Brent Eaton's Signs (April 2017)

 

Forget Twitter: If you’re out in the rolling countryside of Rockingham County, Virginia and happen to drive up Wengers Mill Road, you might read one former trucker’s thoughts on a roadside marquee instead, fewer than 40 characters at a time.


For nearly four decades, starting when he was fresh out of high school, delivering ice, Brent Eaton drove truck -- and read signs.

EATON:​​ You'd​ ​see​ ​different signs,​ ​especially​ ​at​ ​churches,​ ​if​ ​you​ ​could​ ​read​ ​fast​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​get​ ​it.

Now he’s on the other end. ​​

EATON: I’m just enjoying it--that’s all it is to it.

Eaton and his wife live in a house surrounded by woods and farmland but close to the downhill side of a winding, two-lane country road. He strategically keeps an old ice truck out front to keep any crashes from hitting the house, and in front of that truck, he parks a marquee.

One recent message read, “Make America Gracious Again.”

EATON: ​​I​ ​think​ ​I​ ​seen​ ​it​ ​in​ ​the​ ​newspaper​ ​and​ ​just​ ​come​ ​across it.​​​ ​I​ ​can't​ ​remember​ ​a​ ​couple​ ​others.​ ​I had ​them​ ​all​ ​wrote​ ​down.​ ​I​ ​used​ ​to​ ​have​ ​a memory,​ ​but​ ​​lost​ ​it.

Chalk that up to chemotherapy, he says. Eaton’s in his upper fifties; he stopped driving to beat colon cancer a couple years ago.

Some of his messages are religious; many are not.

EATON: “No farmers, no food.” And did you see the one, “Without trucks America stops”?

But he tries to stay away from politics, he says.

EATON: I don’t want to get on that side of the fence.

His April Fools’ Day sign ended up triggering a string of wacky quips.

EATON: “Caution:​ ​Up​ ​to​ ​18​ ​inches​ ​of​ ​snow​ ​coming​ ​soon.”​ ​And​ ​a​ ​couple​ ​people​ ​was​ ​like, “We ain’t getting snow.” So​ ​then​ ​I​ ​left​ ​the​ “Caution”​ ​up,​ ​and it’s, “​No​ ​cows,​ ​no​ ​hamburgers.”​ ​Now​ ​it’s,​ ​“I thought only​ ​pigs​ ​had​ ​ham​ ​sandwiches​,” ​and​ ​I’m​ ​thinking.​ ​I’ve​ ​got​ ​another​ ​one​ ​registering​ ​a​ ​little​ ​bit​: “Without​ ​chickens,​ ​we​ ​wouldn’t​ ​have​ ​nuggets.”

The outside of his house is a busy place -- lots of projects, it looks like. In the back are old truck trailers, and his trucks -- each with a nickname.

EATON: That's​ ​’79​ ​Blue,​ ​and​ ​Old​ Mister​ Red​, and​ ​the​ ​school​ ​bus​ ​thing,​ ​I​ ​just​ ​call​ ​him​ ​an​ ​International​ ​Thing. International​ ​is​ ​my,​ ​that’s​ ​what​ ​I​ ​held​ ​for​ ​all​ ​those​ ​years,​ ​had​ ​the​ ​IH​ ​emblem​ ​on​ ​it. And​ ​my​​​ ​dog, his​ ​name​ ​is​ ​Diesel.​ ​He’s​ ​just​ ​a​ ​puppy;​ ​we​ ​got​ ​him​ ​back​ ​in​ ​the​ ​fall.​ My​ ​six-year-old​ ​grandson, he​ ​knows​ ​how​ ​to​ ​spell​ “​diesel.​” He​ ​knows​ ​how​ ​to​ ​spell​ “​Mack.”​ ​I​ ​asked​ ​him,​ “How​ ​do​ ​you​ ​spell International?” “​IH.”​

People notice his signs. They wave. They blow their horns; at church they tell him they “liked what he had up this week.” Those are his version of social media “likes.”

EATON: I’m not a computer, I’m not a -- none of that. Old​ ​school,​ ​all​ ​the​ ​way. Yes, sir. I’ve got a CB in the house, and I talk to a couple​ ​of​ ​these​ ​truck​ ​drivers,​ ​the​ ​quarry​ ​drivers​ ​and​ ​different​ ​ones,​ ​and​ ​they’re​ ​all​ ​like, “Yeah,​ ​I​ ​didn’t​ ​get back​ ​here​ ​yesterday.​ ​I​ ​was​ ​wondering​ ​what​ ​might​ ​have​ ​been.” Like I say, “It’s just all fun.”

[dog barking]

EATON: Diesel, chill!

Eaton is thinking about getting a bigger sign, or one with smaller letters, so he can put up longer messages.

For now, though, short and quirky is key.