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A tale of lost innocence, tough lessons, and conscience confronted by reality.
When I was ten years old, my father invited me to go on a trip with him in his 18-wheeler. It was a rare opportunity for me to spend time with him as he typically was away from home for weeks at a stretch. I couldn’t stop grinning after he asked me to go. I was young and innocent and the idea of trucking seemed so exciting. I felt like a grownup, which was something I was anxious to be.
Dad was a long-haul truck driver, which means he delivered large trailer-loads of goods around the country. It seemed like a glamorous profession in my young mind. Dad had muscular arms and shoulders, dressed in western shirts and cowboy boots, and combed his hair with Brylcreem like Johnny Cash. But it wasn’t just his cool presence that made me want to be around him. Dad had a way of making me feel loved whenever we were together.
We left for our three-day trip, long enough for me to get a feel for the trucker’s lifestyle but not so long as to miss much school. The first thing I noticed within a couple hours was how hard it was to stay awake while riding.
For a ten-year-old boy, there wasn’t much to occupy my mind, just the thunderous roar of the engine below our feet, the constant slapping of air on my face through the window, and the smell of diesel fuel that filled the truck’s interior. My young body was confined to a vinyl-and-metal seat for four hours at a stretch, which shook from the vibration of the older-model Kenworth, a semi that should have been retired years earlier, but it was the best my father could afford.
With all the bouncing, vibration, and sheer boredom, I struggled to keep my eyes open. Even the squawking of the CB radio wasn’t enough to jar me to attention. Consequently, I repeated the same movement over and over, nodding off until my head fell forward, awakening when my chin hit my chest, and then lifting my head upright pretending nothing had happened. Hundreds of miles were occupied with this repeating pattern.
Somewhere around midnight, a change in the truck’s speed awakened me. I opened my eyes to see that we were driving off the highway into a rest area. It was nothing like the rest areas at highway exits we know today where the facilities are moderately clean and there are five fast-food choices and a Starbucks. In the 1970s, these rest areas were merely a place to get gas with a greasy diner attached. When I asked what was happening, my father told me we had a flat tire.
The truck stopped and I laddered down the side of the tractor to find my father inspecting the tire. I had no idea where we were, but it was a lot hotter than our home state of Massachusetts. Dad gently wrapped his hand around the back of my neck and steered me toward the diner.
Inside, my father found a payphone and made a call as I stood safely beside him while looking around. The place smelled like bacon and coffee, and truck drivers with cowboy hats on the seat beside them sat reading newspapers. When he hung up the phone, Dad patted the top of my head and said, “Well, we have a two-hour wait. Let’s say we get something to eat.”
We sat at the counter. Dad always sat at the counter. I spun around on the stool. Dad ran his hand through his hair with a sigh as he peaked at his watch.
“What can I get you men?” said a friendly waitress with a scratchy voice and over-tanned skin.
“I’ll start with a coffee. You want a glass of milk?”
I nodded while I spun until dizzy.
“Menus?” she asked.
“Sure, we’ve got a wait. Peeled a tire.”
“Oh, sorry,” she said.
“That’s what I get for buying retreads. It won’t save me money now.”
We ate our midnight dinner, talked with other truckers, and my father seemed proud to introduce me as his son. The tire service finally showed up two hours later—just like they’d said—and we watched while the man replaced our tire that had peeled like an orange.
Semi tires can’t be changed like a car tire. There are special services for the task with the proper lifts and tools, because it’s a complicated job to change the inside tire on an axle that holds two wheels on each side. A half-hour after the guy arrived, we were back on the road.
With nothing to see but darkness and the desolate roadway in our headlights, I positioned myself for a nod-free nap and fell asleep until morning. I awakened just as we arrived at our destination.
Dad got out of the cab and I watched him through the bug-splattered windshield. The sun was bright but the air smelled dirty. There were a lot of 18-wheelers coming and going. Dad handed some guy a stack of papers, and the guy pointed toward the side of a warehouse with a gigantic garage door. He handed the papers back to my father, hopped into a forklift, and sped away.
Dad climbed back into the truck and backed the trailer up to the door with the speed and precision of someone who’d been practicing the skill for a lifetime. He once told me he’d been driving a truck since he was fourteen, but I never believed him until this day. I saw the garage door open as our trailer gently met the bumpers around the doorway, sealing the trailer against the wall.
I was barely awake as we walked into the warehouse. I noticed that my father and everyone working in the building seemed to be in a rush. As Dad opened the trailer door, the man in the forklift waited to begin hauling its contents into the massive warehouse. When the door opened, all the muscles in my father’s face fell and the forklift driver instantly turned around and drove away. I didn’t know what was happening, but I could tell from my father’s expression that it wasn’t good.
The forklift came spinning back around the corner carrying a heap of wooden pallets. He dropped them to the side with a loud crack and quickly drove away again.
“What’s going on, Dad?”
“The load isn’t on pallets,” my father told me. “We have to lift every box inside this trailer onto pallets so they can carry them away and store ‘em.”
Do you mean we, as in you and me? I wondered silently. Instead I asked, “All the boxes?”
“All of ‘em.”
I looked into the trailer. There must have been a thousand boxes.
“What’s in the cartons?”
Dad was looking at his paperwork. “Glass jars of spaghetti sauce.”
I walked into the trailer to wrap my mind around our predicament and got a strong whiff of damp cardboard. I pushed one of the boxes to sense how heavy it was. It didn’t move. I thought about how hungry I felt. I was just about to explain that I’d need to eat something before we got started, but one look at my father’s face and I could tell that eating wasn’t an option.
I took a deep breath and reached inside for the strength to power through. I looked again at the trailer filled with boxes. That’s when I felt a wind against my back and was startled by another loud crack. Dad had thrown a single pallet on the trailer floor behind me.
“Let me show you how this is done,” he said.
Dad showed me how we were going to stack the boxes of spaghetti sauce onto the pallet. “Five rows of four boxes, four boxes high,” he told me as he signaled with his hand. Without saying another word, Dad was grabbing boxes.
And so it went. As fast as we stacked the boxes onto a pallet, the forklift driver arrived to carry it away and store it somewhere in the warehouse. He and my father kept track of the numbers on a clipboard.
Two hours later, we were only a third of the way through the load. That’s when I picked up a box and below it was a colony of black ants—hundreds of them—scrambling across red-soaked cardboard. I gasped as the wretched smell of rotten spaghetti sauce filled my lungs.
“Dad, look! Ants!”
I went to say something else and my father raised his hand like a traffic cop signaling to stop. He looked around to see if anyone had heard me. There was no one around.
Dad inspected the damage and saw that four boxes had broken spaghetti sauce jars in them. The sauce leaked through and soaked the cardboard cartons all around it, apparently attracting the ants.
“It probably happened when they loaded the trailer,” my father told me as he quickly began dismantling the pallet of boxes we’d been stacking. He removed the boxes in the center of the pallet while he instructed, “Here, we’re going to put the boxes with the ants in the middle.”
My father kept looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was looking. He grabbed the two nastiest sauce-covered boxes with his bare hands as black ants crawled over his beefy fingers and up his arms. He gently placed the boxes in the middle of the pallet, then crushed the frantic ants on his skin. I snatched the other two boxes, although I carried them awkwardly to avoid the ants crawling on me. I tossed them into the middle of the other cartons.
“Dad, shouldn’t we tell ‘em? It’s just four boxes.”
My father hastily began stacking boxes around the sauce-and-ant-covered cartons. Ants were dropping to the floor and he was stomping on them with his cowboy boot. He quickly grabbed some paper towels and scooped them up. He crushed the towels in his fist to be sure the ants wouldn’t crawl out, then threw the balls of paper towels to the corner of the trailer.
Wide-eyed, Dad’s face dripped with sweat as he looked at me sternly.
“We can’t tell ‘em, Bob. They’ll refuse the entire load. They’ll make us take everything back and I won’t get paid for driving 600 miles each way. I borrowed money to pay the gas and tolls to get here. I certainly can’t afford to drive back with it and not get paid. Plus, we’re due to pick up another load to take back with us to Massachusetts. If I have to return this trailer, I won’t be able to bring that shipment back home with us. And they’re depending on me.”
My father looked me in the eye. “The biggest reason we can’t tell ‘em is because—if we do—the company that hired me will never hire me again; and all these dispatchers talk, so as word spreads, neither will anyone else.”
The wiring in my ten-year-old brain began to spark and sizzle, yet there wasn’t time to process the predicament. We had to make sure the broken boxes weren’t detected. We concealed them by stacking cartons all around them until there was no visible evidence of our coverup. Although an ant could crawl out at any second, the forklift driver swiftly rolled up, slid the forks under the pallet, lifted the stack of boxes, and drove away.
My guilt insisted I ask one more question, even though I was scared to verbalize it. “Dad? We’re putting all these ants in the middle of the warehouse. Might they spread?”
“Son, I hope not. It’s unlikely since most products are protected by containers that prevent insects from getting in, like the glass jars we delivered. You can see the ants haven’t even spread in this trailer. That said, it’s also not my problem. This isn’t my fault or my responsibility, and it’s certainly not my rules that the entire load gets returned when only four out of the 1200 boxes get damaged.
“Getting the hell out of here so that I don’t get blamed for somebody else’s mishandling of the boxes when they loaded this trailer is my responsibility to our family. In order to buy food for you next week or pay the rent to our landlord, I have to get paid for this job. I don’t have the luxury of worrying about this multimillion-dollar distribution center when my responsibility is to you, your sister, and your mother. So that’s the last I want to hear about it, okay?”
Within minutes of the forklift speeding away, the pallet had been stored on some massive shelf in the gigantic warehouse. The deed was done. All we could do now was live with it, but I was having difficulty doing that.
My father and I continued working in silence. I kept thinking about what we did. Despite my father’s explanation, I didn’t fully understand. What does a ten-year-old know about the responsibilities of a parent? The truth was that I couldn’t believe my father had done it. He’d always taught me to be honest, to do what’s right. He always told me to think of the consequences of my actions. I was confused and, quite frankly, disappointed in the lesson I was being taught.
An hour later, we were two-thirds of the way down the trailer. My stomach felt nauseous. I assumed it was the heat or physical exertion. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t eaten for hours. More likely, it was my conscience overwhelmed with reality.
“Dad, I’m not feeling well.”
“What? Drink some water. We’ll be done in an hour.”
“But I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
My father shot me a look of disgust. I wasn’t sure if he was disgusted that I couldn’t tough it out or if he thought I was being lazy. Either assertion felt unfair, which only made me feel sicker. I stood in the trailer taking deep breaths. My father looked up at me while lifting a box.
“Go! Go sit by a tree or something! I’ll finish this myself.”
He continued working and ignored me. I felt like I was abandoning him, which further tightened my stomach into a knot. I realized I was also feeling anger toward him, although I didn’t understand why. It was this anger, though, that gave me the courage to walk out of the warehouse and go outside.
As I stepped out of the building, I felt a rage fill my body. I was confused by my feelings. For the first time in my life, I felt disappointed in my father whom I’d always admired. And I was mad at him about making me feel this way. I could feel the vision I’d held about who my father was and how he lived his life quickly dissolving. Although I couldn’t have articulated it then, I was grieving the loss of that vision because it had served as a role model for my own actions.
I found a tree and sat beside it, shaking from the fury that inhabited me. My mind was a cyclone of thoughts and emotions, none that dwelled for more than a few seconds. For a moment or an eternity—I’m unaware—I sat alone amongst the passing trucks and warehouse workers on my grassy sanctuary.
As the breeze cooled my skin and the sun comforted me, my brain grew calmer. I leaned back against the tree trunk and my body relaxed. My mind soon became empty and I was no longer feeling anger, grief, or disappointment. I felt a peace I hadn’t known since being at home. I stayed that way for over ninety minutes until my father showed up.
Dad walked toward me with tenderness on his face. His pace was slow and his hands were in his pockets. “You okay?” he asked softly.
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“How ya feeling? Good enough to get something to eat? You deserve it.”
I stood up and Dad put his arm around me as we walked back to the truck. I leaned into him wishing the truck were farther away to make the moment last longer.
That same day at another warehouse an hour away, our trailer was loaded with boxes of paper towels to deliver to our home state. I felt oddly comforted knowing that even damaged paper towels won’t attract ants. We slept about four hours in the cab of the truck at a truck stop before driving back to Massachusetts. By the time we got home the following day, I understood the difficult and often dangerous job my father had, which is probably why he spent the next twenty years of his life convincing me to choose a vocation that involved my brain rather than my body.
Today, nearly fifty years later, I understand that my father was operating from a level of consciousness that demanded putting his family first before anything else. He struggled to make ends meet, and so the choices like the one he made that day didn’t feel like a choice at all to him. Feeding his family and paying the bills outranked doing the right thing. And until anyone stands in another person’s shoes, who among us has the right to question or judge the choices they make? I certainly can’t judge my father’s choices that day. It was due to the life he provided me that I had opportunities he never dreamed of having in his life.
No words were ever spoken about the ants again, and that was just fine with me. I also never went on another road trip with my father in his 18-wheeler. I’m not sure if the memory of this experience deterred him from asking me again or perhaps the opportunity never came up. Either way, I was okay with it.
I got home from that trip a different boy than I was when we left. I was a little more mature and a lot less innocent. By the time we returned home, I wasn’t in such a rush to be a grownup anymore. If I’d learned anything from that experience, it was that adults sometimes must compromise what they value when making choices about what they do. That was a lesson I wished I had learned later in life; but once you know it, it can’t be unknown.
Thanks for reading my story. I’d love to hear about any childhood memories this story stirs up in you. xo, Bob
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