It was the fall of 1984 and I was a sophomore at Duke University. My boyfriend Mark had just graduated but was uncertain about what he wanted to pursue as a career, so he opted to extend 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.)
The 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, published in 2016. (An excerpt from that memoir, “Mrs. Spook, Spain, 1965” is also featured on Dare to be Fabulous.)