It’s officially summer or, as they say in Minnesota, highway construction time. I’ve been to Minnesota and they actually say that, although only with visitors and often accompanied by an eye roll. I’ve also been pelted with stalks of rhubarb in Minnesota, but that’s another story. Repeating the highway construction line there would be like tourists in New York complaining about the dirt and grime. Yeah, and your pernt?
I bring up highway construction not because I plan on laying asphalt this summer but because I saw a sign the other day. It wasn’t a burning bush kind of sign but a flashing highway sign that said: “Protect Our Workers, Tarp Your Load.” I suppose if you’re a highway worker not only does that make sense, but it could mean the difference between life and death. Not being a highway worker, I just thought it was funny. Once I figured out what it meant, that is.
If your mind works anything like mine (I don’t wish that on anyone), you know where I’m going with this. With words like “protect” and “load,” whoever created this message at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) must have had a good laugh. At first I thought it was a strange way to ask people to put covers on whatever they’re hauling so that the contents don’t fly out and hit a worker. As it happens, I once lost a marriage certificate that way, although it didn’t hit anybody but me (the certificate and the marriage). Then I realized that it’s so close to one of those public service spots asking people to use condoms that it couldn’t be a mistake.
If you think that’s farfetched, consider the series years ago of Spanish radio commercials in the Bay Area encouraging people to “cover it up” (tápalo) and “put on your overcoat” (ponte tu abrigo). There was also one exhorting men to use “rubbers” (gomas) and “umbrellas” (paraguas) in case it rained. So, in my mind “tarp your load” was a mere hop, skip, and jump to sexual innuendo. Actually, it wasn’t even that. It was more like shifting weight from one buttock cheek to the other.
Then I imagined how “protect workers” sounded like “protect your boys,” which could only mean one thing. If they had said that or used “jewels” instead of “boys,” it would have been too obvious. No one wants to stoop to the level of vulgarity, at least not before two glasses of chilled chardonnay at sunset on a Friday evening.
…conformity makes cowards of us all.
Of course, this could have been all in my head and the person who wrote it had nothing more in mind than a simple directive to protect highway workers. That may be true and probably is true. The idea of tarping your load may be new to me, but it is a common and necessary practice in the trucking industry. Still, I like to think there was a little picaresque imagination at work, that someone stepped out of the shoulder of conformity into the lane of oncoming traffic. I think this is vital since conformity makes cowards of us all.
Nearly ten years ago an Oakland television station reported the names of the flight crew of a South Korean plane that smashed into a wall while landing at San Francisco International. The names were “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” and “Bang Ding Ow.” The news anchor repeated the names with as serious a face as the situation purportedly warranted. The only problem was that a summer intern had made up the names as a gag. Think of it as an early form of fake news.
In a follow-up news release that could have been written by the same intern, the station explained that it hadn’t sounded out the names before going on the air, which they somehow thought made things better. The entire incident might have been hilarious except that three people died and dozens were injured.
While it may be funny to clown around with names and signs, at some point you’ve got to grow up. I finally did. I stopped using open flatbed trucks for moving. Now, I don’t even need a tarp. And I’ll just assume Caltrans takes its workers’ safety too seriously to employ wiseguys.
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