On Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012, country-and-western music fan and truck-repairman extraordinaire Charlie Dorner was in his own version of heaven.
With wife Brenda and sons Waylon and Charlie (Chaz) Jr., Dorner was at the Stockyards Music Festival in Fort Worth, TX., enjoying sizzling Texas sunshine, icy beer and some A-level country music. On the bill: David Allan Coe, Hank Williams Jr., and Merle Haggard, among others.
Two months later — on November 30 — back home in Chatham, ON., Dorner found out what hell is like.
Waylon, the younger of his two boys, died in bed of a heart attack, at 32. The death came as a complete surprise. Waylon leaves one daughter, Jaelyn, 8.
“He was more than a son to me,” his father says, wiping his cheek with the back of his catcher’s-mitt-sized hand. “We were buddies. He was my partner.”
Almost 1,000 visitors filed through the funeral home where Waylon was waked the following week and on the day of his funeral, a 20-rig convoy accompanied Dorner on his last ride, which went from the funeral home to Maple Leaf Cemetery.
For the past quarter century, Dorner Sr. has operated Charlie’s Place, a truck and farm-equipment repair shop in the heart of Ontario’s rich vegetable country. Waylon Dorner’s truck fleet was housed in the abutting property.
And since he opened for business, Charlie Dorner has loved fixing up the assortment of tractors, trailers and farm equipment that came through his door. And after the other guys in the shop had gone home, Charlie worked on his countless restoration projects. His property is a virtual museum of automotive and truck history.
But these days, Charlie will tell you, he is so deeply devastated by Waylon’s death, that on many days, he doesn’t want to go to work.
The only thing that gets him out of bed is a certain truck restoration project that got its launch — almost miraculously — back in Fort Worth, at that terrific concert.
Among the performers at that show was Shooter Jennings, son (and virtual clone) of the late superstar Waylon. Charlie Dorner might be Canada’s biggest Waylon Jennings fan.
He knows more Jennings trivia than probably some members of the singer’s family. One of the walls inside one of Dorner’s many workshops is papered in Waylon Jennings memorabilia.
After the concert was over, the Dorners were in the White Elephant, a musician’s hangout that Willy Nelson sometimes drops into.
“All of a sudden,” Dorner says, “My wife goes ‘Look! Isn’t that Shooter Jennings over at the bar?”
Dorner and Waylon went over and introduced themselves. At one point, the younger Dorner told Jennings: “I was named after your dad.”
Shooter was with his uncle Bo, Waylon’s youngest brother. The four men hit it off.
Talk turned to trucks and then to one rig in particular: the 1966 Mack that Waylon Jennings used to haul his equipment.
“I remember seeing it on the road back when I was driving,” Dorner says. “He [Jennings] had two Macks and three buses.”
The truck in question had a double-integral sleeper berth. The front part was for the driver. The rear was preserved for the precious steel guitar belonging to Jennings’ steel-guitar wizard Ralph Mooney.
Dorner asked if Bo knew the whereabouts of the old Mack.
“I,” Jennings said, “have it.”
How much would he take for it, Dorner asked.
It wasn’t for sale. Jennings said he had already turned down an offer from Jay Leno.
The following day, the two men met again and compromised. Jennings commissioned the Dorners to restore the Mack to mint condition.
So it followed that the Dorners returned to Texas a few weeks later to strap the Mack on to a flat bed and truck it back to Charlie’s Place.
The deal was all done with a few signatures on a small scrap of paper.
Dorner says Bo Jennings’ lawyer advised his client that there’s little point drawing up a complicated business contract because, as Dorner tells it, “he said ‘once that truck’s across the border and into Canada, it’s as good as gone.’”
And then, Jennings’ lawyer told Dorner: “I can’t believe that truck is going to Canada. He [Jennings] don’t trust nobody.”
Bo Jennings, meanwhile, says “you get a good feeling about folks when you meet them and I got a good feeling about Charlie when I met him.”
And just like Dorner’s a big fan of Waylon’s, Bo Jennings said if the musician were still alive, “He’ d think the world of Charlie. Waylon would love this project. He’ d be right up there in the shop in Canada watching.”
Because this project is being done in honor of the two Waylons, the revitalization of the old Mack is the most painstakingly meticulous restoration Dorner has ever undertaken.
For instance, Dorner is repainting the original gold trim on the sleeper by his own hand. The original was 14-karat. And with every gentle stroke of the slender gold-tipped brush he thinks about his late son Waylon.
As Dorner says, “I’ve done a lot of restorations, but I never did one out of love before.”
And finally, he said, “I’ve come to realize that if you don’t love what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be wasting your time doing it. You never know when things might change.”