He passed a sign that he should have seen
Saying "shift to low gear, a fifty dollar fine my friend"
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Harry Chapin, c 1980
(thanks, Cindy Funk)
There is something undeniably, inexplicably funny about Harry Chapin’s story of a tractor-trailer driver smearing a city with 30,000 pounds of bananas as he wreaks havoc at 90 miles per hour. That is, it’s funny until you find out that it was based on a real-life story, and that a real trucker lost a real life and left behind a wife and children. After learning that little tidbit, the laughter tends to drift off a bit, fumble into awkward coughs, and finally fade into uncomfortable and guilty silence.
The lyrics of Chapin’s “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” tell a story quite close to the actual events of March 18, 1965, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. On that day, 35-year-old trucker Eugene P. Sesky was returning home with a load of bananas he’d picked up in Weehawken, New Jersey. Coming down an extremely steep road leading from Lake Scranton to the bottom of Moosic Street, Sesky lost control of his truck. He flew into the city in 90 mph of runaway steel, diesel, and produce.
bunches of bananas
The driver sideswiped several cars before the truck turned over, killing him and spraying the bananas all over the streets. Fifteen people besides Sesky were injured in the accident. While there’s no way to know for certain what occurred in those last moments, it should be noted that Sesky’s final act might have been a heroic one, as his flipping the truck over allowed him to avoid hitting the fueling station or the pedestrians and motorists. People today who knew Gene Sesky talk of him as a good man, and heroism is not an attribute any of them seem hesitant to associate with him.
Harry Chapin heard the story of Sesky’s tragic accident while riding a Greyhound bus out of Scranton a few months after the event. The folk singer found the whole tale so wild and sad that he had to write a song about it. His original impression of the event and the intention of the song were actually pretty grave. He wrote the song as an illustration of the unfair demands that were placed on American workers, as the driver in his story is driven to recklessness by the desire to be with his woman after his “long, cramped day.” When he brought the song to the band, however, they found it humorous, and so the tone of the song was set. It was released on his 1974 album Verities & Balderdash
. The song went on to become a staple of his live performances, one that always elicited raucous audience participation, and originated the infamous catchphrase “Harry, it sucks.”
Behind the scenes, however, the song’s reception was a bit rockier, and Chapin caught some flak for the tune. As a result of the controversy, the artist promised to donate the song’s royalties to Sesky’s family. There are indications that that never happened, however. It should be noted, before any assumptions are made about Chapin’s possible failure to honor his promise, his legacy today is that of a philanthropist as much as a musician. The man is remembered for his heart and generosity every bit as much as his talent. He donated as much as a third of his concert earnings to charities, and his wife claimed that, with “only slight exaggeration,” he supported “17 relatives, 14 associations, 7 foundations and 82 charities. Harry wasn’t interested in saving money. He always said, ‘Money is for people,’ so he gave it away.” So if Chapin did, indeed fail to keep his promised payments to the Sesky family, it seems highly unlikely that it was out of greed, malice, or apathy.
In a sad twist of fate, Chapin himself was killed by a tractor-trailer on July 16, 1981. While driving on the highway, either Chapin's car had a mechanical problem or Chapin himself had a medical one, he suddenly slowed and veered into the center lane, hitting another car. As he swerved away, he ended up directly in the path of the tractor-trailer. His car burst into flames upon impact. The truck driver and another motorist got Chapin out of the car, but were too late to save him. He died in the hospital - of a heart attack. Whether the heart attack occurred before or after the accident, doctors were unable to determine.
Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Gene Sesky - as well as his 30,000-pound load of bananas - met his untimely end is probably best known today for being the city where the sitcom "The Office" takes place. Chapin portrayed it in a far different light when he called it a coal-scarred city / Where children play without despair / In backyard slag-piles.
There’s truth in both representations. At one time, it was one of the most prosperous cities in the nation because of the abundance of anthracite coal in the area, but that industry had long dried up by the time Chapin saw it. The area’s decline had begun after World War II, when coal began losing favor to natural gas and oil, and was sealed by the Knox Mine Disaster of 1959. It was a hurting place for decades after, and is, to a degree, still a hurting place today. However, the area has been undergoing a restoration, if not outright renaissance, since the mid-1980s.
So it’s all done now. The song has been sung and the story told. Knowing the real-life events might tarnish some of the good-times feel of Chapin’s "30,000 Pounds of Bananas," especially those live versions, but it’s all pretty fascinating in its own right. There’s quite a lot of backstory for a song that, upon cursory glance, seems trite and silly. So, let’s take a moment and remember good old Eugene Sesky and Harry Chapin, gentlemen both, and each, perhaps, heroes in their own right.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.
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