Jack was a truck driver. After dropping out of high school when his father unexpectedly died, he needed money to keep his mother and two younger sisters fed, clothed, and hopefully in the same house his Dad had worked so hard to rebuild. Jack was a good driver, careful though fast. He answered an ad in the newspaper, did the training required, and signed a stack of papers with the help of a man who explained that they take care of their own. The man slapped him on the back, and said, "Welcome to the Union, Jack." They even set it up so that his paycheck was directly deposited, in case he was on the road. A significant percentage went into an account for his mother and sisters to use and since he was driving most of the time, he had no idea exactly how much he made or how much was taken out for what. He also didn't care.
Jack loved driving. He kept his truck clean and enjoyed seeing the country at all hours of the night and day. Sometimes he listened to music on the radio, but more often he just listened to his own thoughts or the sounds of highways, birds, insects, cities, the hum of life.
All this changed one day when he was barrelling along a new highway and one of his wipers stopped working. It had been raining the last two days; he was near the end of a cross country run and he was tired. Almost to his destination, but lost in some unfamiliar territory in New Jersey. He was looking for a truck stop when he saw the blue car at the side of the road, hazard lights flashing, a young woman soaked to the skin trying to change a flat tire, a baby in the back seat.
Jack thought about his two sisters and mother, slowed his truck down, put on his own hazard lights and pulled in front of the car with the flat tire. He got out of the truck and walked over to the young woman, who turned, looking terrified. It was then that Jack realized he probably looked pretty scary, no shower in four or five days, maybe longer, his hair badly in need of cutting, his height, his weight. She was perhaps twenty and so thin the wind could blow her away. The rain picked up. The girl had tools in her hands, so he quickly introduced himself by saying, "My name is Jack and I'd shake your hand, Miss, but..." holding out both hands, palms up to show her the grime. She didn't move but he sensed she was thinking if she had to, she would kill him to protect the baby. Through the rain, which was now torrential, he had to speak louder, "Look, I'm just lost in New Jersey and I need a new wiper. My mother, my two sisters, and my truck are all that are important to me. No one else was stopping and you look like you could use some help."
In the young woman's mind were all the men who had said one thing then did another. But crowded out by those faces and memories was the baby, her baby, the most important thing to her, ever. So that's what she told him, still gripping a crowbar. She added, "If you can get us to safety, I'll tell you where you can get new wiper blades close-by. I can even tell you where the best diner in the area is, where they have a huge sign that says, "TRUCKERS WELCOME." Jack said, "Deal," and she reached out to shake his greasy, rainy hand. She looked at him like his mother had on several occasions, "You better not be lying to me," she warned, her grip small, strong, and cold as death.
He helped her up into the passenger seat along with a heavy back pack, a diaper bag, the baby, and the crowbar. She sat dripping, as far from him as possible, taking in the cleanliness of the trucker's home-away-from-home. A thermos. A photograph of a woman and two young girls. Air freshener. The bunk behind them, two blankets folded neatly. He interrupted her silent interrogation with the offer of a dry towel, also clean.
Before starting up his truck, he asked if she liked peaches. He watched her dry off the baby's fuzzy head, the chubby arms and tiny hands before she used the towel herself. She was still on guard. He said, " Look, I've already broken a few rules by stopping to help you and giving you a ride. I've got crates of peaches from Georgia and if you want, I'll go get you some." What the young woman wanted was not to leave her car with a flat tire at the side of the highway, not to be in this truck with a total stranger, not to feel so vulnerable, hungry, soaked and cold. But so far he seemed genuine, although trust did not come easily to her. "Sure," she said, "I'd love some peaches."
But in the back of her mind, she was still weighing how safe they were, her and the baby. The baby needed a diaper change and to be nursed, both of which would entail putting down the crowbar. So when Jack jumped out to get the peaches from the back of the truck, she changed the baby's diapers quickly, then tucked the little head underneath her wet shirt and covered the nursing baby with the damp towel. It was the best she could do in the circumstances. Before Jack jumped back in the driver's seat with a sack of peaches, she made sure the crowbar was still in one hand, her left, so he could see it. He had turned on the defroster, which thankfully drowned out the sucking and slurping of the hungry baby. "Let's eat some peaches, and I'll see what I can find on the radio, then we'll go, okay?" Jack suggested.
Her guard went back up, visibly. Man, she must have really been through some hard times, he thought. He grabbed another clean towel and dumped out some peaches between them, then fiddled with his radio dials looking for some upbeat music. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her eat two peaches quickly, then a third much slower, as if something had changed other than her hunger level. "What are their names?" she asked. "Who?" Jack was temporarily confused. "The girls in the photo, the woman...your mother and sisters?" He had settled on a neutral radio station. "Well, I call my mother Momma or Ma'am, but her given name is Marietta. My two sisters are older than that photo now. Their names are Rebecca and Jill Ann, except I call them Becca or Beckie and Jillie-girl or J.A. I miss them a lot but I get home for some holidays."
He started up the truck and began driving. "It's the next right, where I need to go," the young woman said, unlatching the sleeping baby's mouth, her other breast full and leaking. She noted Jack hadn't eaten any peaches. He suddenly looked different, and not in a good way so she picked up the crowbar again. In a louder voice, she said, "Where I need to go is the next right," but he blew past it. A thousand thoughts started bouncing around her brain. Several escape ideas, none of which ended well for the baby if she jumped out with him going 70 or 80 mph. Jack was not thinking about anything in particular except the broken wiper blade and how a hot shower, dry clothes and food would be just fine. He was so accustomed to driving alone, he had tuned out the young mother....oh man, the young woman who looked desperate and much younger than he had thought at first. "I'm sorry, " Jack said. "I'm not used to company. What did you say?"
"You passed my exit a few miles back," she said in a low, frightened voice.
"Oh, Christ," Jack muttered, "I'll turn around as soon as I can. Look, I'm really, really sorry. I hope you weren't too scared...really." And true to his word, he turned around at the next exit, drove her and the baby, the back pack, the diaper bag and the crowbar to the community college she attended and worked at, her version of safety. The rain had stopped, but everything was shining and washed clean by the storm. Jack helped her out of the truck, giving her the small towel that had sat between them, full of peaches.
In a parking lot in the middle of New Jersey, she thanked him for his kindness and for the peaches. She also kept up her end of the deal, telling him where to get new wiper blades and where the TRUCKERS WELCOME diner was.
Many years later, she would remember this encounter while watching the opening ceremony of the XXXth Olympics, where they called the flag of Great Britain, the Union Jack.
(this is for my daughter... and Jack, wherever he may be)