My brother-in-law lives near the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. His 56-year-old hair lives on the edge of a Bon Jovi mullet and a Lynyrd Skynyrd hippy frazzle. His laid back demeanor along with the hair masks the fact that he is one of the funniest people I know, while belying his career choice which is distinctly blue-collar lunch-pail, a heavy equipment operator for several New Jersey road and development contractors. Tom’s Father always wanted to go west to Oklahoma and once the kids were all grown, he and Mrs. Achey, Tom’s mom, headed west. They never reached Oklahoma. They stopped in a small southern Missouri town called Cabool, in Texas County, and settled there. Most of Tom’s five brothers and four sisters remain in New Jersey, and like Tom, all love to eat, dance, party, tell stories, and eat. One year the siblings decided to travel by convoy down to Missouri and visit Mom Achey in Cabool. They pulled onto just about every convenient rest stop and opened the cooler pulling out homemade sandwiches and cool refreshments. On one such stop, as Tom tells the story, “Marsie has a slab of bologna hanging out her mouth and she says, ‘When are we stopping to eat?'” Every time I’m around Tom he tells a family story like that. And it’s inevitably about food. For example, the time he lived at the Mason house in the basement and Pop Pop, Thom Mason, has this long-hair suitor to his eldest daughter living with him. Achey is sitting in the living room watching t.v. and Pop Pop comes into the room with a stack of six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Pop Pop says, “Hey Tom, wanna pbj sandwich?” “Sure” came Achey’s reply. Pop Pop replies, “All the stuff’s in the kitchen. Help yourself.”
Tom also likes to grow things and built his house around a lemon tree. He asked me to sketch a plan for an addition to his house and asked me to draw a box roughly 4’ x 4’ in the southeast corner of the living space next to a staircase. I asked, “What’s that boxed out area.” Tom replied, “I’m putting my lemon tree there.” Since New Jersey weather won’t support citrus, Tom built his house around a lemon tree. Think it actually produced fruit!
Tom Achey’s son, Jimmy, with a “Dad Parody”
Tom had an early sixties vintage Ford Comet in his garage and at various times has driven old pickup trucks worthy of tree-lined dirt roads on Duck Dynasty. Which can be a problem in one of the most densely populated states in the U.S. New Jersey actually requires that your turn signals be visible and that your exhaust fumes invisible. But it’s worse than that. In fact, a visit to the New Jersey inspection station is comparable to sitting in a dentist chair with cotton packed in your jaw, mouth propped open with a suction hose, a dozen metal instruments along with a wooden emery board, as the dentist says, “I’ll be back in a moment,” your helpless discomfort magnified by the instrumental version of You light up my life playing in the background.
I experienced this New Jersey inspection trauma firsthand and nobody warned me when I first moved there. Oklahoma is my home state where you can drive a moonshine-fueled hay wagon with wooden wheels as long as you are not texting. Before texting, certain farm implements could be driven on Oklahoma roads by children 14 years old. Since it’s crowded and there are lots of rotaries in New Jersey, you have to hurry and be rude when you drive or you can stay in the same spot for hours, so it’s important that your car is operating efficiently. As a result, New Jersey gives complete physicals asking each vehicle to turn it’s headlamps and cough while scrutinizing exhaust & muffler, tread, brake lights, headlights, map lights and seat belts. Woe to those who wait in line for an hour in state-run assembly line inspection stations only to be rejected and given a long list of repairs subject to losing your clean road-worthy sticker status. Thus these foreboding annual inspections ranking just ahead of a visit to a proctologist with the hiccups. So I learned to care for of my vehicle and stay in the good graces of the State of New Jersey. Those living near the Pine Barrens often walked a fine line of vehicle rebellion while driving Comets and old pickup trucks, fearing failure at the inspection station and living dangerously with an expired inspection sticker, daring the law to spot them on the back roads of New Jersey.
One day, Tom was driving his pickup, accompanied by his expired sticker, and a trooper eyes the outdated sticker. Noticing the trooper making a U-turn and pulling alongside him, Tom does what any sensible man would do. He hides the evidence. Cranking down the window, he reaches out around the edge of the windshield, still speeding along, and covers the sticker with his hand, mullet streaming in the wind. Then Tom pulled over and the trooper walks to his window laughing and blurts, “That’s the funniest thing I ever saw. I’ll let you off this time.”