Trucker helps fellow driver battle his demons – by Kate Kosse
Only farmyard lights punctuated the moonless prairie night. Since midnight, Charlie hadn’t met up with any big trucks and had seen only two eastbound four-wheelers. This remote two-lane, laid down arrow-straight through fields and widely scattered small towns, belonged to him.
Glad to be West Coast-bound for a change, he had settled into that state of consciousness peculiar to all-night drivers. His weathered hands rested lightly on the steering wheel. A relaxed alertness of eye, hand, foot and brain freed him to slide through the dark hours with a sense of time that neither passed nor dragged. A piece of his mind floated apart from his rhythm of driving, a rhythm as automatic as breathing. His mind flowed from memories to future plans and back again, like the oxbows of a meandering river.
For many, the all-day wait for a load followed by an all-night drive fit the DOT regs on paper but sharply conflicted with the body’s sleep rhythms. For Night Owl it was an ideal system. He had slept through his wait to load. Now the open road was free of daytime traffic – the soothing envelope of blackness and the absence of ratchet jaws on the CB were a bonus. His own reflection in the passenger window, lit by the dashboard gauges, was a silent companion through those midnight hours. He listened to the hum of the Cat, the familiar rattles and, most of all, the quiet.
A sudden scream of terror, a banshee cry, tore into the solitude. With the sensation of ice melting into his muscles, seconds passed like minutes before he realized the terror was not in the cab with him – it was crackling out of the CB speaker.
“God, oh God, somebody help me! Get him off my truck, he’s trying to climb in, he’s coming! I can’t get him off my truck!”
The cries left Charlie’s heart racing, his mouth dry. The terror in that voice was almost catching. Yet something didn’t fit, didn’t quite make sense. The fear, someone climbing on the guy’s truck – was he broken down? Was this driver getting robbed? Hijacked? And where? Which direction? Charlie’s radio range was only a few miles.
“Driver,” Charlie said, “get a grip. Where are you? What the hell is going on?”
The cry resumed. “You got to get him off my truck before he gets in! God, I can’t do this.”
Helpless at the moment, frustrated and a little scared, Charlie screamed back, “Tell me where you’re at!” Just then, he caught headlights in the mirror, growing larger, a big truck moving up much too fast.
“Hand, are you westbound,” Charlie demanded.
“Yeah, can’t you see me? I’m hammerin’ down as fast as this beast will go, but I can’t shake him. Get him off my truck!” The truck, a big Pete, flew by. In that split second Charlie saw the terrified face in the red glow of the cab light. What he didn’t see was more telling. No one was hanging on that truck.
“There’s no one on your truck. It’s impossible; it’s 10 below out there!” Charlie yelled into the mike. “But you’re gonna get yourself killed if you don’t slow down. You about blew my doors off!”
“He’s hanging on the door, on your side, you had to see him. He looks like some kind of goblin or something. God, he’s yelling at me to let him in.”
The Pete was pulling away. Whatever was going on with that truck, Charlie knew he had to catch up to it. He floored it, watching the speedometer climb to 65, then 70, 75. At 80, Charlie was finally starting to gain on him. He pulled into the oncoming lane even with the Pete. The two trucks sped into the dark night, side by side. Charlie hoped if the driver could just see his face he could get the idiot to pull over.
“Hit the shoulder, driver,” Charlie said. “I can’t help you any till you get stopped.”
“No way, he’ll get in! He’s laughing at me now,” he said, his voice anguished. They had a straightaway for miles ahead. Charlie would be able to see any oncoming headlights in plenty of time to slide in behind this nut case. But the two-lane, high-speed drive had to come to a stop – and soon. If Charlie could this guy calmed down enough to get off the road, then he’d deal with the demons in his head.
“OK, listen. If you’ll just get pulled over, I can check your truck. If there’s somebody there I’ll get him off. I can handle it. I promise you,” Charlie said.
“What if he gets in first?” the pained voice asked.
“I’ll be right there. I’m carrying,” Charlie lied. “Look, there’s a Texaco coming up, a big lot. Pull in there, I’ll be right beside you. Anything on your truck, I’ll get it off.”
“If I stop, are you sure he can’t get in first?” the voice was now childlike in its fearful hope.
“Count on it. Pull over now!” Charlie commanded through gritted teeth. Charlie jockeyed his truck over, ever closer to the Pete, holding his breath. At this speed, an error of a few inches would mean a sideswipe collision. Finally, as they were coming up to the Texaco, the other driver started to slow and give way.
They pulled into the lot, still going too fast. The Pete’s drives skidded on the gravel and slid to the right but managed to avoid a jackknife. Charlie’s truck, only slightly more under control, skidded straight, coming to a stop just slightly ahead of the Pete. Dust, white in the headlights, blew in a cloud around both trucks. Charlie popped the brakes and hit the ground running. Ignoring the acrid smell of brakes, he ran toward the other driver’s door. Before he got there, the other driver was out, backing away from his own truck. Charlie was brought up short, immobilized and staring. On this bitter cold night, the driver had on no shirt, no shoes, even. His hair was wild. His eyes were wilder.
Then Charlie knew. No robbers, no hijackers, no goblin even. Nothing but one too many nights of whites. He probably hadn’t seen anything more than his own reflection in the glass of the passenger window.
Charlie wasn’t disgusted or angry, just saddened. The dark side of the road had seduced another driver. Drug-induced sleep deprivation psychosis or some such fancy name would be the diagnosis, but not the truth, not the root of it all. He couldn’t judge this guy. The triumph of the dark side was rare those days. What with random drug tests, DOT audits and fines, most everyone ran pretty legal.
But every once in a while, that dark side still whispered to heartless shippers and dispatchers and susceptible drivers with the predictable result that stood before Charlie now. At one time Charlie himself had been close, much too close to that dark side.
Quietly he reassured the driver, “See, Hand, there’s no one on your truck. You’re safe now.” With a doubting shake of his head, the driver kept staring at his truck, his mind’s eye still seeing the goblin.
Just then a county mountie pulled into the lot. The sheriff jumped out and tersely said, “Heard it all on the radio. This the guy?” This had to be the only time Charlie was actually glad to see a bear, someone who could take over with this troubled driver, and thanked the bizarre fates that had put him in radio range. With authority in every move, the sheriff grabbed the Pete’s keys and hit the lock button. The speed freak, weakened as the adrenaline of fear left his body, silently sat down as directed in the backseat of the patrol car. A brief thanks from the sheriff and the two drove off toward the other side of the small town.
Charlie never found out the driver’s name or what happened next – jail, a hospital, recuperation, deterioration? Was it the end of the road for this guy or a crossroads?
He climbed wearily into his truck. His adrenaline rush, nature’s speed, had taken its toll on him. He ran through the gears, got the truck into cruise and his mind into neutral. Dark thoughts haunted him like his own ghostly reflection in the window.
Mostly memories of his own moments of temptation filled those dark hours before dawn. Runs when coffee and No-Doz failed him. Nights when the legal speed sold at fuel desks helped get him to one more 5 a.m. appointment. Another company driver once offered a few whites to him. He had turned those down, though even now he couldn’t quite say what better angel saved him.
But there came that one early morning when everything seemed to keep moving even though he stood perfectly still, his heart racing as though he had run a marathon. That was it for him, his own crossroads, the day he learned to say, as many others have, “If they want it bad on Thursday, they’ll want it worse on Friday.”
That was when he quit trying to keep the unreal promises dispatchers and shippers made for him and found a company that meant it when they said they wanted legal runs. But his mind returned again and again to the power of the dark side and that young driver caught in its grip.
Imperceptibly, the dark of night faded to gray. Grain elevators and telephone poles and farmhouses emerged. Gradually the sky became tinged with rose and aqua around the entire flat horizon. And finally the sun slowly rose in his mirrors.
About the author
Kate Kosse and her husband Tim are owner-operators of a 2000 Freightliner, Desert Wind. They are leased to Marten Transport, hauling refrigerated freight in a 48-state operation. Kate started driving 15 years ago as a second career, following 20 years in social work. Kate and Tim are joined on the road by their two rescue dogs, Simba and Lacey, and Kate says the dogs