Stopped by a local service station recently in Beaver to fill up my tank and grab a soft drink.
“Ever try one of these?” a gentleman asked, as he removed some kind of power drink from the cooler.
“No sir,” I replied. “I’ll just take a Coke.”
“Can’t do without them,” he said. “When I’m on the road, I need all the energy I can get.”
“Where are you from?” I ventured, as I looked the man over. He had on a camo vest, a flannel shirt braced with a pair of red suspenders and a New York Mets baseball cap.
“I now live in Sparta, Tennessee,” he said amiably. “Been ten years since I left the mountains to become a flatlander. Wish I had stayed, though.”
“Why is that sir?” I inquired off handedly.
“I don’t know, maybe the people of the hills. Looking back, what do you think I miss the most?”
“Don’t have any idea,” I replied.
“You’ll never guess: the repo man, automotive division. Not that I ever had personal dealings with these guys, you understand, although I worked with someone who strolled out of his apartment one fine morning only to discover that his car was already en route to the bank.”
The chatty individual in front of me paused for a moment, looking down at his enormous fingers that appeared covered with some kind of vehicle lubricate, probably from the truck he was driving. Continuing with his tale, he added, “And I can tell you, nobody can spin a better story than a repo man who works the Appalachian coal fields, where I grew up in McDowell County, near Keystone.”
The imposing figure continued, taking a few swigs from his energy drink, checking to see if I was still attentive.
“Here’s the deal about what a repo man does: A young man gets a job at a coal mine. He can’t believe his luck. The local economy is going down the drain, and there is precious little hiring. Indeed, in my native county the number of working people is running only slightly ahead of the unemployed.
“To celebrate his good fortune, this impulsive young man buys a brand-new Trans-Am on time. To him, planning for the future means remembering to watch the 5 o’clock news. He’ll always have this job, right? He’ll always have this ride, right?”
I can only nod in my own fashion while I unscrew the bottle cap on my ice-cold red bottle of Coke. He just keeps on going, but I was beginning to follow his tale with deeper interest, thinking I might get a column out of it.
“For six months, everything is great at the coal mine. The young man gets a friend to add some custom detailing to the Trans-Am’s hood. At the bathhouse, his co-workers agree that Born to Lose makes a nice statement.
“Then one day the word makes its way down the conveyer belt. The coal mine lost its biggest buyer. No market. No work.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” the superintendent tells his section crews.
“The young man signs up for welfare. He sells his stereo to the mine superintendent’s son. He pretends that microwave macaroni covers all the basic food groups.
“Meanwhile, an office manager in charge of scavenging at a local bank pulls the young man’s credit file.
“Hmmm, 10 months have gone by. Hmmm, no Trans-Am payments.
“The repo man answers his phone. Fine. And you?
“The office manager skips the pleasantries.
“Trans-Am,” he says. “Big time arrears. Bring her in by hook or by crook—you know the drill. Can’t miss it. Got a big Born to Lose on the front.”
“The repo man initially tries a direct approach. He drives into a local trailer park, knocks on the door, and asks for the keys. The young man throws a box of macaroni at his visitor, calling him a lowlife SOB.
“The repo man smiles, thinking he’s heard better cursing at an ice cream social.
“He lets the young man think that he has left the premises. At 3 a.m. the repo man hot-wires the Trans-Am.
“At 3:01, the young man hears a noise in the direction of his ride. He doesn’t know which to do first: Grab a gun or put on his pants.
“At 3:02, the repo man gets out of Dodge.
“At 3:03, the young man takes after him as fast as someone can run barefoot down a gravel road in the middle of the night while trying to loop his belt.
“At 3:04, ‘Whew,’ the repo man says. “A close one. That kid could have been armed.
“At 3:05, the young man calls himself a stupid SOB for having the wrong priorities. Should have gone for the gun first. Should have chased after him naked.”
The narrator slowed his gait for the moment as he began to wind up his cautionary tale.
“I’ve heard all kinds of variations of these episodes from different Appalachian repo men, but the basic elements always seem unchanged.
“Hothead young man. Expensive car. Big time arrears. Trailer park. Prowling around in the middle of the night. A quick (and legal) forced entry to the bank’s motor vehicle. An even quicker (and legal) departure and return of motorized property to its rightful owner.”
I told the asphalt rover how much I appreciated his taking time to educate me on the ways of the night-stalkers who knock on your door in the wee hours and demand you hand over the keys to your ride. A man who’s had macaroni thrown at him by a cussing scoundrel-shouter who has no intention of letting go of his vehicle without a fight.
If you know someone like that, why not give me a shout. You know where to find me. I’ll be waiting at the Beaver gas station on US Route 19.
Top o’ the morning!