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“You’re gonna do what?!” It was late in the summer of 2003 and I had just told my late father about my plans for life after my impending retirement from active duty. The curtain was slowly drawing on 20 years in uniform, prompting Dad to ask “So, Mr. Military Historian, any idea what you’re going to do next?” My answer left him completely off balance. I had begun my military career in Security Forces and would conclude it as the author of dozens of military history books with numerous tours of duty at the pointy end of the nation’s spear and … and now I was going to follow that up by living at truck stops?
“Dad,” I explained, “I’ve been taking orders from other people for 20 years. I’m ready to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and get paid to travel the country.” “Well, you’ve certainly earned the right,” he conceded. He also allowed as how he thought I’d lost my mind, but it wasn’t the first time he had reached that particular conclusion.
For her part, my Mom was concerned for my safety and anxious that I might be biting off a bit more than I realized. “It’s a hard life,” she cautioned. Ever the impervious know-it-all, I replied that living in a foxhole was a hard life. While it wouldn’t be the cozy confines of the writer’s lair, surrounded by brilliant authors and churning out scholarly analysis of current military operations, it would, I reasoned, ground me in that soul-cleansing process of an honest day’s physical labor.
Some 15 years later, the cumulative effects of all that soul-cleansing along with the attenuating hands of time require a radical change of pace. The last three and a half years, in particular, have been especially difficult as I switched to a local company which specializes in pushing both drivers and equipment beyond all reason. An unholy combination of chronic nausea-inducing fatigue and the almost daily arguments with dispatchers who can’t comprehend why drivers can’t squeeze 16 hours of work into a 14-hour day have taken a very real toll. It was time to either climb out of the truck or resign myself to being carried out while simultaneously hearing my dispatcher ask why I can’t run another load up to Osceola before the ambulance takes me to the hospital. I voted with my feet.
Looking back at the landscape of over a million miles driven across this magnificent country, I’m left with a feeling of immense gratitude, humbled by the beauty of America, her people, and her spirit. I remember, for example, having dinner at a truck stop in upstate New York on the day our Navy SEALs dispatched Osama bin Laden to the nether reaches of Dante’s Inferno. “What did you think when you heard that we got him?” I asked another driver in the diner that night. He opened his eyes fully and leaned forward for emphasis, saying, “Score one for the good guys.”
“Yes, but we better be careful,” added a gentleman whose ball cap was situated precariously over a white dollop of hair shaped like Dairy Queen ice cream with the curl on top. “It’s a good thing they buried that [expletive] at sea because those idiots are gonna be sore enough at us as it is.” “You think they’re gonna like us no matter what we do?” countered the first gentleman, his eyes at half-mast. Answering his own question, he added, “We kill enough of these lunatics, they’ll get the hint.”
Then there were the occasional excursions into the northeast where, I observed, good attitudes and good driving records would go to die. Of course, there are some wonderful people in the northeast, many of whom I’ve met at Ricochet gatherings. From the vantage point of the cab, however, the scenery deteriorates significantly, prompting me in 2011 to rant thus after being assigned a load from Mehoopany, PA to someplace, Connecticut:
Go forth into the mountains, yea through the valleys and up yonder peak. Deliver thou the diaper stuffings and, lo, ye shall find another trailer loaded unto bursting with Proctor and Gamble finished product which thou shalt take into the land that is called Connecticut. For verily, many middle fingers await thee, and thou shalt cry unto the heavens, “Why hast thou sent me into the land of the Philistines! What the hell!” And I will say unto thee, “Turn left at Main Street,” for I am Jill the GPS, and that which I leadest thee into, I wouldst leadest thee out of. Before thou canst double clutch from 4th to 6th, thou shalt be back in the land of warmth and gumbo.” So let it be written. So let it be done. Yea.
Then there were the passengers, most of whom lightened the work and the atmosphere when they entered the truck. My daughter must have been around 14 or so when she began riding with me during the summer. The satellite radio was perpetually set on the New Country channel. By the end of two weeks I knew the words to every Flascal Ratts song and was mortified when I caught myself singing along to “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” at a TA truckstop in rural Georgia. She was always a joy to have around, though I could have used about two dozen fewer punches to my right arm when she would spot a “Punch Buggy!”
My son’s work schedule allowed him to make a couple of trips with me, and I remember one occasion in particular. We were traveling south from Cincinnati, down toward Louisville, Kentucky. Portions of the interstate were riddled with potholes, causing things to shift around a bit in the sleeper. My son’s stuffed animal and been bounced forward so that it sat precariously at the edge of the top bunk. I casually mentioned that the critter was about to make a leap over the edge when my son looked back and yelled, “Don’t do it!!!” Such a contrast between this hilarious outburst and his usual more sedate nature was enough to give us many miles of uninterrupted laughter.
Of course, my Dad’s trips in the truck have become the stuff of legend. From the time he looked over his reading glasses at the waitress who was feverishly rifling through her apron pockets in search of a pen with which to take our order, prompting Dad to say, “Itches, doesn’t it,” to the time he took a shopping cart in a Lowes and filled it with clearing supplies — whereupon he cleaned the Men’s Room and then brought the cart to the manager’s office, a trip with Dad was an adventure.
Traveling west to California with him once, we observed how short most of the trees were in that region — that is, what few trees we could actually find. I asked how it was that back in the old days they could hang the bad guys from such short tree? “Simple,” he answered, “they kicked the Shetland Ponies out from under them.”
Perhaps the best moments with Dad on the road occurred when he and I met my son and his lovely wife at a motel, which was managed by a dear friend I knew from high school. It was Christmas, and my friend would open the motel each year to local homeless vets to make sure they got a hot meal, a gift, and a warm place to stay for Christmas. We all stayed at the motel and assisted with these remarkable veterans. At the time, I drove the Ride of Pride military show truck, and the look on those gentlemen’s faces when they saw that truck pull into the parking lot is one I will never forget.
For that matter, the two years I spent taking that show truck to military and veteran’s events across the country constitute two of the happiest years of my life. From taking a lap at Talladega Speedway in front of tens of thousands of race fans to riding with hundreds of thousands of military bikers as part of Rolling Thunder 2014 in Washington, DC. It was an unparalleled privilege. I even had the honor of a Vietnam Veteran riding with me for Rolling Thunder. He went by the nickname of Doc. He rode most of the route with me, getting out of the truck near the end so he could walk over to the Memorial and pay respects to his friends. Even now, as I recall the humility and kindness, the gentle grace and humor of a warrior who had seen so much during the Vietnam War, …well,… the emotions get caught in my throat somehow.
Then there was the story of the California Pee-Nile Code. It was December of 2010, and I was in a truck stop diner in Laredo, Texas. I had found a quiet corner of the restaurant and had ordered a hot meal when:
Dinner arrived at the same time as three very loud customers who, naturally, decided to sit at a table next to mine. Let’s see, …the trio consisted of a 20-something couple, and a large older fellow who I gather was the young lady’s father. He played lead fiddle in the conversation and he must have been around 300 years old judging from all the experiences he’s had, which experiences he narrated loudly enough for the benefit of everyone within a 15 mile radius, including the deaf. His specialty? The legal system in California. “Don’t get me started,” he said, as if anyone needed to. “I know evathang they is to know ’bout the California Pee-nile Code.” Yes sir, court was in session and he was granting his own motions to enter anything and everything into the record. I began eating faster. As he went on at Tolstoyvian length about drunk driving laws, three strikes and you’re grateful, whatever, I began replaying opera in my head as a defense. I was mentally playing it so loud that I practically had poor Pavarotti in an aneurysm, but he still couldn’t overcome the California Pee-nile Code.
Scarfing down my comfort food, I left the restaurant and went straightway to my truck. After a half hour of quiet, I decided to venture back into the truck stop to see if they had anything I could purchase as a Christmas gift. Unless everyone on my list wants a miniature tractor trailer this year, the pickings will be slim. Remembering that these places have a good selection of flashlights, I wandered back to the tool selection. “Don’t get me started!” I heard. Over by the flashlights stood the California Pee-nile Code, inflicting his wisdom on some hapless truckers whose only apparent offense might have been to say hello to him. They looked miserable, and I looked for the exit.
In fact, I recorded little observations from nearly every corner of the country:
* For sheer beauty, for idyllic tranquillity, for serene repose, I offer the state of Maine. It’s not a bad place to have a tire blowout either.
* If you want to know a person’s true character, just give them the anonymity of a motor vehicle. The same brethren who just minutes earlier shook your hand and said, “Peace be with you,” during Mass will make a hood ornament of your pelvis if you get between his car and the parking lot exit.
* The Denver Broncos’ stadium looks like a Styrofoam bowl whose edges melted in the microwave.
* You might think the Canadian River flows from Canadia, but you’d be wrong. It starts in Colorado, somewhere close to the international raceway, I think.
* Sitting in the restaurant pondering the age-old question: What came first, the egg or the grease?
* Waitresses are more honest ambassadors of a town than its Chamber of Commerce.
Naturally, there were rather poignant moments as well, preeminent among them being the lady who came out from her office at a customer in Kansas City and stood looking at the Ride of Pride. As was my habit, I approached her and began explaining the symbology of the truck and when I got the Gold Star above the driver’s door she stopped me and said, “I know what the Gold Star is for. My son was killed in Iraq.” What to say? I could muster nothing except to express my condolences, thank her for her family’s sacrifice and quietly step back after assuring her that I’d be happy to answer any questions she may have. I can see her now, standing with her arms crossed as if bracing herself against the memories while gazing up at the artwork.
And while it couldn’t be described as necessarily poignant, it was unforgettable when a little hatchback car passed me on I-4 near Orlando, Florida. The driver was taking his family to Disney, I suppose, and he cut over right in front of all 80,000 pounds of me in hopes of moving over one more lane to the right to make his exit. Except that the lane was occupied by other cars. Which prompted the genius to slam on his brakes and come to a complete stop in the middle of the highway with my truck barreling up from behind. I literally stood on the brakes, the tires roared and a wall of smoke went up from the rear of my trailer but I couldn’t bring the thing to a stop. I will take to my grave the image of those children looking up at me from that hatchback as, fortunately, traffic in the right lane cleared and the idiot driver moved over at the last possible moment. Otherwise, I would have gone right over the top of that family.
Which reminds me, gentle reader, lest any of you fancy a career in driving an 18 wheeler. There are many rewards, a few of which I’ve mentioned above. But lest you become unduly enticed by the idea of roaming the country with a steering wheel in one hand and a coffee cup in the other, listening to your favorite music and soaking in quintessential Americana, let me tick off a few items you must also contend with:
* You will live in the truck and visit your home. This means missing a great many family events, weddings, funerals, holidays and the like because the odds are that your dispatcher will not be able/willing to get you home by the date promised.
* You may be called upon to load or unload the freight yourself. It is grueling work done in a trailer that is either sweltering or freezing depending on the season. If you have to unload a 53 ft trailer, loaded top to bottom and front to back with retail furniture and assorted items — as I did — you will hurt. And you might get hurt.
* Speaking of which, after 15 years in the trucking industry, I’ve racked up four ambulance rides to the hospital for kidney stones (one requiring surgery), two herniated discs from a back injury resulting in about 3 months without work, and one stroke which occurred in the truck and was purely a stress-induced event. This stuff takes a real physical toll on the body.
* Chronic fatigue will be your closest friend and constant companion. Some trucking companies understand this and will try to give you some downtime so you can recharge and be safe. My first company, Schneider National, was very good about this. Others, like the mid-size outfit I just left, seem to feel that if you aren’t tired enough to puke, they aren’t utilizing you correctly.
* Running legal is now easier to manage with electronic logging. Again, larger companies like Schneider are fanatical about making sure that their drivers stay compliant with all aspects of federal hours of service laws. Others (and I know of a few) will push you to run illegal every chance they get, but will deny it all and leave you hanging when something goes wrong. Remember that even if a vehicle runs into you, if records show that you shouldn’t have even been there in the first place and were running illegal, it’s you who will go to jail. Not the idiot who dispatched you on an impossible load and then went home to his family.
* Be prepared to spend protracted periods of time outdoors working with recalcitrant equipment in the worst possible conditions. You will learn that getting winded in 35 degree below zero temperatures is extremely painful because when you take a deep breath in those conditions it feels like your lungs are on fire. Likewise, you will experience the thrill of standing in pouring rain trying to slide the trailer tandems, or wading in mud halfway up your legs while hooking up to a trailer, or sweating like Nancy Pelosi in a spelling bee in triple-digit heat. Enjoy your coffee while you drive, because you will earn the respite.
* And that doesn’t even include the traffic, which will generally regard you as the enemy. You will be cut off, flipped off, pissed off and pissed on by everyone who can drive faster than you,..and that’s usually everyone around.
If you can handle all of that without batting an eye — get help. Call home. Have a decent meal and a hot shower because those will be harder to get on the road. Then, if you’re still determined, you might want to look a little deeper into this trucking business. On balance, it’s been a great ride and yes, I’d do it again. I could fill a book with stories from the road. Actually, I already have and I hope to see it published before it becomes a posthumous work.
What will I do next? A lot more writing and a lot more podcasting for starters. One of the great things about having an actual life is that my productivity in more cerebral pursuits should increase dramatically. Besides, I’ve already got a website and a swag store, so we will see where all that leads.
Oh, what else will I do in order to pay the mortgage? Well, if you’re ever in need of some top-notch watch repair, I know of a place that can help you. I did it many years ago, and I’m happy to do it again — with normal hours at decent pay.
Meanwhile, as the mind goes back to the highway, I remember taking my dear friend and fellow military retiree, Bob Lee, on the road with me. We were taking a break at a rest area on the way back home and, as I wrote at the time:
We argued politics, relived stories from our days in uniform, listened to trucking music, and ate apple fritters outside while watching an armada of clouds that looked like fluffy mashed potatoes passing by in formation. “Getting out like this has restored some of my faith in humanity,” Bob said while we sat on that wooden bench that day. I didn’t really know how to respond, because my own faith wanes from time to time, …that and I had a mouth full of apple fritter. Bob isn’t able to drive anymore, and he doesn’t get out as often as he’d like. It was good to see his mood lighten as the days progressed. It was good to see him get in and out of the truck with greater ease as his strength increased, and to see him and that cane moving at an ever quicker pace. I think the trip was good for both of us.
Indeed. In retrospect, the trip was good for us. Hanging up the truck keys for the final time, I must admit that yes, the trip was good for me too.