The written test was easier than beating a chimp at checkers since the questions helpfully matched word for word with the sample test given to me by my recruiter.
The driver’s test, on the other hand, was like trying to land a triple-axel at the Olympics. And I would have landed on my sequin-leotarded rear if the driving tester hadn’t asked, “You’re not going to pull out in front of that car, are you?” right before I almost pulled in front of that car at what I thought was a four-way stop.
I often wonder how much my life would have changed had that tester not warned me.
Nevertheless, I passed the test for a Missouri Class-A commercial driver’s license with a hazardous materials endorsement—and became a member of the Truck U. Class of September.
I know. A class that takes three weeks to graduate probably lacks prestige, but I celebrated as if I’d finished medical school to become a urologist – and I wouldn’t owe a college thousands of dollars and have to look at a grown man’s donk.
I reported for duty the next evening at Hall Hauling. And as I drove my car through the parking lot, I noticed something that severely constricted my breathing.
They were huge.
Like tipped-over skyscrapers on wheels.
Somehow during training, I hadn’t fully appreciated the enormity of an 18-wheeler.
A panic attack crippled me. I almost turned my car around and drove home, worried that Missouri, and by extension the entire transportation system, lacked sound judgment for allowing me to command a 40-ton truck.
But in the end, I clung to my faith in the D.O.T. And I needed the money.
I parked, and with a pioneering spirit and the type of anxiety that induces diarrhea (but thankfully didn’t), I walked to truck #5250 to meet my driver-trainer, Bill Carmen.
Bill, 67, had trucked the highways for more than 30 years. He looked like the world’s first trucker, too. He welcomed me with a smile and a handshake, wearing a black Bass Pro Shop hat atop his bald head. His hat defied gravity. Its bill pointed skyward as he ratcheted the load locks inside the trailer to secure the cargo. It was as if the hat had fallen from heaven like a leaf, meandered earthward, and was tossed around by the wind before landing on his dome. Somehow, despite all his jostling, the hat stayed put. In our months together, I never understood how the hat so brazenly defied the laws of physics and didn’t fall off his head. So I came to the only conclusion left. Bill’s hat was magical (and widely available at Bass Pro).
Bill wore the large rectangular eyeglasses with rounded edges that a lot of men wore in the early ‘80s – the unfashionable kind Bill Gates and Warren Buffet still wear despite their obvious means to procure updated frames. (Seriously, guys, is that a windshield on your face or are you just happy to have corrected vision? Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m vainly concerned about something as shallow as appearance. It’s more of a safety issue. You simply don’t have to wear transparent dinner plates over your eyes anymore. That’s dangerous glass just inches from your eyes! Please, plate faces: Do yourself a favor and check into what ophthalmologists have done in the past few years.)
When I expressed my anxiety about driving, Bill laughed.
“Wahhh hah hah,” he said, putting one hand on my shoulder and the other in the pocket of his faded blue Dickie overalls. “There ain’t nothin’ to worry about, Chris. You’re gonna do fine.”
His laugh tickled me. He reminded me of the trusty chuck wagon operator in old westerns who rustled up meals (AKA beans) for the cowboys—the guy with a low threshold for sass that was sometimes called Cookie.
After a bee buzzed past my ear under the plum purple twilight, I asked Bill what we were hauling. He looked at the bills and said, “Potatoes. A full load, too, so we gotta watch them hills.”
He squeezed the brim on his hat, pulled it down, then flicked it back into its previously precarious position with enough force to catapult it from his head, yet it stopped at the last second.
“Well,” he said, slapping his hands together. “I guess we better get ‘er on down the road.”
He walked along the side of the truck and kicked the tires – thunk thunk – with the heel of his cowboy boots, jiggled the latch on the trailer doors, then thunk thunked some more along the passenger side, walked around the front, thunk, and hopped in the driver’s seat.
As Bill and I left the Springfield yard, he assured me that there was nothing to trucking and that he’d teach me everything he knew.
A few miles outside of town, he turned on the radio. “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain had just begun. He turned up the volume and bobbed his head to the beat then said, “All right!” as in ‘Now the party’s starting!’
Oooh, woh, oh, oh
Go totally crazy
Forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts–short skirts
Oooh, woh, oh, oh…
My head bobbed in time to the music. Nothing crazy. Just enough of a postural echo to express that I liked to have fun, too.
As we moved to the rhythm, I smiled, hoping to telegraph a few sentiments his way. I wanted him to know I couldn’t wait for our journey to begin, that I’d work hard, and looked forward to his guidance. Also, because I didn’t know him, I half-suspected his Shania Twain exuberance might be a ruse to trick me into showing my feminine side. So I didn’t get carried away.
But he displayed no ulterior motive. Only merriment.
The springs in my seat squeaked as Shania sang.
Really go wild–yeah
Doin’ it in style
Oooh, woh, oh, oh…
Bill shouted over the music that our three-month training period together would be his last run with the company before he moved to Georgia to help his brother manage a trucking business.
For nearly an hour, as darkness set in, we listened to various country songs as we shared our histories on the planet. As he spoke, he reminded me of my grandfather who’d passed away.
A few minutes after our conversation ended in a comfortable lull, Bill said, “You think you can take ‘er from here?”
At first I didn’t know what he meant and had to think about it. Take what from here? I panicked when I realized he wanted me to drive. My palms went sweaty.
Driving wasn’t something I’d planned on. Not so soon, anyway. I mean, I knew I’d have to drive eventually, of course, but hoped he’d at least drive a full shift before handing me the reins.
I felt completely unprepared.
Suddenly, the road looked ominous. Cars seemed to drive faster. A bridge in the distance appeared too low to clear.
“Uhhhhhhhh,” I heard myself say, stretching out the word like Butthead. I felt like a reality show contestant where any moment a narrator would say, “Just look at his face. Did he really think he’d be prepared after only a three-week course?”
Eventually, I formed intelligible words.
“You really think I’m ready?” I asked.
I contemplated excuses as to why I couldn’t drive yet.
Didn’t feel well?
Nothing sounded convincing.
“Well of course you’re ready,” he said as he pulled off at an exit. “You got your license don’t you?”
His breezy reply stopped my inner whimpering. I was making too big a deal out of everything again.
We switched seats. And to my horror, I sat there feeling as if I’d forgotten all I’d learned in driving school. My hands clutched the steering wheel as if somehow the connection would transmit instructions.
My mind often blanks when I’m nervous or self-conscious. Stick a camera or a mic in my face and my I.Q. drops 80 points. Guaranteed.
I especially abhor social situations, fearing that someone whose name I should know might approach. My memory will simply evaporate when I see them. And they may even be someone important to me. Someone I care about. Someone whose name I’d give anything to know at that moment. Someone with a simple name, too, like “Uncle Jim.”
After a person introduces themselves, I try to memorize their name, but nothing seems to work. I’ll say their name and look them in the eyes as I shake their hand, hoping something will burn into my cognitive functions. I’ll even try mnemonic devices; make up a simple song in my head about one of their memorable features, like:
That was Darin.
Nostrils slightly flarin’
But the next time I see Darin my mind will spin the memory wheel and land on You’re never going to remember, you moron.
I’ve been nervous enough in introductory situations that I’ve blanked on my mother’s name. You may think I’m joking, but I’m not. I’m completely serious.
Yep. I know. It’s pathetic.
“You alright?” Bill asked, snapping me from my reverie. And just as he said that, one of the blanks in my mind finally filled with something: an instruction to look over the truck before departure.
“Yeah, man,” I smiled back. “Should I inspect the truck?”
“That’d be a good idea,” he said.
I stepped out of the truck to do so. As I climbed down and onto the pavement, the truck looked huge and menacing again. I sort of looked the cab over, thumped a tire, wiggled the wires and hoses. When I reached the back of the trailer, anxiety gripped me like a dog chomping down on a stuffed squirrel. I felt like simultaneously crying, throwing up, and crapping myself. Then I considered making a run for it. No joke. I thought, What’s the worst that could happen? I wouldn’t go to jail simply for quitting a job. I could be home in a few hours and ask for my roofing sales job back in the morning. Sounds like a plan!
I thought of how easy it would be to run away. From my vantage point behind the trailer, Bill couldn’t see me in either mirror. I’d get a running start. A few buildings were close by – perfect for hiding. The combination of his cowboy boots and advanced age would give me a distinct advantage. I pictured myself tiptoeing away while watching for his face in a mirror.
In retrospect, Bill should have leashed me with one of those harnesses bad parents use on kids at the mall.
Then I considered his magic hat. What was the extent of its powers? Could it transform into a weapon and incapacitate me, like Odd Job’s hat in Goldfinger? I didn’t want to chance it.
Also, I didn’t want to owe Hall $3,600 for breach of contract.
Bill’s smile greeted me in the mirror as I walked along the passenger side toward the front. God his glasses were huge.
After taking the deepest breath ever, then exhaling as if to expel all my fears, I climbed the steps, opened the door, and jumped into the driver’s seat.
As we rolled down the ramp and onto the highway, my palms sweat so profusely I thought they’d slide right off the wheel, but eventually, the training kicked in.
Bill and I chatted about our favorite food (Chinese/Indian for me; he, Mexican), movies (too many to list; westerns and war), and music (pretty much everything; country) as we rolled east under the pitch black sky of rural Missouri. The stars beamed in panoramic glory.
An hour later, Bill unbuckled his seatbelt and said, “Well, it looks like you know what yer doin’ all right. Guess I’ll try and get some sleep.”
He stood. Yep, stood. Straight up. A lot of people don’t realize how big it is inside a truck. Those cabs are tall and you can stand, walk around, do jumping jacks. It isn’t like walking around an apartment, of course, but they are quite spacious. We had to anchor ourselves while moving—make our legs shock absorbers to buffer for bumps, potholes, armadillos. If you don’t pay attention, the next thing you know you’ll be sailing through the windshield.
“If you need anything, just holler,” he said.
As he walked toward the sleeping area behind me, I asked where I could pull over to pee in thirty minutes or so. He looked sidelong the way a person does when pondering the kindest way to answer a dumb question, then turned, walked to the back—I could hear a few drawers open and close—and said, “Here ya go.” He set a few Ziploc bags next to my seat.
“Unless you need to go number two,” he said, “you’ll have to learn to use those bags.”
Or a milk jug. Or my container of choice. Whatever could capture liquid. His point was that we couldn’t pull over every time one of us had to pee. At first I thought, You must be joking. He wasn’t. Noticing my horrified expression, he explained, in a soothing tone.
“Okay. Here’s the thing. Every time you gotta go to the bathroom, it takes ten minutes to slow down, find a spot, park, get out, do your business, jump back in, get on the highway and up to speed again,” he said. “We just can’t afford to pee like civilians.”
Ha ha. Civilians. Apparently we were enlisted men. I wanted to ask if we could expect a parade upon return from our mission, Operation Potato.
Bill added that some drivers actually cut holes in the truck floor and rigged a hose.
Yep. Right onto the road.
The whole peeing-while-driving idea freaked me out. I couldn’t believe I was expected to urinate while piloting a truck at 70 mph. Driving proved difficult enough with both hands on the wheel, and now apparently I’d need a free one. Obviously, an important part of my training had been omitted. But to be fair, only so much information can be conveyed in a three-week course.
He could tell I was over-thinking it.
“Trust me, Chris. You’ll get used to it,” he said. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Impulsively, I wanted to ask him if “anything” might include his holding the bag for me but realized it might be too soon for sarcasm. He went behind the seats and closed the curtain, separating the cab from the sleeper berth.
After twenty minutes, my bladder was speaking in tongues. I figured Bill had fallen asleep since I could see his boots jutting from under the curtain. Technically I couldn’t see above the tip of the boots so for all I knew he might have been standing there, but I felt fairly confident he’d taken them off and wouldn’t suddenly rip open the curtain and join me up front. When my bladder pulsated with pain I convinced myself that if he were upright, in his boots, and had been staring at the curtain for twenty minutes, I had more urgent concerns than a man seeing me whiz in a bag.
I looked down at the boots one last time. They didn’t seem to be filled with toes. So I retrieved a Ziploc bag, joined the 70 mph club, and officially left civilian life behind.
The procedure wasn’t that difficult, actually. And I realized Bill’s wisdom. I had to pee a lot. Normally seven or eight times a day. I thought, at times, I had diabetes. Or an enlarged prostate, like the guy on the TV ad at the baseball game who leaves his seat multiple times to use the restroom, annoying spectators each time he apologetically scoots by.
How inefficient to pull over every time I had to go! By the end of each day – with my bean-sized bladder – we’d lose hours.
We sailed smoothly under the inky sky until Highway 60 narrowed into a two-lane road near Charleston, Mo., just minutes from crossing Mark Twain’s river—the Mississippi.
America’s burbling backwash.
I got lost in old-timey thoughts of jazz, steamboats, and white lacey parasols, and dumbly stared for too long in the direction of a car’s headlights. Could barely make out the yellow and white lines of the road for a moment. When my vision cleared, everything seemed eerie. Tufts of fog stretched across the road and swirled around trees like ghosts. Headlights of distant vehicles bobbed in the vapor, like the torches of Frankenstein’s mob.
After a 20-mph curve, the ghosts receded to reveal the mouth of a bridge and the aquamarine braces supporting it. The bridge appeared impossibly narrow. I couldn’t comprehend how our truck would slide past oncoming traffic. And I suspected something like an elaborate trap-door prank afoot, designed for the amusement of Kentuckians across the river who would howl in laughter as we plunged into the Mississippi.
But, as I would many times in the early days of my trucking career, I clung to my faith in the D.O.T., assumed that everything would be okay and didn’t pull over and run home.
When the first big truck approached, I stiff-armed the wheel, held my breath, and tried not to cross the middle line. In the right mirror, I could see trailer tires just two feet from scraping the concrete shoulder. In the left mirror, tires hugged the middle line.
As the truck passed, I inhaled deeply and bit my lip. It probably passed with six feet to spare, but it felt like inches. The wind snapped between our mirrors. I couldn’t believe they didn’t collide and shatter.
It seemed that every approaching vehicle would clobber us, yet each passed without incident.
Near the end of the bridge, I cringed through a ridiculously tight curve.
The CB crackled to life.
“Hey driver. You a little scared or what?”
I hadn’t the wherewithal to pick up the microphone and answer. From behind me, I heard Velcro rip as Bill emerged through the curtain. I finally exhaled as we escaped the narrowest bridge I’d ever cross in all my years of driving.
“You found the bridge, huh?” he said, sitting in the passenger seat holding a loaded Ziploc bag and wearing only underpants, socks, and a white T-shirt. His appearance added to the surrealism of the moment.
He rolled down the window and launched the bag at a Welcome to Kentucky sign. The bag somersaulted a few times then – Ping! – hit the sign nearly dead-center. Bill often tossed urine bags at signs. And he almost always hits his target. His favorite signs to soak read Welcome To… and Adopt-A-Highway. Occasionally, for a real challenge, he’d aim at the skinny mile markers. His accuracy was impressive. And I sometimes wondered if filling the bags was less about time saving for him and more a pretense to pursue his athletic endeavors. If a trucker Olympics debuted, Bill certainly planned to be a contender.
He rolled up the window as the narrow bridge faded into darkness and fog. “Lemme know if you need anything” he said, then stood and disappeared behind the curtain and closed it, starting from the top of its Velcro edging.
I continued east on Highway 60, drove through Wickliffe, Barlow, and Kevil, reached Interstate 24 in Paducah, then drove south.
For a while, I felt at ease.
Until Monteagle, Tennessee happened.