Editor’s note: James O. Riley wrote this letter in honor of his father, owner-operator J.B. Riley of Pasadena, TX
White lane markers flash by, forming one endless line leading to God knows where. Yellow flashing caution lights warn of detours and constant under way construction to roads that long ago needed to be condemned like a New York slum. The headlights reflect off the steel road signs, informing explorers of this highway of countless exit names, food, fuel and rest stops. Ha! On this highway, there are no exits from a life of driving, the food is nearly inedible, the fuel totals amount to numbers that would make Bill Gates recoil in shock and rest on the road is near impossible.
Let’s take our focus to one certain vehicle on the road. It’s not the ruby red Mercedes Benz, where a plastic surgeon with his newest wife head toward Las Vegas on a weekend excursion. It’s not the white and black police car, where a young cop patrols the same stretch of highway for the fifth time that day. It’s not the family of four in the maroon minivan on summer vacation, bound for the beach. Instead, let’s zoom in on the late-model, white 18-wheeler in the middle lane, with an attached trailer containing anything from liquid soap to hydrochloric acid.
A smoldering cigarette is pinched in between the first and middle finger, occasionally drawn to the lips. The day-old coffee that tastes more like camel spit then Folgers’ premium blend emits steam. Squelches of static and barely audible voices come from the CB radio. Countless miles, flashes of country and cities, rain, hail, snow, tornadoes — it’s all seen from the eyes of this trucker. Endless.
The thoughts of home are constantly on the brain. A real bed, a hot meal, a pair of clean clothes, the sounds of his wife cooking, the sounds of his son laughing at something funny on TV. It might seem like a simple, unexciting life, but it’s all this tired trucker can ask for. Home. One word that sums it all up. It’s always in the mind and always perched on the lips. Why is a question that comes to mind. Why do this, why suffer the loneliness and the hardships of the road. It can’t be for the chicken feed that the companies call a wage, which wouldn’t fill a child’s wallet even if it were in dollar bills. It can’t be for the love of the Smokies constantly looking for an inconsistency in the log or an overloaded trailer. It can’t be for the pure exhaustion of driving 1,000 miles on only adrenalin and caffeine. The answer to why a trucker does this over and over again: family. For the happiness and prosperity of his family.
The life of a trucker is the life of a hero. Not a hero that has a purple heart or a commendation from the president. Not a hero that has a national holiday. But a hero nonetheless — a hero in the mind of his family. So the trucker keeps on chewing up the miles, trying to digest the horrible food and laying on six inches of foam only slipping into unconsciousness due to exhaustion. This is the life of a hero. A greater hero will never be known.
James O. Riley