Gard Rales here

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There is a national shortage of metals. Well, not really a shortage, but the cost of copper or aluminum is very high and counties are needing to replace guard rails that have been stolen for the resale value of the metal. This is a look behind the scenes at an amazing sub-culture built up around the guard rail craze of 2010.

The Pickup is parked on the shoulder of the unpaved road. A bad place to be in this rain. Short of AAA, this truck isn’t going anywhere until the ground dries out. A plywood slab is propped up on the cab reading: “Gard Rales here” with an arrow pointing off to the right.

The long aluminum highway railing lay way over on the side. The aluminum never moved during the daytime. That was one of Roy Rales rules.

I walked over to the RV that was parked a couple of hundred feet back on a vacant lot. The rain pelted the awning like a slow drone for the slow guitar tunes coming from the player on the card table. The old man sitting there looked relaxed and smiled as I approached:

“You lookin for Rales?”

I replied, “Yes, I’m St. John’s Jim, Are you Roy? We talked a couple of days ago?”

The old man brightened and stood up. Crossing over he took my hand and asked me to sit. I explained my writing assignment to him again:

I’m to get the inside info on the Aluminum black market. You know, the human angle: Serious Journalism for the Portland Boffo. Or maybe the Portland Lighthouse if the Boffo rejects it.

He started talking with hardly any prompting, he stopped once or twice to cue up a delta guitar tune.

“Everybody wants to know how lucrative the business is. We don’t like the term “recycling” or “theft” we prefer to call ourselves “re-swipers,” we do it because it’s fun. Not because there is lots of money in it. There really isn’t. We barely keep our heads above water – We keep under the radar.”

He laughed: “Yee-haa-aha. above water, under radar, Yee-haa-aha.” I laugh with him, nervously. I don’t want to encourage him.

He stops in mid-sentance: “Listen to this.” He plays a bit with the music, closes his eyes and his fingers dance like metronomes to the slow twisty paths of the string chorus of a favorite tune.

I wait, He punctuates the song with “Here it comes… Now!” or “Listen… Did you hear that?” I nod in silence. The tune is over, and He looks up and continues:

“We keep under the radar. We only take a bit at a time. We keep under the limits of the maintenance budget of the county. That way, the funds are already allocated, and they need to spend the money anyway. If we don’t take the rails, then somebody will.”

I explained that as a journalist, I was not interested in the ethics or legality of his “recycling” business, but he did give me a “reswipe local, fence local” button and a flier printed by the Church of Who Gives a Fuck.

I finally asked the tough question: “All over the country, there are people stealing guard rails.” He stops me with a reminder: “call us re-swipers, friend.”

I continue: “Yes, re-swipers, and it’s a national problem. But all over the country, these people call you Gard Rales, You are known everywhere, How did you get to be so famous?”

Roy answered: “Well you can see it isn’t the rails” - He pointed over to 5 rails lying in the grass. “Those are 45 foot sections. We can only have five of them at a time. That’s the rate for this county. Any more, and we would get pinched, sure. And that’s chicken feed. Can’t hardly have a family on that kind of income.”

“So, instead, I wrote a rule book for re-swiping meets. As long as you have your five sections re-swiped each 90 days, you can enter a team. Teams compete to strip a stretch of railings from a regulation track.”

“My favorite event is the drive-by – The team has to hold the guard rail perfectly still in their hands at the side of the road so a cop passing by can’t tell it has been unbolted. Six minutes is the record. Ten minutes if there are K-9’s in the cop car.”

“The final event is called the chain-gang where a team has to whack up a guard rail into 18 in sections in the quickest time. The crowd goes wild!”

“The attendance for these events is up in hundreds already and I have a judging circuit that is turning pretty damn lucrative.”

I did a follow-up interview three months later. The truck and sign were sagging a bit more, and moss was growing around the edges of the painted letters. The RV was new. Very new.

Roy greeted me at the same card table. His fingers still make metronome movements to the blues guitar music.

There were a few differences. There was a make-up artist working on Roy and a helicopter was idling in front of the RV.

Roy said “Ever since We started our 24 hour re-swiping network, we have had TV crews in and out of here. In fact, I’m scheduled for a flight to Referee at the big Swipe Meet in January.”

Re-swiping, is it the new American Pastime?

that's all--