A cab driver and a war veteran have found fertile common ground on the long drive to the Twin Cities.
Deeq Shaklane no longer consults a map to find Chetek, Wis. (population 7,300), or the tiny six-room cabin where Betty Meservey awaits him several times a month. He's been down these roads many times before.
"Sometimes, in the morning, [I see] one car or two," Deeq says. "Very peaceful."
This is one of those mornings. Few cars. An elegant sunrise. The gentle bobbing of his taxi's tires against country roads.
"Did you eat breakfast this morning?" she asks Deeq, as if it weren't an odd thing for a fare to ask a driver upon his arrival at her door.
"Yes, I did," says Deeq, his amused smile looming large.
"He wasn't gaining weight," Betty explains after Deeq assists her out of her wheelchair and into the front passenger seat. "I told him to eat a piece of fruit every night before bed. He's gained 2 pounds."
(Note to readers: He's still skinny as a pencil.)
But enough of that. Does he have a girlfriend? Betty wants to know. Deeq laughs.
Twenty-two years of military service have taken a toll on Betty, 74. A veteran of the Air Force's Strategic Air Command in Korea, she has dealt with open-heart surgery and breast cancer, as well as blindness in her right eye and severe bone and back pain. She needs a wheelchair to get around. Three or four times a month, she sees her doctors at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, traveling to and from the appointments via Airport Taxi, which has had a contract with the Veterans Administration for a year and a half. It's a round trip of more than 200 miles.
She likes all their drivers, but there's only one she calls "son." Deeq, 43, who came to the Twin Cities from East Africa 10 years ago to live with an aunt, reciprocates with his own term of endearment for Betty: "Mom."
His actual mother, Dhol (pronounced "Dell"), remains in Kenya near the Somalian border, a topic of concern on this particular morning, one day after the U.S. military struck Al-Qaida members in Somalia.
"Have you called your mother?" says Betty, mother of five grown children.
"She's in a safe area," Deeq assures her.
"She made it very clear she prefers him," said Scott Kenyon, special transportation coordinator.
He finds their relationship sweet -- and unusual.
"He's a very soft-spoken guy -- Muslim and gentle. She is very plain-spoken -- Midwestern, very direct. If she doesn't like something, she lets you know."
When she likes something, she lets you know, too. She squeals with delight when Deeq presents her with four traditional African blouses in rich golds, reds and oranges. She often brings him gifts, too; goat cheese, the handmade wallet he carries, a vest, a quilt, an autographed photograph of a young Betty in uniform.
They drive on. Without asking, Deeq leaves the main road for a more scenic option.
"I just feel that she'd prefer it," he said.
Betty is pleased. "Isn't he a wonderful driver?"