By: Gary Gray
When I was a teenager in the early 1970’s, I used to tag along with my older brother Steve to what we then called ‘motocross’ races. We had a Dodge van with all the trappings of the day; a paneled interior, shag carpet, bed, eight-track stereo, the works. The cherry paint job, the shiny chrome mag-wheels and side pipes were guaranteed to attract attention. Folks referred too them as ‘sin-dens’ back in those days. It was one groovy van.
One of our trips was to the small town of Seymour, Indiana. Seymour is a nondescript town in Southern Indiana and located in what is primarily a farming region. The main roads in and out of town were simple two lane highways wandering across lightly rolling hills.
On this particular trip, Steve, two of his friends and I were jammed into the van, the interior of which smelled pungent of gasoline and two stroke engine oil and filled with assorted mud spattered leathers and biking gear. We had never been to this particular racetrack before and of course, none of us thought to examine a map prior to leaving. We were in Southern Indiana, pulling a rickety trailer of dirt bikes, driving about the countryside listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival on the eight-track tape player and lost as hell. After about 20 minutes of wandering the country roads near Seymour, we decided; perhaps we should find somebody or some place where we can stop and ask directions.
Our wish came true. About this time, we emerged from a small gully in the road and proceeded up a hill. At the top of this hill, perhaps two hundred yards away, we spotted what appeared to be smoke coming from the vicinity of the road. As we traveled up the hill, it became obvious the smoke was coming from the roadside. ‘A car crash perhaps?’ That would be neat; guys love a good car crash. We could spot no other vehicles. With each passing second, the picture became clearer; a gathering of some sort in the road ahead of us, but the purpose was still unclear.
As we approached the source of the smoke, we noticed what appeared to be an automobile tire along the edge of the road. This tire was on fire. Not a blazing fire, but more of a slow steady burn. Enough fire to create a long tall steady stream of black smoke into the air. At the side of the road were two people and a dog standing next to the burning tire. The scruffy yellow hound dog appeared as though he actually caught the cars he chased and looked as though it had rolled in dirt for six years.
Steve was driving and he decided these people could provide us with directions. He rolled the driver side window down as the van crept toward the scene. We took closer stock of the situation. Something was not right. It was not normal for people to be standing at the side of a road next to a burning tire; there must be more to it.
A woman! An older woman around 50 perhaps, it was hard to tell, her weathered face so full of wrinkles, her matted and snarled grey hair hanging from beneath a ragged old hat, grinned as we approached. It was a poignant grin, a toothy grin, or should I observe, a tooth grin as she only had three or four teeth total, most of which were obscured in the sides of her gaping mouth. At her feet stood the yellow hound dog, scarred and bedraggled, his tongue hanging loosely across his slobbering jowl. In her hand, she held a half plucked chicken.
Steve and I simultaneously observing this curious site turned to one another and dropped our jaws in amazement. With the van still creeping slowly toward the group, we also observed the man standing along side the woman and dog. He was a grizzled old man wearing a grey jacket and baggy trousers. His hair was cut short and his face contained a week’s growth of knurly whiskers. Amazed, my brother and I continued to contemplate this spectacle. As we gazed back and forth between ourselves and the couple along the roadside, we had no idea what we were observing.
‘Keep going. They may eat us or something,’ I told him, but in truth, I wanted to linger on scene as long as possible to take this in. The guys in the back of the van began giggling.
‘Shut up,’ my brother barked with a whisper.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ I whispered.
My brother stopped the van and poked his head through the open window.
‘We’re looking for a motocross track. Do you know where the motocross track is around here?’ He asked.
The grizzled old codger stepped up to the van and held up his arm. At the end of this arm was…nothing. He didn’t have a hand. He had a stump. Not just a stump, but a stump covered with masking tape. Not fresh masking tape, but masking tape, appearing as if it had been in place for several days. It was dirty and peeling, wrapped neatly around the stump on the end of his arm and protruding from his old grey jacket.
Time froze. What probably lasted only 30 seconds felt like an eternity as each of us gazed at the knurly stump armed man and his toothless wife and bedraggled yellow dog as they stood along side the road next to a burning tire, plucking a chicken.
‘The track is over that-a way about two miles,’ the old man said.
‘Thanks a lot,’ my brother replied as he stomped his foot on the accelerator. We fled the scene towards the direction the old man had pointed his stub.
The old man was right. The motocross track was exactly where he had pointed with his masking tape covered stumpy arm. We had a successful day at the track that day. My brother won both the open and 250cc class races he entered. We joked about the scene along the roadside the whole day and found our way back to Kentucky with no effort afterwards.
To this day, my brother and I both tell this tale, though seldom together. We live far apart now and have for many years so we do not get to see one another often, but still, we have the same basic version of this story.
These days, when I go to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant or to the grocery and observe the roasted chickens cooking slowly behind the glass windowed ovens, my mind will drift back to Southern Indiana and to the disheveled old couple standing by the roadside roasting a chicken over a burning tire and I wonder.
I wonder if those folks were homeless and if the chicken was the only food they had to eat. I wonder if those folks were often found roaming the country roads of Southern Indiana. I wonder if the people living in the area knew of these folks strife and what if anything was ever done to help them.
I wonder each of these things, but more often than not, I wonder if the scruffy yellow dog got any of that chicken.