TRUCKIN’ by Johanna McCloy

Truckin'

It was the fall of 1984 and I was a sophomore at Duke University. My boyfriend Mark had just graduated and was uncertain about what he wanted to pursue as a career, so he extended his summer job as a driver and mover for a local moving company while he pondered his path and his future.

The moving company that he worked for was founded by a couple of Deadheads, Doug and Toni. Besides them, the staff comprised of Mark, Mark’s brother, and about five other employees, so it was small and had the feel of a large family. The name of the company was Truckin’ Movers and their logo was the same famous Grateful Dead boot that is seen on the cover of the band’s live Europe ’72 album. (I was told that Doug ardently pursued and happily received the band’s permission to use the name and logo.)

In addition to being Deadheads, Doug and Toni were also Krishna devotees, so Doug sometimes wore traditional Indian clothes to the office and donned a tilak (ash mark) on his forehead. In their Durham warehouse, incense smoke wafted in the air and shoes were stashed at the front door. Tapes of the Dead played all day with occasional interludes of Krishna chanting. We knew to be quiet upon entering the warehouse whenever chanting was heard.

While I made my way from Philosophy to Japanese to Geology classes at Duke, my beau mastered the art of loading and driving an 18-wheeler. The large truck had just been added to their fleet of smaller vehicles and Mark was the first employee to get a big rig driver’s license. It wasn’t easy. Maneuvering such a large truck was one thing, but there were also 12 gears and a very specific approach to braking. (If you’ve ever seen runaway truck ramps, that’s what they’re for, braking problems.) Mark had to know about the truck’s mechanics and followed a regimented checklist before each trip, just as a pilot does with a plane before taking off. He also had to know what to expect at highway weigh stations and how to address any issues that might arise there.

When Mark drove long distances over holidays, school breaks or weekends, he’d sometimes take me along, picking me up at the house where I lived off campus. Everyone knew he was coming for blocks before he arrived, because you could hear the truck’s rattling diesel engine and the hissing and squealing of its brakes. Large rigs weren’t supposed to drive through smaller neighborhoods, so as soon as I heard his truck approaching, I’d run outside and wait at the curb. He’d drive up and I’d open the passenger door, take the three large steps up into the cab, plop into the large rotating seat awaiting me, and throw my duffel bag into the sleeper area behind us while the truck barely idled. Then, he’d get the truck out of there before the police could arrive to hand us a ticket. (Doug and Toni weren’t always informed that I joined him.)

Truckin TrailerThe truck’s CB created another world on the freeways, an audio salon covering about a five-mile radius. Over the CB, truckers talked to each other about their jobs, the roads, their trucks, or the area around them. The most common use of the CB was to announce “Smokey” (highway patrol officer) sightings, which allowed truckers approaching the area enough time to slow down and avoid a possible speed trap. In Mark’s case, he received a lot of questions regarding the relatively new crate and tarp system that was being used on his 18-wheel trailer. After explaining how it worked several times, Mark suggested that I take the next query. I happily consented and we decided to make my CB “handle“ Tokyo Rose, based on my years of living in Tokyo as a teenager. It wasn’t typical for a female voice to be heard on the CB and the actress in me loved it. I’d use any excuse to start a conversation. “What’s the weather like in Bammy [Alabama]? Over.”

Truckers also used the CB to comment on motorists, looking down from their high perches into neighboring car windows and taking note of what they saw. Approaching truckers would be told to watch out for the chick in the blue skirt in the brown Toyota, for example. They’d look into the car as they passed, commenting to everyone with a “woohoo,” or “let’s see more of those legs, darlin’.” Little did that poor girl know that all the truckers in the vicinity were talking about her. Moving freely to her tunes, she was likely feeling invisible inside her boxed enclosure.

I learned about runaway ramps located off steep inclines for trucks whose brakes were failing. I learned about the frequency of torn tires and the need for replacements. I also learned the silent ways that truckers communicate by blinking their lights once to tell a truck behind them to go ahead and pass, and blinking twice as a way to say thank you after getting in front, if you were the truck that did so.

When we went to truck stops, we always used North Carolina accents so we could blend in and converse without calling attention to ourselves. When we pulled into weigh stations along the freeways, we’d hear the universal request from the officials awaiting us, arms outstretched with a palm open toward the driver’s window, their words jumbled together as one: “drivuhzlicenserestrationlawoogbuuk!” (driver’s license, registration, log book.)

A trucker’s log book identifies the drivers, the truck owner, the type of truck and the commodities being shipped in its trailer. It also tracks the location and miles for every 15 minute interval of time, whether on or off duty, and throughout every 24 hour period. (This is because there are strict laws regulating how much time a trucker can drive between rests. A faulty log book can result in harsh fines and even prosecution.) After the officials checked the documents and found them to be okay, which was most of the time, Mark would drive onto the designated scale markers on the ground. Each axle would be weighed to ensure compliance with state law maximums and a red or green light would indicate whether we’d need to pull over for further inspection or were free to move on.

When Mark first started driving for Truckin’ Movers, they only owned small trucks, so we were accustomed to riding together on those long vinyl seats that ran across the cabs and rattled along with the truck engines. When he graduated to the 18-wheeler, it felt like we’d become freeway royalty, bouncing with soft air suspension above everyone, in big comfortable easy chair thrones. The first couple of times we rode in those trucks, we’d inevitably break into British accents, pretend waving as if on a parade, “greetings to the minions.” When I rode along with him on multi-day trips, we generally stayed in motels overnight, but when he was alone with the big rig, he’d park at the large truck stops and sleep in the sleeper section of the cab, occasionally awoken by truck stop prostitutes knocking on the cab door to see if he might need anything.

One time, we were hit by a horrible storm in Alabama. I usually helped him by tracking inventory of the items being moved, but that day, I helped him load the truck as well. He was solo and the weather made the work even more grueling. The shipper couldn’t have been nicer and didn’t balk about the trucker’s girlfriend helping him load. After we finished loading, it was after dark and we were frozen to the core. We drove to a motel, took long hot baths and buried ourselves under the blankets, our bodies aching from head to toe. Another time, we unloaded a truck in San Francisco, where Glen, Mark’s “humper” (that’s the actual job title used for the person who assists the main driver/loader in the moving business), literally humped the client in her bedroom as we inventoried and unloaded her furniture on the floor below. She came downstairs with a wide grin on her face and when we were done, she took us all out for pizza.

Mark and I enjoyed all the adventure and independence that came with life on the road. We enjoyed it so much, in fact, that we seriously pondered buying our own truck and taking a year to live and work on the road as independent owner/operators after I graduated from college. That didn’t come to pass, but it remained a dream for some time.

When I’m on road trips and I pass big trucks on the highway or on long country roads, I consider my brief sojourn into that world and smile. Sometimes, I blink my lights to offer a trucker the chance to pass me, or as a way to say thank you for letting me do the same.

Tokyo Rose says hi. Over.

Johanna McCloy is the editor of Dare to be Fabulous. She is also the editor of her mother’s memoir, Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant:Undercover and Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother by Lillian McCloy. (An excerpt from that memoir, “Mrs. Spook, Spain, 1965” is also featured on Dare to be Fabulous.) 

Any reprint of a featured story on this website will need author permission and an appropriate citation to Dare to be Fabulous. Please send your inquiry to info@daretobefabulous.com.

12 Comments:

  1. Here I am, a decade later, re-reading this treasure & commenting again. DANG, I love this – it’s a masterpiece of a place & time. (For some reason, one of my favorite details is that the guys painstakingly acquired permission to use the Dead boot logo, not to mention the “Truckin'” reference – I’d always wondered about that!) A slice of weird, beautiful life, well lived & gorgeously written up.

    • Thank you Ellen! What a nice comment. An editor I know suggested that I elaborate on the blog I wrote about this a while back, so I figured, why not? Voila, this story. So glad you enjoyed it. – Johanna

  2. Toni,

    Glad to hear you are well! I, too, am alive and well. Sounds like you’ve got a really full life in old Durham and abroad.
    As Jack said, we still talk about those days at TM and remember most of them fondly. Same goes for all the great people there.

    Take Care,

    Greg

  3. Johanna,

    It sure is a blast from the past! those were some wild and wooly days I will always cherish
    Please say hello to Mark for me, as well as the whole McDonald clan. Alive and well and living in CT. I was visiting Jack and we found these postings. Pass the e-mail on.

    Greg
    grmetz@charter.net

  4. Checking in.

    Just spent some quality time with Greg – old college roomies and TM alumni to boot. We still share stories of that time.

    Toni STEVENS? I guess….

    Linda is gone, god bless her, I’d be happy to share her eulogy if you’d send me an email address. She was replaced with Blue, a societal reject, and more recently by Flynn who is the coolest dog in the world.

    Not much going on otherwise, married, two kids, I refuse to move anybody anymore.

    j.
    jack.parker4@verizon.net

  5. Hey there –

    There’s a Touch of Grey in the the hair (covered up by henna) and heck yes! I am definitely still alive!

    Johanna – what a great little blurb with photos. I think of you, Mark, Marty, and Matt often wondering where everyone is and how they are doing. I have a private healing practice in Durham with offices in Durham and Chapel Hill. I am married to Billy Stevens who is a muscian and I sing with him in a band. We were in Turkey and Cyprus last July doing concerts. What’s up with all you guys: Greg, Jack, Johanna, Mark, Matt, Marty, etc.

    Toni

  6. Toni! How great to hear from you and get an update. With regard to the McDonald brothers: Marty has his own progressive ad agency in Seattle. Mark has his own law practice in California. Matt and Gigi are married with grown kids. As for me, you can see what I’ve been up to. 🙂

  7. Blast from the past. Wow. I remember many times with Greg, hanging out with the McDonald brothers. I haven’t been in contact with anyone at TM, so I don’t know what has happened to Doug or Toni. I tried looking them up, but wasn’t successful. How are you guys?

  8. Jack and Greg here – TM – 1980-83ish. Nice to see you guys on the web – I trust that is Mark McD. you are talking about – when are we all getting together and where? Is Doug still alive? Toni? Max? Art? All the rest of the McD’s?

    Wishing y’all the best,
    G&J

  9. What a sweet response. I wish I could take credit for choosing to take on that adventure, but really it was my old adaptability to circumstances. If Mark hadn’t been involved with Truckin’ Movers, we wouldn’t have had those adventures and I can safely guess that I never would’ve known life in a big rig, going across the country. Remember, too, I never made money when I went on those trips. Some of those occasions, they didn’t know I was even along for the ride. xoxo

  10. Jo, I remember this time of your life well, & always found it exotic/way cool/enterprising & incredibly reFRESHing in light of the way the rest of us Dukies generated cash flow – in my case, typing in some NYC office during the summer & socking the $$ away until the start of the school year when it dissipated…quickly. You made your road trips w/Truckin’ Movers sound like something from another dimension & Mark was always lyrical about what it was like to take this TANK through strange cities with tiny side streets & sharp corners. All in all, I don’t think we ever discussed it but I was intrigued & amazed by your adaptability & willingness to plunge into life head-on when you assisted on these outings. It was more than my own rather more provincial self (at the time) could have done, & it’s another reason I love you & admire your spirit.

    & from what I understand, it was a lot more lucrative then typing!

    • What she said! Not only is this an extremely interesting slice of life most of us don’t have a glimpse into, but the writing is wonderful — ‘audio salon’ for the CB world struck me as especially lyrical. You also get the sense that these two were a real team, with her pitching in to help whenever necessary, and not a touch of resentment or bitterness. It’s spiced with wonderfully specific anecdotes (I loved the woman with the grin on her face who sprung for pizza — that one could be in a whole NOTHER type of blog!) Anyway, I loved, loved, LOVED this piece of writing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *