Everything within arm's reach

Susan Dyer, a freelance writer for more than 20 years, has been sharing the cab and the open road for upwards of a year with her partner Wes Schilling – an owner-operator for more than 25 years.

Wes and I drove by the Harley Davidson factory in York, Pa., last week. The factory was on the left of us, and to the right was an exit sign for “Memory Lane.” Yes, this is actually the name of a road. When you are the passenger in an 18-wheeler, you spend a lot of time wandering down “memory lane.” Writing this column, I began to ask myself the question that I am so often asked by others: “How did you end up as a seat cover in an 18-wheeler?” I found my answers in the memories of my childhood.

I was an Army brat. I moved 15 times by the time I was 15. If we weren’t moving from one home to another, we were on the highway traveling across the country to visit family in upstate New York. My father drove my mother, my sister, my two toddler brothers and me from El Paso to Rochester, N.Y., and back three times. He drove the same crew plus a new baby sister at least a dozen times back and forth between Silver Springs, Md., and Rochester. When I recall these road memories to my siblings, they are less than enthusiastic about them. But I am delighted by every detail I can recall.

Our family vehicle was a station wagon. Space was always tight, so who sat next to whom for how long was a major factor in whether the trip would be pleasant or unpleasant. I was lucky enough to almost always be seated by a window. Each of us was allowed a small tote bag to keep at our feet with our most immediate needs. I know now that this is how I became attached to small things, a variety of totems that I could hold in the closed palm of my hand during times when my brothers squabbled. Heaps of luggage and a supply of snacks were kept in the back of the wagon. Everything was within arm’s reach. I could simply turn around and find all that I needed.

On a rotation basis, one of us was permitted to sit up front between my parents. When your name was called, your heart beat fast for a few minutes as you climbed over the seat (there was no time to stop). The front seat was a place of pure luxury. My parents included you in their conversation. The front window permitted more opportunity to catch all the scenic sites. Lastly, there was always an open bag or two of treats. The most likely combo was pretzels and fireballs. It was bliss, until suddenly my mother called one of my anxiously waiting siblings’ names.

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We slept cuddled on the backseat or down near the floorboard. Once in a while, one of us would find space in the back of the wagon.

Forty years later, I climb into the bunk in the back of the cab of a Peterbilt. My pajamas are nearby for a quick change. I am lulled to sleep by the sound of the truck moving over the highway. When I have had a quick nap, I grab a drink from the refrigerator and climb up front to my reserved seat. Now, I always get to ride up front. Stashed between the seats are pretzels and fireballs. Most importantly, Wes is always within arm’s reach.

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