Thursday, May 31, 2007

Who Owns Your Life?

By Alan Burkhart

With the pending release of Jack "Doctor Death" Kevorkian from prison, I found myself thinking back to a movie from the early 80's titled "Whose Life is it, Anyway?" The film starred Richard Dreyfuss as a sculptor who was paralyzed from the neck down in an auto accident. In the movie, Dreyfuss' character is faced with the prospect of a life of dependency, unable to pursue his dreams or live with even a shred of dignity.

Dreyfuss requests that his life support be switched off, and a dramatic court battle ensues. He has both allies and opponents, including a doctor who is determined to stop him from ending his life. In the event that you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you by telling you how it ends. It’ll tug the strings of the coldest heart.

Dr. Kevorkian, during his heyday as both an advocate and a facilitator of physician - assisted suicide, stirred the nation’s emotional stew pot to the boiling point. Hounded like Frankenstein’s monster by some and heralded as a hero by others, Jack Kevorkian left his mark on society before being sent off to prison for the death of Thomas Youk of Michigan.

Unfortunately, Kevorkian may be his own worst enemy as well as that of those who seek to legalize assisted suicide. While he is passionate and sincere in his beliefs, he appears a bit unbalanced. The man promised “death with dignity.” But he repeatedly dumped the bodies of his customers at hospitals and morgues, and sometimes left them in the motel rooms where he performed the procedure. His actions made him appear to be less an angel of mercy than a dangerously eccentric old man with a penchant for playing doctor.

While he has promised not to perform any more assisted suicides, he’s also plainly stated that he intends to busy himself as an advocate for the procedure. If he succeeds again in bringing the issue to the front burner, it should be an interesting debate. As Dreyfuss’ character asks in the movie: “Whose life is it?”

Whose indeed?

Oregon is presently the only state that allows physician-assisted suicide, and there is much red tape involved. I can see why it’d be that way. Death is after all, rather final. Opponents have struck down attempts to legalize assisted suicide in several states, including Hawaii, Wisconsin, Washington, California, Michigan and Maine.

In the USA, unassisted suicide is technically legal, although you're subject to being locked away for your own protection if you try to off yourself and fail. Assisted suicide however, is another can of worms altogether. During the reign of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Bush Administration sought to overturn Oregon's assisted suicide law. The argument, in a nutshell, was that the prescribing of controlled substances (prescription drugs) to cause death is not a legitimate medical procedure. Ashcroft's goal was to revoke the license of any Oregon physician who prescribed drugs to end a life. So much for states' rights.

The battle continued when Alberto Gonzales replaced Ashcroft, and finally ended (for the moment, at least) in 2006 when the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the state of Oregon. This is one of the few times I have agreed with the liberal side of the SCOTUS - Thomas, Scalia and Roberts were the three dissenters. The decision to legalize assisted suicide is now up to each state, and that is as it should be.

Legal issues aside, there are two sides to the debate: The humanist view that assisted suicide is a personal decision, and the moralistic view that any form of suicide is (ahem) dead wrong.

From a purely humanist standpoint, one might conclude that each person owns his or her life. We create living wills so that a family member has the power to “pull the plug” if we become permanently incapacitated. How is it then, that a doctor can be authorized to disable a life support device when I’m a vegetable, but cannot enable a device to stop my heart under other circumstances? In both cases, it is a matter of a physician flipping a switch or prescribing a drug to end a life.

From a moralistic standpoint, the Christian Bible speaks clearly in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” It doesn’t differentiate between killing yourself and killing someone else. Christians are taught that life is a gift from God, and our lives and bodies are not our own, but God’s. To end that life against God’s design is therefore a violation of God’s will.

Contrary to the misconceptions of many Christians, suicide is not an automatic trip to Hell. According to the Scriptures, there are two unpardonable sins: Rejecting Christ as Savior and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. So, while one would doubtlessly have to answer for ending one's life outside of God's will, it is still possible to be a "client" of Dr. Kevorkian and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Unlikely perhaps, but possible.

Islam on the other hand encourages one to kill himself and others in the name of Allah. Suicide bombers are supposedly rewarded with 72 virgins for all eternity. I can’t help but wonder; now that Islam is encouraging females to become suicide bombers, does this mean they need more virgins in Mohammed’s version of paradise? Just curious.

But whose life is it?

Should someone decide that life is unbearable, that person can end his life in any number of ways. Whether or not one carries through with a death wish depends largely upon one's ideology. Christians believe that a worse fate (Hell) is likely if one commits suicide. Atheists see death as the gateway to oblivion ("we're just mammals"). Radical Islam thinks it’s a free pass to a heavenly whore house, provided that you take a few infidels with you when you explode.

In a free society, the decision to live or die should rest with the individual. Only then can a person suffering from a terminal illness be assured of the right to make a decision based upon his or her own convictions. Personally, I feel that we should have the legal right to end our lives with the assistance of a licensed physician. How I live, or end, my life is my business. I must therefore extend that courtesy to those who do not share my beliefs, and I expect the same courtesy in return.

Related Reading:

Cool Pics - May '07

Here are some pics I shot in late May of '07. The first 3 are from a Pilot Travel Center in Hayti, MO. I don't know exactly how one accomplishes the total destruction of a chunk of concrete several feet thick. But, someone got'er done. At least he didn't destroy the diesel pump in the process (which is what the concrete is for).
I am assuming that someone backed into the concrete. Had to have jarred the driver somewhat severely. Gives me a case of whiplash just thinking about it.
The next two pics are of I-90 in Montana on Memorial Day. A weak front was moving through, and the light snow and cloud cover reduced everything to shades of gray. I'm especially fond of the second image. Click it to see a larger version.
Before the day was over, I'd seen lightning during a snow storm, and it also hailed on me just a bit. Not sleet. Hail. During a snow storm. Toto, I don't think we're in Mississippi anymore.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Day (or Two) in the Life of Me

By Alan Burkhart

I occasionally run into someone who believes that cross-country trucking must be absolutely the easiest way in the world to make a paycheck. If you're reading this and you share that opinion, please do enroll at the nearest driving school and get back to me in about a year. I'm betting your feelings will have changed significantly by then.

Mind you, I like what I do. I've been doing it almost thirty years and still enjoy the feel of being in control of seventy feet of steel with 500 horses (and 1700 ft-lbs of torque) under the hood. And while things usually rock along reasonably free of major problems, every now and again we all have one of "those" loads. A load where absolutely everything that can screw up, does screw up; often dramatically. Allow me to share with you the events of the last few days (daze?).

On Thursday of last week, I picked up a load of rolled paper in West Linn, Oregon (near Portland) bound for Dallas, TX. I like hauling the giant rolls of paper. They're generally 4 to 7 feet tall and about 6 feet in diameter. They're loaded standing upright and are stable inside the trailer when properly loaded and secured. And the load itself was about the only thing that went right from that point forward.

It was late in the day by the time I was loaded, so I drove out to La Grand, OR (on I-84) and parked at the Flying J Travel Plaza. After a hot shower, I visited the restaurant and filled my belly with some seriously comfortable comfort food. I took my evening walk whilst jabbering on the cell phone with my elder brother, then climbed in the truck with every intention of closing the curtains and hitting the mattress.

As soon as I switched on the air conditioner, I heard the unmistakable shriek of a loose belt on the engine. I opened the hood and discovered that the double-width belt that spins the alternator and the a/c was loose. The reason: The bolt that secures the alternator to the adjustment arm was missing. Neither I nor the truck stop had a bolt that would fit, and in any event I had also managed to leave my tool box at home.

I drove across the street to a Freightliner dealership and the nice folks there "installed" a bolt for me and tightened the belt. Took about 10 minutes; and cost ninety-three dollars. Feeling slightly screwed but glad to have the problem solved, I returned to the truck stop and called it a day.

I arose the following morning with the goal of reaching Albuquerque, NM by evening time. My route took me down US Hwy 6 in Utah, which involves climbing over a fairly steep and winding grade known as "Soldier Summit." The climb ranges anywhere from 5 to 7 percent.

About two-thirds of the way up, I almost jumped out of my seat when a loud "bang and hiss" sounded from under the hood. The immediate loss of horsepower left no doubt as to what had happened. A component of the engine's "air to air" system (pdf) had blown loose. This instantly robs the truck of about 90% of its horsepower. I managed to crawl to the top of Soldier Summit and found a wide spot off the road. A quick inspection revealed that I'd lost the clamp that secures one of the short hoses to the engine's turbocharger. The hose was there (still fastened at the other end), but the clamp was long gone.

In my box of various spare parts and related junk (which all truckers carry in the truck's side compartment), I had a hose, but no clamp, which led to much cursing and kicking of small defenseless stones and roadside litter. Feeling slightly more severely screwed than before, I got on the CB radio to see if anyone had an extra clamp. After a few minutes, a tanker driver responded that yes, he had a clamp and would stop when he reached the summit. Five minutes after he stopped, the new clamp was installed and we pulled out of the parking area and started the long descent down the mountain.

Later that afternoon, I stopped at a small truck stop in Monticello, UT with the intent of grabbing a bite to go. As I eased through the parking lot, I again heard the sound of a loose engine belt. At this point I was starting to wonder if perhaps some higher power was seeking to prevent me from reaching Dallas.

I opened the hood and discovered that the ear on the alternator through which the aforementioned $93 bolt had been inserted had broken off the alternator. It was dangling there off the end of the adjustment arm, taunting me for my run of bad luck. After spending a few minutes doing yet more cursing and kicking of stones, I decided that perhaps I should address the problem.

The nearest Detroit Diesel dealer was sixty miles away in Cortez, CO. To make matters worse the place was closed for the day so I'd have to pay an extra fee for someone to come in and repair the truck. My boss and I spoke by phone (I always ask first when spending other people's money), and decided to engage in a bit of Southern Ingenuity.

Using a cargo strap, I secured the alternator to the truck's frame. By the time I’d figured out how to get it all wound up and tied down it resembled some sort of nightmare necktie from Hell. This didn't tighten the belt enough to use the air conditioner, but it did at least keep the alternator spinning. Our little band-aid job held together while I drove the remaining 300 or so miles down to Albuquerque. A new alternator cost $419 installed. Some of you truckers are doubtlessly wondering why I didn’t just wedge a chunk of wood between the a/c compressor and the alternator to keep the belt tight. If I could have found one that fit, I would have. It was that kind of day.

Did I mention that during all this time I had also been keeping an eye on a tiny leak on the back of the water pump? Didn't think so. Not a big leak, by any means, but it was putting a few drops on the ground. I left Albuquerque and traveled as far as Moriarty, NM, then called it a day.

The following morning I hit the ground running and made it to Wichita Falls, TX. The weather had turned foul, and on the north end of town I drove into a raging thunderstorm on US Hwy 287. It was one of those classic North Texas thunder-bangers that just lights up the sky with constant lightning and the thunder is so loud you can feel it down in your bones. The wind was brutal, and visibility was reduced to maybe a tenth of a mile. I had two cars on my left and a narrow shoulder and a guardrail on the right. No wiggle room whatsoever. And that moment was when someone's hound dog ran out into the road. The storm had evidently spooked the poor guy, as he was running in circles and obviously frightened. Couldn't move over. Couldn't stop. Dead dog.

Most of the mutt spun out from under the left side of the truck, but a significant portion of the dog remained under the hood. I pulled into a small truck stop in Wichita Falls, stepped out into the lessening but still-pouring rain and pulled open the hood. Blood, hair, teeth and doggy doo all over the under carriage and even splashed up onto the engine. Hm... Perhaps that was an indelicate description. Oh well, too late now.

I drove across the lot, found a water hose and began washing the gore off the frame and engine. Yep, there I was, standing in the rain, soaking wet, hosing down an eighteen-wheeler. Hopefully no one in possession of a digital camera saw me. I'd hate for that image to make it to the internet. Given the solemn nature of the occasion (I really love dogs), I refrained from kicking stones and cursing.

I left out early the next morning and rolled into Big D without incident. But my leaky water pump was still leaking, and my boss and I decided to bring it in to our terminal in Mississippi for repair. Those of you familiar with the Detroit Diesel 60 Series engine will know about the plate on the back of the water pump. It's secured by a snap-ring, and beneath the plate is a large o-ring. That's where she was leaking.

I picked up a load in Dallas bound for Vicksburg, MS and delivered it the next morning (by now it‘s Wednesday, May 23). I arrived at our shop, and we spent the afternoon on other items - changing the oil, fixing a tire, and a few other minor issues that needed attention. Our plan was to address the water pump the following morning. My dispatcher had already booked a multi-drop load for me, the first drop being in St Louis, MO. I'd need to leave Mississippi by early afternoon to reach St Louis on time.

The next morning I drove to the local Detroit Diesel shop (we just call it "Jerry's") and good old Jerry just about killed himself replacing the o-ring and plate. I never knew one damn snap-ring could be this much trouble. It ate up the whole day, and when I fired up the truck to test it for leaks, it poured. A bit of banging and hammering slowed the leak but didn't stop it.

By now it's 4:45 PM. St Louis is 530 miles away and I've been up since 6:00 AM. We're coming up on the Memorial Day weekend. None of our customers will be open after Friday. My second drop after St Louis is Billings, MT which is 1300 miles from St Louis. I am really needing to be in St Louis on Friday so I can be in Billings on the following Tuesday after the holiday.

Jerry was dead-tired and it was closing time. I returned to our shop, and our mechanic, Mike, and I began the pain-in-the-ass process of changing the water pump... without waiting for the hot engine to cool. We were already tired and irritable, and nothing was working as it should. Every bolt rusted solid, every hose almost welded to its fitting, it seemed that the truck itself was bound and determined to prevent us from succeeding. Can't imagine why. I feed and wash her regularly and always tell her what a pretty truck she is. The old bitch just doesn't appreciate me anymore.

Finally, I rolled out of the shop at just after 11:00 PM. I was filthy, hungry and bone-tired. I do however, know my limits and knew I still had a few hours left in this battered old body. Long story made short, I rolled as far as Batesville, MS (near Memphis, TN) and slept all of three hours, then called the customer as soon as I woke and talked them into taking the drop a bit outside of their normal receiving hours. I made it to St Louis just in time.

As I said earlier, my next stop is in Billings, MT on Tuesday. Lots of time, provided nothing else goes haywire. Now I'm kicked back in the sleeper with another belly-full from a Flying J buffet (in Pontoon Beach, IL - just across the river from St Louis). And the only place I'm going tonight is to bed.

See you on the road.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Big Friggin' Snake!

By Alan Burkhart

UPDATE: A freeper passed along this Snopes link. While it's a big-assed reptile, the story has evidently grown larger with the telling. Still, it's a good story so I'll leave the post up.

My older brother, who lives in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area e-mailed this to me. Someone else sent it to him. You know how this stuff flies around the Internet. Anyhow, given the amazing size of the critter I thought I'd share it with everyone. You can click on the small snake image to see the full-size image. Trust me... it's impressive. The full text of the e-mail is below. - Alan :p

Next time you're out in the tall grass, remember this one. This snake was recently found at the J & S Quik Mart located just south of RR 3014 Turnoff on Highway 281 south of Tow, Texas. [That's just west of Burnett , Texas ]

9 feet, 1 inch - 97 lbs.
A reminder that these creatures are actually out there and no matter what you believe, sometimes they should get not only prescriptive rights to be there, but the full right of way.