Back in the ’80s, when I started doing this full-time, you called home, maybe, once or twice a week by putting coins into a payphone. The only other time you got to talk to other live human beings ticked away at truck stop counters, loading docks, and on the CB radio.
It’s difficult to overstate what an important tool the CB was back then. It was a universally used piece of equipment with its own set of unwritten rules. Looking back now, it seems like the most important thing to remember when operating a CB radio was to talk like you lived two states to the South of wherever you happened to be from. If you didn’t, you might be profiled as a Yankee and find yourself sucked into an argument at three in the morning about a certain war with a couple of steel haulers jonesin’ for a roadside reinactment.
Maybe it was a nod to the predominant trucking culture of the time, as depicted in the movies and the songs of the day. Maybe it was because a great many OTR drivers in fact came from the rural South, where trucking was the best thing available to them at the time. What was clear, though: if you wanted to assimilate into that subculture, and not stand out, it didn’t hurt to twang it up just a little. For a while, at least, it seemed that everyone was a cowboy.
I was burning through Pennsylvania on I-80 one night having come out of Indy and on my way to Hauppauge, N.Y., with a load of frozen bagels. They were paying $1,800 then, and I was taking every one of those I could get.
Someone keyed up on the old one-nine: “Who’s going to Long Island? ”
I answered: “I’m going to Happauge. Where y’at?”
Moments later, a dude in a stretched-out Pete with New York plates passed me pulling a dry box. I looked over as he went by and he gave me that wave. He was dressed in black, cowboy hat and all.
He keyed up again. “‘Zat you I just passed?”
“Yeah it is.”
“Well, come on, then.”
I chased the ol’ boy through the remainder of the trip. It was a means of staying awake, then, and passing the time. He told me of his love of Johnny Cash and things country. We spoke about God, truth, metaphysical things you don’t normally talk about over the CB. At one point we stopped to fuel, shook hands, introduced ourselves and went in for a cup of coffee. I could no longer contain my curiosity.
“What’s an ol’ boy like you doing with New York plates?”
“I live there,” he said. “I’m one of those Long Island Jews.”
It’s funny, thinking back on this, but I don’t remember laughing at the time. He was owning it so well as a cowboy trucker man that I didn’t see it as a farce. It was just who he was.
We got out on the island just as the sun was beginning to rise. It was one of those beautiful daybreaks you only see on the Eastern seaboard.
“See that? That’s from our Father,” he said. He showed me an entrance ramp on 495 where you could pull off on the shoulder, walk 100 feet, and get the best bagels you ever ate in your life. We said our goodbyes, and never saw each other again.
I still belly-up to the counter of some truck stop hoping for one of those magical conversations. There have been some unforgettable revelations with human beings who were complete strangers other than the fact they were fellow drivers in my years long past, like the tormented trucker who unburdened himself on me at an Evansville McDonald’s, sobbing, recounting how his wife had overheard him talking in his sleep, calling out his mistress’ name, confronted him, and booted him out of the house. Then there was the terminally ill cattle hauler at the Dixie Truckers Home who had been waiting for days to get his brand-new truck out of the shop, knowing his next run would be his last. He advised me with such clarity regarding a personal trial I was going through at the time that I still wonder if he might have been an angel.
And that hand I got to talking to at a service plaza on the Pennsylvania pike one night, who, upon learning I was about to purchase a brand-new Western Star, began begging me to hold on to my perfectly good Kenworth, which was months from being paid off, telling me my indebtedness would make me a slave. Inexplicably, he began singing the Our Father prayer in Latin, in the middle of a Burger King. I could feel my face flushing red. When he finished, he apologized for any embarrassment he might have caused me, and we went our separate ways.
That new truck would come to nearly kill me. Was he a prophet?
More often than not these days, everyone around me at the counter is cloistered in their bluetooth cocoons, choosing those with whom they now speak. Sometimes, though, one or two are game for conversation, though expounding now only on the subjects The Algorithm permits — Trump, Hillary, AOC, The Wall, the Mega-fleets, ELDs.
I open up my tablet, check my Facebook, and try to remember just what mile marker that bagel shop was on.