Motorcycle diary: deep thoughts from the guy who delivers your mail

“Roll me away, baby.” The words of Motor City boy Bob Seger played through my head as we blasted across U.S. Highway 2 west on our grandest adventure yet.

That song was written about that road. It’s funny how you can hear a song a million times and never catch the story. My ol’ man had to explain the song to me 12 years ago when he traversed the same trail that Madame Dick (otherwise known as my wife, Jackie) and I were now taking to Alaska and back: “Play that song when you’re heading west and listen to it a dozen times if you have to.” So all the way out west, till Highway 2 ended in northern Idaho, I played that blasted track over and over. It became the soundtrack for our odyssey, and I left a trail of tears behind on the asphalt every time I heard those haunting words, “Felt so good to me, finally feelin’ free.” I was in a better spot than that feller in the song; my girl was committed to this trip from the start and she never missed her home. We stood together staring out at the Great Divide. And this time, we got it right.

It was an epic journey worthy of a grand song to accompany our road-worn asses. Jackie and I began traveling the country together on a motorcycle in the summer of 2002 and, in the course of eight summers, we have now been in all 50 states. This summer’s trip was our crowning achievement. We live in a majestic, bountiful, expansive, noble, regal, and splendiferous land y’all! The only way to understand “America the Beautiful” is to travel across it. Spend your time and money to see our great country. You will never regret it. If you heed my words, the next time you hear “Roll Me Away” you too may leave a few tears along Highway 2. I promise I won’t tell anybody.

I turned 50 years old on that trip. Alaska turned 50 as well in 2009, and it was our 50th state to visit. Instant karma finally got me, and I did a lot of thinkin’ as I tore down those 6,531 miles to get back home to Michigan. I thought about how great America, my country ’tis of thee, really is. I consider myself an American patriot and I fly my flag from my porch every day. My mailman can attest to that: the flag hangs right over my mailbox. I am an Eagle Scout, and nothing riles me more than seeing our flag in disrepair or disuse. But what I see going on today in our country, under the guise of “patriotism,” makes me feel ashamed and disgusted.

After leaving Skagway, Alaska, my wife and I traveled north to the Yukon and then began heading southeast on the Alaskan Highway to get back home. We spent eight days in Canada, our glorious neighbor to the north. Eight days of buying gasoline, motel rooms, food, and (forgive me Mom), lots of beer. We paid double sales taxes (national and provincial) to the tune of around 12 percent per transaction. Cigarettes were about 11 bucks a pack and beer around $10 for a six-pack. I never complained – I knew I was subsidizing their vision of national security. As a tourist, I was expected to cough up my fair share for their country’s promise to every Canadian: national health care for all.

Most Americans find this outlandish. To travel through Canada, why should I be expected to fund their Socialist system of health care for all? I’ve been to told to keep all my receipts so I can be reimbursed for all the sales taxes I’ve paid. I really found it to be a privilege to spend eight days in a country so enlightened. I don’t know if I’ll go to the trouble to ask for my money back. I asked a few Canadians along the way what they thought about their health care system, and I always got the same quizzical look. They really didn’t comprehend the question. “Are you asking me if I like my doctor? We only have one doctor in this town of 500 people.” “No, I’m asking if you mind paying taxes so that everyone has health insurance,” I would say to clarify my line of query. “What kind of silly question is that!” was the standard reply. “I feel sorry for you in the States,” one young lady told me. “We don’t mind paying the taxes because if something happens to us, we don’t have to worry about the hospital bill.” I was as puzzled by their replies as they were by my questions.

So for eight days we rode through Canada. I didn’t see people dying in the streets, no crippled folks on crutches lined up in front of hospitals, or euthanasia clinics to finish off the old and sickly. In Detroit, only a river separates us from this foreign land. And yet, our frame of reference as Americans is so different from our Canadian friends. We see this health care argument as a nation of Yo-Yos: You’re On Your Own. We see this argument for reform as conservative versus liberal, capitalism versus socialism. In other countries, including Canada, they see it as a pragmatic approach to solving a problem. In Canada, as well as Britain, there are conservatives and liberals. Both sides, though, are united in the concept of health care for all through government programs. Why are we in America so divided on this?

My coworkers and I, as letter carriers, are examples of what I consider socialism in its most pragmatic terms. We are a public service, connecting with every citizen six days a week in order for all to have an equal access to a national line of communication. That is what we do for a living. We are all involved in a socialist program that we all take for granted. We work for a government agency that guarantees the same dollar amount for postage, 44 cents, to deliver a message to any American regardless of where they live, how much money they make, or who they vote for. A postal stamp is our national standard to be equally connected to any American.

I like to call that pragmatic socialism in action. Such things as Social Security, Medicare, the VA program, the interstate highway system, even the War Department (excuse me, the Department of Defense – my bad!) are government programs funded by tax dollars. The very people screaming for government to get out of their lives – the so called “teabaggers” – would not give up these precious programs. One of these enraged citizens at a recent town hall meeting even hollered at a news camera, “Keep the government’s hands off my Social Security and Medicare!” Every one of those folks railing against the government’s role in health care reform should do one thing tomorrow: forfeit their Medicare and Social Security benefits. Then I might begin to take them more seriously.

We, as letter carriers, should be extolling the virtues of how well a government service can work. What we do every day is a shining example of pragmatic socialism at work. Let us not choke on the “S” word. Remember what your mother said: “Words can never hurt you.” We all live in what is called a mixed economy with capitalism and socialism both being parts of our everyday life. Unfettered capitalism can cause great harm to the working class when only money talks and workers are made to walk. The U.S. government is the only institution big enough to handle certain problems, and I believe health care reform is one of them. We have proven over the decades that universal mail service, provided by government workers, is a solid bedrock of American life. Let us do the same for the millions of uninsured Americans that we deliver the mail to each and every day.

John “Cementhead” Dick is an active member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 3126, Royal Oak, Mich.

Photo: John and Jackie Dick in front of the Harley dealership in Skagway, Alaska. (Courtesy of John Dick)



John Dick
John Dick

Award winning writer John "Cementhead" Dick is a retired letter carrier and proud member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 3126, Royal Oak, Mich.