Big John took me on one of the more memorable rides of my life in 1969 to St. Louis by semi after midnight during a Teamsters? Union trucking strike.
I am reminded of it now because of the racial events in Ferguson, Mo., even though race had nothing to do with this journey.
I call him Big John because over time he has come to seem larger than life to me.
He was the driver and I was the attendant picking up children with cerebral palsy from their homes and back each day for therapy and schooling at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
I needed the extra part-time money with a wife and new son at home while I went to graduate school classes.
I really doubt that John needed the money. I think he was there because he cared about the kids. He had a particular heart for 14-year-old Kevin, who was confined to a wheelchair but called out rocking with smiles when John talked to him, or turned in his seat to hold Kevin by the foot saying, ?How?s my buddy today??
John and his wife had more than 20 children at home, both natural and adopted. They took the kids that most people didn?t want from those with physical defects to those with behavioral problems. Race made no difference to them.
John had been involved in the Teamsters since before World War II. He had been a young, tough guy that gave a beating to another truck driver who backed his truck into the stall John was entitled to by rank.
It turned out the other guy was Jewish, and the American Nazis tried to recruit John because of his abilities.
Instead, John was one of Merrill?s Marauders with some of his more memorable combat actions against the Japanese in Asia.
John asked me one day if I would like to ride in his semi-truck with him on an after-midnight run to St. Louis. He explained that there was a truckers? strike, but that Teamster members with seniority were allowed to haul things that had to go through regardless of circumstance, like drugs and bodies for funeral services.
The trucks were marked with signs for special transports during strikes, but John felt compelled to tell me a couple of them had bullet holes in the back ends before arrivals.
I stepped up to the cab of John?s big truck one night to a whole different look at life.
He wrapped the big truck up through its gears to 90 mph going east on Interstate-70 to St. Louis. He explained that the Missouri Highway Patrol knew who he was, and what he was doing, so they would allow it.
In St. Louis we made other turns that took us to the flatlands somewhere near the Mississippi, the Missouri, or both.
There was bright light ahead where we were going. It turned out to be from burning wood and cardboard stacked 15 feet high in quite a few piles with flames reaching 20 feet or more into the air. Around these bonfires were men, many of them armed with wooden clubs.
As John pulled to a stop, a mass of at least 200 men gathered around his truck. He leaned over and warned me not to get out of the truck until he came around for me. I was afraid I was going to see him killed.
Instead the men gathered around him talking. After what seemed a lot of time, John came to my side of the truck, and told me to stay close to him walking into a building.
I was surprised when the mob pulled together a pile of crates for John to stand on so everybody could see him while he spoke. A slender, dark man stood next to him watching the crowd.
John must have talked to them, and then answered questions from them for an hour, all about the strike and some things I didn?t understand.
Afterward, he introduced me to the slender, dark man who was very friendly to me, and asked me questions about where I was from.
Apparently John was a Teamster leader with a lot of longevity. Once again he had proved to me to be a very important person.
The mob of men seemed to melt away when we went to the truck to leave. Apparently it had been unloaded while we were inside.
As we rode out of St. Louis, John leaned toward me and said, ?You know that guy I introduced you to?
?He?s a mob enforcer out of Chicago. Killed seven men that I know of. I had to make sure he knew who you were, and why you were with me.?
To this day I wonder about two things: What else might there have been to discover about my friend, Big John, and why did he want me along on that trip to St. Louis?