The Day Willy Rear-Ended a Boat

Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles Part VII

Screen Shot 2017-12-30 at 11.46.31It was a classic one-sided phone conversation. Best one I ever heard.

I was in the dispatch office – a former Fleet Wing gas station on West Ninth Street, next to the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway bridge. We usually stopped there before heading out on our truck runs.

My boss, Walter Johnson, answered the phone.

“Willy, why are you calling me?,” he said. “You’re supposed to be driving to Lorain.”

Willy’s run took him from Cleveland to Lorain and back via U.S. 6, which followed the shore of Lake Erie.

“You what?” Walt exclaimed, his eyes lighting up with surprise and anger. “You ran into a boat?”

There was a pause.

“Was it in the water?”

Turns out it wasn’t. Willy, a character in his own right, had rear-ended at boat, which was on a trailer being towed by a truck.

Walt didn’t fire him. Months later, Willy quit after winning a big medical malpractice settlement — the result of his wife dying in a hospital mishap. I inherited his Lorain truck run.

It led to one of the most bizarre chapters of my life – and college.




Death Cab

Death Cab

Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles, Part VI


Ford L-Series. My boss had a small fleet of them.

I couldn’t help but notice the huge blood stain on the headliner of truck 66. The burgundy splatter pattern loomed above my head in the cab — a constant reminder of a fatal crash.


I wouldn’t learn the gory details until I’d been driving the truck for a couple of months — nightly runs from Cleveland to Akron and back. I was hauling U.S. Mail for a contractor named Walter Johnson. (More on Walter in future posts.)

On that fateful night, I backed truck 66 up to the dock at the Cleveland Parcel Post Annex on West Ninth Street. It was a Sunday night and the only one around was an old black man. He fit right in with the dreary setting of the lakefront loading dock — weathered face, glazed eyes, grimy coveralls, tattered work gloves.

He looked at the number on the back of the truck.

“Number 66,” he muttered. “Man died in that truck one night.”

As he rolled several carts of mail into the back of the truck, he described the accident in  detail. Apparently, the driver who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, took a curve too sharply and the truck toppled onto its left side.

“He went out the window and got pinned between the top of the cab and the street, almost cut him in two,” he said, closing the overhead door on the back of the truck.

My stomach churned as I climbed down from the dock.

As I headed toward the cab, I heard the old man say, “And he was a white boy — just like you.”


Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles – II

More about the Chevy van of uncertain vintage

There were still pieces of human flesh dangling from the fire escape when I pulled into the parking lot behind Dean Supply. It was March 1975. I know that because that’s when legendary Cleveland mobster Shondor Birns was blown to pieces while sitting in his 1975 Lincoln Continental behind Christy’s Lounge at Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street.

Christy’s shared a parking lot with Dean Supply, one of our competitors in the bar and restaurant supply business. Unlike Cleveland’s feuding mob factions. we were friendly competitors. In the bar and restaurant supply business, if we were short of certain items, our competitors would provide them at their cost and vice versa.

As I got out of the van, I noticed a small blackened crater in the pavement of the parking lot. I read later that it was where the C4 had been placed.

There was a lot of speculation in the aftermath of Birns’ forced retirement – theories about who did it and how. All agreed that it was inevitable.

Some speculated that his execution was carried out by a competitor in the numbers rackets. Numbers (cottage industry lottery games) played a recurring role in my driving career.

Not that I was directly involved. As mentioned two posts ago, a certain amount of corruption was deemed acceptable in my world. Bookie joints and numbers rackets subsidized otherwise legitimate businesses and the folks who ran them.

Personally, I had no use for gambling. But I had my own vices and wasn’t judgemental about other people’s indulgences.

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