's about how one man touch another man and how he might want to put up a little memorial to him - maybe something that will speak to anonymous courage or infectious cheer or maybe just that he was here and mattered. In this case a perfect stranger came along and did extraordinary things with trucks he didn't own and when his employer called there was one thing he kept saying about the man. He kept saying "he cared."
There's no finer epitaph.