My wife and I pulled into a truckstop outside Birmingham, Ala., for Sunday lunch. We picked it so our kids could watch the big trucks while we ate. My 18-month-old son, Caden, constantly makes engine noises when he sees anything with wheels and a motor.
From the start, my son was a terror. He kept getting down from the table and walking about waving at people. Most patrons of the truckstop restaurant were polite as he went from table to table before I could corral him.
I suggested to my wife that she take Caden and my 4-year-old daughter Ansley walking around the adjoining convenience store until our food arrived. Anything to keep my son from bothering the few tired-looking drivers trying to enjoy a quiet meal.
Soon my family came back into the restaurant. Both kids were wearing cowboy hats with the price stickers still attached. My wife explained that our son had grabbed the hat, put it on his head and refused to leave without it.
Finally, I got my kids attention focused on passing trucks, which gave my wife the opportunity to return the hats to the store without further incident. A driver sitting in a booth directly in front of me casually offered, “Got your hands full, don’t you?”
Embarrassed, I simply replied, “Yeah, he’s not on his best behavior today.”
“My son just turned 5 a couple of days ago,” the driver said, seeming more like he was thinking aloud than speaking directly to me. “I wasn’t home for his birthday, though,” he added before taking a sip of coffee.
The tattooed driver said he had to leave his home in El Paso, Texas, the day before his son’s birthday for a load that had to be in North Carolina as quickly as he could get it there.
I knew the scenario well. As the son of a truck driver, I celebrated many birthdays without my dad. In fact, I don’t remember seeing a birthday picture with my dad in it. I remember sometimes feeling a little rejected that dad missed a lot of special occasions when I was very young. Later on, I just resigned myself to the fact that was just the way things were.
I don’t remember my father consoling me about such things. That wasn’t his style. Trying to constantly pacify me would probably have made things worse in the long run. You don’t always get things your way in life, and it’s a good lesson to learn early. Sacrifices have to be made to survive.
But talking to the driver lured me into another time and place. I could almost see my dad
having breakfast in a truckstop somewhere between Florida and California. Somehow, the subject of kids comes up while he’s talking to a waitress or another driver. “My son Randy turned 10 today,” he would proudly say. “I wish I could be home, but that damn load of grapefruit has got to be on the coast tomorrow.”
My dad, who died in 1987, always called to wish me a happy birthday even though he didn’t linger on the phone too long. I guess it would have made things harder for him.
I asked the driver if he was going to be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Yeah, I plan to,” he said, not sounding completely certain. “Most of my runs are two weeks out.”
I wonder how many times this conversation has been repeated in truckstops across the country. The longing for home and family is especially tough around the holidays.
One time, my dad was having trouble finding a load out of California at Christmastime. We didn’t expect him to make it home in time to open gifts. But surprisingly, a car pulled into the driveway on Christmas Eve. It was my dad. He and a couple of other stranded drivers had had enough. They pooled their money and bought an old car and spent two days driving home. He flew back a couple of days after Christmas, picked up a load and resumed his trip.
That was another day and time. Many company drivers would probably be fired trying to pull a stunt like that today.
“Be safe out there, driver,” I said as I picked up my son and followed my wife and daughter out of the restaurant. “And give your son a birthday hug for me.”