The more I pondered the mystery, the deeper it grew: big trucks everywhere…around me every day of my life. Yet I found I knew nothing about trucking or the people manning the cabs — outside of one hokey Hollywood film that threw an ape in there with the driver. How was anyone to get a true picture of truckers and the people populating the industry? It seemed truckers didn’t write…and writers certainly don’t truck….
The front axle and enormous steer tire of an idling over-the-road giant sat opposite my open window as I waited for a light on N.J. route 46. I had just left an angry agent in the “Big Apple.” She’d given up on placing my first novel, a saga about the gambling resurgence in Atlantic City. Her advice, after six major trade publishers had turned it down: “Cut it in half!” After five years of writing, I wasn’t going to halve 750 manuscript pages and maybe slice the heart out of my story…no siree, bob! (Nor had
I enough distance from my work, at that point in time, to rationally begin a reconstruction — if the story even demanded it.)
Nine years later, I wouldn’t have known I’d been staring at the front axle of a W-900L Kenworth “K-Whopper.” That day, when I returned to my Pennsylvania home, I phoned a friend who owned a big old Brockway dump truck and asked him to give me driving lessons. I was itching to dig into what promised to be a fantastic eye-opener, that BIG story — waiting out there on the road — my second novel! Logically, I felt the only way I was going to get at it was to become part of the trucking industry…just for a spell.
After a few minutes of instruction, I took the wheel of my friend’s Brockway and began my studies. We got only a few feet down his drive before I had another decision to make: I had no idea that my attempt to shift his balky gear box would create a metallic, grating scream of agony that nearly ended our long friendship. He snapped, “Go ahead…wreck my gear box, or find yourself a trucking school!” Deciding to keep a friend, I took the advice on a school.
I settled on a trucking school down in the “Dutch Country” southeast of Harrisburg and north of Lancaster, a quaint enough place to while away a few summer months should the trucking curriculum prove boring. Boring it was NOT. The school proved to be an education in itself.
With about a hundred students, the bulk of them leaning on some strange kind of PA educational grant, the academic tenor was decidedly weird. Three of the young ladies enrolled in my class had nothing less in mind than heavy partying with any instructor who might show an interest (not a problem). I found myself assigned to a crew that shrank daily, until I was left alone in a creaky combo rig with our instructor and “Jackknife Johnny” — a suicidal freak in his early twenties, who insisted on slowly drifting the truck and trailer into the oncoming lanes of any road we traveled. That straightened out when I went to the school’s director, demanding the return of my tuition…it took two visits.
The apartment I rented in the nearby farming town of Marietta, PA became a workshop for the setting of my book. The mood of the place, its attitudes and localisms, later showed up in the characters of “Old Ed” Rothermel and Abner Weaver — though Abner was based mainly on three other characters who had never set foot in Marietta.
Somehow, the prior experience with my friend’s gear box hung on. I had trouble with shifting from day one, but not nearly so bad as did one gal, a former school bus driver. I think her bus had an automatic transmission, and try as she might, she couldn’t master a nine-speed stick shift. One day she broke down in tears and was never seen again. Her frustrations reappear in Dawn — Chapter 11 — when Abner sits Dawn behind the wheel for her first lesson. Dawn, however, pulls it off with flying colors. As for me, it took two years over the road before my shifting finally smoothed out; I could finally go up and down the gears completely without the clutch, except for the first shift from a standing start, surprising myself no end.
The school possessed a half-dozen old trucks (tractors) and trailers. By some great good luck while I was at the school, no one, including “Jackknife Johnny,” ever managed to smash one up. (I later heard that “Jackknife” killed a family in a wreck he’d had at his first — and last — place of employment.)
The school’s rigs seemed to have quite a bit of snap. They moved out smartly…and maybe this had something to do with the difficulty a few of us had catching gears. I only mention this because, while landing my first job, I was put behind the wheel of a company truck and told to hook to a road trailer that sat at rest in the yard. With a former State Police Officer in the jump seat taking notes on my performance, I remarked that the company truck seemed to have practically no power compared to the ones at school. He grunted, “Maybe so….””
When I became flustered on a highway ramp and began grinding gears, he told me to calm down, saying he’d watched other former students exhibiting the same problem. When we got back to the yard, he broke out laughing: “Well, you finally caught on — didn’t you? Some day, I’m gonna phone those nitwits at your school and tell them to graduate you guys on a full trailer…” That’s when I learned I’d just pulled my first real LOAD — 22 tons worth!
Maybe I was still grinding gears when I graduated, but I won the school award for the most improved student driver in yard work and docking. That was another joke. No dock out there in the real world was that easy to hit squarely…and all of them were different. But by the end of my career, I could do a 90 degree blindside jack into a crooked alley off a crowded Brooklyn, NY street — and did so, many times…practice makes perfect.
Oddly enough, I didn’t write a word of 3 Aces while I logged nearly a million road miles. I tried a tape recorder for a while, then notes. But found myself too busy — and generally too damned tired — to concentrate on writing about the adventure that, in retrospect, provided one of the most exciting and rewarding times of my life.
Instead, I carefully packed the sights, sounds, joys, and tragedies of a nine-year, long-haul trucking stint into my noggin in neat, little cubicles. I’d had the decided advantage of finishing one long novel before hitting the road. I knew what to look for, what to retain…and I’d thought long and hard, over all those miles, about packing those experiences and teachings from everyone I’d met and every place I’d been in the forty-eight and Canada into a tighter, more exciting book.
And when I finally left the road, I pulled the plug and let it all pour out. Did I capture what I’d set out to do? Let me hear from you… please. Let me know….