My friend, Ergie Smith, was recently visiting with the guys in our sports department, and he came over to say hello before he went on about his way. I’ve known Ergie since the mid 1980s, and I’ve always enjoyed spending time with him. As we were sharing holiday greetings this time, he told me that he really likes the columns I write about my trucking experiences.
Those days were such a small part of my life — just five years — but to me, every month of trucking provided a year’s worth of experiences that keep playing over and over again on the big screen TV of my head. Truckers are up all day and all night every day and every night, and we saw as much of the seedy underbelly of society as we saw of the chrome-spangled bunting of the heroic heartland. Then as now, the reality of the world wasn’t nearly as pretty as the roadside neon billboards said it was.
Anyway, Ergie asked me a question that I really don’t get asked anymore, primarily because my kidneys, spleen, liver and every other internal organ I have took a tremendous beating on the washboard interstates of this land that Woodie Guthrie said was made for you and me. Ergie asked, “Do you think you could drive a truck now?”
Rather than cough up the laugh that was building within my soul at that moment, I started to review the variety of trucks I had driven through the years. My buddy, John Whitt, used to always say that the only thing you had to know about driving a truck was: “They go tiss-tiss, and bend in the middle.”
Of course, Whitt mocked the sound of an air brake hissing compressed air when a driver depressed a brake pedal. The point I took from what Whitt said was that who really knows how to drive a truck? A trucker can have 50 years of experience and still see something new on every round ... every haul. Weather conditions, the road, people, machinery and more change every second of every round. To Whitt, the only constant was tiss-tiss, and bending in the middle.
It took a second or two for me to think about that after Ergie asked me the question, and it took another second or two to run through the different transmissions, engines, models and makes of trucks I operated during a five-year hitch. I rarely knew where I was going to be at any given moment. Even when I owned my own truck, I operated several other trucks as long as I got paid for a certain job. At that time, there was nothing ... nothing at all ... that was routine or consistent. Every hour of every day was an adaptation and adjustment to a new challenge.
It would mean nothing to sit back and say I operated Freightliners, Japanese Freightliners, Internationals of all shapes and sizes, Peterbilts, Kenworths, Marmons, a GMC “Crackerbox Jimmy,” Diamond Rio Royales, Fords, GMs, Macks and more that I don’t recall. I hauled steel, machinery, coal, fuel, watermelons and even a light tonnage load of Coors beer one time when I couldn’t get any other back-haul out of Denver. I drove 10-speeds, five-and-twos, 6-speeds, 5-speeds, 13-speeds, 12-speeds, 16-speed 4-by-4s (my favorite) and even an automatic Allison transmission on one round.
By that time, four seconds had passed and I was able to answer Ergie by saying, “Ah, yeah.” Of course, I wanted to say something clever like I couldn’t even drive when I was driving, but I didn’t. What I was thinking was that, yes, I still have the knowledge I had 40 years ago when I was driving, but I no longer have either the inclination or the passion to climb in a big rig just to listen to the air brakes go tiss-tiss, and watch through my west coast mirrors to see a tractor-trailer bend in the middle.
That doesn’t mean that I’m merely a shadow of who I used to be. I do other things now. I meet challenges, think and work things through and keep my foot on the throttle all the time as though a whole gang of Smokies are chasing me down because I accidentally dodged that scale in Cambridge, Ohio, one too many times. Those were the days.
So, could I sit behind the dash panel again, figure out how to release the tractor and trailer parking brakes, find a gear to go forward and hold the steering wheel straight enough to keep the truck between the ditches? Yeah, I think I could. Do I want to? No sir. Would I like to? Nope.
Trucking is a highly personal profession and I ran out of things I needed to prove to myself many years ago. Even at the last of my trucking days, I was anxious about what the world held out for me on the less traveled road ahead, but I was able to overcome my apprehensions and do my job without hesitation or regrets. So Ergie, the other answer is, “No.” Five years of trucking provided me with enough memories to last a lifetime. I don’t have to drive to Kalkaska, Red Wing, Little Ferry or Chillicothe again to relive those memories. They’re with me every day.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.