“Wanna Drive?” Michael asked.
But I said no, because that’s what I should have said, and because I was 18, had been drinking, never drove a tractor-trailer, didn’t have a license, wasn’t an employee . . . the reasons kept coming.
“What the f***, kid. You didn’t come to waste your whole day just sitting there watching me, did ya?”
Well, in fact, I had, I said to myself.
“No one’s gonna know; you’ll be fine.”
As only a teenager can — or a couple of young men, with 8 dead soldiers between them, could — I started to warm up to the rationality of Michael’s argument.
‘Yeah, kid, what the f***,’ I told myself. ‘This is a great opportunity. Exactly what you want, in fact. You’re not gonna let your good upbringing and stupid rules get in the way of accepting this incredible offer, are you?’
“Well?” Michael asked, tapping his watch with his right index finger.
“Okay, let’s do it.”
For those of you who might be freaked out by how irresponsible we had just decided to be, I’m with you. It was a dumb-plus-plus idea. But I digress.
Taking The Wheel
I climbed into the Autocar’s driver seat and could barely reach the pedals. I looked in Michael’s direction, and he pointed to a bar under the seat that I pulled up, allowing me to slide the seat forward. My heart was thumping so hard that I was sure it was moving my shirt in and out, the by-product of extreme fear and mild excitement. I began to sweat like I’d just sprinted a mile. Profuse perspiration.
I depressed the clutch with my left foot, put the stick shift into 2ndgear and pushed in the yellow and red air knobs on the dash, like I’d seen Michel do, to release the brakes. Then I eased my left foot off the clutch and the Autocar began to move. We were off.
Although Michael may have thought I’d just been sitting in the passenger seat all morning, the truth is I’d been paying close attention and learning. I watched what he’d been doing and was replaying what I’d seen in my mind right now. And trying to do it myself. It wasn’t pretty, or smooth. I missed a few shifts as we made our way down the rest stop ramp and back onto the turnpike. The gears ground and the truck bucked forward when I put it in gear the wrong way.
“Let the RPM’s come down. You’re shifting too fast,” Michael coached.
I remembered. Shift neutral, pause. Shift to next gear. Trucks don’t just calmly go into gear like a car as long as you’ve got the clutch in. Timing is important. Everything’s got to sync.
Michael seemed comfortable in the passenger seat. Right at home, in fact. He drank another beer and dozed off for a few minutes, like he was in good hands, before waking up and having another.
I, on the other hand, was a wreck. The truck was so wide, it barely fit in between the white lines of the highway. It was hard for the people driving cars to see me, given the height disparity, but I was sure that the other truck drivers who passed me knew I was a phony. That I shouldn’t be where I was.
“When you look at the hood ornament, you should see the lane stripe on the right,” Michael professor-ed. “That’s how you know you’re centered.”
I was managing to keep the truck going down the road, maybe even getting a little comfortable, when I saw the sign, “Toll 2 Miles.” Of course, there was no “open road tolling” at the time, so this sign meant that I’d have to bring the truck to a stop, pay the toll, and pull the truck back out of the toll booth, at 18, with no license, and with a, by now, 10-beer drinking captain in the passenger seat.
“I can’t do that, Michael.”
“Do what?” he asked.
“That. The toll booth. I can’t pull this into the toll booth.”
“Why not? It’s just a stop in the road. You can do it.”
“I can’t. What if I hit something, miss something . . . I don’t know. I can’t.”
“There’s really no option,” he said, as we passed the “Toll 1 Mile” sign. “You can do it. You have to do it.”
I wondered, how can he be so calm? Why was he trusting me? What did he not have to lose?
I made it, like Michael said I would. The toll taker took my money and gave me a receipt without even looking, just held his arm up high enough for me to reach. I put the truck in gear to leave and stalled it. I looked at Michael in desperation.
“It’s okay. Just put the clutch in and start it again,” Michel instructed.
I did and got the truck out of the booth, making sure the trailer came through straight, missing the concrete barriers.
“Can I pull over now?” I asked or maybe pleaded.
“Had enough?” Michael smiled. “Sure, kid. I’ll take over.”
A Much Deserved Celebration?
We exchanged seats and got back on the road. I grabbed a beer, and so did Michael. “Cheers,” he said, and we tapped cans. I needed mine. He just wanted his.
Michael and I picked up the excavator in Vorhees, loading it up the same way we’d done the other machine that morning, except that this time Michael drove the machine onto the trailer deck instead of backing it on because its hydraulic arm and bucket needed to bend and rest in the well between the trailer’s wheels, like a long V on its side. It had steel tracks, like a bulldozer, that extended beyond the sides of the trailer, so Michael put up the “Oversize Load” signs again. I’m not sure what the machine weighed, but it lowered the trailer so much that I thought a softball might no longer roll under it.
The Autocar lumbered under the excavator’s tonnage. That didn’t phase Michael, of course. He grabbed another beer to accompany his cigarette and hammered on down the road.
When we arrived at the Walt Whitman Bridge again to cross back to Pennsylvania, Michael pulled off to the side of the road.
“Be right back,” he told me.
He walked to a pay phone, picked up the receiver, and pushed some coins into the slot. He said something to whoever had answered the phone, but it was a short conversation and he was quickly headed back to the truck. I watched from the comfort of the cab.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Escort,” he said.
Turns out that all oversize loads require an escort from a State Trooper to cross the bridge. Michael lit a cigarette and dug his right hand through the empties he’d been discarding in the case box to find a full one, which he nonchalantly opened and started drinking.
“Aren’t you worried?” I asked.
“They never get out of the car. They just pull up, put the lights on and follow across. No big deal.”
I wondered how many times Michael had crossed the bridge with an escort before he knew their behavior wouldn’t change, and that his could.
Just as he’d said, the trooper came up behind us and activated the car’s lights. Michael moved the Autocar through the gears, dragging the heavy excavator up the incline on the Jersey side. Before coasting it down the decline into Philadelphia. No one was the wiser.
We dropped the machine in the Conshohocken equipment yard. A couple of the dealership guys came out to inspect the unit and helped us unload. Michael seemed to know them well, and they joked around with each other, like guys in the same business do. He gave the guys a couple of the beers he had left and threw away the empties. Seemed like a normal thing, as most things Michael did that day did.
By the time we got back to Billy’s yard, it was close to 6, and everyone else had already gone home. Michael backed the truck into its assigned spot on the first try, even though doing it required him to block the street and nearly jackknife the rig to do so.
“I’ll fuel her in the morning,” he said, to himself more than to me.
Michael grabbed his lunch box, his remaining cigarette pack and the rest of the case.
“Four left,” he said. “Want one?”
“No thanks. Thank you for taking me today, Michael, and for letting me drive.”
“Don’t tell anybody about that, kid. And you’re welcome,” he said, his voice a bit higher and his smile a little toothier than I’d noticed before, like maybe the day was catching up to him. “You can take off now,” he said, dismissing me before he used his key to unlock the shop door to drop off his paperwork, or whatever.
I did what Michael said. Although I hadn’t had a beer for a while, I thought it a good idea to stop at the Wawa to buy some gum that I chewed on the way home. I never told anyone, not for decades at least. Not ‘til now.
I got what I wanted that day, to ride in a big rig. A young kid’s goal, achieved. A day I’ll never forget. It didn’t dawn on me to be worried about Michael – not until much later, at least. Instead, I was impressed, maybe in awe. I realize that sounds stupid now (like I said earlier, I knew we were being irresponsible), but that was a time in my life where things like the thing we did that day were cool, so long as you got away with them . . . which we did, on that day at least.
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