Friday, October 30, 2015

How I got behind the wheel

For me it was simple, like a light coming on. There was actually a job that wouldn’t make me hate getting up in the morning. I discovered it about a year after high school. I remember the moment.

My first job in 1960 was at Marty G’s Donut Shop where I cleaned toilets and filled jelly donuts -- not necessarily in that order. I also washed windows with ammonia and crumpled up newspaper. This is not something you want to do full time. Marty was a nice guy, but I developed a permanent aversion to donuts.

So I left Marty for the Huffman & Boyle warehouse where the work was monotonous and the days endless. I wheeled pieces of crated furniture on a hand truck from the warehouse to the delivery platform or from a railroad car into the warehouse where shafts of light from tiny windows illuminated the floating dust. Back and forth, back and forth. Every once in a while there would be nothing left to hand truck, and I was handed a broom to excite the dust on the floor back into the air.

Is it break time yet? Can I sneak a cigarette in the boiler room? I’ll be an old man before it’s time for lunch. My ‘47 Ford will turn to rust in the parking lot before quitting time. Five o’clock Friday felt like repatriation from a prison camp. Every single day was its own eternity.

But I saw the light that morning in the spring of ‘61 when my foreman ordered me out to the loading platform. They needed a helper on a delivery van, and nobody was more expendable to the warehouse crew than I was. I recall stepping outside, climbing into the jump seat of that International Harvester and pulling away.

What a feeling. There was air to breath, stuff to look at, a world passing by in the windows, and I was out of that dry, silent warehouse prison. Most amazing of all: I was still on the payroll.

You mean you can actually get paid for riding around without having to clean toilets or endure excruciating tedium in that dusty cavern where time stood still -- literally? A revelation! I still remember the driver’s name, Joe Petro.

Sure, you had to break your back forcing sofas up narrow, twisting stairways in Hackensack. But when you were done with that you got back into the truck and drove away. A miracle. You could smoke in the truck. You could curse and swap stories with Joe Petro. You could ogle the girls and even spit out the window.

Of course, that was only one day. I wouldn’t get a regular driving job for another two years when the manager of a kitchen cabinet factory pointed across the company yard to a GMC with a huge plywood van body.

“Can you drive that?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, and thus passed my driving test. Of course, I didn’t know it had a two-speed rear axle that I nearly turned to metal shards while learning how it worked. But I did learn.

It wasn’t a big truck, but it was a truck. It needed a driver, and that was me. I came to learn what every trucker does, that when the stop is done, whatever it involves - a trailer load, a few pallets, or a single box - it’s time to get back in the truck, out of the rain, out of the cold, and out of the heat, even if you didn’t have air conditioning. A truck moved, and that made all the difference. Even on the straightest, flattest highways, you were always engaged. The world went by, the hours passed, and so did the days.

Life was good.