She's 83 and she lives in a nursing home, but Myrtle Mitchell says it is never too late to fulfill a lifelong dream and go free-wheeling in a 28-foot Mack truck.
"It's a very unusual request, but she said she always wanted to ride in a big truck, so we brought one here," said Darlene Oliver, a United Parcel Service driver who gave Mitchella 15-minute ride in her rig yesterday.
"She loved it. She compared it to the school bus she used to drive," Oliver said.
And for Mitchell, who quipped, "Where's the band?" while being helped down from the truck's cab in front of reporters,photographers, and fellow nursing home residents, the trip around the Columbia Mall gave her a taste of "the big life."
"I've seen them on the road for over 50 years, and I've often wondered what it would be like to ride one," said Mitchell, whose past jobs included bookkeeping, farming, bus driving, and even explosives assembly during World War II.
"What's the attraction of riding in a truck, anyway?" someone in the crowd asked.
"Well, because they're so huge. They'rejust so BIG," she said, as though the reason was self-evident.
Mitchell, a resident of Columbia's Winter Growth nursing home, got the free ride thanks to a nurse who recently called UPS officials and told them a story about an elderly woman who had an unexplained longing to ride in a tractor-trailer truck.
The story goes that Mitchell, a boisterous woman with a cane who formerly welded hand grenades and smoke-pot bombs at Edgewood Arsenal, had been getting somewhat restless with her more mundane hobbies of knitting and crochet.
She spoke to other nursing home residents about the big trucks she used to see as a girl in her father-in-law's canning business, and how she had always hoped to get a chance to ride one. But, now that she was old, she said, she wouldn't be able to climb into one, much less ride.
"I thought that she should be allowed to fulfill that one little dream. I thought that if an older person wants to do something like that,they should get the chance," said Connie Fourney, the nurse at Winter Growth who contacted UPS.
With the help of her son, James S. Mitchell, and two UPS workers, Myrtle Mitchell was hoisted up into the cab without too much trouble, although getting down was a bit more precarious.
"We need you to stay in front of that big thing so we canget some pictures," one of the many people with cameras yelled at the precise moment she came back down.
"Oh, sure," Mitchell said, peering out from under the sun visor of her Sasson cap. "You want me toclimb on the top for you, too?"
She said her urge to ride in a tractor-trailer truck is difficult to explain. "I can't really say why.I've just had this fascination with them. I just like them," she said.
Her son, James, the principal of Waverly Elementary School in Ellicott City, had his own theory for his mother's obsession.
"She's a game old gal. She's always been one to take on anything, and go one step further than everyone else," James Mitchell said. "I think that after she drove that big old school bus, she developed a secret desire to ride in one of those big trucks."
Everyone had the same question for Myrtle Mitchell as she began walking slowly, cane in hand,back into the quiet hallway of Winter Growth nursing home.
What would the next dream be for a woman who had driven unruly school buses, lived through the great Depression and built gas masks and hand grenades in World War II? A woman who had just fulfilled her childhood aspiration of riding in a truck?
"A deviled crab dinner, with all the trimmings," she said. "After that, I'll start thinking about airplanes."