June 3, 2016 - H8 - What Now Brown Cows?
Squirming into our backpacks and trying to become one with the shadows, Brent and I hustled across the dark parking lot away from Cheech’s magnum hand-cannon and the JUSTIFIABLE cowboy. Out on the road in front of the deserted gas station, a big Mack semi-truck with a formidable trailer nosed the direction we wanted to go…
The HELL out of here, man.
The truck’s air-horn bellowed across the night and a silhouette behind the wheel waved a friendly hand. He seemed neither redneck nor hillbilly as we scrambled over towards the cab, gawking up into the young man’s tanned face.
“You boys headed north? I sure could use some company.”
Brent and I grunted with relief because, finally, a normal-acting dude, man. We hurried across the front of the truck as he creaked open the passenger side door.
That looked like a REALLY long way up there.
I fisted a handhold on the door and stepped, like, up the mountainside, man, and did I ever tell you that I was young and strong back then? I heaved up into the cab and smiled at the surroundings.
It was like a little apartment.
There was a nice size bed in back with big fluffy pillows, a little clothes closet, a cooler, a camp stove, and all kinds of nick-knacks. The windshield stretched across like a picture window and our host beamed at me with a three o’clock shadow... A.M. I plopped into the passenger seat because it was my turn to entertain the driver and Brent crawled in back with our packs.
I couldn’t stop grinning.
This was so cool…
I really liked it.
The twenty-something truck-driver stomped one of the Three-card Monte pedals on the floor, thumbed the gear shift into a clunky position, and we thundered off at a turtle-like pace. He peered over at me, frowning.
“I don’t get it… I used to stop at this station all the time. I wonder what happened?”
I shrugged at his gear shifting ways, puzzled.
“Why do you keep shifting back and forth between the same gears?”
He armed the steering wheel in a wide turn onto the highway, chortling as he accelerated up to wheelchair speed.
“Same gears… Are you kidding me? There’s eighteen of 'em, man.”
He took pride in his master stick-shift wizardry, demonstrating a confident technique as we rumbled up to a dog-trotting momentum.
“Look here, there’s two switches on the gearshift below the knob… You finger one and thumb the other like this… See?”
He bare-knuckled a ballet dance between the switches on the stick and the pedals on the floor and a steering wheel big enough to pilot a flagship and I found myself intrigued. I could easily picture a life on the highway manhandling one of these multi-ton beasts as the trucker told me his name, Frank, and he absolutely, positively, needed to be in North Carolina before noon. If he wasn’t, he’d forfeit a sizable bonus and miss out on future contracts with this prestigious shipping company that paid really well.
He was exhausted and could barely keep his eyes open.
“Tell me a story, Corey… Something wild and crazy to keep me going.”
As you remember, I was merely nineteen years old at the time with a marginal matrix of savoir-faire… A little school, a little college, a few fights, a few girlfriends, all doused with a fair share of partying.
I did have a few adventures under my belt, however, but rifled through them in record time and poor Frank was left again with heavy eyelids. He had neither tapes nor Eight-Track player (remember those?) so we dialed the radio knobs, searching for a Rock-And-Roll station but all we found was static.
Even the CB remained silent.
“Hey man, can you drive?”
I’ve owned a few Volkswagen Beetles, shifted through their feeble forty horsepowers, but I was absolutely, positively, no-way-in-Hell qualified to operate this Big-Rig behemoth. I peeped over my shoulder at Brent sprawled across the bed in back, out like a squashed firefly, and frigging Frank wouldn’t let go of his brilliant brain-fart.
“You’ll be fine, man… I’ll help you through it.”
I gazed outside at the nighttime landscape and considered my alternatives, especially the ones that included Cheech's firearm.
“Alright, I’ll try.”
Frank armed us over to the roadside curb and leapt out of the truck. I think I counted to three by the time his boots finally hit the ground and he scuffled across the front of the truck, headlamps illuminating his slender jeans and square-dance shirt, rolled up to his shoulders.
I opened my door and his nubby face rose out of the dark, swatting me over to the driver’s side with the back of his hand. With a death-grip, I clutched the UFO-sized steering wheel while Frank talked me through my one-and-only Big-Rig driving lesson.
It seemed complicated, initially, fingering one switch while thumbing the other and shifting, shifting, shifting, but eventually I got the hang of it and then I was thundering down the highway like I was part of that song, Convoy.
“If you get to Fayetteville before I wake up, pull off the highway, okay?”
I nodded and gaped through the picture-glass windshield, the truck’s headlamps illuminating the white passing lines along the highway, daring me to rip up the concrete along the dotted line.
Pretty soon, the only sound I could hear was the diesel of the engines and the snores of the sleeping as I roared along the early days of I-95, some portions completed but many still under construction.
I thundered past Savanah and then Walterboro without having to shift, thank God, because the road remained deserted, just me and the beast. A reddish-bright grew on the horizon and I knew I wouldn’t make it to the next town, let alone Fayetteville without peeing my pants so I squinted at the roadside signs, hoping for a rest stop.
Eventually I spotted one up ahead and began the arduous task of braking and downshifting off the freeway towards bladder salvation. Nature was calling so loud that my leg began to shake as I worked the clutch and brakes, jerking the truck with stop-and-go grinding. I worried that I was chewing up the Big-Rig’s transmission but kept my sweating face focused on the blessed restrooms ahead.
I finally pulled into one of those huge truck parking spaces and shuddered to a stop, the engine chugging in place, the gearshift in neutral, the truck rocking with earthquake insistence.
In South Carolina?
My head bobbled to and fro and my whole body jolted like a thumb puppet as the Mack truck tremored through its weird spasms.
Oh crap, I think I killed it.
Yes, it was having a death throw.
I flinched over at Frank huddled in the passenger seat, still sound asleep, rocking with the truck’s quakes like a baby in a bassinet. His eyes fluttered open and I began to gush.
“Oh, God, Frank… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I wrecked your truck, I really had to pee, I’m sorry… ”
His eyes grew wide and his head wobbled at me like it was on the end of a slinky toy. He opened his mouth to speak but didn’t and burst out his door and hurdled down to the ground.
“What… What? Is the truck going to explode?”
I leapt out my side, landing hard, and limped after him.
“What is it, Frank, what is it? Did I screw the Semi?”
He stood halfway back alongside the trailer and palmed the side, peering through the slats.
“Aw, nuts… You woke them all up, man!”
“What… Who… Woke who up?”
I had a sudden vision of a truckload of illegal immigrants packed inside the trailer like worms in a bucket but then I heard a noise…
It felt like he was at a Halloween party but everyone was wearing the same damn costume.