In the latest edition of our new series, "Speak, Arkansas," in which everyday Arkansans tell their stories in their own words, we hear from John "Bopper" Richardson, a tow-truck driver at Rick's Automotive and Wrecker Service in Hazen, where he was born and raised. See here for our previous entry in the series.
My grandpa named me Bopper back when I was just a little kid, and nobody seems to know why. That’s just what they call me. Matter of fact, even up through school I actually signed my papers Bopper. I’ve been here 45 years and everybody around here knows me by that, a lot of them probably don’t even know what my name is.
I been a truck driver my whole life, some kind of truck anyway. My uncle drove for a guy, and one day he asked me did I want to go on a trip with him. After that I co-drove for him for probably a year and a half and then I started driving myself. I’ve been driving a wrecker with Rick here for about eight years now, and before that I done about four years with another wrecking company down the road.
There’s not a typical day on this job, and that’s just being honest. I might make seven, eight, nine hundred dollars this week, and then next week I might not make but a hundred. I’ve been doing it for so long now I don’t know any other way to do it. A lot of people will get their check and just go spend, spend, spend. I’m not like that. I’m pretty tight with my money.
A typical deal is just you sit around and wait for the phone to ring. Pretty much I’m on call 24/7. But I actually go on, where I can’t leave town at all, after 5 o’clock until 7 in the morning. So I just sit around and watch a little TV and visit with my people. And I wait for the phone to ring.
Physically, sometimes it’s awful. I worked one not too long ago that was out in the woods. The guy had run his truck off the road and gone out into the trees. We had two wreckers out there and it took us about seven hours to get it back to the highway, just pulling it six inches at a time. They don’t never come out as easy as they go in.
You hear little things from people. When I start hearing stuff I start watching the news, and my fiancee’s got the fancy phone where she can pull the weather up. So we just kinda keep a watch on that. But I’ve been doing it so long now I can just about go outside and just feel it. I ain’t the storm-whisperer, you know what I’m saying, but I can just about tell when it’s going to be ugly out there.
I went to Tulsa right before that last big storm come in, and it caught me. It took me three or four hours to get up there but it took me 12 hours to get home. That was the storm that hit Little Rock so hard, where the cars were parked everywhere. I seen more wrecks around the Little Rock area than I seen in a long time. That’s like a Christmas morning deal, like a bonus. A lot of times I’ll go all night and not get no calls, but when it gets icy like that you know you’re going to make some money.
All of us were on call probably 24 hours that night. But staying awake is just second nature, I just do. I don’t drink coffee. I just know I got to get home to my beautiful, beautiful lady. She’s always calling and texting and checking on me.
Most of the time we take whoever was in the vehicle with us. I enjoy visiting with people. When you’re talking to different folks all the time, you’re always going to learn something from them. I usually try to lighten up the atmosphere. Maybe crack a couple of jokes with them, try to put them at ease. Of course, some of these folks that we pick up are buttholes. They actually think that we owe them something. It’s not our fault that they had a wreck.
I worked one not too long ago, might have been a year or so now. A girl that I grew up with, her son got hit by a truck, on a four-wheeler. And when I got out there to get the vehicle, the kid was actually burned up underneath. I had to pick the truck up off the ground with the big wrecker, so they could get him out. He was 17 I think, had a kid on the way. Bad all the way around. Good hometown kid, everybody knew him and everybody liked him. But he just flat pulled out in front of a truck on a gravel road.
And I still think about it from time to time. That was awful, what I had to see was awful. Knowing him too, that’s what makes it even worse. It’s bad enough when you don’t know them.
I worked one probably a year and half ago where the momma had gone to sleep. She actually lived, but it killed all her kids — they was like 6, 7 and 8. The vehicle had rolled over on top of them. It was just one of those kind of deals where you have to pick the vehicle up and let them drag the kids out. When you see them little-bitty body bags, that’s when it gets to you. Death is a part of life, period. Everybody’s got to do it. But there’s not any reason for a young kid.
You get a little hard. It ain’t like you don’t care, it’s just that’s your job. You go do it, worry about the consequences later. Sometimes when you close your eyes at night, you can think about it.
I’ve been hit out there too. I was laying underneath the truck, hooking up my chain to pull it up on the flatbed, and I heard that rumble strip noise. There was a dump truck that was coming straight to us, like a magnet. I jumped up and took off running, and next thing I know, parts off the truck I was loading up was hitting me. I had to clean my britches up when I got home, but I was still alive.
Every day’s a different day, and no tow is the same. Today I might not do nothing. Tomorrow, ain’t no telling where I’ll go.
—As told to Will Stephenson