By Bill Hudgins, columnist
It’s been 30 years since my friend and ace gearjammer Rufus Sideswipe learned to drive truck. He had almost forgotten how long until a letter came a few weeks back inviting him to a class reunion.
“Where’d you learn to drive?” I asked.
“West Unionville Highway University,” he mumbled. “When older truckers asked that and we told them, they’d laugh and say ‘woohoo!’”
It turned out Rufus had been invited before but stayed away. I kept badgering him about it until he finally agreed to go and take me with him.
The reunion organizers found a decent motel with truck parking and meeting space. A big banner proclaiming “WUHU Here!” flapped at the entrance. Rufus, of course, was in his vintage Cornbinder. He parked it among a mixed bag of semis, ranging from lease-to-own units to a couple of shiny, chromed-up beauties.
All the alumni wore nametags that included head-and-shoulders photos from their student days. Good thing, because most of them didn’t look a thing like that now. Turns out it is true what they say about it being the miles, not the years.
Rufus had a kind of disco cowboy look going – carefully combed-back hair and long sideburns above an orange shirt with long collar points.
The alumni’s original CB handles were printed in big letters on the nametags. I asked Rufus about some of them:
“Lefty” – “He hated making right turns in the city. Figured out if he turned left enough times, he’d eventually get where he needed to go.”
“Short Stack” – “He misjudged an overhang and turned his tall stack into a short one.”
“Widowmaker” – “Man had a hard time keeping his mind on what he was doing. Always thinking and yakking and drifting out of lane.”
“Snoopy” – “He had a knack for listening in on people talking and for passing along gossip.”
Sure enough, later that night Snoopy told me the young Rufus was a prankster. “He wired up the air horns to a trainer’s air-ride seat, just before the trainer started a new class,” Snoopy chuckled. “Thought that trainer was gonna fly out the window when he sat down. That’s how Rufus got his first handle – ‘Jester.’”
Of the 50 or so WUHU graduates, only about 20 still roam the superslab. Several had traded in the long haul for drayage, work trucks or road departments. Others had gone off the road altogether, but when they heard of the reunion, they needed to see their brothers of the road once again.
I listened as they traded old stories, some obviously polished many times over truck stop coffee. They talked about hot loads, double trannies and single bed-wide sleepers. Nights in the bunk when either they froze or else sweated in oppressive heat while mosquitoes buzzed at the screens they’d stuffed in tiny windows.
As their memories warmed, those old rigs’ kinks and quirks and awkward doghouses melted and flowed into austere palaces suited for a stouthearted breed of trucker. Today’s trucks, well, shoot, anyone can drive them, and they’re a sight more comfortable than our houses were back then, for cryin’ out loud.
Inevitably they recalled runs, many on routes now bypassed by an interstate, leaving speed-trap towns behind except for unlucky stiffs who had to deliver there. As they talked, their hands gripped imaginary wheels and feet danced on phantom pedals.
I could see the snowbound firs and hear the squeak of ice as they chained up to take the Snoq or crest the Continental Divide on I-70. I gripped my chair as they descended Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee with smoking brakes, ran the Grapevine on a foggy night, or missed a turn and shot down some snaky two-lane road.
“Hey, whatever happened to that old skinflint, So-and-So?” someone would ask about a former employer. The tales drifted to good owners and bad, reminding me of the scene in “Field of Dreams” where Shoeless Joe Jackson declared: “I’d have played for food money. It was the game.”
As Rufus and I left that night, I realized that these now-grizzled men took to the road to feed themselves and their families, but it wasn’t the money that kept them there. It was the game … the game of the road.
Be safe, make money and get home often. LL