Quiet now. Don’t make a peep. Just stay in the back and don’t move.
Those were my instructions, and you better believe I muted and paused, my ears tuned in to every word uttered in the exchange that followed. I was lying on the bunk in the back of the 18-wheeler’s cab, hidden under a thin blanket and pillow.
My hideout was perfect. Total camouflage. In fact, the only thing that could possibly give me away was the obvious figure of a kid lying flat on his back, toes pointing upward, under a blanket, the subtle motion of the pillow atop my head paralleling my every breath.
My father, “Doe Doe,” was at the wheel, talking to someone at a weigh station, verifying his log book, fuel permit and insurance. Neither his job nor his insurance allowed for any unauthorized people — especially hitchhiking young’uns — to ride along. And yet, after an eternity spent hinting, prompting and begging, there I was…
Ready to hit the highway for a week inside an 80,000-pound mass of rolling steel.
Our ultimate destination was a warehouse in Laredo, Texas, but we had to make stops in Mississippi and Louisiana as well.
My father mapped out our entire voyage the weekend prior, studying his trusty road atlas and jotting down many notes for his route, all to make sure everything went smooth-ish.
As for my duties, I had to stay out of sight when we came upon any weigh stations. Of course, the perpetual sneeze-inducing tickle in my nose wasn’t helping, nor was the massive mosquito bite on my leg that kept demanding some scratchin’.
The odds seemed stacked against me, and there was certainly no better feeling than the rush of relief that hit when the truck started rolling again.
“All right. You good. You can come back out now.”
Yessiree. The open road. Plenty of miles to cover, sights to see, bull to talk... And please don’t forget those opportunities to blow the horn at any gesturing travelers.
Naturally, the radio was tuned to rock stations, giving voice to Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC and the Rolling Stones. They and many others sang us from truck stop to truck stop, where we’d stop for a bite to eat after leaving many miles in our dust.
Greasy BBQ plates and bottles of Mountain Dew were always in high demand at these joints, a fact that significantly contributed to a doctor telling my father years later that he wouldn’t be surprised at all if ol’ Doe Doe keeled over before reaching the office door to leave.
Bad cholesterol will do that to you.
But it would be many years before thoughts of healthy dieting would surface and haunt my mind. Instead, I devoted most of my attention to the other folks occupying the truck stops and rest areas, wondering if I’d encounter any like the ones I’d heard about from my father and his fellow truckers.
There was the time my father’s buddy, Frank, stopped to use the restroom in a sketchy part of New York City, only to have the stall suddenly swing open and a gun stuck in his face.
“Gimme ya wallet.”
Frank complied. He was in no position to protest.
While never robbed, my father was definitely no stranger to hustlers, cons and deadbeats.
Once, while trucking through Virginia during Christmastime, he was approached by a man who said he was trying to buy a bus ticket home. Agreeing to help the fella, my father reached for his wallet and pulled out $2.
But this was highly upsetting to the ticket-less man, who saw there was more cash in that wallet. The guy proceeded to cuss my father, his breath reeking of cheap spirits.
Two dollars won’t buy you no stinkin’ bus ticket home to catch Santa. Won’t buy you a bottle of wine, either.
But I learned that folks will go without a lot of things.
My father proved this by offering to buy food or gas for those folks who moseyed on up and made the case about how they desperately needed some money for these things. Only, instead of taking him up on his offers, they’d usually drop the matter and split, grumbling about the unfairness of it all.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We met some charming folks, too — wisecrackin’ waitresses; mysterious gals who knocked on truck doors late at night to check and see if anyone was feeling a smidge too lonesome; and, of course, truckers.
Bookoos of miles-devouring truckers.
One of the biggest gatherings of them was at a truck stop in Texas, where truckers of all shapes, shades and sizes exchanged road stories and dirty jokes, sharing their unique accents.
I sat in a corner of the dining area, reading a book I’d brought for the trip. Rather, I pretended to read. I was far more interested in what those grown folks were saying, a lot of which I wouldn’t fully understand until I got a lot older.
Suddenly, a waitress appeared, hands on her hips and face scowling, raising her voice to dominate over all the others:
“Hey! It’s too loud over there! And stop all that cussin’!”
Abruptly, my father turned to me: “Boy, what’re you cussin’ out loud over there for?”
“I’m not talkin’ to him,” the waitress scolded. “He ain’t made a peep. I’m talkin’ about y’all.”
Yeah. Stop all that cussin’. Now go wash your mouths out with soap.
I teased my father about this until the matter got so old, it went senile. But ol’ Doe Doe got me back.
As we started driving back from Laredo, a city on the Mexican border, it was time once again for me to hide in the back of the cab. Seeming to put a lot more weighted emphasis on his words, my father repeated his warning that he could seriously lose his job if I were spotted, and I’d be hauled off to who-knows-where in the process.
So back under the blanket and pillow I went, ears alert.
“Anybody traveling with you?”
“... Just my son…”
That traitor! I jolted upward but remained on the bunk, at least until the truck started rolling again. Then I heard my father: “All right. You good. You can come back out now.”
He was laughing as I re-emerged, telling me we didn’t stop at another weigh station. That time, it was the border patrol.
Keith Huffman can be reached at email@example.com.