I'll miss Sonny, a bright guy in a dark world

I'll miss Sonny, a bright guy in a dark world

I didn’t know him well, but I liked him.

We had very little in common, but we could talk.

And when I heard he had died from COVID-19 — one of 121,000 Americans and still counting — I suddenly had a familiar face to put on those mind-numbing, soul-scorching numbers.

Sonny — not his real name but close enough — was a long-haul trucker, giant of a man, 300-bills plus easy, and he spent two-thirds of the year on the road in his 18-wheeler, miles and miles away from his wife and kids. They lived somewhere in Flyover Country, maybe Arkansas, could have been Nebraska or even Missouri.

Not that it matters.

When you’re away from home, anyplace else seems far away.

But that was the deal he made, and he was bound and determined to honor his career choice, despite the toll it must have taken on his family. They understood the deal too, and that made coming home for a rare weekend something to celebrate.

And Sonny knew how to have a good time.

He and I would stand eye to eye, a couple of 6-foot-5 guys, and argue about anything and everything as the music got louder and the coolers got lighter. Long after most of the other folks had called it a night, we’d still be going at it.

“For a skinny liberal,” he’d say, “you can hang with the big boys.”

“Well, for a fat fascist,” I’d say, “you make a lot of sense sometimes, not often, but every now and then. The best thing is that you really listen.”

And then he’d laugh and say, “Sorry, what was that?” and we’d be off and running again.

Guys like Sonny understood that at some baseline, hard-to-admit level, we all want the same things in life: family and friends, faith in something bigger than ourselves, fun days and nights to leaven all the hard work, and — there’s still no better word out there — love.

So when my wife told me he was dead, suddenly and at far too young an age, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for him without having the comfort of his family at his hospital bedside, able to see them, perhaps, but not to feel their touch.

One of the cruelest aspects of the coronavirus — and there’s no shortage of them — is that it’s so easily transmitted from one person to another, often without knowing that it’s even in the room. Social distancing, hand washing, disinfecting this and wiping down that: There’s a bevy of preventative measures we’re urged to take, but in the end it’s so contagious as to be almost unstoppable.

And then there’s the ridiculous culture-war sideshow aspect to it, how some people actually believe wearing a face mask in public is a sign of weakness, not even understanding that whole point of the exercise is to protect others, not themselves.

I was waiting for my name to be called at the doctor’s office earlier this month, sporting my black bandana and blue-tinted sunglasses, when a maskless guy plopped down right next to me, despite the signs advising a distance of at least 6 feet between patients.

He stared at me with his piggish eyes, just daring me to make a scene.

“You gotta problem?” he snorted.

“No,” I said, “but you do.”

I got up and took a chair on the other side of the waiting room and shook my head. There is no point — as I’m sure you know all to well — in arguing with an idiot. This is the country we live in, and like it or not, the price we pay for democracy.

A lot of us are suffering from what Rachel Maddow, among other TV progressives, calls “outrage fatigue.” Living in this toxic political climate with its seeming endless series of preposterous — and dangerous — distractions, it’s wise to keep in mind one of my favorite lines from “The American President.”

After hearing what his chief of staff — Martin Sheen before he got promoted to the big job in “The West Wing” — has to offer in the wake of ugly accusations, Michael Douglas oozes low-heat cool.

“They’re just trying to get us to swing at pitches in the dirt,” he says, effectively putting all partisan politics in proper perspective.

I think that’s pretty sound advice, but then again, I’ve been known to go on some pretty lengthy rants, starting around the time I volunteered to work for George McGovern’s campaign in fall 1972. Despite the fact I wouldn’t be 18 and thus, eligible to vote, until the following winter, I nonetheless made cold calls from the basement of a downtown clothing store trying to convince a county that hadn’t gone Democratic since the Great Depression.

Sometimes, when I ran up against a particularly rude person, I fired off a few volleys of anti-Nixon vitriol, but those folks were stuck in cement, incapable of even considering the fact that their champion might have represented, in Bobby Kennedy’s phrase, “the dark side of American politics.” Sounds almost genteel, given what passes for statesmanship these days.

I was wondering what Sonny, my wife’s cousin and my trucking buddy would have thought about what’s going on these days.

We didn’t bother much with politics in our discussions, perhaps sensing neither one of us cared what the other thought, so long as we were part of the solution, not the problem. Sonny always struck me as a man who took voting seriously, as a privilege, not something to be wasted like buckshot aimed at a songbird.

I remember a conversation we had one summer night, standing outside my father-in-law’s barn, the rest of the family having retired after a full day of swimming in the back-yard pool and savoring all manner of picnic foods during their annual reunion.

“Let me ask you this,” I said. “Do truck drivers intentionally box in civilians when they try to pass one of you guys?”

“Civilians,” he chuckled. “You do have a way with words. Let me ask you: What do you drive?”

“A 1991 Honda Civic,” I said. “Five speed.”

“A little sewing machine,” Sonny said. “Big surprise, huh?”

I refused to take the bait, insisting he confirm or deny my belief that with their CB radios and general disdain for nonprofessional drivers, they conspired to scare the spit out of us.

“One behind you,” he said, laughing, “one in front of you and one tight beside you and you got no place to go. That what you mean?”

I nodded.

“Never heard of such a thing,” he winked. “It’s all in your head.”

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