The Family – Chapter 4

The Margarine Man


For most Frenchmen, the Île de la Cité with its imposing Cathédrale de Notre Dame is the center of both France and Paris. In many ways the history of that small island in the Seine gives definition, perspective and an outlook for whatever today is the soul of France. A few hundred yards away is the smaller Île St-Louis and the Rue St-Louis-en-I’lle, a narrow street that runs down the middle of that island. On the street are hotels, restaurants, the original Berthillon—France’s favorite purveyor of ice cream, and the Baroque church St-Louis-en-I’lle, a church much less famous than Notre Dame but beloved by the residents of the island. Close by is the school run by the Catholic fathers although to the casual visitor it is largely invisible. No signs, no windows onto the street, no banners; the only indicator of its presence are the sounds emanating from the inner courtyard—gleeful screams, shouts and the nonsensical prattle that often helps define the young. It was on this less famous island, at the school run by this less famous church, that Jasper Robb developed several of his lifelong views even though he was only a student of the school for four years.

The Catholic teachers, many of whom were nuns, were strict and demanding but helped instill in Jasper the value of discipline. They also helped him develop as a student of life, one who watched his fellow students and learned at an early age that life was not fair, that no one could watch out for you as well as yourself, and that if you intended to get ahead in life you yourself were the best navigator. This, of course, was an almost complete contradiction of the school’s teachings, an antithesis of the admonishment to put his life into the strong but gentle hands of Jésus Christ, his lord and savior. He would wrestle with the discordance caused by these two quite different views throughout his life. Still, religious apostasy was not his path, he always considered himself a man of God.

When his sojourn amongst the Parisians ended, he returned to the states where he found the schools far too easy and most of his fellow students far too boring. He wasn’t a rebel, he just, as they say “marched to a different beat.” He graduated high school early, graduated college early, and then decided to see the country. He hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, and then spent nearly a year doing a latter day hobo-like journey around the country. By twenty-one, the indefatigable Jasper had decided to drive a truck for a while “just to try something different” and the three years he drove on a steady basis allowed him to see much of the rest of the country. He then moved on to “better things” but still, almost as a hobby, would spend a month each year driving a truck—at least when he was young. One night he met the margarine man.

Most people don’t know it, but margarine when carried in trucks needs to be maintained at a constant 34-degree temperature, no lower and no higher. That fact was significant one night when Jasper, out on his annual trek, decided to take a break in Shaky-Town with a few of his fellow truckers.

Often trucks would arrive in Shakey Town—Los Angeles to those illiterate in the epistemology of trucker lingo—in the middle of the night in an effort to avoid the crowded daytime freeways. Eleven at night until four in the morning might see light traffic, a bearable double nickel (55 MPH) journey through the maze, and a considerable savings in fuel. Quite often they would also take a short “refresher” break before heading back out on to the road. Such was the case one night around 3 AM when Jasper met up with Joe and Early, two friends from the Bay Area who shared many of the same routes. The place they met, a truly ugly, semi-deserted, God-forsaken spot near the Long Beach Freeway was favored because the police—and hassles—were few.

That night the police, aka bears, would have been welcomed. Shortly after the three drivers met up, and began to share some coffee, they heard screams coming from a nearby alleyway. Immediately Jasper and Early ran toward the alley; Joe instead headed back to his truck for his weapon. While each of the drivers carried a gun in his truck for protection, it was Joe—with his huge 357 Magnum—that saw the need for additional force.

When Jasper and Early got to the alley they found a man beating and raping a woman. To their surprise, as soon as they pulled the man off the woman, she took off running. Perhaps, in part, that was due to the sight of a 6’6”, 300-pound-gorilla named Joe huffin’ and puffin’ his way to the scene while waving that huge 357 cannon in the air.

The victim was undoubtedly scared but it wasn’t too much different for Jasper or Early. They knew that Joe could be irascible at times and that he was a strong believer in “Dirty Harry-justice.” They wondered what would happen next? Were they about to witness an execution? Luckily, although Joe wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do, he was smart enough to know that shooting the rapist would only cause more problems for himself, especially since the girl had run away. Still, while the three discussed the situation, and occasionally knocked the rapist back down when he would try to rise, Joe did take pleasure in pointing his gun and repeating his favorite saying—“make my day.” Clint would have been proud.

The simple thing would have been to call the bears in and let them haul the man off to a bear cave for processing, but they knew that nothing would be done since the victim had vanished. That, they felt, would not teach the man a lesson. Even worse, they felt they themselves would probably be accused of something—anything—in that politically-correct-run-amok city where even the bears seemed to have been neutered.

The trio making up this star chamber-of-types finally decided they needed to exit Los Angeles. They told the rapist to take off all his clothes and made him enter Joe’s truck, a refrigerated truck loaded with margarine maintaining a nice, even 34 degrees in temperature. The three trucks, with Early leading the way, and Jasper bringing up the rear, headed their mini-convoy north of Los Angeles on the Big Road, Interstate 5.

About an hour north of nowhere, a spot where the migrating sub-divisions had not yet settled roots, they exited the main freeway and took a feeder road that led to another favorite rendezvous spot, a pickle park that was obscured from the road and provided a restful place to sleep. Other than a few lizards, weathered trash, and wayward tumbleweeds, the place was deserted. There they stopped and ordered the rapist out of the truck. His exit from the truck was slow and his appearance had changed. The rapist was now an ugly sallow gray in color; he also couldn’t stand up straight and was bent over and shaking in a manner that Jasper knew couldn’t be too healthy.

What exactly was going to happen next was still open to conjecture. Jasper and Early still weren’t totally convinced that Joe wouldn’t shoot the man even though Jasper had argued the futility of such an action. But Joe just pointed his big gun at the rapist and said “start running.” The man couldn’t run. Joe jerked him up and said “run or die” and Jasper saw two eyes enlarge much further than he thought possible. Slowly the naked man began to stumble away but Jasper still watched Joe more closely than the rapist.

Joe didn’t fire that gun and as soon as the man was out of sight the trio of truckers decided in mass to vacate the spot. What happened to the man was never known but the story was repeated by the trucker fraternity for years after. The actions of the truckers, too harsh or too lenient, were long debated with little agreement or conclusion.

What wasn’t known by Joe or Early—or any other trucker—was that Jasper had doubled back that night to look for the naked man. He had spent over an hour slowly driving next to the road and calling out for the man but had received no response nor seen any tracks. He figured the man was too scared to respond and wasn’t too surprised. His friends would not have understood the prayer he gave that night both for the margarine man and for himself. He still didn’t have much sympathy for the rapist but he hoped a lesson would be learned; perhaps God could help? As important, he felt he needed to ask for forgiveness for himself.

For Jasper, it was an incident that added one more piece to the puzzle of life. He long internalized a debate as to what he should have done. Should he have been more forceful with Joe? What if Joe had killed the man, what would have been his personal responsibility—morally, ethically or legally? Easy situations and easy questions can lead to quick, easy answers, answers that may not be right in the long term. In this case he pondered the “right” answer for a long, long time and it helped him grow. As he would comment many times later to the Family, most answers in life have to be learned through experience and no amount of teaching or book learnin’ can have the same affect as being part of such an experience

On Jasper’s desk at home set a saying in Latin by Tibullus—Credula vitam spes fovet et melius cras fore semper dicit—Credulous hope supports our life, and always says that tomorrow will be better. The saying expressed his optimism about the future; his experiences, such as those with the “margarine man,” showed that work was still needed to make tomorrow a better place. The experiences also convinced Jasper that he personally could play a positive role in the events that help guide the future.

These dualities, confidence in the future and confidence in his personal role, perhaps help explain why Jasper so often seemed to be the prepotent power on the pier. They might also account for his unofficial position as arbiter of the pier, the person who would settle the disputes that sometimes happened at the pier. He had decided that logic and reason, not emotion, had to govern such situations and believed that he was usually the best person to supply that logic. And he was right.

Mvlti svnt vocati, pavci vero electi –

Many are called [but] few are chosen